“Extreme Fitness” has been a major part of my identity for the past several years. I enjoy being unique and pushing myself during training, so it fits me. However, there has been a recent uprising of a certain mindless and ridiculous extreme fitness cult. This particular cult has ignorant people believing that they define all things extreme or hard in the fitness realm. But, this common misconception has only made me work harder to widen the gap between my abilities and those of the cult member elites. It’s my form of protest and a demonstration of how I believe people should think for themselves and not be followers. From Burpee Two Milers to Standing Rollouts, I am always seeking a way to separate myself from the rest of the fitness crowd by simply doing things that they can’t.
With that said, approximately 18 moths ago, I stumbled on a statistic on a rock climbing web site that claimed only one out of every 100,000 people in the general population can do a One Arm Chinup (OAC). Immediately after reading that, I knew I wanted to be that one person out of every 100,000 people. It would quench my thirst for distinction.
At the time, I was merely scratching the surface of rock climbing and saw that many climbers train up to or with OAC’s as functional strength for their sport. After reading this, I thought the elusive OAC would be a good goal to pursue in order to be ready for when I dive head first into climbing. With the OAC under my belt, my thinking was that all I would need to work on would be climbing technique and grip strength.
Armed with the drive to be set apart coupled with functional sport strength- my journey to the One Arm Chinup began.
In order to find out how big of a deal training would be, I turned to my own fitness library and the internet and became obsessed with researching exactly how others accomplished this feat. There were several methods people used to get them to their goal. I wanted to compile all of these methods and put them through my own personal filter in order to determine what would work best for me. My training regimen was to be efficient, effective, and derived from those who have experience.
From these plans, the total time it took to achieve the OAC was all over the spectrum. I saw one individual who accomplished the OAC in just six months, for another it took two years, and many were “still working on it” -most likely meaning they got discouraged or impatient and gradually let it slip away. Being honest, I tend to think of myself as being on the stronger side, so I figured on the OAC taking a year to accomplish. And based on research, I also broke up the training into three phases, each with it’s own objective:
Phase I: Raw Strength
Goal: 1 rep Max Pullup with 120 lb attached. (70% Bodyweight)
Phase II: Negative OAC
Goal: OAC negative lasting 10 seconds with each arm. Learn balance on the bar.
Phase III: Positive OAC
Goal: Achieve a full OAC with each arm.
Phase I – Raw Strength
All of the training methods had one thing in common: Weighted Pullups. Frequency, reps, and load all varied by program. But, what I really wanted to know was:
How much weight do I need to be able to pull relative to my bodyweight to know I’m strong enough to do an OAC?
These numbers were also all over the spectrum. But, I eventually came to the conclusion that I would shoot for a 1 rep max pullup with 70% of my bodyweight attached. I weigh 170 pounds, give or take a few. So, my first stepping stone became accomplishing a pullup with 120 pounds attached to me.
Obviously, the first thing I did was tested my strength to see how much training it would take to achieve Phase I success. I did a few warm up sets with 45 pounds and it felt light. Next, I jumped up to 70 pounds. I was able to do four reps. After I finished the set, I thought to myself, “Pshh, I can probably max out at 100 pounds…” So, I hooked 90 pounds into the belt and gave it a shot… I couldn’t even budge it. I then tried 80 pounds. I couldn’t get past 90 degrees. I then knew I had my work cut out for me to increase my pullup strength from 70 – 120 pounds.
Since my muscles are weird allowing me to do 4 reps at 70 pounds and not a single at 80 pounds, I began using a 4 x 4 protocol with 65 pounds. I implemented this into my workouts three times a week. I noticed hypertrophy taking place in the following weeks, indicating that my reps were probably too high to be gaining maximal strength. But, I didn’t have much of a choice considering I couldn’t really work with a lower rep range. Looking back on it, I definitely would have used the same load, but decreased the reps to 2 per set and increased the number of sets to 6 or 7. Hindsight is always 20/20.
After two months of the 4 x 4 protocol at 65 pounds, I tested my progress. 90 pounds was now my new 1 rep max. I also was able to do a strong set of 4 with 80 pounds. I then upped my 4 x 4 load to 80 pounds… And this is where I stayed for a painfully long time.
Back in high school baseball, I dealt with severe elbow tendinitis that ultimately took me out of my freshman season. If you have ever had elbow tendinitis or rotator cuff issues, expect a long road ahead. Weighted pullups will bring these particular injuries back to life. There is simply no way around it. When my elbow would flare up on me, I would simply push through and ignore it. But, tendinitis doesn’t listen to the cold shoulder. This happened many times. I would take one step forward and two steps back due to the fact that tendinitis rest needs to increase after each time it becomes inflamed. It got to the point where I couldn’t sleep at night because my left rotator cuff and right elbow were in so much pain. I thought about putting my goal on hold, but I knew that I would have a hard time picking it back up if I stopped. I needed to rest, but I wasn’t disciplined enough to do so. Soon after, I got the 12 hour heads up call that I was going to North Dakota for business.
The only good thing about going to North Dakota several times for work last year was the fact that it was forced rest from pullups. Every time I would return from the tundra, I would hit a new max on weighted pullups. Over the next many months, I recorded and analyzed my own training data and studied my own body in an attempt to bypass tendinitis and continue to gain strength. It was after looking over months of my training log, I discovered that my body’s natural mesocycle for progressive Periodization was 3 weeks on and 1 week off. Once I found this sweet spot, I incorporated the necessary rest – without a business trip to Hell froze-over forcing me to do so. My elbow and rotator cuff finally seemed to be cooperating with the new cycle. However, if there were any flare ups, I would automatically skip weighted pullups on my next workout and ice the inflamed area immediately.
Phase 1.5 – The In Between
Once I started making progress again, I began to think ahead on my Phase II goal. I wanted to get a head start. So I began incorporating isometrics into my routine so that I could work in parallel with weighted pullups. My setup for isometrics was simply using one of my gymnast rings I have hung from the ceiling in my garage. Standing under the ring allowed me to adjust the height quickly to match the angle I was targeting. I would perform 4 maximal tension isometric contractions lasting 4-5 seconds, with a quick breather in between. Then I changed the angle so that I could work through the entire range of motion.
Angle 1 (almost extended- 170 degrees):
Angle 2 (90 degrees):
Angle 3 (almost to the top- 30 degrees)
When I first started using isometrics, I tested myself on the bar to see how long I could perform a static hold at 90 degrees with each arm. I held my right arm for a split second and dropped like a stone with my left. After a few weeks, I was able to last 5 seconds with my right and 3 seconds with my left. Of course, introducing a new stimulus helped gain strength. But, isometrics are extremely valuable when training for maximal strength.
Not to my surprise, my isometric training seemed to be paying off more than my weighted pullup training. I no longer felt like I was ripping my tendons and seemed to be getting closer to my ultimate goal. So, I began to taper off the weighted pullups when my 1 rep max was 105 pounds and focus on isometrics. One beautiful thing about isometric training is that the body tends to recover rapidly- almost 100% in 24 hours. This enables you to get in a higher volume of work. In no time, I was able to perform a 90 degree static hold on the bar for 10 seconds with my right arm and 8 seconds with my left. At this point, I felt ahead of the curve and ready to move onto the next phase.
Phase II – OAC Negative
Now that I was strong enough to support my own weight in various static positions, it was time to go dynamic. Muscles can handle the greatest resistance when eccentrically loaded, so OAC negatives through the full range of motion made the most sense as the next step.
There is really no way to get better at these other than diligent practice. I kept the reps at one per arm per set and I did four sets with each arm – striving to go as slow and controlled as possible all the way down. It’s not an easy movement by any means, so you have to really fight hard all the way down and refuse to give in. If you can’t control your decent for at least 3 seconds, you’re not doing technically performing an eccentric contraction and need to gain a little more strength first with isometrics. If you do last three seconds or longer, is a good indication that you’re ready to begin training with negatives.
The first few sessions of negatives will leave you feeling like you’ve torn your rear deltoid. I remember having muscle spasms for a few days after my initial workouts. Those will go away after a few weeks of getting used to the movement.
After a few months of training with negatives once a week, I was able to maintain complete control through the entire decent for 10 seconds with each arm. I then got the itch the test my weighted pullup max again due to the fact that I felt so much stronger than I did when I tapered them off.
100 pounds… Really easy.
110 pounds …Easy.
115 pounds …Getting tougher.
125 pounds …Not pretty, but I got it!
So phases I and II were completed one week apart from each other. Below is a video of me almost getting a 105 pound double using a more difficult close grip (Listen-Brooklyn counted it as two reps!).
Phase III – Positive OAC
I felt great going into the final phase. I learned to train while keeping my tendinitis under control, gained most of the strength, balance, and control needed to execute the movement. There was only one problem: I had never actually attempted or practiced the OAC itself. Using isometrics, I was able to generate enough tension to remain at a constant angle (Force = Load). Negatives, or eccentric contractions, helped me to learn balance and control on the bar while slowly lowering my body through the entire range of motion (Force < Load). Now it was time to see if I was capable of generating enough tension to overcome the load using a concentric contraction (Force > Load).
So I tried my first OAC…
I got up to almost 90 degrees, but couldn’t pass through the toughest point of the movement. So I began using two different ways to practice the OAC itself. While using both of these methods, again, I kept the reps at one and sets at four to five.
The first method is called the “counterweight method”. In this method, you tie a dumbbell to one end of a rope. Throw it over the pullup bar and hold on to the free end of the rope with your non pulling hand. Obviously, the less counter weight your non-pulling hand needs, the closer you are to achieving the OAC.
The second method is using a “climber’s assist”. Ever seen somebody who said they can do a one arm chin up only to find out they were grabbing the wrist with their non-pulling hand? Yeah, not a real OAC…or even close. But, imagine moving the non-pulling hand further and further down your pulling arm. The further you move it down, the closer you are to the OAC. So, getting to the point where you have no more leverage on your pulling arm (collar bone) means you have achieved the OAC.
Although this method doesn’t track your progress as accurately as the counterweight method, I felt better using it due to the fact that I was only using my own body. No weights or ropes. Just a little bit of leverage. Below is a video of my first OAC with my right hand, 18 months after I started training for it. You’ll notice that my non-pulling hand is wrapped around my ribs, leaving me with no leverage for assistance. So, at the moment, phase III is half way complete. I will update this post when my left arm is game.
FINALLY – Right Arm