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Monkey bar beliefs

I went to the gym today for my usual workout.  The gym was closed last week while the owner and personal trainers completely reconfigured it. When I arrived today, it was substantially different. One of the changes was the addition of a set of monkey bars, suspended from the ceiling about 8 feet off the ground.

I kept looking at them during the first half of my workout. As a kid, I’d tried countless times to cross the monkey bars on the school playgrounds. I’d stand on the top step, grab the first rung with my right hand and the next with my left, and then sway, feet stuck on the step and hands glued to the rungs until my arms gave out or the kid behind me pushed me out of the way.

I never swung across a single rung as a child – a fact that embarrassed me for years. So I kept eyeing those bars.

Midway through the workout, Nick, my trainer, put a metal frame on the ground under the monkey bars and asked me to step onto it. Then he said, “Grab that bar with both hands and just hang for a minute or two.” I followed his direction. The stretch felt good.

Next, he moved the metal frame to the end of the monkey bars and had me repeat the drill. This was a bit harder because the first bar was scored on the surface so that it had a solid grip; the monkey bar was smooth.

Then he told me to just let go with one hand. My brain tried, but my body refused. “Okay, just loosen your grip,” he said.

“I can’t do that!” I responded. He just looked at me. My inner voice was saying, “You’re scaring yourself. Of COURSE you can do that.” I had to give it three tries, but my fingers finally loosened. The first time it happened, I loosened my left-hand grip and immediately felt my body begin to drop and sway to the right.  The movement scared me. I have no idea why. The metal frame was 4” below my feet, and Nick was right there. But in my mind, I was back on that playground.

“It’s normal,” Nick said. “When you let go with the left hand, your body immediately wants to establish a new center of balance, so it drops until the weight is balanced. Think of an imaginary line running from your right hand down to your feet. That’s your new balance point.” This new way of thinking about it soothed my fear, and I began loosening more and even alternating hands.

After a short break, Nick said he was going to put a hand on my belly and another on my lower back and begin pushing me forward and back while I hung from the bar. “Do you want me to swing?I asked.


“Whoaaaaa!!!!” I said, the fear sweeping over me again. I jumped down from the frame and said, “I want to see you do it. I need a visual image.” After a minute of teasing, he grabbed the bars and began swinging across. My heart was pounding. My hands were wet with sweat. I chalked them again, climbed onto the frame, and—delaying a second time—asked, “What muscle groups am I to use?”

“Lats mostly,” he said. “And shoulders.” Then he described how most people think monkey bars work: they face forward and reach forward first with one hand and then with the other. But the movement is really one of rotating from side to side, gaining momentum from the swinging motion and from releasing the first hand just as the body starts its forward swing. I visualized the rotation from his demonstration and understood what he was saying.

“So when you’re ready,” he said, “and when your body starts its swing forward, let go with one hand and just swing to the next rung. I’ll keep your core stabilized.”

I began to swing, his hands guiding me forward and then back … forward and then back … forward and then back. “Let go,” he said twice at the back of the movement. I swung forward and then back. “Let go NOW,” he said. I let go and, in full amazement, landed my left hand on the next rung forward. I was now straddling two rungs.

“Can I drop?”

“No!  Just do the same thing with the right hand.” My right side dropped down and I landed my right hand on the next rung. I was dazzled by the feeling.

We did another rung, and he said, “Okay, you can drop now.” He guided my drop to the ground. I was dizzy with excitement. It had taken fifty years for me to swing across one money bar rung, but I’d done it.

“By Christmas, you’ll be able to swing across the whole set,” he said. I was heady at the notion. About 3 minutes later, we did another set. This time, he kept me swinging through the first 2 rungs and, when he said I could drop, I said, “No, I’m on a roll.” He lowered his arms and stepped back. I swung across the next 3 rungs. On the last, my left hand slipped slightly as it landed and, before I could talk back to it, my body automatically thrust upward and took hold with a tighter grasp. Nick met me at the last rung and helped me drop to the mat.

I hadn’t felt that energized and powerful since the day I leg pressed 600 pounds or the time I pulled a 35,000-pound fire engine.

More importantly, I’d overcome a personal belief that had been with me for half a century – that I could not swing across monkey bars. I can hardly wait to get back on Thursday … and to be doing a full skip-rung swing by Christmas.