It has become a staple of hard bouldering. Despite Dave Graham’s wizardry and his stark refusal of the exercise, one-arm pull-ups have become an increasingly popular strength benchmark in climbing training. With the rise of indoor climbing, more powerful moves on better holds have become common enough that one-arm pull-ups could be advantageous.
Still, completing a one-arm seems impossible to those who have not yet done it. What’s more, understanding its advantages comes with difficulties. Most everyone can analyze the exercise well enough to gauge its most obvious use, pulling on one arm, but its smaller details also have an effect.
Pulling on one arm allows the climber to force unnatural sequences. In other words, it allows the climber a greater strength repository to pull from. This allows them to change the beta of a climb in accordance to their strength. That is the advantage of a high degree of strength and power.
The downside comes from those that spend most of their time in the gym training. Indoor climbing often asks a climber to improve their strength over their technique. This has become a problem with indoor climbing as the discipline offers less nuance than its outdoor ancestor. Presuming a climber allows their technique to catch up with their strength, a one-arm can provide game changing qualities.
In a competition, one-arm pull-up power comes with the territory. Although very few climbers will execute a one-arm over the course of their climb, they will likely have to overcome their own momentum at some point. Imagine a jump move where all four points exit the start position. You catch the first hold with your left hand, and your body’s orientation begins to change. Still, the left-hand hold is not quite good enough to stop your movement. You will have to also catch yourself on the opposing right-hand. This makes for a one-two sequence.
Upon catching the second hold, your body continues to rotate as you press between the two holds. While the left was not quite good enough to stop your body, the gaston-like orientation of the second hold provides more than enough grip to oppose the momentum of the swing. All the climber has to do is resist the slackening of their right arm. By overcoming the eccentrics of the movement, and then producing a concentric movement that pulls the climber back into the left hand, the body has used a great many of the muscles a person might strengthen through one-arm pull ups or weighted pull ups.
Why not just complete weighted pull-ups then? Well, it could be argued that one-arm pull-ups offer greater translatability to climbing. First, it is a body weight exercise. Second, it facilitates the power aspect of a weighted pull up by doubling the load one arm must manage. In reality, it is likely more than doubling simply due to the fact that weighted pull ups can use the back and chest in greater harmony when two arms are used. One-arm pull ups isolate.
As with one-arm hangs, the one-arm pull up also targets the smaller muscles of the shoulder and surrounding structures. This is what keeps the body from rotating. In this way, the climber is training how a movement might occur on a single-angle overhang. Imagine a climber on a MoonBoard. Each of that climber’s four points is on a hold. Imagine the right hand is three rows higher than the left. Now imagine that climber moving the left hand. No matter where they move it to, that climber’s right shoulder and elbow will have to stay in, pulling their body, on one-arm, closer to the wall to reduce the impact of catching the next hold.
With all of that said, this movement obviously differs from a one-arm pull up. More core is involved and power is not the only way to attain the next grip. Technique can overcome power in most every climbing move. Still, if the hold is far away, power will make it easier to attain.
The cross-torso tension of one-arm exercises is extremely valuable in climbing and can make insecure movement feel more stable. Beyond that, attaining a one-arm takes time, but is relatively easy. As a climber with a 6’3” wingspan, the Gripped editor understands how longer-limbed people may have difficulty with this exercise. Still, it comes down to consistency.
First comes strength. You may want to complete a couple of strength benchmarks before trying a one-arm one-arm pull-up. There are likely many different benchmarks you could choose from, but 100 pull ups in 10 sets in under 20 minutes seems like reasonable place to start. If you are unable to complete this exercise, then consider climbing more or improving your ability to pull up.
Next, strive to complete three sets of three pull-ups with 50% additional weight. This much added weight is not strictly necessary for doing a one-arm pull up, but it can be helpful to go into the training for weighted pull ups with a little extra power.
Finally, we arrive at the exercise. The above benchmarks are a way to build to the one-arm without being able to attempt the one-arm, if you are wanting to, however, you can jump straight into the following exercise.
How to Build to a One-Arm Pull Up
It is all about technique. Even this power exercise has micro-betas you will learn along the way. When it comes to one-arm pull ups, there tend to be two distinct cruxes. The first is the lower crux where you strive to pull past a 120-degree lockoff. The second crux is the top portion where you try to complete the final degrees of the pull up. Finding which of these cruxes holds you back the most can be helpful. It can allow you greater intent upon each repetition.
In the meanwhile, hang a cord from a bar. Knot the cord at evenly spaced increments. Place one hand on the bar and another hand on the cord. Complete a one-arm-assisted pull up. Start with the highest knot and go down an increment with each attempt. Find the lowest increment where you are still able to complete three repetitions in a single set. As you become stronger between the days, move the hand lower until you can complete most of the exercise unassisted.
Your training will be as follows:
- 3 sets of 3 on each side for a total of 9 one-arm pull ups a side. This will make for a collective 18 total pull ups.
- Complete the remaining 82 pull ups separating you from 100 in alternating formations
- Complete 10 archer pull ups, 10 regular ups, then 10 wide grip pull ups. Repeat cycle until you reach 100 total pull ups.
- every three sessions, strive to complete an unassisted one-arm pull up before training.
The assisted one-arm pull ups and the archer pull ups will become the most useful exercises of the program. If you are already able to hit the preceding benchmarks, one-arm pull ups should come along four weeks after you begin. Many will complete one-arm pull ups before then.
The key here is consistency. With that said, if the day feels extremely low power, rest instead of training. Consistency is important, but a rigid training schedule is not necessary.
Featured image of Hannah Meul overcoming momentum. Photo by Dimitris Tosidis.