Chin-Ups, Push-Ups, and Hills

If you’re a runner, chances are that sometime in your running life you’ve done hill repeats. The rather simple idea of running up and down a hill may seem monotonous and unnecessary to some but, for a runner, hill repeats are an often-used method of improving fitness. The feel of your heart pounding in your chest and your shortness of breath at the top of the hill attest to the workout hill repeats provide for your cardiovascular system. But what about the workout they provide other muscles of your body? Surely they must do something for them too, right? Indeed they do.

Runners always ask me about strength training. I usually respond by saying that if you want to be a better runner, you need to run. And if you want to strength train, run hills. Running hill repeats makes your legs stronger and more powerful, especially if you run fast up a short, steep hill. Your quadriceps, calves, hip flexors and extensors, glutes, even the muscles of your arms and shoulders all get a great workout. And you didn’t even have to lift a dumbbell. What I learn from running hills is that there is more than one way to train a muscle. You don’t have to lift a weight off a gym floor to increase your muscular strength and endurance. 

What ever happened to the old-fashioned push-up or chin-up? I remember being forced to do them in junior high and high school gym classes. We never went to the weight room during class and lifted weights. I used to think my gym teachers were old and fat and out of shape. What did they know about physical training anyway? After all, I was on the varsity cross-country and track teams. I was a stud.

But forcing my class to do chin-ups got me hooked. I used chin-ups to show off to the girls in class. I even bought a chin-up bar and attached it to my bedroom door post so I could train at home. I did chin-ups every day.

Then came the big day at school—the day I would try to break the school chin-up record. I remember sitting in health class right before my record attempt. I was nervous. I wasn’t even listening to the health teacher talk about sex and foreplay and condoms. I was focused. After class I walked into the gym and got ready to perform my chin-ups on the bar on the back wall. The gym teacher acted as judge, making sure I didn’t cheat, that I completed the whole range of motion, with my arms straight at the bottom and my chin raised above the bar at the top. A small crowd formed. As I was closing in on the current record—21 chin-ups—my biceps grew tight, my forearms quivered, my body grew heavy. I felt like I weighed at least twice as much as my scrawny 125 pounds. I used the crowd to push me, and I let go of the bar after completing 22 chin-ups. The record was mine. 

I finished eighth grade that year having broken my record again with 24 chin-ups. I received a certificate of accomplishment from the school’s principal that is still proudly displayed on my wall. I still brag about the accomplishment to others. It doesn’t matter so much that it was so many years ago or that some tough kid has probably come along since to break my record. At the time, I was a hero. My mother even bought a cake with a chin-up bar iced on it in chocolate and surprised me when I came home from school the day I broke the record. 

chinups certificate

Maybe those out of shape gym teachers were on to something. Maybe we should focus on increasing our strength to handle and master the weight of our own bodies instead of lifting dumbbells or push and pull against a machine’s resistance. Maybe we should do chin-ups and push-ups after all. Mixed in with a few hills.         

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