Chin up, everybody

People often ask me what my workout routine is…

Just kidding. Nobody has ever asked me that.

However, I discovered something in the last two years that has wiped out my back pain, added pounds of muscle, and filled out my v-neck shirts. It’s the overhand pull-up.

Until about two years ago I would only do pull-ups when inspiration struck at one of those random outdoor gyms. I could do four, maybe five on a good day. They were uncomfortable. Grasping the metal bar hurt my hands, and the last one always made me regret even trying. My arms would feel like rubber afterwards. My body just felt fat.

One day a couple of years ago a friend invited me to work out with him at the YMCA in the San Francisco Presidio. He was a swimmer, quite fit, and had been working out at the Y regularly for several months. I tagged along, feeling particularly inspired on this day to break my lifelong drought of never knowing exactly what to do in a gym. I did a circuit with him and barely kept up. Then we got to the assisted pull-up machine.

I’d never used one before. It never crossed my mind that people would do pull-ups at a gym. I stood on the assistance bar with the same weight my friend had and couldn’t lift myself up. My arms were already jelly at this point. He increased the assistance by 10, 20 and eventually 50 pounds. Then I could lift myself. He encourage me to do 12 reps, as Tim Ferriss suggests in The 4-Hour Body. I got through those, and I was toast.

Those dozen assisted pull-ups burned up my upper arms for the next day and a half. I couldn’t put a jacket on. When the burned died down, another sensation took its place. It was a warm, buttery burn. It was a burn that made me want more. It’s the one I feel today immediately after I do my 25 un-assisted pull-ups every morning in my backyard. It’s damn addicting. I installed a pull-up bar under our tree house. I never thought I’d buy a pull-up bar and use it every day, but I did, and I do.

That afternoon at the Y triggered something in me that didn’t let go. I’d been inspired to figure out the gym before, but it never stuck. This time it did, primarily because I was already playing squash twice each week before work at the University Club, and above the squash courts is a small gym. In that small gym is an assisted pull-up machine. I was already going to be there; might as well do some pull-ups.

I followed the formula my friend taught me: 12 reps overhand, 12 reps parallel, and 12 dips. Do that twice, lower the assistance, and drop the reps to 8. In total it was 36+36+24 = 96 assisted pull-ups. It sounds like a lot but with assistance it goes by fast. I’d complete each circuit in about a minute (an assisted pull-up probably takes 2 seconds) and take a minute breather in between circuits. I threw in some free weight curls and a 60-second plank and called it a routine. I’d do it twice each week right after my squash games.

I started with 80 pounds of assistance, and was able to drop 10 pounds of assistance every 2–3 weeks at first, and then every 6–8 weeks as the assistance got lower. By the time I quit my University Club membership after we had our daughter about a year later, I was able to do a dozen pull-ups with no assistance at all. It was amazing. Liberating. I felt proud, and physically I’d never felt better.

I’ve always been a pretty good runner. I probably got that gene from my dad, even though he’s built a lot leaner than I am. I have thick thighs and calves from decades (literally) of bicycling just about every day, years of roller hockey in middle school, and from high school onward, frequent jogging. My upper body didn’t get the same attention, and I always thought my shoulders and upper arms didn’t match my broad torso. From a pure vanity standpoint, I’ve always wanted to work out that part of my body, but I never figured out how to do that until I latched onto pull-ups. It’s a major reason I stuck with it for so long.

The other reason is because it feels so good. I smiled when I heard Tim Ferriss interview Jamie Foxx on his podcast. Tim always asks his guests about their workout routines, and Jamie’s was very simple. Every other day, he does a bunch of pull-ups. I forget how many. Fifty, I think. That’s his entire workout routine. He swears by it, and he’s coming up on 50 years old and is a stud. I hope I can keep this up for the next 20 years too.

I’m approaching my mid-30s in the best shape I’ve ever been. I’m running out of notches in my belts, which is really how I can tell, since I think (I hope) I’ve been replacing fat with muscle so my weight isn’t that different.

Chin up, everybody.

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