Embrace the Journey – Lessons from the Pull Up Bar

by Carl Phillips on October 3, 2017

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Carl Phillips and Danny Kavadlo

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,
but in the expert’s there are few.” –
Shunryu Suzuki

Too often in life we want to rush ahead. We want to be better, more informed, more polished. What we don’t always want to respect is the process required for getting to that point. Our strength and fitness training journeys are a case in point.

The truth is, earning our stripes and getting good at just about anything in life takes time. It takes energy and focus. It takes a lot of hard work. It isn’t always pretty but the work involved in getting better is absolutely necessary.

Practice, persistence and patience are often requirements for improving. Not as sexy as “8 Minute Abs” or “Deadlift 500 pounds with These 5 Secret Steps,” but we know from bitter experience that the snake oil pitches rarely work. Hacks and shortcuts aren’t usually the road to our goals we hope they’ll be.

Learning to Appreciate the Grind

A certain amount of grind—showing up and doing the work—is necessary in most endeavours. Sticking points are inevitable the further we move away from beginner status. The more we spend time and effort engaged in a particular task, the more chance of hitting the point of diminishing returns.

How do we retain our enthusiasm for our goals when we hit these points?

One potential answer is to learn to embrace the journey. We immerse ourselves in the process of just trying to get a tiny bit better. We focus on incremental increases. and throw away comparisons to others. We’re doing this for us so the only point of comparison should be to ourselves, when we started out. Acknowledging and appreciating how far we’ve already come.

Personal Examples – Tussles with the Pull Up Bar

A personal example may be in order.

I’m a practitioner and fan of calisthenics. I’ve included some form of bodyweight basics in all my workouts for over two decades. As I’ve grown older, more and more of my workouts have become bodyweight based. It has been a constant for me. I find this form of training endlessly fascinating. I love the raw simplicity. I find the type of strength it develops to be so much more impressive than just lifting ever more external weight. A perfect front lever or pistol squat is a beautiful thing to witness.

However, along the way I have often run into spells of frustration with a perceived lack of progress, or when I hit plateaus. This frustration gets me nowhere fast and just leads to me enjoying my exercise sessions much less. Even dreading them a little at times, looking for an excuse not to practice. Not ideal.

Enter the Kavadlos

Along this journey I’ve sought out the lessons learned from those ahead of me, who possess a larger degree of expertise. In the world of calisthenics, the Kavadlo surname kept on popping up on my radar. The tattooed brothers from New York not only walk the talk, but also write with a stripped back clarity that is rare in the fitness realm. I became an immediate fan.

In a world of fitness bombast and dogma, the Al and Danny’s message was that many ways can work. Yes, they presented ideas and frameworks for their readers from their own hard won success and experience, but they also encouraged us to find our own way. To experiment and find what works and fits best for us.

The brothers approach their work applying an almost Zen-like “Beginner’s Mind.” They know that although many of us seek them out as experts, they are also still students in strength themselves. Never afraid to challenge their own ideas. Never afraid to learn more.

This message resonated with me deeply. I read every book the brothers put out. I nodded along, laughed at the humour and appreciated the deep wisdom in some of the words. What I wasn’t always good at was putting what I read into practice. There was a gap in me applying some of the lessons I was learning when it came to working out. This was particularly true in the case of embracing the process for its own end, rather than being focused on an external goal (more pull ups, less fat etc).

I’m pleased to say this changed in a big way last year. A major catalyst for this change was that I actually got some in person time with Danny Kavadlo.

Carl Phillips and Danny Kavadlo

While both the brothers are incredible writers from my perspective, nothing can really compare to an in person experience. I sought out some of Danny’s time on a visit to New York. To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting to be able to get any time with him as I knew there was a Dragon Door PCC workshop in town during our stay. However, I got lucky and Danny was able to find some time for me to not only have a 1 to 1 work session, but also spend a little time talking about his approach to life. The talk turned into a series of posts elsewhere (here, here and here.)

Danny has a motivating presence. He is truly the larger than life character you hope he will be. He also just seems a great guy, both interesting and interested. He exudes an energy and confidence that is tough to fake. In short, he seems very much like the real deal.

The lessons from that sunny and hot day on the legendary Tompkins Square Park bars will stay with me forever. It is an experience I truly cherish. One of the biggest takeaways from the many I had that day was the fact that there really are no shortcuts. No tricks that will get me to double my pull ups overnight. No hacks I was missing out on. We have to embrace the grind at a certain point. It’s part and parcel of the journey. However, our achievements are also all the richer for this journey.

The time with Danny inspired me but it also made me re-evaluate. It made me take stock. It has led to a shift in how I approach my workouts. I have chosen to embrace the journey. See the plateaus as a necessary part of the journey. Understand that sometimes they’re my body’s way of telling me to back off a little and/or change something. I hope to be at this for my entire life, so really, what’s the rush?

The result of this renewed approach is I get frustrated much, much less. I enjoy my workouts a whole lot more, even approaching them with a practice mindset at times (trying to refine a skill) rather than beating myself into the ground. As importantly, this has led to improved performance in a few areas of focus. I’m no Olympic level gymnast but I’m okay with that and that’s never been the aim. As long as I am improving from where I started and have been, something is going right.

For me, getting some expert tuition and cues from someone far ahead of me in capability and experience has been a game changer. I would encourage anyone interested in strength and fitness to seek out the same in person experience. If you are a bodyweight enthusiast like me, you can do no better than getting some of Danny or Al’s time (or both at a PCC).

The Obstacles Will Always Be There

I try to let this approach, and the lessons I’ve learned from it, spill over into other aspects of my life. Embracing the journey for its own sake in whatever I am applying myself to. I don’t always achieve that goal and still get frustrated at times but I’m getting better. I’m more consistent.

The pull up bar will always be there. However good I get at getting myself up to it, someone else will be able to do more reps, with a cleaner technique and that’s okay. It’s inspiring. All I can do is be committed to make my reps the best they can be for that day. Clean up my own technique, try not to leak strength or waste effort. Drive for that perfect pull up. Know that I gave the bar my best today and commit to showing up again and again to do more of the same.

We can all decide to embrace and appreciate the journey. Doing so often proves so much more fruitful than fighting it. The journey is where we spend a part of ourselves. Where we work towards our goals, where we earn our own prizes.


Carl Phillips writes short books full of big ideas and is the proud owner of Frictionless Living which is focused on helping readers live simpler, finding focus and clarity in distracted times. He is also a calisthenics enthusiast.

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  • I share your sentiments Carl, very well articulated. I also met the Kavadlos which hugely benefitted my own journey – seeing what can be done is motivating in itself – notwithstanding being part of the shared enthusiasm of a committed group of practitioners.

    I started doing pullups in 1993. They’re not easy: I’m improving. I’ve got a long way to go still. I have a simple philosophy for training & ambitions: focus on the rep or (if swimming, the stroke) that you’re doing & leave the conceptual thinking for later. That way, the enormity of the distance, session, or training cycle doesn’t overwhelm the attention. Later, when relaxed & idle – that’s the time for the over the horizon planning.

    I overheard a six year old today tell her younger sister “Sometimes things are just about struggling.” There’s a person who’s ahead of the game.



  • Thanks so much for the feedback and compliment Dan! Sounds like we share a similar journey and love for the pull up bar.

    Love the wisdom from the 6 year old – she has it figured out already!

  • Vicki Penny

    I like this article. I don’t know how to let my self esteem not get mixed up in my training. I get discouraged because I never seem to surpass anyone. I’m doing the Get Strong workouts. I get discouraged because I do the work but things progress much more slowly than others on the Get Strong page. I don’t know how to feel good about what I’m doing….

    • Hi Vicki,

      Glad you enjoyed the article.

      Others of more experience may want to chime in but I’ll try offering some feedback.

      I feel your frustration but comparing ourselves to others opens the door to feeling that we’re not as good as we ‘should’ be. That’s where the trouble starts and one of the reasons I wrote this piece.

      If we compare ourselves to anyone, it should be ourselves. We can be inspired by others and guided by their experience and advice but we are on our own journey. What’s easy for you may not be for me and vice versa. We all have our own strengths.

      If you’re on the Get Strong programming you already have a head start on many others in that you have a solid, real world programme that will work. Danny and Al’s work has a proven history of getting results. How quickly it works is not always under our control, but showing up again and again to do the work, embracing the journey is.

      Don’t be too hard on yourself. Commit to the journey of improving and take your time reaching your goals. There’s no rush.

      I wish you well with your training.

    • Please don’t get disheartened Vicki. Progress isn’t always linear or even obvious. You’re doing better than everyone in the world who says “I could do that but (insert any reason here)…” It’s okay to have doubts, to wonder if it’s the right thing to do. The best reason for continuing is you’re investing in yourself. Over the course of a month, a year, a decade all the effort you put in adds up to something wonderful. If you spent that time doing something harmful instead the course of your life would be much different. Danny Kavadlo wrote a great article called SUNK COST FALLACY, available on this site. I reread it yesterday. I don’t need motivating, but it’s a good read & it reminds me that I’m on the right track. You’re already doing well by the doing. Each time you add to that is a positive action. It will get easier!

      Best wishes,


    • Matt Schifferle

      I know how you feel Vicki. Ive had to significantly regress my training several times and it often feels like I’m going backward. Most recently I’ve regressed from step 5 in the Convict Conditioning Bridge series to step 2. So hows that’s for progress? I’ve been doing this stuff over 7 years and I’ve only made it to step 2.

      I’ve found the key isn’t to get wrapped up in the numbers so much but rather than quality of the training and how well I do the exercises. Sure, I’m on step 2 but that’s because I’m reevaluating how I use my hips and and strengthening a few weak links. I figure as long as I’m working on improving something I’m still moving forward.

      • pixelzombie

        That is very surprising to hear from you. I was doing good with step 3 until my wrists flared up. Then I went to neck bridges until I read that wasn’t good for your neck. So now I’m doing step 1 and 2 which is better than nothing at all.

    • The other thing to remember is to only compare your results with your results. There’s a lot of people showing flashy stuff online, but what you don’t see is that what they share is often ONE take out of maybe 20 photos… It’s not a level playing field. Also, a lot of the calisthenics moves simply take time to do, LONG periods of time that are not always apparently. So much else out there in the world is quick this, hack that, etc. Some things can’t be hacked, they can only take time. I remember the arrogance a friend of mine had when she gave up on something after trying it only a few times while saying “oh I’m no good at that!” And its like.. really? Well, I was “no good at that” for a solid two years. I was actually a little OFFENDED that she thought she could just pick something up on one or two tries that I’d struggled to gain the skills and practice for over a couple of years. (The thing was slacklining, and I was terrible at it for a long time – it just took time and practice… I’m still just “ok” at it compared to anyone who can do more than 1-2 tricks). Slow progress is REAL progress though, so while it may feel like you’re inching along, know in your heart that this is the real stuff, the progress that matters and the progress that builds the building blocks for everything.

      • “Slow progress is real progress” – love it Adrienne! This should be displayed on every gym wall, painting over the ‘Go Hard or Go Home’ messages! 😉

  • Matt Schifferle

    Bravo Carl! Always nice to read such an honest and refreshing perspective. Heaven knows I need reminding of this from time to time. Sometimes it feels like I’ll never get to where I want to be in my training but after working hard for a while something just clicks and things seem to fall into place.

    Train hard and keep up the great work Carl!

    • Hi Matt,

      Thanks so much for the kind words. I am also a long time reader of your work so really appreciate you taking the time to comment.

      What’s great is when people like yourself, Danny and Al (that others look to for advice) share that you hit exactly the same struggles as the rest of us. It’s a refreshing perspective in the fitness industry and just one reason I’m such a fan of the PCC community.

      Keep up the great work!

  • Danny Kavadlo

    Hey Carl,
    Thanks for this article! It’s always a great thing for me to hear other people’s impressions of the journey, the joys, and, yes, even the frustrations. Great piece–and thanks for the kind words!
    Stay strong my friend,

    • Thank you (Coach) Danny for all the lessons, inspiration and insight on that day and for all you do.

      I hope (and will be planning) to be seeing you in NYC or at a PCC soon for more learning.

      The plan is always to stay strong. 😉

      Keep well.

  • Swiss_Olympic

    One of the critical things newbies and certain intermediates don’t (and sadly, sometimes never) understand is that you learn lessons on your way to improvement. Those lessons are critical components for your personal advancement, as you’ll likely encounter the same issues in various aspects as you progress.

    Glossing over them and forcing your way through isn’t going to get you anywhere except maybe the ER.

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