Live and Learn

by Jack Arnow on July 2, 2013


Jack Arnow performs a one arm chin-up at the age of 66

In high school I won a race by pushing myself past my limits. I just wouldn’t listen to my body. I threw up as I crossed the finish line, and was sick for the next 2 days. When I found chinning, I’d do reps until my muscles locked and began to spasm. I was a small, skinny, asthmatic kid who was overcompensating. I’d get injured often. I was poor and worked out in my apartment, schoolyards and parks. Back then I had no name for what I did, but “bodyweight training” probably described it best.

A friend brought me to a vacant lot in Brooklyn where Jasper Benincasa had put up a chinning bar. Lots of kids would work out on it and play stick ball or touch football in the adjacent streets. I became a regular, stopping by almost every day on my way home from school. It changed my life!

Now, more than fifty five years later I still workout almost everyday, primarily for the wonderful physical and emotional feelings that the workouts produce, but I also like the respect and attention that I get from young folks. And today’s wisdom is that it’s good for my health too!

Injuries, including elbow tendinitis and rotator cuff problems have long been my nemesis. Mindlessness and overtraining have been their root cause. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.

Focus on your day to day training, not just the high of achieving your goals. Future results are never a certainty, so enjoy the journey.

If your training ever becomes a chore, be creative and try new things. As I approached 50 years of age, training to regain a one-arm chin, I became desperate. Worrying that aging was causing my muscles to atrophy, I over-trained, despite the signals my body was giving me. Although I did regain the one-arm chin, I lost it again. Experiment on yourself to see what works for you, but always approach new routines cautiously and slowly in order to minimize the possibility of injury. I say minimize the possibility of injury, because you will make mistakes. All humans make mistakes. Another reason that injuries occur is that your body changes all the time. What worked today may not work tomorrow. You are a work in progress.

If you are feeling really good because you are advancing quickly towards your goals, that is a time for extreme caution. That’s when you may be likely to push it just a bit too hard and get injured. If you are upset that you are not advancing fast enough, or have reached a plateau, that’s another time to be careful. Perhaps it’s not a time to increase intensity or volume, but try something new. At all times listen to your body. Each day may be different. After one set, or one rep, or in the middle of one movement, stop if something feels wrong. Make training plans, but alter those plans if necessary. If you are uncertain how to proceed, stop to use your brain, the most important asset you have. Considering an alternative may prevent injury.

I last did a one-arm chin about 5 years ago, because I realized they were getting harder for me to do. I felt happy and smart to stop them before I became injured. I had taken up yoga, planned to get certified as a yoga teacher and wanted to continue to give massage. I did not want to risk my ability to do these things. The memorial for chinning legend Jasper Benincasa in March 2012 inspired me to try to regain a one-arm chin. I’ve advised many others how to train for a one-arm chin. I came to the conclusion that I should just listen to my own advice! I’ll be 71 in a few months and am enjoying my training immensely. It’s two steps forward and one step back. I’ve learned not to set time goals. Setting a goal such as “I will get a one-arm chin by January 1” is a terrible idea. Putting a time limit on reaching your goal may lead to making bad day to day decisions. You may focus on “getting there,” rather than listening to your body moment by moment. That will increase your likelihood of injury.

If you’re feeling weak one day, listen to your body and do less or even rest entirely. Keep in mind that you are a many-sided being, and all things affect how you feel, affect your mood, affect your strength and affect your ability to focus and recover. If you had to work overtime and are tired, if you had an argument with a friend, partner, or family member, if the weather is rainy and cold, if you are stressed out or many other factors can reduce your strength. It may even be more efficient to resolve non-training issues before continuing.

It has become clearer to me that my training and goals have long been one-sided and imbalanced. I reached very high levels in chinning (pulling) and front levers, but neglected legs, pushing and flexibility. I thank Paul Wade, and Al and Danny Kavadlo for my new insights, because I believe a more balanced approach will reduce injury. After doing half handstand push-ups at home this morning, I went to a neighborhood park in Brooklyn and attempted muscle-ups, assisted bridges and skin-the-cat. I couldn’t do a muscle up or skin-the-cat when I met Al and Danny recently, but I made them my goals. Today, a teenager in the park was impressed with my muscle-up, but I still can’t do skin-the-cat. Nevertheless, I taught the teenager to do one.

Whether you made a training mistake or not, accept injuries as part of training and being physically active. Don’t beat yourself up. Try to see the positive aspects. You may rest the injured area, and develop coordination and strength in new areas. Getting the injury can be a wake-up call to improve your technique or change another aspect of your training which will prevent further setbacks. An injury may temporarily (or perhaps even permanently) reduce your strength or ability. Although you should feel proud that you reached some of your goals, never forget that you are much more than your achievements. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that no-one will love or admire you because you can’t do them right now. Most of my friends, but especially my dear wife, think I’m nuts to spend “so much time” exercising. They love me anyway. They appreciate the many things I’ve learned from a lifetime of training: the value of determination, discipline, hard work, enthusiasm, passion and confidence. It’s relatively easier to be joyful when things are going great, but when you are injured or facing other difficult circumstances, continue to let your little light shine.

I believe you have the ability to become your own life and training guru. Learn from trainers and others with experience, read books, and be open to new ideas wherever you find them, but fundamentally no one has the capacity to know yourself as well as you do. Make it your responsibility to become your own guru. For bodyweight training, volume and intensity are very important. Too much and you will get injured. Too little and you may not reach your goals. And the particulars change often. After all is said and done, you are the best one to make that call. Review your growing experience, and try to apply insights often. People are similar but also different. Learn what works for you. Don’t think what works for you, works for others, and vice versa. If some things I wrote in this article don’t work for you, disregard them. That is natural.

Should you be able to internalize even one idea that improves your training or makes you happier, I will feel this article was a success.


(Video Courtesy of


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