The Pull-Up Challenge: More than Dollars on the Line
Five reps at a time, music blaring, Jonathan Cohen, 33, kept going, one pull-up after another. At 200 he was still fresh and full of energy. By 500 he was winded but cheerful, but he already noticed his elbows were locking up. At 750, the going was getting tough but true to himself, he kept going, icing his elbows, his team was massaging his muscles, pushing himself onward. Into 950 he acknowledged, even parts of his body he wasn’t using, like his calves and quads, were starting to hurt. The reps dropped to sets of three, then two, then one at a time. He kept going until he reached 1000, and then he pushed a little further, until he had completed the challenge he’d set for himself: 1018 pull-ups.
It all went down on a Sunday morning at LifeTown in Livingston on March 12. Cohen started early, when volunteers and participants had just arrived. As the morning wore on, and he kept going, the crowd grew, especially in between activities. Slowly, kids and volunteers, and even Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, CEO of the Friendship Circle of New Jersey and LifeTown, gave the bar a try in between reps.
When a child jumped out of his wheelchair and called out, “I can do it!”, and with a little help jumped to grab the pull up bar in the LifeTown Shoppes, Cohen knew the physical and mental challenge he’d undertaken to raise money for the Friendship Circle was worthwhile.
“Seeing the kids and the volunteers get super excited–and some who thought they couldn’t do a pull-up do 2 or 3, well, I’ll never forget it!” said Cohen. “The whole challenge took on a life of its own in a way I could not have anticipated.”
The feat was no small undertaking, requiring weeks of preparation, a special fitness regimen including conditioning, both mental and physical. “I want to see what happens when things don’t go smoothly. Who am I then?” he challenged himself. And things did not go entirely smoothly. Although he was physically prepared, his elbows began to give long before the rest of his body, unable to handle the volume of pull-ups. More than a week following the challenge, he was still fighting the after effects of the challenge, including fatigue, and the toll it took on his body leading to a bout of sinusitis. “I don’t think I’ll be doing any pull-ups for a while,” he said.
A pull-up, an upper body strength exercise, involves gripping a bar and lifting the body so the chin is higher than the bar. It relies entirely on the strength in the arms, back, and shoulder muscles and is often considered very difficult to execute.
At the end of the challenge, Cohen still had a smile on his face, and he said despite the pain of each of the last 18 reps, what they represent through the number 18 kept him going: “strength, endurance, mindset, desire, life!”
Cohen, now in his thirties, volunteered with the Friendship Circle when he was a teen, and he recalled that it set in motion his lifelong involvement in volunteering. He retains a deep respect for the Friendship Circle and the kids it serves. “What’s special about those kids is that only other people believe they can’t do things. They have confidence to do things – like the child who got out of his wheelchair to do a pull up. Only other people think they can’t.”
It’s a lesson he puts into practice every day. “Any sentence that starts with ‘I can’t’ needs to be eliminated and replaced with ‘I’ll try.’ And that’s what I heard from all the kids and volunteers that day. None of us realize what we are capable of or feel we have no right to step up to the bar. But if you have enough courage – you never know,” he said.
In addition to the inspiration he offered, his undertaking raised nearly $20,000 for the Friendship Circle.
As the morning came to a close, Grossbaum remarked, “What you did today was not just 1018 pullups. You inspired everyone to ‘pull up’ themselves and overcome any obstacle they think they have. You showed the kids and the volunteers that anything is possible if you set your mind to it.”
And after all, that’s exactly what the Friendship Circle is all about.