Case Study: First Pull-Ups at Over 60
Written by Holden Rethwill

Gyms are filled with success stories. At the end of the day they’re a major reason why doors stay open. I mean, if you don’t have people reaching their goals – big or small – then how can you run a fitness business successfully? This post could be another one about a success story shelling out praise for the goal achieved, but that’s not what it’s going to be. Instead, it’s going to be a wake up call for everyone that with determination, trust, and a lot of hard work, you too can strive to achieve the seemingly impossible.

This post is about one of our members, Fran Schlaefer, who up until this last year had never known what it was like to have her chin go over the bar without some sort of assistance – she was 63 when she did it for the first time EVER. It’s a post about the dedication it takes to achieve your goals, and the hard work that comes hand in hand with it.

The Beginning

Fran first approached me a couple years ago about semi-private sessions while I was coaching at the Point Loma facility. She was a little hesitant to sign up with a younger guy, and wasn’t sure how experienced I was training individuals in the “master’s” category of CrossFit. After a little reassurance we sat down for our first consultation. During this consultation, she revealed to me that she had no interest in competing, necessarily, just an interest in competing with herself! 

The year before Fran had completed her first CrossFit Open – most of the workouts in the scaled division. She discovered that if she had completed just one pull-up as Rx’d that she would’ve dropped an insane number of places on the worldwide leaderboard. This got her thinking…she’d never done a pull-up before in her entire life! It was the one movement that always eluded her during gym class as a kid, and was something she had previously given up on. Knowing what she knew about the leaderboard, a new fire was lit inside of Fran…thus beginning our journey to getting her first pull-up.

The Process

We knew it was going to be tricky to get someone 63 years old their first pull-up, but neither of us were intimidated. So, Fran began to train with me during semi-private sessions twice per week, as well as attending the group classes I coached at least two other days. We implemented a standard operating procedure, if you will, that she could complete every day prior to the sessions (Fran is always at least 30 minutes early). The SOP went as follows:

  • 30 calories on any machine
  • 30 ring rows
  • 30 box push-ups
  • 30 banded face pulls

As we continued on, the movements would be tweaked a little bit on a day to day basis, but the purpose of it was to strengthen those pullers in her upper body that had seemed to be hibernating for so long.

Our sessions then focused on a mixture of things. In order to pull herself over the bar she was obviously going to have to get stronger. The other thing we were going to have to do was lose a little bit of weight in her lower body. Knowing this, we developed a plan where we would focus on an upper body pull/lower body push during our Tuesday session, and a upper body push/lower body pull during our Thursday session, with a good chunk of conditioning mixed in throughout the week. An example of our Tuesday/Thursday (not including the SOP or warm-up) split goes as follows:

  • Tuesday
    • A. 3 sets:
      • 5-8 banded pronated grip pull-ups
      • 8-10 tempo squats @ 2111 tempo (back, front, or goblet)
    • B. 3 sets:
      • 5 supinated grip negatives @ 41A1 (use assistance to get over bar, box band, etc.)
      • 8-10 bodyweight bulgarian split squats per leg @ 2111 tempo
    • C. 5 sets:
      • :30 assault bike at 50-60 RPM
      • 100 foot sled push
      • 50 foot hand over hand rope pull
      • :30 plank
      • Rest 2 minutes between sets
    • D. 3 sets:
      • :60 monster walk
      • :30 flutter kicks
      • :30 face down GHD hip extension hold
  • Thursday
    • A. 3 sets:
      • 8-10 single arm DB press per arm
      • 8-10 trap bar deadlifts
    • B. 3 sets:
      • Max reps barbell strict press, into…
      • Max reps barbell push press (same weight)
      • 8-10 Romanian deadlifts @ 2111 tempo
    • C. EMOM x 20 minutes
      • Minute 1: 30 seconds max calorie row
      • Minute 2: 30 seconds max DB bench
      • Minute 3: max down ups
      • Minute 4: Rest
    • D. 3 sets:
      • :60 banded hip bridges
      • :30 v-ups
      • :30 side plank per side

Again, these are just two sample days from the program. At the end of the day, the priority focus was to upper body pull/lower body push on one day, and upper body push/lower body pull the other. The movements themselves were changed weekly in order to avoid running into the law of accommodation – in layman’s terms…doing the same things over and over but expecting different results. After a full year of working purely strict movements from the pull-up bar, a few other things we started to add in once she had gained some newfound upper body strength were swings on the bar and toes-to-rings in order to strengthen joint movement throughout her shoulders as well as her overall core strength.

The Results

After working together for over a year, Fran and I began to work on how to implement the kipping motion, and she daily was coming within literal millimeters of her chin going over the bar. But, we’re both stubborn and that wasn’t going to cut it.

Fast forward a few weeks of doing this and then all of the sudden it was as though the stars had aligned. Fran got her chin over the bar. It was such a surreal moment that neither of us knew how to react. We, and I’m not over exaggerating, stared at each other in disbelief for at least 10 seconds before one of my other clients shouted good job across the gym and it snapped us both out of our stupor. If you were in the building that day, or maybe even the greater San Diego area, you probably heard what happened next. Fran let out the loudest scream and subsequent “FU*K YES” (her actual words) I think I’ve ever heard, and we proceeded to video her dinging the PR bell close to 100 times.

Two years of hard work and trusting in our process and Fran had achieved something that had eluded her for 63 years. That is why this is not a post about a member’s success, rather it’s a post about what can become possible if you truly dedicate yourself to something and work your ass off to make it happen. Hard work and determination can open new doors that previously seemed deadbolted shut.

Movement Examples

The following is a list of some of our favorite upper body movements we implemented during the process of getting Fran her first pull-up.

  • Upper body pull
    • Pull-ups – banded, ring rows, eccentric tempo, negatives, etc.
    • Rows – single arm DB/KB, bilateral barbell or KB/DB, pronated/supinated, upright, bent over, face pulls, etc.
    • Rope Pulls – hand over hand, single arm from plank
    • Bicep curls of all variations
    • I’ll add in many different variations of deadlift even though it’s considered lower body pull because it helped to greatly strengthen her back muscles
  • Upper body push
    • Bench press – single arm, alternating, DB’s, floor press, barbell wide/narrow grip, conventional, etc.
    • Vertical pressing – single arm DB, overhead carries, barbell press, push press, etc.
    • Push-ups
    • Dips
    • Tricep extensions of all variations.

As I stated before, this isn’t a miracle method to get you to achieve what Fran did, but what it can be is a roadmap to get you started on your way. How fast you get there is largely determined by your level of determination and how hard you want to work to achieve it.

Next step for Fran, doing a pull-up during the CrossFit Open.

Are you shooting for your first pull-up? We’ve got a program to help you get there! Download our FREE 3-Week Pull-up Guide today!



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Aushion Chatman
Aushion Chatman
March 3, 2020 8:25 pm

Excellent work to athlete and Coach. Inspiring!

March 3, 2020 12:57 pm

Definitely love hearing this story, and thank you for outlining the steps you took together to progress her.

March 2, 2020 10:01 am

This is awesome!!! First pull-up at 63 years old is an incredible testament to Fran’s hard work and dedication to the process! Really well done on programming to the goal too Holden!