Training for the AFM FITTEST: My Pitiful Pull-Ups

By Jody Kelly – February 7, 2013

Next to the burpee, the AFM FITTEST event that worries me most is the pull-up. About 17 years ago, before old age set in so fiercely, a friend made a valiant attempt to teach me how to do a pull-up. I failed miserably. Over the course of a year, I could never build enough upper body strength to lift myself so much as an inch. I gave up trying and went on to other strength moves where I could enjoy a modicum of success as long as the weights were light enough.

The pull-up pulled me down both physically and mentally. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I often walked away from a challenge back then. I was comfortable only on my couch. That was home.

When I registered for the AFM FITTEST contest, I temporarily forgot about my failure with the pull-up. I had read the descriptions of the events, I had recognized the word “pull-up,” and I had watched the video. Somehow it didn’t register with me that this was the same pull-up that had defeated me years ago. Was it poor memory, ignorance, denial, stupidity, hubris, or something else that hid my nemesis from my conscious mind? Who knows? Actually, who cares? The point is that I have a second chance to get down with the pull-up. Can I get a little enthusiasm going? Not just yet, but I have four more months to train.

For a pull-up, you’re supposed to hang from a bar with your arms fully extended and your body in a vertical line. Your feet don’t touch the floor. You pull your body upward until your chin is higher than the bar. You aren’t supposed to “kip,” swing, or kick your legs. You just pull and keep your body reasonably still. Then you return to the fully extended position and do as many repetitions as you can.

Oh, my word! I still have too much body weight and not enough strength in my shoulders, arms, and upper back. No one has sprinkled me with pixie dust since I last attempted this move. I’ll have to take a two-pronged approach to this exercise: losing weight and gaining strength. In four months, I might be able to lose 10 pounds or so without passing out from weakness. Losing weight, like everything else, is much harder at 75 than it was at 45. Rats!

As for gaining strength and muscle memory, I’m starting with the jumping pull-up using a box under my feet. This gives me the sensation of bringing my chin near the bar without injuring my upper body. I’m also doing watered-down versions of the push-up and the medicine ball toss to increase my strength, along with regular lat pull-downs. I’ve been strength training twice a week in Valerie Hunt’s Masters CrossFit class. Next week, or as soon as I’ve recovered from the Austin LiveStrong half marathon, I’ll add a third day of more conventional strength training.

I hope these efforts will at least enable me move the top of my head to the bar. If I develop the ability to move my chin to the bar, I’ll be thrilled out of my mind. If I’m not, I will definitely have given it my best shot. The pull-up may be an event on which I score zero points, but if I’ve done my best, I’ll have no reason to feel ashamed. I’m not planning to walk away from this challenge. Couch, get thee behind me!



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