Five reps at a time, music blaring, Jonathan Cohen, 33, kept going, one pull-up after another. At 200 he was still fresh and full of energy. By 500 he was winded but cheerful, but he noticed his elbows were locking up. At 750, the going was getting tough but he kept going, icing his elbows, his team massaging his muscles, pushing himself onward. At 950 he acknowledged that even parts of his body he wasn’t using, like his calves and quads, were starting to hurt. The reps dropped to sets of three, then two, then one at a time. He kept going until he reached 1,000, and then he pushed a little further, until he had completed the challenge he set for himself: 1,018 pull-ups.
It happened last month at LifeTown in Livingston. Mr. Cohen started early, when volunteers and participants had just arrived. As the morning wore on, and he kept going, the crowd grew. Slowly, kids and volunteers, and even Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, CEO of the Friendship Circle of New Jersey and LifeTown, gave the bar a try between reps.
When a child jumped out of his wheelchair and called out, “I can do it!” and with a little help jumped to grab the pull-up bar in the LifeTown Shoppes, Mr. Cohen knew the physical and mental challenge he’d undertaken to raise money for the Friendship Circle was worthwhile.
“Seeing the kids and the volunteers get super excited — and some who thought they couldn’t do a pull-up do 2 or 3, well, I’ll never forget it!” he said. “The whole challenge took on a life of its own in a way I could not have anticipated.”
The feat required weeks of preparation, and a special fitness regimen including mental and physical conditioning. A pull-up, an upper body strength exercise, involves gripping a bar and lifting your body so your chin is higher than the bar. It relies entirely on the strength of your arms, back, and shoulder muscles, and often is considered very difficult to execute.
At the end of the challenge, Mr. Cohen still was smiling, and he said despite the pain of each of the last 18 reps, what the number 18 represents kept him going: “strength, endurance, mindset, desire, life!”
Mr. Cohen first volunteered with the Friendship Circle when he was a teen, and he recalled that his lifelong involvement in volunteering began then. He retains a deep respect for the Friendship Circle and the kids it serves. “What’s special about those kids is that only other people believe they can’t do things,” he said. “They have confidence to do things — like the child who got out of his wheelchair to do a pull-up. Only other people think they can’t.”
It’s a lesson he puts into practice every day. “Any sentence that starts with ‘I can’t’ needs to be eliminated and replaced with ‘I’ll try.’ And that’s what I heard from all the kids and volunteers that day. None of us realize what we are capable of or feel we have no right to step up to the bar. But if you have enough courage — you never know.”
In addition to the inspiration he offered, his feat raised nearly $20,000 for the Friendship Circle.