I was 13 years old when Terminator 2 came out. At the time, I was in second year in school. I was the shape of a sausage roll, and spent my days being uniformly unhappy. Miserable in my rolls of puppy fat, loathing my buck teeth, braces and the unfortunate teen bra my mother had, under duress, purchased on my behalf. (It was brown, with a picture of an orange tiger on the front, and I had nothing to put in it but my own crushing dissappointment)
A group of us went to the cinema to see the movie. Guns n Roses “you could be mine” was in the charts. Leather jackets and check shirts were in. I can remember trying not to let my thighs spread out on the seat, on the off chance that I wouldn’t look quite so fat. I can remember sitting in the sweaty darkness – wondering if the boy next to me was aware that my legs were twice the width of his.
The moment Linda Hamilton came on screen is etched in my memory.
It’s just one of those moments that’s burned into my young brain. She’s doing chin ups, and we realise pretty soon in that she’s in a psych ward. The camera shoots so tight that we can’t really see her eyes at first, just the determination of her mouth, the hand grip and the sinews of her arms as she repeatedly lifts herself over the bar. Full chin ups to boot – not half assed pansy chin ups. All the way down, all the way back. The camera covers the move from every angle – and then pans out to show the length of her body, held perfectly above the floor – just to prove to the sceptical viewer she’s not faking. The soft, frightened Sarah Conor of Terminator 1 is GONE.
This Sarah is lean, mean and about to kick machine-butt.
I just remember thinking with all my pasty, sweaty, tiger-clad thirteen year old heart that I wanted to be able to do that. I really wanted to be able to do chin ups, reload a pump action shot-gun with one hand, and smoke a fag at the same time. If Sarah Conor could go from being a softie into a gun-toting fit-bod, then maybe I could too.
Apart from developing a penchant for black vests and biker boots, (and a silk-cut blue habit that did absolutely nothing to make me look cool) the similarities between me and Sarah failed to materialise that year, or any other.
Apparently, Hamilton had trained hard for the role for an entire year; she trained three hours a day, six days a week – under the guidance of an Israeli ex-commando named Uzi Gal. Verdict, chin ups are HARD, almost as hard as the chicks that master them. Though Linda never quit smoking Camels apparently.
Lots of things have changed since 1991. The puppy fat is gone. The braces are gone. The self-hatred is gone. And working out is not the ritual of public humiliation it once was – instead it’s a triumphant roar of being-alive-ness that will hopefully allow me to be active, healthy and physically useful for as many years as possible.
All of this has made me realise that nothing is impossible. So a while back, I set myself the Sarah Conor Chin-up Challenge. And after about four weeks, now I can do three chin ups. Now, your viewing and training pleasure; here’s how I broke it down.
SARAH CONOR CHIN UP CHALLENGE.
Note: This post is for people who have absolutely zero ability to do this exercise. Just so yez know. If you’re already sort of doing it, or super fit, or a meatball*, stop reading.
Disclaimer: You have to warm up, especially if you’re a beginner. Do you really want to injure your back or shoulder? Try 40 seconds of jumping jacks, with 20 seconds off, x 5 before you try this. Or do it after training.
Step 1: Buy a Chin Up Bar
The only way you’re going to get this move down is by practicing. If, like me, you’re a total beginner you’ll probably need to do a little bit and often. You’re going to have to buy a chin up bar. Most sports stores carry them. Or try Argos. I got this one for about 30 euro, and hung it from the door frame of the spare bathroom. (Word to the wise, don’t do this will a full bladder, mom-folks) There are extendible bars you can buy that I simply don’t trust – I like this hooky one, and it has various hand holds for progression. Not that I’ve progressed, but you know. I might!
Step 2: Reverse Chins (AKA Negative Reps)
So this is my ‘trick’ to mastering chin ups. I used a step at first, and started from the chin over the bar position. Your palms are facing your face btw. (palms the other way is a pull up, not a chin up, fucked if I can do those, mate).
Once you’re up, let your arms take your body weight and lower yourself slowly down to the position I call ‘full orangutan’, which is when your arms are pretty much straight.
Do these negative reps five times, twice a day. You’ll probably notice that you ache all over – between your ribs, lats, and biceps, even after a couple – simply because you may not be used to using these muscles. Work on practicing negative reps for a week or two, start with two or three at a time and work up to ten.
Step 3: Assisted Chin up
Negative reps work and strengthen the muscles needed for chin ups. So now it’s time to try and do a real one. But don’t freak out if you can’t do it yet. The ‘trick’ on this step is to sort of cheat, just until you get the hang of it. There are tons of ways to do this. A little jump at the start takes most of the work out of the ‘up’ part of the exercise. Also starting from higher up, like on a chair, with your arms already somewhat bent is also a moderation that makes it easier. Lift yourself up, then lower yourself down, keeping your feet off the floor until your arms are almost straight. They’re not real chin ups yet, but you’re on your way. Gyms give you special machines that take some (but not all) of your body weight out of the equation.
Top tip – Cross your legs in front of you, activate your glutes, and remember the real pulling work is actually coming from the lats and upper back, not (just) the arms.
Keep practicing assisted chin up until you can do 5 of these. You’re probably not straightening your arms as much as Sarah, but you’ll still impress. Cheaters and meatballs* at the gym will often go to the halfway point, and then finish the move too early because that’s easier. This skips the hardest part of the exercise, which is the lift from an almost straight arm.
Step 4: Full Chin Up
Stand below the bar, go ‘full orangutan’. Lift your feet off the ground if you have to do this. Then with a controlled amount of effort, lift your chin up over the bar. Work from the lats. If you can’t do this, go back to your assisted pull ups for a week or so – but with a little less cheating this time.
Don’t forget to breathe! You are awesome, and you can do this, TRUST ME.
Try to keep your lower jaw and your breathing somewhat relaxed, it’s easy to grimace, and even strain the quite delicate neck muscles. Once you’re up, it’s not so bad, am I right? You made it this far. Well done! Then lower yourself down. You’ve totally nailed the negative reps, remember. Now, you’re in monkey mode. Time to channel Sarah.
Step 5: Practice!
Now that you’ve broken it down – build it up! Unlike a lot of weight lifting exercises, chin ups shouldn’t really be done to the limit of endurance – you’re much more likely to injure yourself. If the absolute max you can do is 5, then do four, take a decent break and do some more. Concentrate on technique, and slowly building up your reps over time. And before you think I have a clue what I’m doing, the most I can manage after weeks and weeks and weeks, is THREE.
BUT THEY ARE BADASS, and when I do them, I almost wish for a post-apocalyptic future that necessitates car chases and aviators and gratuitous violence.
Now all I need to do is figure out how to reload a shot-gun with one hand!
*A meatball is usually male, spends a lot of time pumping iron, thinks bigger is always better, does protein-shake farts, can’t touch his toes, and has a terribly overworked upper body. Meatball.
“Get out of the way John”