Doing a one-arm has many advantages over climbing hard. For one, you can chug a beer while doing a one-arm. You can impress your friends at parties or pick up chicks or meat-head dudes or whatever you’re into. If you can do a one-arm, you will always look strong, no matter how not in shape you actually are. Your biceps and shoulders will be huge. Doing a one-arm is objectively cool.
But I won’t beat around the bush here: The secret to doing the elusive one-arm is that there is no secret. Much like climbing, there is no formulaic way for achieving a rep, but rather a series of steps you can undertake to set yourself up for success.
Spread out over the last few years, I’ve done exactly five one-arms. I’m happy to have achieved them at various points, but by no means do I have the skill locked down. It’s worth noting, dear reader, that there is only a limited relationship between doing one-arms and climbing hard. Think about it: how often are you climbing and then suddenly just hanging on with one arm to execute a move? Climbing is a full-body sport, while doing a one-arm is an isolated exercise. As such, I’ve met plenty of V14+ or 5.15 whatever climbers who can’t crank one out.
On the other hand, I’ve never met anyone who can do a one-arm complain about their skill.
- ABC Pull-Ups: This exercise was taught to me by none other than Janja Garnbret’s coach, Roman Krajnik. It’s a two-handed exercise, so it’s great for building foundational strength. Begin by doing a pull-up on a jug or bar. Once you get to the top, lower down to 90 degrees and hold it for five seconds. Lower down completely and, without jumping off, repeat. You’ll do this four to five times. Then rest for 45 seconds and do six to eight sets in total. Like climbing, the exercise involves both pulling and holding—which is crucial to being able to stick and control holds. It also helps increase your time under tension (TUT), which is the amount of time you’re actively engaging a group of muscles. Increasing your TUT can help build strength and even tendon health, which will be crucial in finally executing that one-arm.
- Variations: Try lowering for five seconds rather than holding the 90-degree lock-off. Or add weight to make it harder. Or take away weight and try being explosive during your pull-up. There are many ways to modify this one.
- Weighted Pull-Ups: Another two-handed exercise! Weighted pull-ups are great for building maximum strength and power. For this exercise, it’s important you warm up completely and to build up weight slowly. Add more weight and do fewer reps to increase power, or do less weight and more reps to increase foundational strength.
- Note: A lot of people want to know what percentage of your bodyweight you should be able to pull in order to do a one-arm. Based on my own experience, I’d say 70 percent or more seems right, although I’ve heard many others say 80 percent.
- One-Arm Lock-Offs: For this exercise, you may need to take weight off via a pulley system or with your feet in a resistance band. Use both arms to jump up into the top position of a pull-up. Then let go with one arm and lower with the other. Choose an angle to stop at and then hold. I generally like to hold a position for 8 to 10 seconds. Overtime, you’ll want to perform this exercise in different lock-off positions, but you may want to stick to just one angle for a particular session. If you can hold a lock-off for more than 15 seconds at body weight, try adding weight. Note: Avoid holding a lock-off at the top of the bar. This extreme angle puts lots of pressure on the elbow and isn’t as effective as lock-offs at lesser degrees.
- One-Arm Negatives: Use both arms to jump up into the top position of a pull-up. Let go with one arm and then lower with the other. The “negative” should be performed slowly, with complete control the whole way down. Aim to lower in five seconds or more. You may need to take weight off with a pulley system or put your feet in a resistance band. You can also hold on to something with the other hand (like a band or sling) to help you control the lower. Negatives are one of my favorite exercise for training one-arms. You can easily couple them with offset or assisted one-arms to do the “up” part.
- Offset One-Arms: Perform a one-arm while holding on to a sling or band with your other hand for assistance. The lower you grab on the sling/band, the harder the one-arm will be. Personally, I prefer static assistance, such as from a sling, over variable assistance from a stretch band because it’s more applicable to climbing.
- Assisted One-Arms: These will be the most applicable in helping you to learn the skill because they are the most specific. Assisted one-arms can be performed when you take weight off with a pulley system or if you put your feet in a resistance band. The key distinction between offset one-arms and assisted one-arms is that you’re hanging freely from one arm rather than using the other to stabilize/balance and assist. Assisted one-arms therefore help you gain strength in the correct form.
Steps for Progress
I find that variety is key. You’ll want to mix up your routine, changing the amount of reps/sets performed of each exercise and the amount of weight you’re adding or taking off. This is why achieving your first-one arm is challenging: performing the same exercises every week in perpetuity will eventually result in a plateau.
One thing I like to remind myself is that you have to make gains happen. They won’t occur on their own. That means you will need to dig deep while performing the aforementioned exercises. If you’re tired, I would recommend not doing them at all and to save your reps for when you’re fresh.
Performing the assisted one-arms will help you lockdown your form. You may need to experiment to figure out what feels easiest to you. Many people prefer to twist into their arm as they pull (think going from a pull-up position to a chin-up position by the time you’ve reached the top), while others prefer to stay more square since it’s more directly applicable to most face climbs. Ideally you’d be good at both.
Alex Puccio once did six one-arms in a row. Sean McColl can do four. There’s a video on Instagram of Jongwon Chon doing 20.
And Adam Ondra, the world’s best climber? In 2010, Ondra felt his first 9b (5.15b) with Gulf of Estado, in Siurana. In an interview with Baurock.ru, he said he could only do 30 two hand pull-ups and zero one-arms. “Quite weak in pull ups, uh?” he said. “Climbing is an interesting sport.”
Ondra has progressed over the last decade, both in climbing and pulling strength. In Ned Feehally’s book, BeastmakingOndra said he can now do 16.
For most climbers, one or two one-arms in a row is more likely to be the end-goal. But patience and hard work will be key.