In my first-ever gym class of high school, we underwent a fitness diagnostic. Our gym teacher required the students to perform as many chin-ups as they could. If they were not able to do a chin-up, he offered, they could simply hang from the bars.
The oddness of those two choices – to either perform an act or engage in something that arguably proves nothing except the presence of fingers – was further underscored by the vast breadth of physical prowess. If you had hit puberty by then, you could do chin-ups. If you hadn’t, you hung like a limp flag or, more realistically, the trussed and plucked chicken hanging in a meat shop. Since I’m barely hitting puberty at 22, it’s an easy guess to figure out which camp I fell into.
That did not stop me from pathetically attempting a chin-up. I didn’t realize that it’s nearly impossible to do a chin-up from fully-extended arms, so I tucked my knees underneath me and tried to pull myself up from ramrod-straight arms. After several tense, physically agonizing moments, I let myself hang quietly before dropping back down to the floor.
And I remember, in the seconds that I hung from the bar, thinking how completely pointless this exercise was. Gym class proceeded much in the same way; after freshman year, I just opted to do homework with a clutter of the other unathletic boys while the fitter ones fucked around with dodgeball, or whatever. By senior year, I was skipping out of gym entirely – using my senior privilege and status a runner to avoid it. But, to be honest, having a gym class once every six days wasn’t doing me, or anyone, any favors.
So for most of my life, the chin-up, and any desire to do it, eluded me. When I started working out in college, I hopped in and out of the chin-up phase. Once I realized that clinging to the bars and literally leaping up into a chin-up position didn’t technically count, I swapped to the assisted pull-up machine and avoided it whenever I could.
The assisted pull-up machine requires you to put your knees on a pad and subtract weight from your total mass. So if you’re 160 pounds, and you subtracted fifty pounds, you were doing the chin-ups with a body weight of 110 pounds. I was subtracting so much weight that I was actually flinging myself upwards with every pull and reaching an exosphere orbit.
I would eye the people who could do a pull-up or chin-up unassisted with hot glowering envy. It seemed literally impossible, and then I saw people actually adding weights to their own self and doing repetitions with that. That was as unbelievable to me as those stories of mothers lifting up cars to save their loved ones – actually more unbelievable. I began to measure my prowess in terms of how many unassisted repetitions I could do – one was bad, two was better, three was ideal.
But as I worked out more, I began to reacquaint myself with the pull-up machine. As I lost weight and gained muscle, the notches of the weight began to shift lighter and lighter. Eventually, I was doing ten to twenty pounds of assistance, for a weight of roughly 185.
And then, a few weeks ago, I decided to leave the pad entirely. Straining, I pulled myself up – my elbows narrowing into neat acute angles – and down. When I completed sixteen chin-ups, four repetitions in four sets, I fell into a crouch and felt my heart pump blood headily into the aching muscles. But I kept doing it. every day, at the beginning of my workout, I did sixteen chin-ups – always in four sets of four – before moving onto the rest of my workout. I found that the less I focused on what I was about to do, the better I performed. If I hesitated, arms extended upward but feet still on the ground, I could barely get myself into the air.
I began to change it up – I added another set of pull-ups to the routine. Eventually, I switched to sixteen pull-ups (working the back muscles, shoulder muscles and the latissimus dorsi muscles). I tacked on a set of chin-ups, and on arms days, I would do sixteen of each.
I’ve noticed more muscle changes in the few weeks that I’ve started doing unassisted pull-ups. My shoulders are squarer, my collarbones swoop with the graceful lean of ship’s bows, and my biceps are bigger. In the shower, I catch glimpses of back muscles rippling in ways that they didn’t before. I’m obsessed with my shoulder blades, their hookedness like two eagle beaks.
Unfortunately, like a lot of people, I have a complex relationship with my body. And I’ve often leaned on the gym in unhealthy ways, eviscerating myself on days when I had to skip, or punishing myself for days that I didn’t push myself as far as I could’ve. In my most depressed, the gym becomes more of an outlet and a crutch. Before, when I looked my best, it’s often because I was feeling my worst. At a particular low point in college, mental health-wise, I would escape to the gym for hours every day, later pinching the fat on my hips as it melted away. I obsess over my body’s aesthetic, how this looks and how this lays.
I’ve always carried that anxiety when going to the gym; that I could backslide and become obsessive again. I still have lingering habits, a twinge of despair when I weigh myself, or a slight internal battle about how much cardio to do. I take my backslides softly, and slowly, and I’m trying to treat myself gently. It doesn’t always work, maybe not even half of the time, but I try.
Doing these pull-ups aren’t about how they will make my body look. It is a physical challenge, a test of my own strength – something that doesn’t come from aesthetics alone.
But this feels different for me.
When I’m doing pull-ups, I revel in the strength as I lift upwards. I imagine all of the scenarios where I can pull myself up. Action movie scenes, where the ground falls away beneath me and I have to swing myself up from the lip of a cliff. Deep dark holes that I’m trapped in. American Ninja Warrior monkey bars. I revel in getting stronger, and it feels wholly unconnected to aesthetics or attractiveness. In every muscle micro-tear, I steel myself with strength. I feel myself getting stronger, and I nourish it like a seedling. I picture myself as a warrior, each line of muscle meaning that I am more capable, more sturdy, more indomitable.
It isn’t about how I look – it’s about how I feel.
And damn, sis, I feel good.