When I was in high school we had a summer strength training regimen for football, a three day rotation with each day focusing on a different power lift. There was squat day, clean day, and bench day. I remember our coach explaining to us the importance of each lift:
- You have to do squats to develop speed and strength.
- You have to do cleans to develop explosiveness and coordination.
- And you have to bench so you can tell other guys how much you bench (you can tell girls too, but in my experience they don’t usually care as much as the guys).
I guess that’s why it seems like every day is chest day and there always seems to be a line for the bench.
But there’s never a line for the pull up bar.
I find pullups to be the most psychologically demanding exercise I perform. No other exercise am I more likely to quit early, to cheat, or come up with an excuse for underperformance. I’m not entirely sure why, but I have a few ideas:
- With pullups, you don’t really have time to think. Granted, in most exercises you’re maintaining some sort of tension throughout the motion, but with pullups you are always dangling your entire bodyweight. So once that inner monologue starts, you’re done. On days when I go as fast as I can I usually do more, but is that the safest approach?
- You can cheat, and it’s very hard to see when I cheat. I shorten the range of motion ever so slightly, and it usually happens towards the late-middle of my set as I’m approaching my last reps. I don’t usually cheat on the last rep, making sure to go all the way down and get my chin above the bar. But the ones leading up to it… it happens. I guess I’m trying to get my pullup count up and conserve energy.
- External factors like my mental state and rest intervals really matter for some reason. I’m not an expert in this but it seems like just an additional 30 seconds or so of waiting gets me significantly more reps, a bigger difference than with other workouts. I check my watch and see my 1:30 is up then see somebody else eyeing the bar, and say something like “Oh hey, want to work in? Be my guest. Take your time.” I go get some water. And if I’m just in a bad mood, I do less. No great explanation for that.
The thing is none of this should matter. I should be going in and doing pullups for one purpose – to strengthen the muscles involved in doing pullups. But I’ve been tracking my workouts for years now, and that can really mess with your head.
My brother runs marathons, and one day he and I were talking about his workout plan. Marathon plans tend to be very structured as you work your way up to longer and longer distances. Having run a marathon before, he still had his notes from the previous workout plan. And he talked about how, as he reviewed them, he could see exactly what he was able to do last time. He described it as “chasing a ghost” and drew a perfect comparison to Mario Kart 64.
In Mario Kart Time Trials, you can actually race against your “ghost”, an image of yourself running the race before demonstrated below (with Yoshi in the center racing against Ghost Yoshi on the bottom left):
It’s amazing how easily you can improve if you can see exactly what you did before . You can shave off a corner here, pick-up a little more speed on a straightaway there, despite feeling like you did a really good job the first time. And it’s incredibly frustrating when, despite your best efforts, you can’t seem to catch the ghost.
And when it comes to working out, maybe it’s not fair to race the ghost. The ghost is younger than me, after all. Being alive is great, but the big catch is that you get older the longer you do it. But that excuse is based on two assumptions:
- My body is deteriorating at such a rate that I physically can’t do what I could do a year ago, and
- A year ago, I was pushing my body to its absolute limits.
The first one I’m hoping isn’t true and the second one I know isn’t true. I’m pretty sure there’s still a huge gap between what I’m doing and what I can do, in pullups and in life.
How many pullups can I do?