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Well Intended / Pushing back against that old pull-up challenge

Published 6:35 am, Friday, May 9, 2014
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I have an irrational fear of dangling from a rocky precipice, hanging on by my finger tips after having been chased by a mustache-curling villain, and then dropping to a jagged or watery death -- not because the cliff crumbled or the evil creep stepped on my fingers, but because I didn't have sufficient upper-body strength to hoist myself up to safety.

It seems to me that, when threatened by n'er do well antiheros and dangerous heights, we should be able to lift ourselves (perhaps one-armed and clutching an orphaned kitten) to safety.

Pull-ups have haunted me from a very young age. My father was in the National Guard. He tells the story of his first days of basic training and the grueling workouts. "I could barely do a single pull-up," he says. By the end of training, he was in great shape. My father, a marathon runner and fitness devotee, believes in transformative qualities of a vigorous workout.

In middle school (we called it junior high in those days) physical education, the only thing worse than having to change into the regulation green and gold PE uniform that had "Richards" written in the sloppy penmanship of our coach across my (mostly) flat chest, was the dreaded pull-up test to qualify for the Presidential Award for Physical Fitness. President John F. Kennedy clearly had never been a middle school girl. And, I imagine he had always been able to do pull-ups. Although, I practiced ballet every afternoon after school and could run the mile in time, do plenty of curl-ups and reach my toes easily, the mandatory pull-ups were torture. Had we been permitted to do them in a room with only the coach and a clipboard, perhaps it wouldn't have been so bad. But, as it was, we assembled on a sunny field surrounded by our peers who were ready to laugh as we dropped or dangled in sweaty disgrace. Humiliating.

I don't remember how many pull-ups were required in order to receive the paper award certificate and iron-on patch that are still in my scrapbook along with my sticker collection and ballet programs, but today, 12-year-old boys need to be able to do seven pull-ups and girls need to manage two.

I am not a wimp. I can move furniture. I carry so many groceries at once that the circulation is cut off on my wrists by the twisting bags. I have always prided myself on my strength. But something has happened in the past few years. Basically, I've been sitting at a desk all day and growing older. My clothes are tight. My muscles are soft. And when I tried, a couple of months ago, I couldn't do a single pull-up. I could get my forehead up. I could hang there for a few seconds. But, if I was holding onto dear life by my fingertips, I would surely die.

Last week, I decided to do something about my decreased strength and increased softness. No, I'll be honest. I decided in January; it took me until the first week of May to do anything about it.

I bought a chin-up bar and installed it over a doorway. I also removed all of the clothes that don't fit from the small closet in my bedroom and installed a "home gym." My fitness center consists of a television and DVD player with an extension cord strung beneath the door and into a nearby outlet. I have a selection of weights and a couple yoga mats, a water bottle and a towel. And every morning for the last week, I have pushed play on the DVD player with the certainty that in 90 days, I would be in good enough shape to yank myself up if I am pushed off a building and happen to catch a flagpole on the way down. (Clearly, I have watched too many movies. Does this even happen in real life?)

On Monday, I was fine. I modified the workout and lifted and squatted happily. But, by Wednesday, my muscles were so sore I could barely walk. On Thursday, I did yoga and by Friday, I felt stronger again. It has only been a week. I haven't made much progress on my pull-ups yet. Give me a few more months. In the meantime, I am staying away from cliffs.

Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: kristarichardsmann@gmail.com.