Two years ago I set a personal record of 3:05 minutes for holding a plank. I was quite proud of that. But, a few months later, my friend Sheri beat my record with a 6-minute plank, which was at once astonishing and not all that surprising given her fitness prowess at age 50+.
Awed by Sheri's accomplishment I wondered if I could get anywhere near her record. As unattainable as it had seemed at the time, I decided to give it a try.
Well, I did indeed beat Sheri's record. In fact, I beat it by a minute and a half, setting my new personal record at 7:32! I almost couldn't believe it myself.
So, how did I literally double the length of time that I could hold a plank? Well, I am in pretty good shape for my age. That is true. But, what allowed me to keep myself propped on forearms and toes with a firm core and straight spine, particularly in those last two minutes as my body shook with fatigue, was what I call my “flexed-arm-hang philosophy.”
The Back Story
Let me explain. Back in the 70s, every student in gym class had to take the Presidential Fitness Test. The boys were given one set of physical challenges, the girls another. I remember only two of those challenges. One was sit-ups. The goal was fifty, which I did with ease, however my rib muscles were essentially untouchable for the next several days.
The other was the flexed-arm hang. This one was new to me. Each girl, one at a time, had to hang from a pull-up bar using an overhand grip, arms flexed at the elbow, chin above the bar, and legs dangling straight below. We weren’t required to do pull-ups, but to just hang there for as long as we could.
Some girls couldn’t hang on for as long as one or two seconds. Some could hang for 10 or even 20 seconds. When my turn came, I was determined to do better. I gripped the bar, lurched my chin up over it, and held tight. Ten seconds went by, then 20, then 30. By 40 seconds, my arms were shaking uncontrollably and my muscles were about to give way.
But, I remember telling myself, “Just one more second, just one more second, just one more second,” until I’d made it all the way to a minute! I then released the bar and collapsed to the mat below.
My Flexed-Arm-Hang Philosophy
Years later, I coined the term “flexed-arm-hang philosophy” for my approach to persisting through whatever challenge I may face. It’s a simple case of taking baby steps, or “chunking,” rather than taking on the enormity of the situation all at once.
Back in high school I never would have thought that I could hang on that bar for a full minute, but I found that I could do “just one second” sixty times! Last year I never would have thought that I could hold a 7-minute plank. But at the point at which my body started to shake and falter, I set my sights on just ten more seconds, and then ten more, and so on until I reached 7:32. It’s amazing what you can accomplish one tiny interval at a time.
Going Big with Small Steps
I have used this philosophy throughout my adult life to persist through a wide variety of challenges – rigorous college courses, the overwhelming task of raising three little ones on my own, intense and complex projects at work, running marathons and starting a business at age 62.
Give it a Try!
Make my flexed-arm-hang philosophy work for you.
Identify the challenge.
Bring to mind a physical or emotional challenge you face right now. It might be a challenge that would move you closer to your health and fitness goals, or one that would help improve your relationship with a friend and family member.
Set achievable targets.
Determine the small steps or intervals that would bring you to and beyond your current limits. For example, the next time you’re at the gym doing push-ups or crunches and you reach the point of wanting to quit, set your sights on just one more. Then, do that once more. And once more again.
Or, the next time you want to be more patient with a spouse or friend, set your sights on reserving judgment or refraining from arguing for just 15 seconds at a time -or 5 seconds if that works! – until you regain your perspective on the situation.
Celebrate tiny achievements.
Each time you reach a target, savor the sweet feeling of success and then focus immediately on your next target. Then, with all the tenacity you can muster, repeat as many times as possible. You may surprise yourself with the number of steps or intervals you’ll have completed before you finally give in.
We all have seen people who use this approach to persist through seemingly insurmountable physical and emotional challenges – from cancer treatments to loss of loved ones. They are the epitome of tenacity and we are awed and inspired by them. Baby steps, everyone. We can do this!
What techniques do you use to overcome physical or emotional challenges? Do you agree that taking baby steps is the best approach? In what other areas of your life could you apply my flexed-arm-hang philosophy? Please share in the comments.
Jacqui Hook is founder and owner of Tenáz Athletics, innovative concepts in women’s athletic wear. Tenaz is the Spanish word for tenacious. Jacqui’s mission is to inspire in women tenacity for staying fit and healthy regardless of age, fitness level, body type, or other perceived obstacles. Follow @tenazathletics on social media for tips and inspiration.