On August 1, 2017, I asked myself the question: With only one month of practice, can I complete one continuous set of 40 pull-ups.
On August 30, 2017, after 12 hours of practice, I found out that the answer was yes.
During the month of August, I documented my entire learning process in a series of 31 daily blog posts, which are compiled here into a single narrative. In this article, you can relive my month of insights, frustrations, learning hacks, and triumphs, as I strive towards monthly mastery.
Today, I start a new month and a new challenge: With only one month of practice, can I complete one continuous set of 40 pull-ups.
I’ve been lifting weights seriously since my sophomore year of college, mainly focusing on my chest, shoulders, arms, core, and (sometimes) legs. In other words, I’ve been singularly neglecting my back.
As a result, for this month’s physical challenge, I wanted an excuse to concentrate specifically on my back (the weakest part of my body), hopefully building a habit that I can continue even once the month is over.
Since pull-ups are unquestionably the most popular and most standardized back exercise, I figured this would be the perfect way to quantify the strength in my back and track my progress over the month.
Plus, I’ve always just wanted to be able to do a lot of pull-ups, so there’s also that.
After deciding to focus on pull-ups, I needed to set my quantitative goal. In line with my other challenges, I wanted to determine the number of pull-ups that would be considered at the level of expert performance.
I searched YouTube for pull-up records, but had trouble finding a clear standard: Most of the videos featured the “How many pull-ups can you do in 60 seconds” record, which allows resting, instead of the “How many pull-ups can you do without stopping” record.
After a little bit more searching, I found a video by Nile Wilson, who is a British gymnast (he won bronze at Rio in 2016) and a YouTube vlogger.
In one particular video, Nile and two other members of the UK team conduct a maximum pull-up competition (in the title, it says “Chin Ups”, but, in the video, they actually do pull-ups).
In the video, the winner of the competition completes 40 consecutive pull-ups, which seems like the perfect target (since it’s both highly aggressive and a nice round number). So, I’ve decided to adopt 40 pull-ups as my personal goal.
If I can match the top performance of Olympic athletes, I should be able to make the case that I’ve reached an expert level of pull-up performance.
To complete this month’s challenge, I must fulfill three criteria:
- I must complete one continuous set of 40 pull-ups. Once I’m on the bar, I must do 40 consecutive pull-ups before touching my feet back to the floor. If I want to rest by hanging on the bar, I’m allowed to do so, as long as I stay suspended above the ground at all times. In other words, continuous implies that I never leave the bar — it doesn’t necessarily imply that I complete the pull-ups one immediately after the other.
- I must maintain strict form. In Nile’s video, you’ll notice that the gymnasts do a fair amount of kipping, which is a technique where the athlete oscillates his body and pumps his legs in order to create additional momentum. For my challenge, I’m not allowed to kip. Instead, I must keep my body as straight as possible, and only pull from my back. (I may tolerate a little body wiggle, but I’m definitely not allowed to pump/kick my legs).
- I must lower myself to at least 90 degrees. Even though the gymnasts use a significant amount of kipping, their range of motion is impressive: They are lifting their chins above the bar, extending all the way down until their arms are nearly locked out, and then repeating. For my challenge, I will aim for the greatest range of motion, but my personal requirement is that I lower myself to the point where my arms are bent at 90 degrees, but not necessarily more. This will ensure that, for each pull-up, my head is at least going fully above and fully below the bar.
My starting point
Sometimes, if I don’t work out for a while, and then return to a full-intensity workout, I become and remain sore for a week or more, preventing me from maintaining a reasonable workout cadence.
Thus, to ensure that I was prepared and able to recovery in a timely fashion, I’ve been warming up my body prior to this challenge. In particular, since February, I’ve been practicing my pull-ups once per week for 45 minutes.
In that time, I’ve increased my maximum pull-ups from 8 to 18.
While 18 is certainly a respectable number of pull-ups, it’s quite far from 40, so I still have plenty of work ahead of me this month.
I’m excited to get started…
As I explained yesterday, this month’s challenge is to complete one continuous set of 40 pull-ups. I can currently do 18.
In order to add another 22 pull-ups to my maximum, I will need to significantly transform my body via the following three-part training approach:
1. Weight training
More than anything else, to succeed at this month’s challenge, I need to get much stronger. To do so, I plan to complete five weight-training workouts per week. Three of the workouts will heavily focus on pull-ups and my back in general. The other two workouts will emphasize grip strength, arms, and core.
Weight training will make up about 65% of this month’s effort.
In order to get the most out of every workout, I need to ensure that I’m nourishing my body in the best way possible. I’ll most likely be limiting my diet to proteins, healthy fats, and leafy greens.
The hope is that I can drop my body fat percentage, minimizing the uselessweight I need to pull and maximizing my strength-to-weight ratio. Ideally, I would maintain my current weight, but would shift a few pounds from fat to muscle.
Diet will make up about 25% of this month’s effort.
3. Body experiments
So far, my plan this month isn’t very surprising: If I want to increase my pull-up maximum, I need to ramp up my weight training and optimize my diet.
While this makes sense, one month isn’t a very long time to make substantial changes to my body. Thus, I may need to explore other body experiments that may help accelerate my progress.
I’m only interested in healthy and safe methods, so anabolic steroids and related methods aren’t options. Instead, I’ll experiment with things like ice baths, performance meditation/visualization, etc.
I’m not yet sure what else will fall into this category, but I’m very open to trying different ideas.
These kinds of experiments will make up about 10% of this month’s effort.
For the past three days, I’ve spent 45 minutes daily in the gym practicing my pull-ups and documenting my workouts on video.
After reviewing today’s video, I realized that I already need to make some changes to how I’m training…
Right now, as revealed by the video, I’m optimizing for the completely wrong thing. Rather than trying to systematically improve my strength and endurance through controlled exercise, I’m flailing around with crappy form in order to satisfy my ego’s desire to hit a personal record (PR).
At this stage, I need to resist the temptation of beating my record, and instead, focus on disciplined training (without the regard for my quantitative progress for now).
This is a very easy and common trap to fall into: I want to convince myself that I’m making progress. Therefore, I will do whatever it takes to increase my main vanity metric, even if it requires sacrificing the session’s effectiveness and my long-term goals.
If I want any chance of hitting 40 pull-ups, I can’t continue training like this. In particular, I need to improve the way I’m practicing in three main ways:
1. Slow down
Clearly, as seen in the video, I’m operating under the impression that the faster I do pull-ups, the more pull-ups I’ll be able to do.
This might be true up to a point, but I’ve passed this point in today’s session: I lost control of my body, resulting in an intense swing, embarrassingly bad form, and wasted energy.
I need to slow down, so I can regain control of my body and practice in a way that will actually benefit me.
2. Use my back
Because my body is going all over the place, I’m predominately using my arms to pull, and not my back, which is exactly what I don’t want to do.
After all, if I want to strengthen my back, I need to engage it in the exercise.
Moving forward, before each set of pull-ups, I’ll remind myself to focus my attention on the contraction of my back.
3. Increase my range of motion
Lastly, in order to satisfy my ego’s need to complete a lot of pull-ups, I’ve shortened my range of motion to the point where my head is just making it above and below the bar.
Again, if I want to improve my performance over the entire range of pull-up motion, I need to practice in this way.
The worst way to improve at anything is to train for the purpose of satisfying the short-term ego. The ego forces us to take shortcuts that are typically detrimental to overall progress, ultimately bruising our future egos anyway.
I’m glad I captured my ego-driven performance on video today. Without the video, I honestly wouldn’t have noticed just how bad my form really is.
Tomorrow, let’s see if I can train with pull-ups that are slow/controlled, back-powered, and fuller in their range of motion.
To help me with this month’s challenge, I hired a personal trainer, Matt, who I’ve been working out with once per week (every Friday) since February 2017 (as part of my preparation for this month).
Matt will continue to come once per week, but we are working together to create a program that I can follow for the rest of the week.
While I could theoretically pursue this month’s challenge on my own, I prefer working with Matt for a few reasons:
- Knowledge: Matt has a much deeper understanding of fitness, the human body, and the range of possible exercises. When I work out on my own, I tend to repeat the same exercises over and over. Matt helps me build programs that are more diverse and better targeted.
- Intensity: In the past, when I work out by myself, I tend to only push to about 90–95%. Matt is very good at pushing me until failure, ensuring I’m getting the most out of each movement. (However, it seems that I’m also finding extra internal motivation as a result of the stakes of this month’s challenge).
- Structure: I like having one workout per week strictly scheduled, allowing me to structure the rest of my week around this constant. For some reason, I find it much easier to mentally plan my week of training when I have this anchor point.
Since today was Friday, Matt came over and we worked out together for an hour.
I mentioned to him my struggle with my ego and bad form (as I explained yesterday), and I tried to focus on quality pull-ups today (slower, pulling from my back, increased range of motion).
I still haven’t fully escaped my ego, but today was a step in the right direction…
Before I can do 40 pull-ups without resting, I need to be able to do 40 pull-ups with minimal (1–3 minute) resting. Since my current one set maximum is around 20, I figured I’d be able to 40 pull-ups in two or three sets (with a few minutes of rest in between each set).
This isn’t exactly the case…
Today, I was able to do one set of 19 pull-ups. After two minutes of rest, I could only do 8 pull-ups. And, after another two minutes, I could only do 5.
During the past six months, my weekly pull-up/back training has focused on strength, and not endurance, so this drop-off wasn’t unexpected, but it’s much steeper than what I imagined it would be.
Clearly, I need to start training with endurance in mind as well.
To facilitate this, I’m going to set a one-week interim goal: Complete 40 pull-ups within 5 minutes (with as much as resting as necessary, but as little resting as possible).
If I can get to this point, I can start shortening the interval, until the rest periods are no longer necessary.
For the past six days, I’ve been working out hard, in hopes of building both the strength and muscle endurance required to complete this month’s challenge.
While the strength training is important, my diet may be even more important: If I don’t properly feed myself, I won’t have the necessary nutrients to transform my body in the way I’m hoping. My workouts can only be as effective as the foods I eat.
In the past, I’ve struggled with consuming enough calories. I’ve also tended to not consume enough leafy greens or healthy fats.
So, this month, to supplement my diet, I’m adding a liquid component to breakfast and dinner. In particular, I’ve found that I’m more easily able to consume the necessary nutrients if I throw all the ingredients in a blender and slurp them down.
It’s not the most delicious thing, but it tastes like 40 pull-ups, so I have no problem drinking it up.
Here are the ingredients to the magic pull-up shake.
- For protein: The main source of protein is a plant-based protein powder. My body has a bad reaction to whey-based proteins, so I’m sticking with the plants. The peanut butter also has a little bit of protein, but that’s not its main role.
- For fiber: I’m using two spoonfuls of flaxseed as my source of fiber. I’m not exactly sure why fiber is healthy/recommended, but apparently it is… So, it’s in the smoothie.
- For fat: I’m using walnut oil and natural peanut butter as my sources of fat. The walnut oil is particularly good for Omega 3's.
- For all the other stuff: Leafy greens give the body lots of good stuff. I’m starting with spinach, since it’s pretty neutral in taste. Maybe I’ll eventually graduate to kale, or something a little bit sharper in taste.
With the all the ingredients laid out, I throw them in the Nutribullet cups…
And then blend them until they are a nice, appetizing green color.
I’m officially one week into the pull-up challenge. I’m definitely getting stronger, but not at the rate I was hoping, so I need to start thinking about ways I can augment my pure strength approach.
With this in mind, I decided today to experiment with hanging rests. In other words, I wanted to see if I could somehow rest while just hanging lock-armed on the bar, allowing me to theoretically extend my single set pull-up maximum.
Today, I worked out at a friend’s place, and on my way over, as I was visualizing how I would incorporate these hanging rests into a set of pull-ups, I was genuinely worried — Worried that I would easily do 40 pull-ups in this way and that the rest of the month’s narrative would be ruined.
Luckily, at least for the narrative, it’s a lot harder to rest on the bar than I thought. Although, I’m not sure today’s experiment was fully informative: I was too anxious and didn’t allow myself to rest for long enough on the bar.
Tomorrow, perhaps I’ll try resting for a full 20–30 seconds between each grouping of pull-ups. I’m not sure this will make things easier, but it’s worth a try.
Also, if I want to use this hanging method as a way to rest, I clearly need to increase my grip strength. Especially if I want to shake out one arm at a time — which may be more tiring than helpful anyway.
I’ll continue experimenting with this on-the-bar resting concept over the next few days, and see if I can get anything useful out of it.
I’m experiencing an unusual problem today…
Commonly, men focus their workouts on their chest and arms (the vanity muscles), often neglecting their back. As a result, as their chest gets stronger, their pecs pull in, overpowering a relatively weaker back, resulting in a rounded, hunchback kind of posture.
I’m having the reverse problem: I’m mostly neglecting my chest, but hitting my back very hard. Because of this, my back muscles are pulling in, overpowering my chest and drawing my shoulders back.
In general, this is a recipe for good posture, but I’ve surpassed that point. My shoulders are being pulled back so hard it feels like I’m going to snap in half.
This is clearly not a good thing, and something I must remedy. To do so, I skipped my back workout today, and focused fully on my chest.
Hopefully, tomorrow morning, I wake up and feel a little bit more balanced.
Yesterday, I took the day off from pull-ups, so I could balance out my bodyand come back today fully rested.
However, tonight, once I got on the bar, I still felt soreness in my back, biceps, and especially forearms, and decided to take another day of rest.
This is a bit frustrating (since I’m excited to train), but I need to let me body recover, so I can have high-quality workouts, rather than tired, half-energy sessions. I also want to make sure that I’m not overdoing it or hurting myself.
Still, I would really love to train every day if I could. Mentally, I have more than enough energy to workout daily for as long as necessary, but my body refuses to keep up.
This is the frustrating part about physical challenges (especially when they are constrained to a small period of time): My body’s capacity to recover is mostly out of my control and dictates my ability to make forward progress.
It’s a careful dance: If I wait until I’m fully fresh, the month might pass me by. If I push too hard, I might hurt myself, ruining the entire month.
Today, I decided it made sense to rest my back, and work up a sweat in another way: High intensity interval running.
I turned the treadmill up as fast as it can go, ran for one minute, rested for 30 seconds, ran for one minutes, rested, and so on for fifteen minutes.
My cinematography wasn’t the best today (It looks a bit like a war movie):
Running in this way doesn’t really contribute to my pull-up abilities, but hopefully it helps me have a better night sleep tonight, which is always welcomed.
This morning, like every other morning this month, I woke up, meditated, and then consumed my liquid breakfast.
For the first time today, the shake didn’t sit quite right with me. My body spent the rest of the day trying to decide which direction the shake should exit my body (it still hasn’t made a decision).
This wasn’t the best day to have digestive problems: Although he typically comes on Fridays, Matt, my trainer, came over today to train (since I have family visiting this weekend), so I had to fight through the bubbly stomach feeling while trying to have my best workout of the week.
To add to the challenge, my left elbow was still bothering me (as it has been for the past few days). Matt thinks my overworked muscles are crowding/pinching a nerve in my arm, which apparently isn’t too unusual.
Despite the stomach and arm problems, I actually had a very successful day today: For the first time, I felt what a good pull-up feels like.
Up until this point, I’ve relied too heavily on my arms (hence my problem), and not enough on my back. Today, I realized that, if I point my chest at the bar, and pull my elbows down, instead of around, I can shift most of the work from my arms to my back.
While I wasn’t in the best physical state to train with this new form, mentally internalizing what I’m “supposed to do” is a big step forward. I’m hoping that the improvement in my form will result in at least five incremental pull-ups.
I failed to capture a video of my new pull-up form, but here’s a video of my first set from today (where I’m pulling too much with my arms and resultingly approaching the bar in an arced motion).
Once my left elbow is healed, I’m excited to get back on the bar with this new approach.
Today, to let my body heal, I didn’t workout. Instead, I watched pull-up tutorials on YouTube, in hopes of better understanding common mistakes and internalizing proper form.
Then, as I was clicking around, I came across this video of a man doing 118 pull-ups in one set, by resting on the bar between reps. He manages to hold onto the bar for over 19 minutes, which is just crazy.
But, it gets crazier: He has another video where he completes one set of 70 one arm pull-ups, staying on the bar for 42 minutes.
His grip strength is insane, and massively inspiring. After all, this is exactly the technique I had imagined and tried a few days ago. Clearly, it’s much harder than he makes it look:
Nevertheless, I love seeing videos like this, where another human completely shatters my mental model of what’s reasonably possible. I’m very inspired and can’t wait until my body is ready for more pull-ups.
Today, I continued my streak of not training (a.k.a. resting my arms) — although, I have a decent excuse: My sister is visiting from New York, so we spent the day exploring San Francisco.
As part of our touristy day, we covered a lot of ground on foot. So, while I didn’t directly train my pull-ups today, it was still a fairly active day: We ended up walking a little over 13 miles.
If anything, I probably had a calorie deficit today, which isn’t great for building muscle, but means I have slightly less weight to pull.
Anyway, after a long day out, I felt the need to hop down to the gym and do one set of pull-ups cold (i.e. without warming up).
In particular, I wanted to try the new approach I found a few days ago(where I point my chest up at the bar). I feel good about this approach, but still need to get used to it.
With this approach, I was able to get out 23 solid pull-ups — and that’s after I hit my head on the low-hanging lighting fixture on the second pull-up (you can see it happen in the mirror behind me).
With a little bit more practice, so I become comfortable with my new approach, I think I currently have 30 pull-ups in me.
I have a feeling I’m going to make significant progress over the next week.
It’s been almost two weeks since this month’s pull-up challenge began, and while I’m making progress, I need to increase my pace of progress if I want to reach 40 pull-ups.
So, in order to get more out of each workout and increase the effective load of each pull-up, I’ll now be training with 20 pounds of sandbags strapped to my body.
Ideally, my body will learn to function with this extra weight, normalizing these weighted pull-ups as regular pull-ups. Thus, when I remove the vest, I’ll practical float above the bar…
For now, I’m back down to training in sets of ten.
As a side note, my sister is still visiting, and we managed to walk even further today (than yesterday): Covering 14.1 miles of San Francisco on foot.
A successful day all around.
Today, I went over to a friend’s apartment to train.
Before strapping on the 20lb vest for weighted pull-ups, I did one set for maximum reps, and was able to eke out 28.5 pull-ups (although the last few were a bit sketchy).
Still, this is a significant increase from my 23 pull-ups just a couple days ago, which I think is the result of 1. The straight bar (versus the two slanted grips in my apartment’s gym), 2. Better form, and 3. A more recovered body.
(Oh, and I also got a haircut today, so I’m a bit lighter and more aerodynamic, or something like that…)
The rest of the workout consisted of weighted pull-ups, chest press (to balance things out), and core (to keep things tight and strong).
Hopefully, this pace of progress continues and I can break 30 pull-ups in the next few days.
After yesterday’s 28 pull-ups, I was extremely motivated to get in another great workout today and continue building my momentum. In particular, I decided I was going to do 100 weighted pull-ups (in however many sets it would take me to finish).
Yet, after my first three sets, totaling 25 pull-ups, I realized that I wasn’t helping myself. My arms were still majorly sore from the past few days, which means 1. I wasn’t able to fully engage my back (because my arms were acting as the clear bottleneck), and 2. I wasn’t giving myself the chance to recover and have a more productive workout tomorrow.
I need to clarify though: My arms weren’t just sore. Instead, they felt like the muscles had been completely shredded up into pieces.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — after all, this is how muscles are built: You tear your muscles and they grow back bigger.
But, today, it felt like I was trying to tear my already teared muscles, which my body didn’t seem to like.
I wish my body would recover faster, but, since it’s not, I need to continue carefully monitoring how I’m feeling and ensuring that I’m programming in enough rest.
Hopefully, I’ll feel a bit fresher tomorrow and will take a second pass at my one-day goal of 100 weighted pull-ups.
In the past two weeks, I’ve dramatically changed my diet and ramped up my weight training to full capacity. As a result, I’m starting to notice some pretty interesting changes to my body: My back is significantly broader, I can see my abs for the first time in my life, and my shoulders/arms are much more defined.
But, perhaps the most striking change is to my forearms.
I’ve always had fairly skinny forearms and calves (i.e. the “tinier” muscles), and while my calves have remained fairly thin, my forearms have rapidly grown: The ratio of my forearm to wrist looks like it’s nearly 3-to-1 now…
Additionally, although I wasn’t able to capture it in the photo, the vascularity in my biceps and forearms has dramatically increased: Previously, I couldn’t see any of the veins in my arms, and now, especially while I’m working out, my “superficial veins” are highly prominent.
I’m not sure I like this look — it’s a bit scary-looking — but it is what it is.
While my forearms are clearly getting stronger, they are still the limiting factor of my pull-ups, and are the muscles that fail first.
So, I’m continuing to intensely train my forearms, mostly through 1. Weighted hangs on the pull-up bar, 2. Extended holds of 80lb dumbbells, 3. and this grip trainer that I keep in my backpack:
As a long as I keep training my forearms in this way, and keep drinking my spinach-green smoothies, I should have forearms like Popeye in no time.
While training today, my friend asked me: “Right now, if your life depended on it, could you do 40 pull-ups?”.
I think the answer is probably yes.
If I was trapped underneath a car, and, in this hypothetical universe, for some inexplicable reason, lifting the car off of myself required that I executed a sequence of 40 pull-ups, I’m sure that 1. My body would create enough adrenaline and other chemicals to enable peak performance, and 2. My mind would be fully present, singularly focused on preventing my impending death.
However, in the real world, things are a bit different: While I’m doing pull-ups, I have normal levels of adrenaline and my mind only wants me to work until I’m sort of tired and not until I’ve prevented death.
But, I wonder if there is a way for me to tap into this “do not die” mindset on demand. If so, I might be to train my brain to get into the optimal pull-up state whenever I want.
The first step is to convince my brain that I unequivocally need to achieve 40 pull-ups and that it’s expected that my body can and will be able to do so.
Right now, I’ve found that whatever number I have in my mind (as my pull-up goal), my body somehow magically tires right around that number — clearly indicating that something mental is going on here.
I need to find a way to genuinely adopt the belief that 40 pull-ups are expected, so I can set my internal pull-up goal at 40 every time I step up to the bar for a maximum effort set.
Of course, in order for this to help, I can’t fake the belief. I really need to believe it. So, to help plant this belief in my brain, I’ve been playing around with Michael Phelps-style visualization and the Headspace meditation sessions specifically designed for athletic training and performance.
It will be interesting to see if these help.
If I am able to adopt this belief, there will likely still be a disconnect between my expectation for myself and what my body is prepared to do. Hopefully, this is the point where my brain helps close the gap through a decent infusion of adrenaline.
This all might sound a bit pseudo-sciencey, and that I’m just wishing my way to 40 pull-ups, but I think there is actually something here. After all, this is exactly the mental process I went through in order to land a backflip during February:
From Day 1 of my backflip training, I had convinced myself mentally that I could do a backflip (even though I couldn’t). As a result, my brain reacted by saying “Oh no. Max thinks he can do a backflip. I’m not so sure he can. But it’s not fully up to me. He’s about to try, and if it goes poorly, he will land on his head, which wouldn’t be great for me because I live in his head. Why don’t I give him a little bit of adrenaline, so he has an extra push”.
And this is how I learned to backflip: I used a false (or “overextended”) belief to motivate my brain/body to get into the state necessary where I was willing to try to make the belief true.
In other words, I’m not saying “If you believe, all your dreams will magically come true”. Instead, I’m saying “When you believe that a certain dream is possible, you are giving yourself permission to at least try to pursue that dream”.
When I’m on the bar, I need to believe that 40 pull-ups is a feasible — otherwise, I will never let myself even try for this number.
Let’s see if I can get my mind there. Right now, despite my effort (via writing this post), my brain hasn’t yet been fully convinced.
I guess I’ll need to just keep visualizing and meditating my way there…
Today, Matt the trainer came over for our Friday session, and, before we started the normal workout, he filmed my maximum pull-up attempt.
After writing last night’s post (about reconstructing my beliefs), I went to sleep almost immediately and actually had a dream about completing 40 pull-ups.
So today, I was hyped up and ready to go. In fact, I was probably a little too hyped… I started my set way too quickly and lost control of my body, only to regain control 13 pull-ups into the set, after a lot of wasted energy.
Even with the wasted energy though, I was able to get out 32.5 pull-ups, which is a personal best.
I wonder how many pull-ups I would have gotten if I started a little slower and in control. I bet I could have gotten at least 35.
For the first time, 40 pull-ups is actually seeming like a legitimate possibility. I have two weeks left to make it happen…
Yesterday, I set a new personal pull-up record of 32.5.
Despite the record, the set itself wasn’t pretty — during the first 13 pull-ups, my body was out of control…
So, almost immediately after this set, I wanted to try again, but, this time, with much better form and control.
I started off well, easily passed the 10 pull-up mark, continued past the 20 pull-up mark, and then abruptly jumped off the bar at pull-up #22.
Watching the video, it looks like I had many more pull-ups in the tank, and I did, at least from the perspective of my back. However, my forearms were completely on fire, and I needed to stop.
If it wasn’t clear before, it became clear yesterday: My forearms are thebottleneck, and are the only thing between me and 40 pull-ups. I need to improve my grip strength, and fast.
The problem is… Grip strength usually takes a long time to develop, and I just don’t have that time. Additionally, if I put too much strain on my forearms, I can tear one of my ligaments or tendons, which would greatly impede my efforts.
Thus, I have a slightly different plan: Rather than trying to drastically improve my grip strength over the next week, I will instead try to drastically improve my forearm pain tolerance.
If I can learn to mentally cope with the temporary fire in my forearms, I may just be able to stay on the bar long enough to complete the full set of 40 pull-ups.
For the next few days, I’m going to spend a lot of time hanging on the bar, gritting my teeth, and training my mental game. This should be fun…
Today, I once again maxed out at 32 good pull-ups (plus, an additional two questionable ones).
Although I was still a little sore today, I had no problem breaking the 30 pull-up mark. In fact, I’m at the point now where I’m expecting 30 pull-ups every time, and measuring my progress only on the incremental pull-ups past that point.
This is great progress purely from a mental standpoint: Only last week, I was measuring my progress relative to 20 pull-ups.
Physically though, I can still make some improvements:
- Although my form is much better today (than my form from two days ago), I’ve returned to rounding my shoulders, rather than pointing my chest at the bar, which is putting unnecessary strain on my arms. I should try to shift most of the work back to my back.
- It seems like I’m lifting my head much further above the bar than is necessary. I should experiment with shortening my range of motion at the top, and increasing it slightly at the bottom.
Other than that, I’m feeling pretty good and mostly on track. I’m hoping to break 35 pull-ups in the next couple of days.
In a post from a few days ago, I mentioned that, as a result of this month’s challenge, I’ve started noticing some pretty interesting changes to my body: My back is significantly broader, I can see my abs for the first time in my life, and my shoulders/arms are much more defined.
So, my friend was quite disappointed when I only chose to share a photo of my forearm in that post. He insists that I should share a before and after shirtless photo.
But, I think I’m going to keep my shirt on. After all, the emphasis of this month is on improving the strength and health of my body. The vanity stuff is just a nice bonus.
But, then again…
…I figured that I might as well let myself enjoy the vanity of this month’s challenge for at least one day in August. And, if I was going to do so, I really needed to milk it.
So, I grabbed two friends, a camera, and some $8 sunglasses, and we hit the streets of San Francisco for an over-the-top photoshoot.
Over the next four hours, we shot hundreds of photos, everything from sultry and serious to awkwardly posed and just weird.
Here’s a sampling of those photos…
The Seductive Escalator Ride
The Casual Firefighter
Soul Cycle on a Budget
The Yearbook Photo
The Pole Dancer with an Overbite
The Chicken Wings
Two Heads, One Cup
The only normal photo that we took all day that also happens to be the only blurry photo we took all day
More than the photos though, this was an extremely fun way to spend the afternoon with friends and a great way to explore the city. I’d highly recommend it.
In fact, I noticed things about the immediate area around my apartment that I had never taken the time to notice before: Who knew there was a pink door and an orange wall within one block of my apartment? Not me.
Anyway, now that I’ve gotten the vanity stuff out of my system, it’s time to get back to pull-ups. I’m about 6–7 away from my goal of 40, so I still have some work to do.
*All the photos were taken by the extremely talented Sam Rochelle.
After resting yesterday, I felt pretty fresh today, so I snuck in a quick workout in the morning.
On my first pull-up attempt, I was able to complete 35 pull-ups, which is a new PR for me.
You’ll notice a few things in the video:
- Before I start, I do a nice little shimmy to get my body warmed up. At the same time (which isn’t captured in the video), I’m breathing fairly heavily to get my heart rate up.
- Every time I tried to use good form, and pull my chest to the bar, I started swinging. I think this has to do with the way the handgrips are angled (since this doesn’t happen when I’m on a straight bar).
- Since I was alone in the gym today, I propped my phone up on a kettlebell on top of a bench. The bench is fairly low to the ground, which distorts the perspective a bit. As a result, my range of motion looks smaller than it actually was.
After watching the video and realizing the angle wasn’t best, I tried leaning my camera on a StairMaster across the gym, and going again.
I was sore from the first set, but was still able to get out 30 additional pull-ups.
Even in this video though, while my range of motion looks better, it’s still a little too short (particularly on the last 15 pull-ups).
I’m getting close…
Yesterday, I worked out hard. So, today, I was planning on taking the day off.
But then I received this text…
Two hours later, I was at Cliff’s place for a nice, long workout. This was one of those “the gym is a great excuse to spend time with a friend, catch up on life, and enjoy a good conversation, while occasionally lifting weights” kind of workouts.
We still got in a solid session — focusing on chest, arms/shoulders, and core (i.e. giving my back a break) — but we didn’t rush through it. There was plenty of downtime and conversation between each set.
Something like this…
While this kind of workout isn’t the most time-efficient, it’s my favorite kind. Something about the gym creates a great environment for rawer, intimate conversations, often deepening friendships.
Plus, a gym buddy also comes with a healthy dose of competition, motivation, and accountability, which all definitely help from the actual fitness perspective.
In other words, I’ll never turn down an offer for “Gym today?”…
Yesterday was supposed to be a rest day, but turned into a long workout, focusing on the non-back parts of my body.
Although, to be completely honest, I’m addicted to pull-ups and couldn’t leave the gym yesterday until I got a few sets in.
In other words, my “rest day” turned into a “workout day, but a rest day for my back” into a “full-body workout day”.
Well, actually, I still haven’t gotten it quite right… It wasn’t a true full-body workout because I completely neglected my legs.
In fact, I’ve stopped working out my legs entirely this month, so that my lower body is as light as possible (i.e. so I can minimize the weight I need to pull). I’m still walking about 15,000 steps per day, and standing for most of the workday, but I’m definitely not building mass in my legs.
This is actually fairly common amongst competitive gymnasts, who also want to optimize the ratio of their upper-body strength to weight.
Nevertheless, because of this selective training, my body is starting to look unbalanced. In fact, if you look back at the video, it looks like my arms are genuinely the same size as my legs — which is either great for my arms or not so great for my legs.
Once this month is over, I’m definitely going to return to training my legs seriously. Strong legs are quite important to long-term health.
Even before this month though, I never had very big calves (I have a genetically high insertion point), but my quads and butt are definitely the least muscular they’ve been in a while.
Completely neglecting my legs like this may seems a little extreme, especially just for the sake of a couple extra pull-ups. But, this is nothing compared to my other crazy ideas…
I’ve been joking that if I still can’t get 40 pull-ups in the last few days of the month, I have many options to help optimize my strength-to-weight ratio:
- I can completely shave my body. I have no idea how much my body hair weighs, but I’m not too hairy, so probably not enough to justify the look.
- I can perform my pull-ups completely naked. After all, my clothes weigh a few extra pounds. (You’ll notice that I’ve recently started removing my shoes before I do pull-ups. Next, it’s my socks, and then, before I know it, my pants…)
- I can amputate my legs. They aren’t really helping me with this month’s challenge anyway.
- I can drop a few wrestling weight-classes via extreme dehydration. I can just hangout in a sauna wearing many layers of winter clothing.
But, it would be very preferable to avoid these options, so I have a better idea:
5. Get stronger.
Still, imagine how easy 40 pull-ups would be if I was completely naked, with no body hair, no legs, and no water weight… Actually, you probably shouldn’t imagine that.
This morning, trainer Matt came for our weekly Friday workout, and, as always, to start the session, I did one set of as many pull-ups as I could.
Today, although I was a little tired (from a not-so-great night of sleep), I was particularly focused and mentally present. So, when I stepped up to the bar, I was fully prepared to knock out 40 pull-ups — even though this would represent a 14% increase on top of my current PR.
Still, I felt like it was going to happen…
After shaking out my arms, I hopped up on the bar, and once I got going, I didn’t slow down: I passed 10, then 20, then 30, then 35, 36, 37, and 38. I finished 39, and then immediately hit a wall. On 40, I got over the bar, but needed to quickly pumped my legs. I tried again, but, this time, had to tuck my legs.
In other words, today, I set a new PR of 39 and two halves, which sadly does not equally 40.
I sent the video to a few friends, who all said I should count it. Even Matt the trainer was ready to call it.
But, I wasn’t satisfied: I want every pull-up, including 40, to be as clean as possible. No leg pumping. No kipping. No swinging. Just pulling.
I still have 6 days, and clearly have the strength, so I feel like there’s enough wiggle room to impose this kind of strictness.
Hopefully, I’ll be able to get into the same headspace for my next attempt, and easily fly through 40 beautiful pull-ups.
Yesterday, I looked 40 pull-ups in the face, but couldn’t hold my gaze for long enough, failing to complete a final, clean 4oth pull-up. As a result, I set my new PR at 39 and two half pull-ups (i.e. 39).
Rewatching the video, it’s crazy to see how the energy is sucked out of my body immediately as the 40th pull-up comes into view. My brain counted the 40th pull-up before my body completed it, and so decided to shut everything down a second too early.
This is the fascinating part of this month’s entire challenge: My brain is in much more control than my body.
Of course, there’s a minimum physical requirement to complete 40 pull-ups, but I’m pretty sure I passed that threshold a long time ago. Now, I just need to convince my brain that it’s okay (i.e. possible) to actually execute all of the pull-ups.
After yesterday, my brain seems to finally be convinced that 40 pull-ups isn’t actually impossible. And now that I’ve broken this mental barrier, there’s really nothing stopping me (other than my incredibly sore arms) from knocking out 40 pull-ups easily every time.
In other words, yesterday was my Roger Bannister moment…
Before 1954, it was thought that it was physically impossible for a human to run a mile in less than four minutes. The record for a mile had been set at 4:01 in the 1940’s and hadn’t budged since.
Then, on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister ran a mile in 3:59.4, forcing every runner to rethink what was possible.
46 days later, Bannister’s record was broken, and, within the next couple of years, dozens of runners broke the 4-minute mark.
In the same way, for most of this month, I actually doubted that I would make it to 40. In fact, this is why I started practicing the “feet-pumping” kip that ruined yesterday’s attempt: I figured, since I wasn’t going to make it, I might as well try to get out 40 in any way I can.
But, then yesterday, I had my Roger Bannister doubt-smashing moment: I unquestionably have 40 pull-ups in me.
As soon as my body feels not-so-sore, I will step up to the bar and run my three-minute mile.
Today marks the 300th day of my M2M project, which is an exciting milestone.
To celebrate, I had an ambitious idea: This morning, I would first eclipse the 40 pull-up mark (officially completing this month’s challenge), and then I would proceed to knock out 260 more pull-ups over the course of the day.
In other words, I was hoping to do 300 pull-ups in honor of M2M Day 300.
But there was a bit of a problem, which was completely my fault…
Two days ago, on Friday morning, immediately after setting my PR of 39.5 pull-ups, I completed a high-intensity, hour-long, full-body workout with my trainer Matt.
Then, Friday night, my friend texted me, asking if I wanted to workout, and I unhesitatingly said yes, proceeding to complete my second high-intensity, hour-long, full-body workout of the day.
As a result, I tore up my muscles more than usual, and they’re taking a little longer to heal. In fact, I’m still feeling quite sore in my arms and back.
I actually tried to go down to the gym today to see if I could at least attempt the 40 pull-ups (without the other 260), but I very quickly realized that it wasn’t going to happen.
Hopefully tonight, while I sleep, my body repairs itself, and I’ll be nice and fresh for tomorrow’s workout.
If I had planned better, I would have taken much more advantage of today’s milestone. But, oh well. Happy 300!
This morning, I planned to head down to the gym and finally surpass 40 pull-ups.
However, I woke up this morning still feeling sore and tired — and also had some pain in my left shoulder, which I think is from benching slightly too much weight on Friday night.
I feel like one of those professional athletes who tears their ACL during an inconsequential pickup game in the off-season. In other words, I acted as if I were invincible, throwing my body around without enough care. Spoiler alert: I’m vincible.
Still, the pain was very benign (I didn’t notice it until I started my pull-ups), so I headed to the gym anyway for a few PR attempts.
On my first attempt, I started swinging aggressively from the very beginning. By the time I reached 30 pull-ups, I felt like I may be able to dig deep enough and get out the remaining eight, but I had already mentally decided, because of the swinging, that this wasn’t going to be The Take. So, I hopped off the bar at 32, saving my reserves for my next attempt.
I rested for 10 minutes, which seemed to be long enough, and then hopped back up on the bar.
10 minutes wasn’t long enough, and I had to work very hard to get out 35 decent pull-ups during my second attempt.
Unlike on Friday, I just didn’t have the same ease and energy in my sets. For both of my attempts today, my body felt a bit off and I had to pull hard starting from the very first pull-up.
Matt the trainer is coming on Wednesday, and I’ll try one last time with him then.
It seems to be easier to feed off of someone else’s energy anyway: Today, I had to tape my phone to a pillar in the middle of the gym to film myself.
Tomorrow, I will try one last time to break past 40 pull-ups, which I should be able to do if all the conditions are right (I’m energized, my body is feeling good, etc.). If the conditions aren’t quite right, it’s going to be a fight.
Regardless of what happens though, this has been a fascinating month: I discovered a whole new level of workout intensity.
In the past, I’ve never worked out with a specific goal in mind (other than to just get stronger and healthier), and, as a result, I’ve never had the need to dig quite as deep and push my body to absolute failure while exercising.
Since the body makes the most gains during this final “at failure” rep, my pace of progress this month (both in terms of my strength and the transformation of my body) has been surprising and welcomed.
Working out with a specific goal has given me a reason to push myself into this higher intensity zone, and I plan to continue training with this goal-oriented mindset even once August is finished. Of course, it’s important to mention that this is not about pushing myself into unsafe territory, but about eking out a few more reps when my body would normally decide it’s done.
One argument against this approach is that I’m converting my meditative and mentally relaxing practice of exercising and turning into a competitive, numerically-driven, less enjoyable experience. But I would disagree…
There is no greater feeling of peace and accomplishment than the cozy tiredness after an amazing workout.
If I complete 40 pull-up tomorrow or not, this approach to training has been a welcomed change, and, through a month of consistency, has been solidified as a habit I look forward to keeping up…
This morning, I felt good, stepped up to the bar, and cranked out 41 pull-ups, officially completing this month’s challenge!
Sadly, the cinematography on today’s video wasn’t the best. In particular, Matt the trainer shot most of the video sitting down, so the perspective is a bit distorted, shortening my perceived range of motion at the bottom and lengthening it a bit at the top.
So, while I wish I remembered to ask Matt to shoot the video from bar level, I was too focused before today’s attempt to think about the videography. Nevertheless, the video gets the job done…
Still, I was hoping to have a slightly better video to cap off this month’s challenge, so, even after today’s hour-long workout, I went back down to the gym a few minutes ago, taped my phone to the wall, and tried to mentally power through 40 pull-ups despite the fact that my body was completely on fire.
I only made it to 38, and involved my body a little too much in the last handful of pull-ups.
Maybe tomorrow, I’ll try to get the shot, but I’ll likely be too sore.
Either way, I’m very excited to have completed this month’s goal. I had to work hard for it.
It’s the last day of August, which means it’s time to look back and see just how much time I spent on this month’s challenge.
Over the month, I completed 23 workouts: nine were 60 minutes long, six were 20 minutes longs, and eight were 10 minutes long.
Often, during the hour-long sessions, parts of the workout wouldn’t directly target pull-ups or back. However, it’s hard to separate out what indirectly counts towards my goal and what doesn’t, so I’m just going to count everything.
Thus, in total, I spent 12 hours and 2o minutes on this month’s challenge, or about 25 minutes on average per day.
Interestingly, I don’t think I spent any longer in the gym than I would have in any normal month. However, I did focus much more on my back and forearms than I typically would, and my intensity in the gym was significantly greater (i.e. I made the minutes count).
In other words, I didn’t have to change my lifestyle or schedule at all. Instead, I just applied a bit more focus and energy to something I was already doing.