Ellen Kahan mastering pull-ups

Photo: Courtesy of Ellen Kahan

By Ellen Kahan

The twenty-something coach of the boys crew team smiled up at me hanging eight feet off the ground, “I sure wish my boys could see you!” she said. Me too, I thought. I had just finished a set of pull-ups that would possibly change their minds as it had mine about what a 69-year-old woman could do.

My pull-ups started with a silly bet my creative son-in-law made with his nieces and nephews. For completing a predetermined number of pull-ups based on age and gender he would pay $1000. “Just how many pull-ups would your mother-in-law have to do to win a thousand dollars?” I asked. After deliberation he set the number at seven and in a moment of determination I accepted the challenge and opened the door to an amazing experience.

Although I had never done a pull-up I am athletic and active, despite growing up pre-Title IX. (Basketball on the strictly limited half-court did not create athletic excellence). Over the years, I dabbled in sports, rode a bike, backpacked and joined the dance aerobics craze of the 80s. However, nothing pushed me to excel. I was not clear as to why I immediately was so “all in” to meet this challenge.

To enhance my regular exercise routine I had started working with Steve, a personal trainer. My goals were to improve my exercise form, avoid injuries, maintain flexibility and balance and, oh yes, possibly get stronger. Initially I set goals for an aging woman. But just a few weeks later I was on to something completely new! I told Steve about the bet; do seven pull-ups using perfect form, from a dead hang with no body swing to help me reach that bar. I had faith that Steve and I could reach my goal when he did not even crack a smile at this new aspiration.

At the start I could hang from a bar for maybe a minute. From that inauspicious beginning, Steve and I launched a full on attack. He navigated the route and I faithfully did as I was told. I crawled on toes and fingertips. I lifted and pushed weights and sand bags. I squatted, jumped and lunged. It was more than just being strong; it was being efficient and coordinated. Engage your shoulders.

Tighten your core. Squeeze your butt and grip that bar like you will break it in half. My mind had to be in the game too. When I was finally able to pull myself up to an L-shaped bent elbow position, I got stuck, physically and mentally. I thought I would never get that first pull-up and even with this milestone I had no idea that each additional pull-up would be as challenging. Getting the sixth was harder than the first.

After 15 months of hard work and relentless practice I couldn’t get from six pull-ups to seven. Aware of my mental block Steve told me to practice pull-ups with an elastic support band instead of hanging freely and to complete three sets of ten pull-ups everyday. I was insulted and felt I was going backwards.

Of course he knew what he was doing. Knowing that I was fixating on the number seven, he made me pass by number seven over and over again. This bolstered my confidence and blocked the whiny message in my head that kept saying I couldn’t do seven. It was brilliant. I let the seven obsession go. Our training sessions went on as usual; the focus on every part of the pull-up but often with no real pull-ups required. I began to relax a little and feel more confident. Then one-day midway through a workout Steve sent me to the pull-up bar with no instruction on how many pull-ups to do; I didn’t just do seven I pulled my way straight past that former foe and did eight.


The joy of mastering those pull-ups was one gift of the journey but it was deeply enriched by my friendship with Steve and our teamwork. When we hugged before starting a training session, when we high-fived over a special achievement, when he laughed at my swearing in frustration, we were fully teammates. Though there is a thirty-year age difference Steve never failed to expect anything but my best, not influenced by age, but by what we had promised we would accomplish together.

Perhaps the greatest gift of the seven pull-up challenge was to see others expand their narrow thinking about age. Every week in the gym younger women who knew of my goal observed me. There started to be whoops of encouragement and comments of “you go girl,” while I was practicing. ome would seek advice about learning to do pull-ups and what to do first. I heard myself described as a badass or an inspiration.

Being a badass at nearly seventy? That is a seriously wonderful compliment.

Over the last several years I have felt myself become increasingly invisible to younger generations, a common experience for aging men and women. But when I am in the gym lifting weights or training on the beach dragging a piece of driftwood through the sand or hanging from a pull-up bar at my rowing club, I am suddenly very visible. I become an “inspiration” to others and an example.

For me, retirement is not a time to avoid new challenges. Even as we age we are meant to explore and move just as children do. Overcoming obstacles fires our spirit and reminds us that we are still full of potential.

Fight the “easy living” temptation. Be a badass. Be a joyful badass and master your own version of the seven pull-up challenge. There is one waiting for you.

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