26 January 2022

Pull up

We learn how to train our bodies, but not our minds.‍

When in a triathlon, whether it is the arms wind milling in the water, the legs turning over the pedals or the feet pounding the pavement, it seems to be more about the mental game rather than the physical.

Yes, having a certain standard of physical fitness is a key component and a hard constraint, but in my own experiences, it was more likely for the mind to give way before the body starts to surrender.

When I think about the human beings out there doing the impossible, people like Courtney Dauwalter competing in the Moab 240 Mile Endurance Race or David Goggins in the Badwater 135 Mile Ultra Marathon, I respect their athleticism but even greater than that, the mental fortitude one would need to willingly tackle challenges like that.

Why bother?

I have never really been a fan of going to the gym — I have found the psychological challenge of prepping and going through the motions of exercise substantial enough to repeatedly and sustainably overcome, that the additional logistical step of travelling to-and-from the gym would turn it all into a non-starter.

If something cannot turn into a high-leverage everyday habit, then the appeal drops off the sidelines for me.

Why bother?

There are times in life when you don’t know what you don’t know, and most recently have found myself learning the motions of how to do a pull up, how to do a dead lift and how to do a dip amongst other things. Was this self motivated? Nope. It was actually social accountability that helped me overcome the cold start this time, tagging along with my siblings as they went along to do their own workouts. They showed me the ropes of these unfamiliar strength training exercises, but more importantly, they gave me an excuse to tell myself to just show up.

Now, at least, I had a compelling reason to lean towards the tension, to hold against the million of reasons to lean away.

The Precipice

Even though my history in endurance activities have equipped me with a reasonable level of fitness, strength training turns out to be a completely different ball game and it is humbling to experience just how much I do not know.

My arch nemesis right now is the pull up, because of it serving constant reminders that no matter how strong my will might be, physical constraints will still have the final say.

I find that simply hanging on a bar is tough enough, let alone lifting my bodyweight’s worth of mass up and down, over and over again in repetitions.

It is a terrible feeling, being on repetition #3 and aiming for #4, and then feeling the body giving way and surrendering to gravity — in deep betrayal of the mind’s intentions. This is what I identify as the precipice, where there is nothing left in the tank and the only option is to submit for a rest and perhaps another attempt after some time.

Reaching this hard physical limit, where the muscle cannot pull anymore, is demoralising yet reassuring — it kicks the ego when your body cannot be submitted to your will but it is precisely by running all the way up to this edge that is what it takes to recognise the place where your new strength will be built.

Without risking (physical) failure by going right up to the precipice, the alternative would be to remain bounded within the already explored territory of the comfort zone.

Mind training

The fear of failure is healthy, but there are moments when it is useful to question that default programming.

In her book, Thinking in Bets, Annie Duke writes about the human tendency of loss aversion, where we feel more pain in the event of a loss than the pleasure we feel when we win. Losing $20 being a more painful or memorable event than the joy we might feel from gaining $50.

The primal human brain has helped us survive the savannah through the attitude of ‘better safe than sorry’, where it was safer to run from the sound rustling in the bushes that might have hid a lion rather than waiting to see the final reveal of a mouse.

A ‘false positive’ was always preferable to a ‘false negative’, the former being scary but not catastrophic while the latter reassuring but catastrophic.


  • Is the failure catastrophic if it does happen?
  • What upside am I giving up if I do not try?

If the worst possible outcome is a bruised ego, but the upside could be great, why not try?