Strength, Redefined

This post strays a little farther away from what I usually write about in this blog. It is something important to me and I find that it relates to many aspects of my life and is probably something you can relate to, even if you have never tried CrossFit before.

How do you define strength?  Is it how much you can lift at the gym? Is it is how far you can push yourself through difficult situations or overcome obstacles in your daily life?  Is it about getting past those unhelpful ways of thinking that hold you back? I think everyone has their own idea of what strength is defined by. I believe that it is a combination of those and many more. 

Part of feeling strong for me is how far I can push myself at the gym.  I'm drawn to gymnastics because not only does it require a lot of strength, it is also amazingly fun! Included in this are many different movements on the gymnastics rings, such as muscle-ups.

When I first started crossfit, muscle-ups seemed like the epitome of strength and control.  This is a movement where you start with the rings within arms reach above your head. You pull yourself up, to the point where the rings are at your chest and lean forward, arms bent. Then you push yourself up, straightening your arms.  Despite it being a fairly basic gymnastics movement, it is incredibly difficult when you are first learning it, especially if it is done strict, instead of kipping.

Getting my first muscle-up took me by surprise. I had been working on L-sits on the rings and paralettes every single day for months to get stronger, but I didn’t have the guts to actually try a real muscle-up. I dutifully did ring holds and ring dips, practiced my false grip, but never really thought I would get a muscle-up anytime soon. Muscle-ups were for “strong” people and I didn’t think I was there yet.


I had been doing Crossfit for almost a year before I tried doing a muscle-up. When I finally tried it for fun, to my surprise, I was extremely close. The next day I tried again and I made it through the transitions and I slowly and shakily got myself up and above the rings. One arm almost gave out and it was the equivalent of Bambi learning to walk, but I had made it! Anyone who has gotten a muscle-up will know the feeling. It’s like reaching the top of a mountain.  I will never forget that feeling and I was walking on clouds for days after.

When I got that first muscle-up, I thought to myself “Yes, now I am getting strong”. It started to become easier and I thought, “ok, maybe I AM strong!”. Being able to do this one movement almost became a defining feature of myself.  It became a symbol of me doing something that I never imagined I would do.


I did many, many muscle-ups, even weighted muscle-ups. I hung a pair of rings out in a tree and did even more. I did summer, spring, fall, and middle-of-a-blizzard-muscle-ups.  Yes, even party dress muscle-ups.  If I had a list of my favourite things, muscle-ups would be pretty near the top! For about a year and a half, I had a lot of fun doing muscle-ups. 

One day, I was taken by surprise when I couldn’t do them.  I hadn’t been practicing them as much because I was focusing on other things, like Oly and Powerlifting.  They hurt my arms so much. It wasn’t as effortless to pull myself up. In fact, it was near impossible. I could get a few, but it just didn’t feel right anymore. I gave it a week and tried again. My arms were not cooperating and I was stuck.  I tried them on my rings at home, and same thing, it is just not easy anymore.  That elated feeling of effortlessly pushing myself up above the rings was replaced with the frustrating feeling of standing below those rings and thinking “What is happening?  This used to be simple for me.”

I felt defeated because I hadn’t struggled with them like this before.  In my life, when I go through something that seems really hard, I often visualize the feeling I had when I got my first muscle-up and that really helped me with whatever situation I was in. But now my muscle-ups were gone. The crazy thought ran through my head “Maybe I’m not strong anymore.” I just wanted to cry.

Despite feeling like I had lost something really valuable, I needed to take a step back. I can squat 200#, walk almost 20 feet on my hands, and do lots of other things that people might consider to be strong. I had improved in many other areas, but because of this one thing, I felt like I had lost a lot of my strength.  It actually scared me. If you know me, you may realize that I am incredibly tough with myself and beat myself up for not trying harder or accomplishing more. I may have a smile on my face most of the time, but I am not always nice to myself when I should be.   

I had always bought into the notion that as long as I was improving and that I am better than I was yesterday, that was success.

Well, I’ve changed my mind.

Sometimes you aren’t going to be better than you were yesterday, two months, or a year ago. You can’t possibly improve all the time with every single thing that you do. If you can, you are superman/woman and all the more power to you.  I’ve changed the way that I look at strength. I’ve decided that as long as I keep trying to the best of my abilities, I am strong.

I’ve decided it's time to be patient and go back to the basics. I’ll practice those L-sits, ring holds, and dips.  I will get my muscle-ups back, if I work at it.  But even if I don’t, I can still feel proud.  It is not my ability to do any one thing; it is my perseverance, dedication, and positive attitude that makes me strong.

There are many strong people in my life that I really look up to. I know that everyone defines what strength means to them, but I just want to say that I have a lot of admiration for anyone that keeps on going and never stop trying, whether it’s at the gym or in any other part of life.  

There are people who have illnesses, injuries, or other really difficult things to work through and yet, they keep doing what they can.  It is often these people are the first to encourage others to keep on going and try to the best of their abilities.

In whatever way you define strength, I hope that you are able to work towards it despite any setbacks you may face, however big or small.