Some thoughts on the occasion of my first chin-up

Editor’s note:  So you might have noticed that it’s been like a month since I updated my blog.  I certainly noticed because not a day went by where I wasn’t like “okay, time to update your blog now!” I had actually told myself that I was going to take a short break from blogging because I was having all of these overly sensitive and emotional reactions to things and I was putting all of this pressure on myself to write amazing things all the time – but things that would not garner critical comments or emails! – and my mind was just like NOPE NOT GONNA DO IT and instead made me watch endless episodes of “Game of Thrones,” “The Killing” and now “True Blood.”

And then what happened is that after a certain amount of time had passed, I started feeling embarrassed about how long it had been since I updated, sort of like how after you are out of contact with someone for so long and you really want to get back in touch with them but you are so embarrassed about your delinquency as a friend and loved one that even more time passes before you reach out because you just don’t want to deal with the initial awkwardness. (Or is this just me?  Come on, this can’t just be me.)  I was having all of these issues despite the fact that there is a lot of shit I really, really want to write about!  Things like race photos, women-only fitness spaces, the hidden work of femininity!  Isn’t it weird how our brains can totally take these things we want to do and then build them up until they become these huge, impassable obstacles?  This seems to be particularly true when it comes to writing, and I know that I’m not the only writer out there who struggles with this on a daily – no, an hourly basis.

But because it feels weird to just jump in to serious writing, I’m instead going to re-immerse myself in the world of feminist blogging with a quick post about some things that have been going on with me.  Thanks for your patience, and also for hanging around while I did battle with myself.

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In the event that you are not a fan of the Fit and Feminist Facebook page – in which case, you can fix that right now – you might have missed my big piece of news, which is that on Monday night, I finally managed to do a complete chin-up.  After several years of chin-up and pull-up attempts in which I looked less like an aspiring badass athlete and more like a sloth dying of old age, I had resigned myself to the belief that such feats of strength were still far off in the future for me.  Like so far off, I needed a reflector telescope to see them.

And then I met Alicia. Alicia was getting ready to do deadlifts in the squat rack when she was generous enough to let me work my sets in with hers.  She gave me some advice about my deadlift form, we talked a bit about the programs each one of us is working – I am doing New Rules of Lifting for Women, she is doing Stronglifts 5×5 – and we laughed about all of the people who say we shouldn’t lift too heavy because we might *gasp!* bulk up.  Later, we ran into each other again and we got to talking about pull-ups and chin-ups.  (Because what else do women talk about in the weight room?)  Alicia demonstrated one for me on the TRX frame, and then she encouraged me to give it a try myself.

So I reached up, wrapped my hands around the bar and pulled.  I felt my arms, my core and my back tense up as they always have in the past, but this time, my body was actually moving upward.  I kept pulling and pulling until finally, my entire head was over the bar, and I had a clear elevated view of all of the people chugging away on the rows of cardio machines.  I stayed up there for a few seconds, shocked that I had actually done it!  I dropped to the ground and started laughing, I was so happy.

A few minutes later, I tried again, just to prove to myself that I could do it.  I did it, but that wasn’t enough to assuage my insecurity, so today on my lunch break, just before I hopped on the bike for an interval session, I did another chin-up.   And then finally, when Brian showed up at the gym, I did another one (just because I am a show-off who likes to impress her husband).  Of course, I paid for my pride when I strained my left shoulder and had to cut my swim short later that day.  *insert gif of Antoine Dodson saying “YOU ARE SO DUMB” here*  But still – chin-ups!  Plural, even!

My little triumph came on the heels of a conversation Brian and I had while sitting at the beach this weekend, in which he told me that I seem as though I’ve reached another level with my fitness.  Hearing him say that confirmed what I’d been noticing privately over the past couple of months. My arms and shoulders have gotten quite a bit larger, to the point that a lot of my shirts now pull awkwardly across my shoulders.  My quads have more definition.  My front abs are still not visible but my obliques are poking out all over the place. I noticed that the scale had climbed a few pounds, but that my pants and shorts are looser around the waist – a sure sign that I’m increasing my lean muscle mass.

Best of all, I am able to do things like throw down full pushups and burpees, I’ve broken through long-standing plateaus with rows and lat pulldowns, and I feel comfortable squatting to way below parallel.  Plus I’m capable of sustaining a pretty serious clip when I’m out running, even when the humidity levels have passed the point of discomfort and gone straight into the “holy fuck how do millions of people live in this state?!” territory.  It’s not just that I’m looking more buff; it’s that I’m actually feeling a lot stronger, too.

I think that what’s going on is that I’ve sailed into the Perfect Storm of Caitlin Awesomeness, where I’ve put together a regular training routine that is so varied (and also so fun!) that my all-around fitness level has skyrocketed without me even realizing it.  I still run quite a bit, and I ride my bike too, but these three activities put so much emphasis on my upper body that I really have no choice but to develop more strength in my arms, back and shoulders if I was going to keep doing these things.

1. Swimming: Most weeks, I swim between 2-3 times a week.  I cycle between swims aimed getting faster and increasing my endurance, and then I also swim in the open water.  At first I was just psyched to swim 1,000 yards or whatever, but over time I’ve started doing drills, working with the kickboard and the pull buoy, and more recently, I’m incorporating swim fins into my workout. (BTW, if you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be a dolphin, strap on a pair of swim fins and swim a lap or two.  I slide through the water like a nuclear submarine with those things on.)  I have to drive kind of far out of my way to get to the only pool with hours that are not totally screwy, but I have gotten to the point where I don’t mind the traffic because I know I’m going to get to spend an hour in a state of total bliss.

2. Strength training: On the advice of many of this blog’s readers, I started working my way through the “New Rules of Lifting for Women” and I. Love. It.  While it may lack some of the more hardcore cachet of Starting Strength or Olympic lifting or strongwoman programs, it works really well for me, as strength training is meant to be conditioning for my other sports and isn’t my main show, so to speak.  Having a plan that lets me strength train two days a week lets me keep my legs fresh enough to keep working on running and cycling, and it shows, because I find my legs are way less likely to become fatigued when doing hills or speedwork.

Plus, the program has made me more focused and consistent when it comes to record-keeping, which has made it easier for me to see my gains and to also know when it’s time to go increase and when it’s time to maintain. NROL4W is making me more serious about weight training and less of a dilettante about it. The end result is that I have made some pretty substantial strength gains in a short period of time, and I only expect that to continue as I make my way through the stages.

3. Pole: I wrote about my first experience with pole dancing but then kind of went quiet about it after getting a bunch of reactions that made me not really want to talk about it anymore.  The truth is that I’ve kept it up because I really, really enjoy it and it’s teaching me to use my body in ways I’ve never even though possible. Right now I am taking a class that is called Tricks Foundations, which is basically an hour a week dedicated to learning how to hold my body in a variety of positions around a vertical pole.   We use our arms, our inner thighs, the backs of our knees, our tummies and even our shins and feet to hold ourselves in the air.

I do a lot of really physically demanding things on a regular basis, and none of those things can compare to pole in terms of sheer difficulty.  (I’m always nursing a new set of random bruises after I leave the studio, and it’s kind of awesome.) One of the things that pole has taught me to do is to use my arms and core to pull my body into the air, which is what doing a chin-up is, except on a socially-acceptable horizontal bar instead of a vertical pole.  Once you become aware of what that sensation feels like, your body knows how to replicate it elsewhere, which is probably why I was able to get the chin-up on my first try.

That’s a lot of upper-body strength work!  No wonder my shirts don’t fit me anymore.  (And by the way, I know this is a common complaint among women with muscles, that clothing manufacturers don’t seem to think we exist.  So that means I fall into two categories of non-existent women: muscular women and tall women.  Basically I’m a unicorn in the eyes of the clothing world, and it’s a miracle I haven’t been reduced to walking around butt naked for want of a pair of pants that fits.)

So that’s all of the physical nuts-and-bolts stuff going on behind my little accomplishment.  What’s also interesting to me is the emotional and psychological stuff going on, too.  I wrote a few weeks ago about how my self-image had shifted so that I was no longer “working to become strong” but that I was now “strong” and “capable.”  It’s a transition that struggles to take hold, simply because I had so deeply internalized this idea of myself as “weak,” but it is slowly happening. It started the first time I ran a 5K without stopping – I was so excited, I can’t even put it into words – and it has continued on through half-marathons and marathons and triathlons and open-water swims and hours spent in the weight room and in the pool and in the pole studio.

It’s a thrilling sensation, to know that I am reshaping the way I look at myself through time and sweat and effort.  The muscles and all that, they’re nice and fun to look at while flexing in the mirror, but they’re all secondary to the changes in the way I see myself, that ineffable essence of who I am as a person.  I think those are the changes that really count, and I’m so excited to know they are happening for me.

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39 responses to “Some thoughts on the occasion of my first chin-up

  1. Congrats!

    This really resonates as I went to the gym tonight ans decided to go lift in the weights room — which was (as usual) all men. Whatev. I am utterly determined (help!) to develop great guns, inspired by a woman in my jazz dance class who has the most beautifully sculpted (not ropy/skinny) arms. It’s a little scary, as I’m in my 50s and having to fight the batwing thing as well.

    But even in a few weeks of lifting weights I am seeing that it’s getting a bit easier — and the day I start to see actual definition will be very exciting indeed.

    Chin-ups! Plural! This is fantastic and you should be proud.

  2. So, first – that is awesome! Congratulations! Second, a question – if you ever run across shirts (particularly button-downs, good LORD) that will work for the wide-of-shoulder and busty, please mention it in a post.

    I finally found some button-downs that accommodate my bust (Thomas Pink), but now that it’s summer and I’m more active, they’re too tight across the shoulders. They made up the bulk of my work wardrobe for the last 10 months (since starting a new job), so I’m pretty bummed. (But not enough so that I’m going to stop rebuilding our deck or doing yardwork or anything!)

    • If I find anything I will make sure to write about it. Right now I mostly wear tank tops with cardigans and v-neck shirts from Target (although now they are now doing that dreaded cap-sleeve thing) because anything with fitted sleeves feels like sliding my arms into a strait jacket. Ugh.

  3. Caitlin, I love you and your posts. I started what I now have come to see as a really.boring.blog and suprise, became super bored with it and quit, and started searching for other fitness blogs with more meat to them. I found too many to count like my own “I had egg whites for breakfast, and walked three miles, and gained 2 pounds today” ugh. BORING. Then I found your site, polar opposite, with links and references to similar topics, and NOW I know what I was looking for. Thank you! Gawd! I want to be inspired by accomplishments like chin ups and trying new things like pole dancing, and have my mind opened up to new perspectives. Being in the 50+ agegroup I find I still have the occasional old school belief kicking around that I have challenge and re-think. So thank you for your ideas and perspectives and swear words and accomplishments. I appreciate them. A lot.

    • Aww, thank you! I know what you mean about the oatmeal-and-training log blogs, as I’m not a huge fan of many of them (although a lot of people seem to adore them). Anyway I’m glad you found my blog and that you enjoy it. Makes me feel good. :)

  4. Congratulations! I’ve given up on finding shirts/dresses that fit me. My lats and shoulders require a bigger size, but then everything hangs off the waist. Consequently I spend a lot of time wearing racerback workout shirts and loose, floaty dresses. Or bodycon dresses, as they actually mould to suit your shape (but tight and short isn’t always the best option!).

    I used to do pole and I really miss it. No amount of strength training could prepare me for that workout! To increase your chin-ups, try performing negatives – jump to the top position of a chin up and lower yourself as slowly as possible. It really increases your strength, so you’ll be doing sets of 5 before you know it!

    • I’m wearing a sundress right now with a cardigan over top. I find I prefer wearing tank tops (especially racerbacks – what is it about the cut of them that makes us look sooo good?) pretty much all the time now, not just because it’s so hot out but because I don’t feel like my arms are losing circulation when I wear them.

      Thanks for the tip on the negatives. I have an upcoming stage of NROL4W that includes assisted chin-ups so maybe I’ll modify it to do negatives instead.

      • Definitely! Given that you can already one unassisted chin-up, you’re much better off focusing on negatives than assisted chin-ups, especially if they are done with a machine as they do not actually engage the muscles in the same way as a regular chin-up. Ideally, use a mix of band-assisted chin-ups and negatives!

  5. Congratulations on your first chin up!! I am writing this tinged with green but so, so, so pleased for you. You must have wanted to cartwheel around the gym :)

    Also when it comes to writing you are never going to write something that everyone agrees with. Never. Just write what you believe from the heart and you can’t go wrong.

    • re: writing – I know this intellectually, and you’d think I’d know it emotionally by now, seeing as though I’ve been writing and putting it out in public for nearly half my life, but still, I always cringe when someone comes back hard at me over something I wrote. I’m working on it though.

      And yes, I would have totally cartwheeled around the gym had it not been for the fact that my arms hurt, lol. However, I am now thinking that I might like to try handstands – and maybe even a handstand push-up? Maybe I really will turn my tall ass into an acrobat one of these days!

      • Oh, yes, do try for handstand push-ups! I’ve tried for those but I just can’t stay vertical. (My brother was trying for them, too, and I even enlisted him to try and hold my legs up, but I was too heavy. LOL.)

    • Congratulations to you, too! I’m still working on the pull-ups – those seem infinitely more difficult than chin-ups – so I’m really impressed that you can do a couple of them!

  6. Brilliant new blog idea! Someone should start a fashion blog for muscular women to help us find clothes that fit. I found jeans that fit, but I still have to get most of my work clothes tailored. WE NEED HELP.

  7. So glad you are back !!! you are an excellent writer and I agree Dbeeming -not only are fitness blogs hard to find BUT intelligent thought provoking writing for women is hard to come by.

  8. I am SUPER jealous about the pull-up. I have never been able to do a single pull-up in my life. I’m marathon training now, but I’m going to start NROLW in the fall after my race. Hopefully I’ll be able to do a pull-up then!

  9. Congrats on doing multiple chin-ups! That is so impressive. I’ve not been able to do one since puberty happened and I stopped climbing things.

    I’m sorry you got grief for the pole article. I don’t see why some people think it isn’t possible to reclaim something with a sketchy past. It’s been done before, after all. Also, I’ve seen professional pole artists. The athleticism required just blows my mind. Being able to hold yourself upside down 6 ft off the floor by your arms alone?!!! Or hold yourself up by one knee? Or an ankle? Wow.

    For myself, I’ve started a couch to 5k podcast programme so I’m hoping to run my first 5k at the end of the summer. I want to improve my endurance for Jiu jitsu but I also want to see if I can find the joy in running that you speak of so well. I hated being made to run round the track in PE but there’s no reason that has to be the case now.

    Glad to have you back. Go easy on yourself with the blogging and celebrate your awesome achievements. :)

  10. Just wanted to say that I loved reading this! I am in the very early stages of learning to lift and reading other’s peoples successes is incredibly motivating. Way to go!

  11. Nice one on the chin up. It has inspired me to keep up with mine. I’m working on negatives at the moment, and boys keep trying to point me at the assisted chin up machine instead!

    Don’t worry about the negative reactions to your writing. Provoking reactions testifies to the strength of your writing and to the fact that you are starting important conversations. You have challenged my views and I’ve changed my mind a couple of times as a result of reading your blog. It has also helped me to value my strength training more, and enjoy it more too.

    Thank you.

  12. Your writing is definitely appreciated — not just the big Wow posts! And congratulations so much on the chin-up! I am pretty new at the whole strength training thing, and I’m still stuck on the negatives, hoping to actually be able to do one with the assist band someday. I know I’ll pull a muscle showing that off, too!

  13. Well done! I would love to be able to do chin ups, but think my routine is lacking somewhat so I need to get more focused!
    I really fancy giving Pole a go, the only thing stopping me is “well I pay my gym membership plus my roller derby membership, can I really afford another class?” Yeah I probably could if I didn’t buy that coffee or diet coke once a week!

    We had a sports massage therapis come to chat to our team last night, and when she said “You should lift weights but use light weights and high reps because you don’t want to bulk up do you.” Ummm EXCUSE ME?!!!!!!

    Anyway, I love your blog, keep writing and we’ll wait for you :) x

  14. Woohoo! Congrats on the chin-up!! I have regrettably let myself slide really out of shape due to work, lower back issues, etc., but I hate it & this is inspiring! Keep up the hard work!

  15. I love this blog! The chin up struck a chord- I am working toward a tiny home and one requirement is a way to exercise. I want a chin up bar at the loft level but have not done a chin up in decades. Now I know it is possible. And, I love swimming. Your rumination about the chin up is similar to my blog post of Day 17 with me and Walking (Swimming) Meditation in a YMCA pool. very funny. Mine is a blog about going GMO free for a year. I am in month 2!
    Check it out- looking forward to reading more of your posts!
    Suzanne http://gmogone.com

  16. Pingback: 9 months Paleo: Your Body is not a Checklist | Primal Park Life·

  17. You rock. I got my first pullup earlier this year, and now can do FOUR! FOUR! (on a good day. Many days it’s still two and a half. but FOUR! I couldn’t believe it the first time it happened. I also got my first unsupported headstand a few days ago and have been unable to stop doing them. Now my neck is sore. *g*)

    • Woo! Nice job on all counts! I’m still a ways from being able to do multiple chin-us in a row or a pull-up and I would really like to be able to do a handstand, too. Baby steps, right?

  18. Big big congrats – this makes me grin from ear to ear and I’ll remember it when I’m struggling to do 2-second negatives. You’re an inspiration :)

  19. Hi! This is an old post to respond to….but I was loving your blog and then I saw “Pole” and I completely fell head over heels. I bet it has a lot to do with your pull-up progression! I have lifted for years, and pole is the one thing that really keeps my interest level up workout-wise.

    • Pole is soooo much fun. I’ve had to take a break for a couple of weeks due to an arm injury, but I miss it and I can’t wait to get back to it.

  20. Pingback: Taking another whack at the Olympic distance triathlon | Fit and Feminist·

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