Life Lessons from Pull-ups

Another year, another intention to write more/read more/work out more to become more of the intellectual/Renaissance man I aspire to be. I completed one of my resolutions last year, however, which was to do pull-ups on 100 days in the year (I fell laughably short on two others: to read 50 pages/day and to blog every other week). This year, however, I intend to learn from what allowed me to successfully complete my pullup goal and try to apply that to the other areas of my life as well. So without further ado, here are Things I Learned From Doing Pull-ups in 2017:

  1. Define your goals. In order for a day to count towards my total, I had to do wide-arm pull-ups, narrow-grip pull-ups, military grip pull-ups, parallel grip pull-ups, and chin-ups. I did not have a minimum number in my goal, though I was doing ~ 10 of each at a minimum. This meant that even on a day when I was tired from garden work (or just tired in general) I could do the routine in ~ 20 minutes and not feel that I was “cheating” or moving the goalposts.
  2. Give yourself flexibility. Trying to do them on 150 days likely wouldn’t have fit in my schedule comfortably (though I hope to do better in 2018). But with 100, when we were traveling, or I was sick, or just didn’t feel like it, I could avoid worrying- there was plenty of time left. At the same time, I was cognizant of the fact that if I left myself more than ~15 to do in the month of December, I wasn’t likely to make it. As it turned out, I did 87 by the end of November and then stepped it up in December to finish on December 29th.
  3. Routine is helpful… After a few weeks I settled into a pattern where I would do X reps per set, and try to do X+1 of chin-ups (the final set). If I succeeded at that, the next time I did them I would do X reps for the first three, then X+1 for parallel-grip and X+2 for chin-ups. If that was successful, I’d do X for the first two types, then X+1 for military and parallel grip, and X+2 for chin-ups, and so on until I was at X+1 for all of the first four sets, and X+2 for chin-ups. If I didn’t succeed on a day (sometimes on the second-to-last set, sometimes on the final one) I would continue at that level. Since I didn’t have a rigid goal of “Do 25 per set by the new year,” I didn’t feel that I was off-track or beat myself up if I failed- I still got credit for the day.
  4. … But so is variety. I changed up what I did in between sets: sometimes it was pushups, sometimes horse stance, sometimes a little bit of tai chi forms, sometimes just resting. This helped the overall experience seem less monotonous, and, I believed (without any firm evidence for it), kept me from tightening up too much.
  5. Rest makes a difference. When I was tight on time and trying to do this routine, it got vastly harder. From a goal-setting perspective, this reinforces the importance of understanding one’s prioritization of goals even on a given day/activity: is the goal to do full sets? Or to do as many as possible in a tight time-frame? I got better at defining my day’s ranking of goals before I started around June. Most of the time I wanted to do the numbers, but sometimes I pushed the pace more, and accepted that I might not get as many as I’d hoped. In either case, having it as a pre-decided prioritization made it less stressful if I had to choose- I already knew what I’d do.
  6. Other exercises take it out of you too. I was trying to do pushups in between sets of pull-ups; as I was stagnating around 15 reps per set of pull-ups, reducing the number of push-ups allowed me to push through.
  7. Accept failure, but use it to push farther. When I failed on a set, I would give myself some rest and then do however many pull-ups had remained in the set plus one. This also let me take the mental aspect out of exhaustion- if I physically failed, I just had to finish and do a little extra, it wasn’t a moral/personal failing.
  8. Sometimes more isn’t necessarily harder. For the last few weeks of the routine I did a long set (e.g., 17 reps) followed by a short set of the same type (5) and then I tried to do 22 consecutive chin-ups at the end. This actually felt easier than just doing the 17s, surprisingly, I think because it gave me some extra rest between the long-sets, but also from a morale perspective gave me some “easy ones” to look forward to.
  9. The mind’s relationship to numbers is peculiar. Or at least mine is/can be. Even though there were very few months when I’d stuck to my routine on more than 10 days, once I had only 13 to go in the month of December I knew I’d make it. Conversely, around early August the slog of only having completed ~60-some days of pull-ups made the remainder feel quite daunting, despite having plenty of time left to get to 100. Relatedly, adding in the mini-sets and being able to say that I’d done over 100 pull-ups in total felt like a major accomplishment, where doing “5 sets of 18” didn’t have the same emotional resonance, even though it wasn’t that different.

With these lessons, here are my goals for 2018:

Physical: 100 days of workouts. I’m shifting the focus to legs and core this year but also want to continue to build on what I’ve gained, so my routine includes 1-arm pull-ups, 1-legged squats (plyometric and standard), front-lever work, L-sit pull-ups, and leg-raises while hanging on the bar.

Writing: Publish some writing 20 times. Maybe not every other week exactly, but keep working at it. And if need be, I can always try to write every other day in December to get there.

Reading: Aiming for an average of ~ 30 pages per day, and at least 24 books in the year. I only averaged about 27 pages in 2017 and got through 25 books, so this would be a slight stretch, but feels achievable- and on a good weekend I can get through ~100 pages, so that’s enough to make up for nearly half of the week.

Crosswords: I do the NY Times crossword puzzle every day; that’s been consistent and will remain so. In order to improve my skills faster, I hope to catch up on at least two years of old puzzles in the archive. Right now I’m in January of 1996, so I will need to get into 1998’s puzzles- but by the end of the year. That’s two extra old ones per day, or, again, a very busy December…


Good luck to you in your resolutions for health and growth, and I hope some of these insights are helpful to you as well!

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