In case you missed it in last week’s post, I finally, after months of hard work, frustration, and tears, I achieved the dream: I got my strict pull-up. This was a moment I’d dreamed about almost since Day One of CrossFit. It’s something I worked on day in and day out for almost a year and a half. It’s something I wanted more than anything else, and something that seemed beyond my grasp more than once.
But I am nothing if not stubborn and determined not to give up (although I came close after 15.2). And on Friday, March 27, months of hard work and dedication came together and that first pull-up happened. I promised you a post devoted to that glorious event, so here it is.
Background first: I set my sights on pull-ups almost from the get-go. I started CrossFit in September 2013. In October, I had my first one-on-one skills session (included with our membership at Alchemy). I said I wanted to work on getting pull-ups. It’s been so long now, that I can’t exactly remember what Coach Duncan said at the time. I think he told me that it wouldn’t be a quick process (we have joked several times over all these months that it’s a good thing I didn’t know at the time just how long the process would take). But he didn’t discourage me. He didn’t laugh at me. He just assessed where I was at, saw where I wanted to get, and came up with a plan to help me get there.
I started off working with 3 bands. You read that right. THREE. I had the double-whammy working against me of being heavier and lacking the necessary upper body strength. But I dutifully did my homework and worked on my pull-up program 3 days a week for months. Still no pull-up. I should add, throughout this process, that I had strict (pun somewhat intended) orders from Coach Duncan that I wasn’t allowed to kip pull-ups until I had the strength to do one strict (even though Jess has tried more than once to get me to do so).
Over the many months, there were many tweaks to my program. Somewhere during last summer we added in ring rows to work on developing strength at the bottom of the pull. Duncan reminded me not to cheat and swing with the bands, otherwise I wouldn’t be developing strength and wasn’t really doing myself any favours.
I re-tested my pull-ups several times, and had made some improvements, but it seemed like towards the end of the summer, things were stagnating. I was not where I wanted to be. Then, last fall, I was about to do my first competition. We knew pull-ups would make an appearance. So, Duncan said he would make an exception to his rule and teach me to kip for the competition.
One morning, we set to work on learning to kip those pull-ups. I should add that this was right after I had first successfully climbed the rope (after almost 6 months of work), so my strength was clearly coming along. With Duncan watching, I tried strict. Clearly no go. Then I tried getting my hips into it, to kip things. Nope. Then he took a video of my shoulders (I kid you not). Then we had somewhat of a lightbulb moment. I wasn’t using my lats. You know those giant muscles on your back (see illustration at right) that are the main ones involved in a pull-up? Nothing. Not activating. No wonder pull-ups seemed so hard!
This is where I got the nickname Lazy Lats, and a whole new set of pull-up homework: lat pull-downs. We literally looped a band over the pull-up rig, put a 15 pound bar through it, and had me sit down on a box underneath pulling the bar down. You have no idea how many times I had to explain to people what I was doing. I definitely looked a bit ridiculous, but I didn’t care. Like everything else Crossfit-related, I didn’t take myself too seriously, and chose to have a sense of humor about it. Plus, in the long run, I knew that this exercise would help out in isolating the muscles that were slacking off. I didn’t get a pull-up for that competition (which ended up being ok), but I felt encouraged that we knew what the problem was and were on the road to fixing it.
Over the fall, I also recruited more help for, as I called it “Team Lat Activation”: the two health professionals (one chiropractor, one massage therapist) that I see regularly for Active Release technique. (Our gym membership includes one free ART session a month which is so awesome and I find so helpful, plus I get benefits through my work so I’ve been going more regularly). Lisa and Mandy were great at working to find out what was going on, what wasn’t working (and why), and giving me stretches, mobility and activation exercises to help things out.
My pull-up program underwent more tweaks over the fall. I kept up with my lat pull-downs, ring rows, and banded pull-ups (reps/bands changing from time to time). We added jumping pull-ups to get my muscles used to the movement pattern. Duncan also came up with “bottom half” pull-ups, (which are just what they sound like), where he had me working at a greater difficulty (ie less assistive bands) on the bottom part of the pull. Eventually I graduated from the lat pulldowns and moved on to reverse dumbbell flies (again, I looked SO cool….it’s a good thing I don’t take myself too seriously).
I worked away at those pull-ups as hard as ever. Progress came, but slowly. I was getting frustrated. Then in November, Duncan made the suggestion we talk about nutrition. When it came right down to it, pull-ups are a body weight movement. The simple, hard truth is that if I weighed less, a pull-up would be easier.
I’ll write another post soon totally devoted to nutrition and that whole process, but for now, I’ll just say a couple of things. 1. Working out is the easy part, but it focusing in on what you’re eating (or not eating) is HARD. It’s totally worth it, but requires willingness to be disciplined and put in the work. 2. It makes a HUGE difference. Not just in your weight and how you look, but how you feel and for your workouts. And, after a month of hard work, by December I was down to a strict pull-up with just the red band (the super-skinny, tiniest one available). That unassisted pull-up was within my reach.
The new year came. More pull-up work, more tweaks to programming. Now, instead of having pull-ups programmed a few days a week, they were showing up in every day of my programming (mind you in slightly lower volume). And Duncan also started telling me specifically which difficulty of bands to work at. At first, the difficulty seemed challenging and a little ambitious, but I’m glad now that he did that, as I think it really pushed me and increased my strength.
I was coming along, and thought I’d be getting a pull-up in time for the Open. I re-tested right before it started. Still Nope. Then 15.2 happened. I don’t need to rehash it here. But, suffice it to say, after all my hard work, it felt like a devastating failure. I had come so far, and gotten so close, but I just wasn’t there yet. I was so frustrated. So angry. At that point, I honestly considered asking Duncan if we could just take a couple of weeks off of working on pull-ups – that’s how upset I was.
Around that time, I started a new programming cycle designed to take me to the end of the Open. As part of my pull-up programming this time, Duncan had me retesting strict pull-ups every Friday. I remember asking him what the point was (still pretty frustrated). He said that at this point, I was close and said it wouldn’t be long and that he didn’t want me to have the strength to do a pull-up and go weeks without knowing it. I figured I might as well take his word for it (although I secretly didn’t really believe him). But I trusted his judgement and figured, what did I have to lose?
Friday, March 27 came around. At 6 AM, I completed 15.5 and was thrilled that the Open was behind me, and had come to terms that a pull-up from the Open wasn’t going to happen. I went back to the gym to lift in the afternoon, and, since it was Friday, re-test pull-ups.
As had become my routine, I warmed up using bands of increasing difficulty, treating it as I would a one rep max attempt on a lift. Things were feeling good. Duncan was in the back judging someone on 15.5, and I remember him giving me an encouraging look when I was on the black band (second hardest). It was looking easy.
My friend Sam was there watching me, and after I did a pull-up with the red band, she said “Why don’t you just do a pull-up already? That looked easy,” and made me go get my phone so she could videotape me going for it. Gulp. The pressure (I should add at this point that pretty much EVERYONE at the gym knows how badly I wanted this, and how long and hard I’d been working for it).
Just as everyone else was starting 15.5 during the 4:15 class, Sam grabbed my phone, hit record, and I went for it. I pulled. And got up, and up, and kicked my feet a bit, and made it! The funniest part, which is also captured on video, is that I ask “did that count?” Duncan had been right by the rig, but his back was turned since he was watching someone row. He immediately watched the video, confirmed that it counted, congratulated me, and gave me a big hug. (If you want to see the full video, go follow me on Instagram).
Cheers commenced. I may or may not have ran around telling everyone. I texted Jess and a few other Crossfit friends. I social media-ed the crap out of that video. I actually couldn’t believe it. After nearly a year and a half of hard work, and wanting to give up on more than one occasion, I had achieved my dream.
So, strict pull-up down (and you better believe it got a green emoji checkmark on my Crossfit goals note in my phone). What next? Duncan and I already had a pre-existing appointment to talk about goals and programming after the Open, and now with the first pull-up in the books, it seemed like an even better time to figure out where I went from here.
His idea? Programming to keep attacking my weaknesses (mostly bodyweight/gymnastics movements) in time for the team competition I’ve entered in early July. Then we figured out that it was almost exactly 100 days away from our meeting. And Duncan got the idea to set two ambitious goals for me. 100 days gave us about 14 weeks.
After the first 8 weeks? RX Fran (21-15-9 thrusters and pull-ups). Gulp.
Oh, but that’s not enough. After another 6 weeks, RX Mary (20 min AMRAP of 5 handstand pushups, 10 pistols, 15 pullups). (I currently can’t do HSPUs or pistols, if you were wondering).
His reasoning? I could do Fran now. It might take me all day, but I could do it. And once I got a bit stronger and could kip, Fran would be totally doable (I might not have the fastest time, but still).
As for Mary, Duncan admitted it’s a loftier goal. He thinks pistols won’t be a problem, I just need to work on mobility. And I’ve got a ton of shoulder strength, I just need to get the mobility, stability and general “shoulder health” piece down. And, as he pointed out, if I could do pull-ups, HSPUs and pistols, come the Open 2016, I’m only a muscle-up away from being an RX athlete (now there’s a crazy thought).
So, I’m two weeks into the new programming…a lot of push-up and pull-up work, and Olympic lift accessory work too (which I’m so happy about. Oly took a back seat for awhile and I’ve missed it). I’m not really lifting heavy all that much right now (which I miss), but, it’s something I’m good at and, as Duncan pointed out, if I get to the comp in the summer and can squat and deadlift a ton but just barely do a pull-up, that doesn’t help me much.
The goal is to build up pull-up strength in April, then come May, start to work on kipping and then at the beginning of June, it’s Fran time. If you follow us on Facebook, you’ll know that I was able to crank out 3 pull-ups last weekend. Crazy. Just crazy. I still can’t believe it. I’m supposed to do 3 strict pullups for time once a week for the next couple weeks on top of my other pull-up work, then increase to 5 after that.
If you’re still reading (sorry this turned into such a novel), thanks for sticking with me. I share this story only to say that anything, absolutely anything is possible if you work hard and never give up on your dream. That success doesn’t belong to just one person. It truly takes a village. I couldn’t have gotten that first strict pull-up without the amazingly supportive community of friends at my gym, health professionals, and of course, a coach who never gave up on me.
No one handed me anything. I had to fight every day, work hard when I didn’t want to, and keep going in the face of failure and defeat. But I look at where I am now, and I am so glad I kept fighting.
A year and a half ago, I was a girl with a big dream. If you had told me that in 18 months, I would be the athlete I am today, having achieved not only that illusive pull-up, but so many more things along the way, I’m not sure I would have believed you. Proving myself wrong has never felt so amazing.