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My Fitness Holy Grail: The Pull-Up

JennsHolyGrailI remember when the movie G.I. Jane came out. (Am I dating myself here? Oh, God, I totally am.) I was enamored with it. So much so that I went as G.I. Jenn for Halloween that year. (Clever, I know.) Up until that point in my life I’d never really seen women doing pull-ups and push-ups like a dude, and the whole concept of a woman breaking into an all men’s club and proving she was just as capable just got into my teenage soul and made it swell with pride and girl power. (Kristen and I clearly would have been girl-power friends in high school.) And over the years that movie — and the image of Demi Moore rocking pull-ups — has stuck with me. It became almost a fitness holy grail.

But not in a I-can-do-that holy grail sort of way; more in a I-think-people-who-can-do-that-are-bad-ass sort of way. But me? Not so much. And so I went about my life and workouts, doing some push-ups on my toes and jumping on the assisted pull-up machine, but the closest I ever got to being G.I. Jenn was that costume and the occasional boot camp class.

And then this happened. And I saw real women doing real pull-ups. And something in my brain just clicked.

You don’t have to be a celeb working with a trainer to do pull-ups. You don’t have to have a trainer at all. You just have to work at it. Over and over and over again. 

And so, over the course of a year (that’s a long time, people!), I built the strength to be able to do a real bona fide kipping pull-up. And then, the strength to do a bunch of them with breaks in between. And then, knowing that G.I. Jane really did deadhang pull-ups, I set out to do one of those, too. And now — two and a half years later — I can do like three in a row.

And I don’t even have to make that ugly of a face to get there. Holy grail, found.

I’m not telling you all this just to pat myself on the back (although, hey, all of us could probably do that more often — as women we tend to downplay our power and our accomplishments). I’m telling you this because I guarantee whatever “crazy” thing that someone else can do in the gym or on the silver screen — that big amazing thing that you admire — well, if you really put in the time and effort you can probably do it, too. Maybe not always as quickly or as awesomely as they do, but if you really go for it, you most likely can do it or get damn close. And I promise the pursuit of doing more than you think possible and the feeling you get after reaching that goal is totally worth it. No matter how long it takes.

What’s your current fitness “holy grail”? What moves do you want to master? Anything you’re dreaming of doing in the gym? And if your fitness holy grail is doing a pull-up, too, check out this guide I wrote to doing one! —Jenn

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11 Comments
  1. Kristen says:

    Hmm, that’s SUCH a great question. I’m not sure I have just one. I mean, a half Ironman is definitely a big holy grail for me, and one that I’ve been kind of working toward for years. A faster 5k time is one that seems really out of reach for me, but I just can’t quit it. And oh, I’d really, really love to swim a sub-1 minute 100 freestyle …

  2. Suzannah says:

    I was stumped about this question too. My fitness “holy grail” would have to be becoming a Zumba instructor. It is one thing going to class and mastering all of the moves, but it is a whole other thing to be the instructor. You have to know all the moves, all the time, be comfortable shaking it in front of people, make it look easy, and cue the class as to what is coming next?! AND for an entire hour. That is completely different from following along and shaking it in the back row.

  3. Aino says:

    Ooooh. I like this. Doing The Pull Up is my holy grail too. This is so encouraging. I have the feeling I am never going to be able to do even a single one. Now, there is hope. 🙂

  4. My fitness holy grail would have to be participating in TITLE Boxing Club POWER HOURs! You can burn insane amounts of calories while doing both muscle and cardio exercises–to me, cross-training of any type is definitely a noteworthy holy grail choice. Great article here!

  5. Mike Luque says:

    Mine would have to be doing a century ride (100 miles, obviously). I’ve done 60 miles twice and I’m a stronger cyclist now. I know it’s possible, it’s just really daunting. There’s a myth in doing anything involving a three digit number!
    Even those 60 miles rides were rough. 4 hours on a bike is no joke!

  6. KateL says:

    Mine is doing a pull up, too! 2 years ago, it was doing real pushups. I’ve mastered those (although still working on the triceps and/or arms in close to your body pushups. I can do mine with my elbows out) and now I’m moving on to pull ups. They seem so daunting and impossible! Good to hear it can be achieved with hard work by normal people!

  7. Deb E says:

    Mine is also the pull up. I even took a 4 hour pull up workshop at Pink Iron gym in West Hollywood so you think I could master this. I have a pull up bar on my bathroom doorway and found the key is to practice daily. The assisted pull up machine at the gym helps too. I like your guide and will commit to practicing! Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Cat says:

    Pull up for sure. Also for me, real push-ups. I will be working on them over this winter.

  9. Stuart says:

    Great work on building up your pull ups! It’s such a tough movement to master but it’s definitely the most satisfying bodyweight movement when you bust out a big set.

    For me, my medium/longer term goal is distance running. Got the 10k down, half marathon and full marathon are next on the list. It’s a real challenge as I’m not really built for running, so it’s taking a lot of body recomposition work and dieting to try and move towards more of a runners physique. I’ll be working hard on it all winter though, and by summer I’ll be ready to go!

    Fun post, inspiring stuff!

  10. Kathryn says:

    I loved this post for a lot of reasons and one was being able to relate to the whole GI JANE thing. I was so blown away by her strength and ‘boy workouts’ that I became convinced I could do it all, too. I liked her fit build. I like the boys club. So when someone says to me, “You don’t want to get all bulked up like a guy though. You want to stay slim and girly, ” I just look at them.

    I continue my quest for Linda Hamilton arms. So that is my holy grail overall — the Hamilton Arm. But I have to agree, the pull-up is the one thing I’m still not great at. Maybe 2 from straight arms but never reliably. Only on good days. 🙂

  11. Aqilah says:

    Mine would definitely be the pull up too. Due to years of unbalanced strength training, my chest is stronger than my back so I really gotta bust out those back muscles. I love your guide and will definitely keep practicing. One year doesn’t seem so bad, no? 🙂