As humans, we’re designed to be powerful movers and climbers. Think about it: We’re always focused on ‘movin’ on up,’ whether it's financially, socially, or physically. And, yes, I’m talking about climbing things. From rock climbing to doing pull-ups, getting better at ascending will have a direct effect on how you can rise in other areas of your life.
But an entire generation of kids have been “grounded”—never able to venture upward—weighed down by a massive monkey on their back. And the name of that monkey? The Presidential Fitness Test. Or more specifically, the traumatic, humiliating, shame-inducing memories that have left a scar in our collective psyche and even shaped our relationship to our own bodies in a profoundly damaging way.
For those that don’t recall, the Presidential Fitness Test was an attempt to assess the strength and fitness of the entire nation’s grade school kids, ages six to 17 from 1956 to 2013. And although the program was recently retired, its effects can still be felt today. The pervasive negative culture formed as a result of this assessment, which turned gym class into the scene of a crime, is perhaps stronger than ever.
Though well-intentioned, the PFT was a traumatic experience for many people. And as crazy as it sounds, many of us created an identity out of that trauma. Think: "I'll never be able to do a pull-up," or "I'm not an athlete.” And that just isn’t true.
Come on Down to Gym Class (and Fail)
All humans have a need to fit in and be part of a larger social group. This need is deeply wired into our brains—and nowhere is this more true than with children.
There’s no shortage of horror stories relating to the Presidential Fitness Test: the abusive gym teacher, being paired with the cute girl and then sweating buckets, the humiliation of not being able to do “even one” pull-up.
And it’s that last one, the dreaded pull-up test, that left a tremendous amount of damage in its wake. That’s because a huge portion of kids “failed” at doing one—and failed in front of everyone. And unlike the sit-up and sit-and-reach tests, where you were partnered with someone, the pull-up test was usually done in front of the whole class—sometimes the entire grade—for all to see and judge.
But here’s the part that makes me really angry as a health and fitness professional: In many cases, the kids were literally set up to fail.
But here’s the part that makes me really angry as a health and fitness professional: In many cases, kids were literally set up to fail. No coaching, no progressive overload, no program design manipulating acute training variables, no mastering of other pre-requisite movements (like the dead hang), and in many cases, absolutely no preparation or warm-up. Just “Hop on the bar and bang ‘em out!”Or struggle with all your might and fail in front of your entire peer group.
And to make matters worse, the entire experience was repeated again the following year. So the kids that still couldn’t do a pull-up inadvertently learned a powerful and destructive lesson: “Exercise is a humiliating experience, and no matter how hard I try, I don’t make progress—so I might as well give up.”
In addition to the trauma from these experiences are the identity issues that were born out of this sort of athletic “caste system,” where some kids were deemed natural movers and others not. (News flash: If you’re alive today, it’s because your ancestors were able to master body movement.)
I’m not here to bash gym teachers: Some of them are awesome, despite the fact that they, too, are set up to fail. And while the idea of compulsory education—totally free for every U.S. child—was a wildly ambitious undertaking with great intentions, the flaws in our current education system have created a generation of kids that are deeply disconnected from their body, health, and food.
This is the environment that allows current disease epidemics, like obesity and diabetes, to thrive. And the PFT is a perfect example of how good intentions can still produce sadistic results.
Hitting a Bull's-Eye the First Time
Full disclosure here: I specifically remember my first experience with the pull-up test because it was a tremendous source of pride. I did more than anyone else in my grade and most of the kids in the grade older than me. But I loved climbing everything: trees, buildings, a chandelier when I was two years old (which I fell off of and split my chin—but only when my mother saw me and screamed—true story).
I would spend hours climbing up the slide at recess. It was my favorite. And I was rewarded for being athletic. (You may roll your eyes, but this too became a curse, because it made me think: "I’m only valuable if I perform better than everyone." And that mentality led me to injure myself more than once over the years.)
It’s only now—as someone who has been studying the human body and mind for more than 20 years—that I’m horrified at the implications of the Presidential Fitness Test.
Not being able to do a pull-up when you haven't trained to do it is like not being able to hit a bull's-eye the first time you shoot an arrow. It's normal to miss!
Picture this: What if instead of a pull-up, we lined up the whole school at the archery field to watch you try to hit a bull's-eye for the first time—and then slapped a label on you based on the outcome. In the weeks that follow, everyone calls you by the new moniker, so naturally, you tell yourself it must be true. Not being able to do a pull-up when you haven't trained is like not being able to hit a bull's-eye the first time you shoot an arrow. It's normal to miss!
As a holistic trainer for more than 15 years, I’ve seen time and again that the biggest resistance to real change isn’t the weight, it’s the stories clients tell themselves about who they are and what they are capable of doing. And sadly, those stories are often the result of a traumatic experience from childhood.
Overcoming the Schoolyard Damage
For many people, the most direct path to healing the trauma is to "return to the scene of the crime." And no, I don't mean revisiting your elementary school to shake your fist menacingly at a rusty pull-up bar. I mean this time, through hard work, consistency, and proper program design, you actually learn do a pull-up.
There are three huge benefits to getting your very first strict form pull-up. First, it feels awesome—on a primal, non-verbal level.
Second, you will begin to heal the trauma from grade school and to see yourself in a healthier and more realistic light. Trauma is stored in the body, and many of us will experience the negative self-talk, abuse, and shame that we initially experienced as we begin to work on our pull-up practice. If you don’t see this negative social programming for what it really is, you’ll always be limited by it. So use the discomfort as an opportunity.
And finally, the experience creates real momentum in your health and fitness practices. Because if pull-ups used to be impossible, but you did one anyway, what else seems physically impossible but actually isn’t? This is what I call “Exercise Alchemy©,” the sense of awe, wonder, and possibility that (physically) doing the previously impossible creates. You can follow a detailed guide of how to nail your first pull-up here, and practice upper-body strengthening moves that will help you ease into pull-up practice here.
Through the process, you learn that you really can strengthen yourself and let go of the "I'm just not good at exercise" concept that many use to bury their childhood experience.
Having said all that, it's important not to approach doing your first pull-up from a place of anger and low self-worth. If you aren't fixated on the past, aren't locked in an identity of "movement sucks and just sets me up for embarrassment," and aren't defining yourself by what you can't do, that's a strong sign that you've "done the work" and can move on. It's a good sign of healing and completion.
I personally dream of a day where our entire school system teaches movement in a way that allows us all to retain our natural, child-like curiosity and joyful connection to play. But until then, we can at least get the 800-pound gorilla off our own backs and reclaim our ancestral inheritance. Get a grip and rise up!
This post was was written by Jonathan Angelilli, the trainer behind Train Deep. Jonathan is many things: recovered addict, peaceful warrior, celebrity trainer, elite athlete, successful writer, humble teacher, loving student. Above all, he is an Exercise Alchemist™, someone who is passionate about the power of holistic exercise to transform you into the best version of yourself, and to transform the entire world. This year, Jonathan is on a mission to help 100 people achieve their first pull-up.