‘A goal for this year is to be able to do 10 unassisted pull ups.’
- me, March 9th 2018
February 8th, 2021 I completed my first unassisted pull up. Best laid plans and all that.
For the uninitiated, a pull up is a movement where you hang from a bar with your palms facing away from you, and then pull yourself up until your chest meets the bar. It’s really frickin hard. And it’s badass.
Why did I want to be able to do this? Mainly to prove I could (I’m an immensely stubborn person!) As someone who fell in love with lifting weights and strength training, it also felt like a really awesome stretch goal — something to work towards that seemed almost impossible but would be very satisfying to achieve.
Also — why not?!
Here’s what I learned working towards a goal that took me almost three years to achieve.
*Note: most of these seem like fitness lessons at first glance, but I’m a firm believer that training can teach us deeper things about life and ourselves — hence why I’m writing this down.
Don’t Believe the Hype
The first thing to get out of the way is all the BULLSHIT about women not being able to do pull ups.
There was a University of Dayton study in 2012 that was broadly publicized (in the NYT and the [paywall] Globe and Mail no less) as explaining ‘why’ women can’t do pull ups. (A better summary of this study is that a three month training program wasn’t sufficient for 13 women out of 17 to be able to complete a pull up.)
Yes, women tend to have less muscles in their upper body, and we tend to carry more weight in our lower bodies, which makes pull ups challenging.
However, the real issue at play here is that women are constantly given the message that we are physically lesser than, weak, and discouraged from using our bodies and training for strength (especially upper body strength).
Ignore. Fuck ’em. Use it as fuel to prove them wrong. You can train for almost anything you wish.
Loads of women can do pull ups. And now I’m one of them.
Ask For Help
A big part of what worked for me was getting help by working with a strength coach. Having someone experienced who knows what strategies to put in place to train towards a goal was hugely beneficial.
There’s a certain amount of privilege in being able to afford to work with someone, which I want to acknowledge. While this was the path I took, there are lots of ways to get help — from researching on the internet, to working out with a friend, to watching youtube videos or free programs.
A big part of what was helpful for me was talking to women I saw doing pull ups in the gym (once I got over my shyness of talking to such utter badasses!) I asked them how long it took them to reach the goal, what they found helpful in training. You can’t be what you can’t see, and these women were living proof that it was possible.
You Are Entitled to Your Labour, Not the Fruits of Your Labour
When I read that quote from the Bhagavad Gita, I was blown away. This is super profound to me.
All I am entitled to is to show up and put in the work. All I am entitled to is the work. The grind. The 6.30am trudges in the deep snow to get to the gym, the protein shake spilled all over my couch or leaking in my bag, crammed in with the stinky gym shoes and clothes, the rep after rep after rep of flexed arm hangs, chin up negatives, band assisted pull ups. All the huffing and puffing away like a silly billy on the floor of my apartment during the pandemic, lonely in the hotel gym when travelling, the time I dropped a really heavy dumbbell on my toe, my apartment smelling like a gym, waking up with the dread of the workout I was facing at the forefront of my mind.
At times, the pull up seemed impossible, so far away. The days I would test it and barely be able to set my scaps, the really wonky ring chin ups, the time I had a massive block about pulling from a dead hang for my chin ups, too many times to remember or count wondering ‘is this even working? Should I just give up?’
If you keep showing up, if you keep putting in the work, progress will gradually reveal itself. The tipping point is so strange, I don’t quite know where it was, but I know that one day when I tried, I could do a pull up. Because, for the most part, I embraced the labour.
Rest Is As Important As The Work
As a perfectionist, over-achiever, type-A type, my default mode is push push push push. Never good enough, always work harder, don’t stop.
What’s interesting about training is that it really shows you the limits of this mindset. Your body can really only handle so much, and interestingly, recovery and work have a symbiotic relationship. When you rest, your muscles repair and you take advantage of the training you’ve been doing as you grow back stronger.
When I started training, I was fixated on never missing a day, training a certain amount, never having fluctuations in performance. Up and to the right infinitely was what I was striving for.
Which is patently ridiculous — seeing as we are organic, squishy bags of water and bone and muscle.
Training is teaching me to tune in to when my body is saying ‘more recovery please’ and to have self compassion (working on it lol). It’s cemented my life long love of and belief in the importance of naps and sleep. It’s taught me that the rest is as important as the work. You can’t have one without the other.
You Can’t Control The Timeline, But You Can Control the Meantime
I thought I would be able to achieve 10 unassisted pull ups in a year. It took me almost three years to get to one.
But weirdly, what I learned is that I’m ok with that!
How long something takes will depend on a variety of factors, and some of those factors are within your control and some are not. You could say it took me almost 34 years to do my first pull up, since that’s how old I am. Which things in life led up to this moment?
I’ve seen videos of women training for a pull up in 60 days, or programs that say they can get you to 50 pull ups in 7 weeks.
All of it is kind of irrelevant.
Letting go of the timeline means knowing that one day it will happen, and that your job is to control the meantime.
The meantime is the building blocks of your day by day, your habits. What you eat, how you train, your sleep, your self talk, your why. The meantime is the in-between.
And actually, what we really have on this earth is the meantime. ❤
A big thank you to my coach, Paul Hynes, for accompanying me on this journey.
Any women out there who want to talk about this stuff, reach out — I hope more women and girls get to access their strength and bodies (however they define it) in ways that feel good for them.