When I couldn’t do a pull-up

Fitness. Diving. Lifestyle.

When I couldn’t do a pull-up

The first time I lifted a weight I was probably about 15.  The first time I did a pull-up?  Probably when I was about 10 or something, I really can’t remember.

The point is it was a long time ago that I was a complete beginner to training.  And sometimes that makes it hard to imagine exactly what it is like to be a beginner and walk into the gym for the first time.

Something I have heard a lot before when friends talk to me about wanting to start training is how they find the gym intimidating, or that they are afraid of getting started because they’ll look weak.

Well, I always say, everyone has to start somewhere.

Easy for you to say, they’ll say, you’ve been doing it since before you can remember.

But I actually do know what it’s like to walk into a gym and have to start practically from scratch.

Back in January 2010 I walked into a gym in North London, a pretty ‘hardcore’ bodybuilding facility in Bethnal Green.

After a bit of warming up I grabbed the bar on the wall and hung from it, ready to pull myself up to it.

And….nothing.  I couldn’t do one pull-up.

What had happened?

When I left university in the summer of 2009 I was in pretty good shape: 4 years of playing University rugby and spending a lot of time in the weight room showed.

I then went travelling for 6 months and I went the opposite way: regular meals were swapped for liquid diets and street food, recovery became long days of travelling and training in any form was non-existant.

I’m not complaining, it was an incredible 6 months.  But I could see myself dissolving, T-shirts getting baggier and waistline getting bigger.

I didn’t train at all partly because it just wasn’t convenient to.  But partly it was a mental exercise to see if I could change my lifestyle and let go.  That might sound weird if you don’t like training like I do (swapping busting your ass in the weight room for drinking beers?! Sounds hard), but it was actually quite difficult at first.

When you’ve worked hard for something, it’s tough to let it all go.  Being in shape is a lifestyle after all.

But the good times and new places obviously helped!

Anyway, I’m not crying myself some sort of river.  The fact is when I got back I’d lost around 2 stone (13 kgs or 28 lbs) and got a bit skinny fat.

This is me when I was away:

Healthy living….they’re all fruit juices in front of me. Photo credit Ben Daluz


Which brings us back to the gym in North London on that January day, utterly unable to get my body to move in an upwards direction.

I shouldn’t have been surprised; I had prepared myself for being a bit weak.  But I was genuinely a bit shocked and in my training career that was a vividly rock-bottom moment for me.

It was pretty embarassing.

Like I said, I couldn’t ever remember NOT being able to climb a rope or pull myself onto anything up to that point.  Now I knew what it was like to want to do it but be physically incapable of it.

Did I happen to mention that this was a real spit-sawdust and steroids gym?   This wasn’t your local Fitness First.  There were guys in tank tops squatting 500 lbs. I was surrounded by bouncers and meatheads throwing iron around.  People were asking me whether this was my first day in a gym, and giving me funny looks.

So I do have an insight into what it’s like to be the beginner.

I agree, it’s not pleasant.  It doesn’t feel great to be pulling out the 18kg dumbbells to press when the guy next to you is curling 24s.

But everyone does have to start somewhere.  And this is why it is important to train for yourself, against yourself and ignore what the others are doing.

I could have got disheartened or bothered about it but I didn’t: I just decided I was going to train hard and get it all back, even if it took a year. 

I had the advantage of having trained before but I still had to do the work and do the reps.

You might have heard of the term ‘muscle memory’.  The concept is that building muscle is harder for the first time than it is if you lose it and have to re-build.

It sounds a bit like broscience but I have to say for me the strength and muscle came back pretty quick: I was back to almost where I started about 5 or 6 months later.

Personally I think this is down to the fact that if you have trained hard already you know how to do it as well as mentally being prepared: if you know you have squatted 150 kgs for 10 before then you don’t have the feeling of the unknown that could hold you back the second time around.

For me, this also proves how important the mind-muscle connection is, and why you should be developing it from day one.

Related article: the mind-muscle connection & strength

That feeling of hanging from the bar and being unable to do a pull-up is pretty much etched in my memory, and I try to remember how that felt whenever I am helping someone out with their training or trying to encourage them to lift.

I know what it feel like to start and feel weak.  It might seem a long and high mountain to climb.

It doesn’t help when you have a thousand different magazines, internet forums or broscience gurus telling you different things.

I got myself back in shape quickly because number 1 I was consistent.  I was in there 3 times a week, without fail.  I tried to eat well and avoid too much junk food.  I prioritised my training.

Number 2 I had knowledge.  But there a lot of things I know now that I didn’t back then.  Maybe they would have saved me time and got better results more quickly.

Consistency is still the key factor to results, and that is all you.  But knowledge is a close second, and I hope that you can find some on this site and avoid making my mistakes and get to or get started on your goals faster. 

It might feel intimidating or difficult to start.  I know the feeling.  Just remember that you only have to do the first day, or week, once.

After that you’ll realise that no-one’s looking at you, or thinking you’re weak.

It’s because everyone’s been there themselves.  Including me, not so long ago!

photo credit: Jayel Aheram via photopin cc

A reality not so long ago…photo credit: Jayel Aheram via photopin cc


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