elitefts™ Sunday Edition

As I write this, I’m crouched in a Starbucks in Flower Mound, Texas, typing away on my MacBook Pro. My daughter is working hard at lacrosse practice, sprinting in fluorescent cleats, and I’m stealing much needed respite from familial responsibilities. Three high schoolers are sitting to my left, fastidiously preparing for the SAT by running through iPhone-timed tests.

I like to work in an environment where others are working, too. It isn't exactly a misery loves company thing, but I suspect it's probably pretty close. I feel a "let’s make ourselves better" synergy. I can’t explain it any better than that.

However, I am digressing from the matter at hand—Professor Randy Pausch, indirect learning and the family chin-up challenge.

Have you ever watched “The Last Lecture” given by Randy Pausch? It isn't a new internet phenomenon, but if you haven't had the experience, it can be found with a quick spin through the numerous YouTube channels. It’s definitely worth the time, and I recommend watching the unabridged version.

In September 2007, Professor Pausch presented a lecture to a packed house at Carnegie Mellon University. The lecture, titled “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” was part of a Carnegie Mellon tradition of asking professors near the end of their careers to deliver what it termed “The Last Lecture” (1).

Pausch’s lecture held additional significance because he delivered it only a month after being notified that he had only three to six months to live due to metastasized pancreatic cancer. Pausch affectionately spoke of his three children and, later in the presentation, suggested that he’d made the decision to give the lecture primarily to leave behind a video memory for them (1).

Pausch was a Carnegie Mellon University alumnus. He co-founded the Entertainment Technology Center and created a revolutionary way to teach computer programming. He was regarded as an inspirational professor and was widely respected in academic circles. “His passion was creating programs he called computer worlds that students could use to create games. In fact, they were learning sophisticated computer skills. His annual virtual reality contest was highly anticipated, and work on virtual reality by some of his students won them the chance to experience weightlessness on an aircraft. They then used virtual reality techniques to mimic weightlessness” (1).

During the lecture, Pausch discussed his childhood dreams, enabling the dreams of others and the lessons that he’d learned along the road.

Professor Pausch died on July 25, 2008. He was 47 years old.

One topic he discussed that stuck with me was the importance of what he termed “head fake” or indirect learning. For example, during children’s participation in football (and/or other sports), children are also indirectly learning about sportsmanship, teamwork, human nature and other such things while learning how to become better football players. Pausch suggested that examples of this type of learning were both effective and found everywhere.

Application of the Head Fake

My goal was simply to get my children, specifically my two oldest children, to train in the home gym more frequently. I didn’t need any fancy programming (at this point) or any other trainers. I only needed a modicum of extrinsic motivation to get their intrinsic competitive juices flowing.

I came up with a challenge that I appropriately named the family chin-up challenge.

The challenge was what I termed a training volume test. The goal of the challenge was to see who could perform the most chin-ups over a three-month period—three months of glorious chin-up action.

To be clear, the goal was not to achieve the most consecutive chin-ups (i.e. during one set). The winner of the challenge would be whomever performed the highest cumulative number of chin-ups during the subsequent three months. The participants had access to the chinning bar whenever they wanted (they could excuse themselves in the middle of dinner and bang out multiple chin-ups if they were so inclined). We are fortunate to have two elitefts™ Collegiate Power Racks in the garage, complete with the monkey chin-up bars (critical for those of us with shoulder issues who need to revert to a neutral grip to avoid excess inflammation).


These are essentially the rules that we utilized. I'm providing them below simply as food for thought.

  • If a participant is heavier and/or subtly out of shape, the participant can initially do band-assisted chin-ups using the equation <three banded chin-ups = one contest chin>.
  • Chin-ups should be performed in dead-hang fashion or as close as your elbows will allow. The participant’s chin-up should be over the bar at the top of the repetition (i.e. all the way up and all the way down). I’ll use the adage here, "You’re only cheating yourself if you don’t perform the reps correctly."
  • Kipping chin-ups are not allowed. We’re looking to strengthen the back in this instance. We aren't performing a total body workout.
  • Any grip (overhand, underhand or neutral) is accepted.

pull up challenge rack 121714

There were additional rules applicable to my family’s specific situation. I'll share them with you as well:

  • My oldest son spotted me for over 100 chin-ups out of the gate for our contest. I wasn't happy about having to accept these, but candidly, I thought that I would need them to make it competitive (I was horrible at chin-ups).
  • My oldest son spotted his younger brother for over 75 chin-ups out of the gate.
  • We utilized the “honor system” (i.e. it was never necessary to have a witness present, and the participant was responsible for recording his own repetitions). I created a master sheet in Google Docs which was shared for easy tracking.
  • Lastly, for full disclosure, some smallish side bets were made.


The results were mixed and complicated for a variety of reasons. All three of us were fast out of the gate, which was promising. During the second month, my younger son hit his stride and started pulling (pun intended) away from the pack. Unfortunately, he hurt his elbow during a baseball game and the injury required surgery (he is doing fine now).

Baseball season also marred my oldest son’s participation, as he is primarily a pitcher (a LHP as we say in the recruiting circles—left-handed pitcher). There were many times when we collectively felt that resting either prior to or post-game was paramount. The quality of his rest and recuperation far superseded the importance of the contest.

Are you ready for the “head fake?” I was the primary beneficiary of a competition created to motivate my children.

I performed significantly more chin-ups during those three months than during any other period in my training. My upper back feels stronger than ever and I feel more balanced overall. Also, for reasons I can’t readily explain other than possibly strengthening the overall joint, I’m experiencing less shoulder pain overall than prior to the contest. Additionally, the quality of each of my repetitions has dramatically improved and I suspect will continue to improve going forward.

Why chin-ups?

In this case, we did chin-ups for four reasons:

  • I’ve never done enough back work and required the additional incentive/motivation to kick start my own training.
  • I believe it’s very challenging to overtrain the back. I believed that this training format wouldn't interfere with other training modalities.
  • Specifically, with regard to my sons, I believe that chin-ups are a great upper body exercise for athletes, and unlike many other multi-joint compound movements, they can be performed relatively safely without the benefit of a spotter. They are also great for building relative strength (upper body strength relative to overall size).
  • Improvements in relative strength should improve an athlete’s ability to effectively move through space.


  1. Martin Douglas. “Randy Pausch, 47, Dies; His ‘Last Lecture’ Inspired Many to Live With Wonder.” The New York Times. July 25, 2008. Web: Sept. 23, 2014.