Patience, Time and Pull-Ups
From the CrossFit Journal
As athletes stroll into the gym, a sudden sense of dread overtakes each person who looks at the four-letter word written on the whiteboard: Fran.
Twenty minutes later, the gym is filled with butterfly pull-ups, burning lungs, ripped hands and sweat angels under the growing number of bodies sprawled on the floor.
Ashley Hilliard, 28, can’t yet do a pull-up, so she substituted ring rows. She still pushed herself hard, got her heart rate up and felt good about finishing Fran, but it’s not enough for her anymore, she explained. She wants a pull-up.
“Getting a pull-up has been on my mind since the day I started CrossFit, because I walked in and saw all these people doing them so easily,” Hilliard said.
After six years of training at CrossFit FrameWork in Lethbridge, Alberta, Hilliard longs for the day she can do Fran as prescribed. And although she has embraced scaled workouts she knows are part of the process, Hilliard is the first to admit the journey is frustrating at times.
“It’s especially hard when I see people who seem like they should be at the same fitness level as me doing pull-ups. When I see new people like that progress faster than me, that’s when it gets discouraging.”
Celebrate Every Win
In the last six years, Hilliard has picked up some tools to help her overcome the frustrating days—the days she feels everyone else is progressing faster than she is. For example, she finds it helpful to remind herself where she came from.
“When I first started, I was a couch potato. I never played any organized sports as a kid. And I had absolutely no gymnastics abilities,” she said. “So considering that, I would say I have improved a lot. Just not maybe what you’d expect from normal CrossFit standards.”
Hilliard’s idea of “normal” perhaps glosses over the significant improvements she’s made.
When Hilliard first started CrossFit, she could only hang from a bar for 15 seconds before her arms gave out. Today, she can hold onto a bar for nearly a minute.
When she first started, she thought a negative pull-up—slowly lowering her body from a chin-over-bar position to a dead hang—was an impossibility. Today, Hilliard often substitutes negatives for pull-ups during conditioning workouts.
Similarly, the thought of doing a handstand six years ago scared her half to death. Today, Hilliard can kick up to handstand and hold herself upside down without struggle.
“And I remember before CrossFit, my husband used to take me to the globo gym and I couldn’t even pick up a 45-lb. bar. Now my deadlift is 205 lb. I love barbell movements now,” she said.
Irma Jimenez of CrossFit Quo Vadis in Ennis, Texas, has a similar story: She’s been doing CrossFit for two-and-a-half years and still can’t do a pull-up. Like Hilliard, memory prevents the 47-year-old from getting frustrated.
“I remember when I started I would see everyone way up there, and I could only pull myself an inch,” she said. “But I’m not discouraged. My progress might seem like baby steps to everyone else, but to me they’re big steps. I mean, when I first started my goal was just to be able to go out dancing all night.”
Being able to do a pull-up wasn’t even on the radar for Hilliard or Jimenez when they started CrossFit. But before they knew it, they were doing ring rows and band-assisted pull-ups, and they soon found themselves more and more interested in earning an unassisted pull-up.
“And then my coach started assisting me by spotting me so I could feel what it was supposed to feel like to do the movement,” Jimenez said. “It’s a slow process, but I’m getting closer.”
Jimenez and Hilliard prevent frustration by taking the time to appreciate the subtle, less glamorous strength gains along the way. While it’s easy to recognize big milestones, such as an athlete’s first pull-up, muscle-up or a personal-best clean or squat, athletes often don’t celebrate less-notable improvements, such as Hilliard’s improved dead-hang time.
“Gains aren’t always that easy to see (when it comes to gymnastics). It’s not like adding 5 pounds to a barbell. I was doing ring rows today and I know I was making them harder than I used to (in terms of the angle I was pulling at), but it’s harder to measure improvement when it comes to the angle of a ring row,” Hilliard said.
Learning to appreciate all her gymnastics improvements—no matter how small or seemingly insignificant—has really helped Hilliard continue to show up each week despite slow progress, she said.
“Even when it comes to things like push-ups. I never used to be even close to being able to do a push-up. I still can’t quite do one, but now I’m almost off my knees. I’m almost there.”
When it comes to learning gymnastics, patience is the name of the game, explained gymnastics expert Chris Sommer, a former coach of the USA Gymnastics men’s national team and the CEO of GymnasticBodies.
Though Sommer spent years coaching top gymnasts, most of his clients today are lifestyle adult gymnasts, including many CrossFit athletes—ordinary people looking to gain basic gymnastics skills, he explained. Switching from working with elite athletes in their prime to adults without any gymnastics experience presented some unexpected surprises.
“Being a national-team coach skewed my perception of what was average. When I started working with the regular population, it was like, ‘These people are one step away from a wheelchair. I don’t understand how they got dressed in the morning. Who helped them get dressed?’”
When unfit adults approach Sommer to learn gymnastics, the first thing they must accept is they have a long road ahead of them, he said.
“Gymnastics might require more patience than any other sport.”
In fact, many of Sommer’s athletes don’t attempt gymnastics movements such as pull-ups for at least half a year. And others take much longer than that, he added.
“Let’s say you’re working with a 60-year-old woman who is overweight and deconditioned. It might take her three years just to get to a baseline starting point,” he said. “Before people can try pull-ups, you need to make sure their joints are strong enough to be able to support their body weight during something as simple as a dead-hang hold. If someone can’t even hang (from a bar) comfortably with full shoulder flexion, or if they can’t hang without pain, then how are they going to do a pull-up? So mobility always comes first. We focus on building their structure so it can eventually handle (gymnastics) movements.”
Most commonly, this means new athletes must spend six to seven months focusing purely on regaining lost mobility—namely in the shoulder girdle—as well as regaining spinal flexion and extension and building joint strength, Sommer said.
“Lots of people who do work at a desk have no thoracic extension. They’re frozen in one place. Or their pecs could be super tight. And their biceps. So we start there.”
It’s crucial to get an athlete to accept the fact that gymnastics improvements involve a lengthy, often-tedious process, Sommer said, but many people are too impatient.
“A lot of people say, ‘I don’t have time to do this. I’m 30. I don’t have time to be patient.’ In my mind, you don’t have time not to be patient.”
He added: “There are mature athletes and immature athletes. Immature means, ‘I want it. I want it right now.’ Mature athletes delay gratification now for what they want later. They’re going to do what they need to do today to get what they want later.
“The patient ones end up being successful and getting what they want later.”
Staying the Course
Hilliard might not have her pull-up yet, but she has no intention of giving up. Instead, she has learned that patience pays, even if she has days when she’s frustrated.
“I would say I’m able to be pretty patient with it because I know where I was when I started. So even though everyone keeps telling me I should learn to kip, I want to get a strict pull-up first. I try to be smart about my modifications and gear them toward building strength because I know that will be best in the long term,” she said.
To keep his athletes motivated and patient when learning gymnastics, Sommer reminds them that valuable things aren’t free.
“Easy things come easy for a reason and they aren’t valued very much. Something that is worthwhile will take higher commitment and higher focus,” Sommer said.
Hilliard agrees. She’s getting closer to that pull-up every day, and she can already smell the big reward that’s coming her way.
“It’s one of those things, where for me, I know when I finally do get a pull-up, it will be so satisfying because it’s six years in the making, and it will mean that much more.”