009. Chris Keighley: Challenge, personal growth, and 1,000 muscle-ups

009. Chris Keighley: Challenge, personal growth, and 1,000 muscle-ups

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Chris Keighley helps me muscle up the strength to understand challenge. We discuss its rewards, hazards, and how it can be a powerful tool for personal growth from day one. He shares stories from behind the scenes of the 1,000 Muscle-Up Challenge, and talks about finding challenge in more mundane activities, like building a tire tower at the Gerlev International Gathering.

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On the 1,000 muscle-ups challenge

Craig: The 1,000 Muscle-ups Challenge is infamous and if you haven’t seen it we’ll link the video in the show notes. A lot of people I think mistake that as a suggestion for a way to train muscle-ups [00:00:30] and that’s clearly not what was going on. Can you unpack that a little bit for us?

Chris: Yeah, basically we have stupid ideas lots of the time. This particular stupid idea happened … It’s genesis was in Brazil as an entirely innocent, after-dinner conversation, where I believe Blane, Dan Edwardes, Stephane Vigroux, and Bruno, who was the actual Brazilian, and the reason the guys were out there, having a hypothetical [00:01:00] debate over whether one would prefer to do 10,000 pushups in a day or 1,000 muscle-ups in a day.

Craig: I think I would prefer to be absent that day.

Chris: It’s an entirely interesting and hypothetical conversation.

Craig: Or so you thought.

Chris: What harm can come from this? I didn’t get a say in this. I just get told about this I guess a few weeks later because during the course of this conversation Blane decides that 1000 muscle-ups in a day is clearly [00:01:30] less horrendous than 10,000 pushups in a day. And furthermore, he’s going to do it. At which point, Dan thinks it’s a great idea.

Great is probably putting words in his mouth. Dan is not willing to be left out of the idea at this point. If someone else is doing it, this is a great challenge. This is something to learn a bit more about yourself. Maybe you can do it, maybe you can’t. Let’s see what happens. Steph [00:02:00] agrees as well. Bruno, for his sins, also agrees to join in, and is a great help when we got around to the change a few months later, but probably spends more time with a camera than with a scaffolding.

Craig: Right. What is the big event? What is the big takeaway aside from having done it? I think you’re one of the guys who actually finished it.

Chris: Yeah. There were eight of us that decided to take this on in the end. Myself was number five. Andy Pearson, one of the other tutors from London, joined [00:02:30] in as well. Who am I missing? Jun Sato…

Craig: Oh, right.

Chris: He’s an amazing guy from Japan, who I think, over time some myths may grow up around this, but I’m pretty sure he delayed his flight so that he could stay in the country and do the challenge with us. Joe Boyle, who is another guy from London, coached with us, and he’s just a phenomenal athlete, especially when it comes to endurance and strength endurance challenges.

Craig: Right. He’s figuring out the pace [00:03:00] and how to get it done.

Chris: Yeah, well, I don’t know if he knew how to get it done or at least innately knew how to get it done, but he bloody well got it done.

Craig: A journey of 1000 muscle-ups begins with a single muscle-up.

Chris: Yeah, and then a second and so on and so on until you hit 1000.

Craig: Any particular takeaways from that other than you never want to do that again?

Chris: Which we will also return to. Yeah. Actually, it [00:03:30] is possible. We’re talking with some of the other guys here at the gathering about challenges and is it a challenge if you know you can do it before you start?

Craig: Yeah. I heard someone say, “It takes a special skill to set a challenge for yourself that you’re unable to do,” and at first I was like, “Well, no, I could challenge myself to climb Mount Everest tomorrow,” but to actually set a challenge that you would actually attempt that you are unable to do is actually tricky. It’s like breaking [00:04:00] a jump in a way.

Chris: Yeah, especially one that maybe you’re not able to do but you think there’s a possibility you might. In many ways, it is like breaking a jump. The jump won’t scare you if you can’t do it. Likewise, if you know for a fact you can’t do the challenge it’s not really a challenge because at no point do you have the intention to try and do it.

Craig: To commit.

Chris: The problem is you need something that is conceivable enough that you’re going to go in with 100% intention to try and get it done but far enough away that you don’t go in 100% [00:04:30] sure it is going to get done. The combination of it being pitched at that level, the guys that were doing it, and I suspect on certainly my part and a few of the other guys, a little bit of hubris.

Craig: I’m like, “He’s going to say hubris.”

Chris: Yeah. I think I realized somewhere in the middle of the challenge that I’d not necessarily bitten off more than I can chew but certainly stuffed a lot more in my mouth [00:05:00] than I was expecting. Then there’s all kinds of little moments throughout the day that made me think how much easier it was with other people around. I can’t say for sure but I’m 99% certain I would not have done 1000 muscle-ups that day if I’d been the only one doing it.

Craig: Yeah, what would the vision in your mind be? “I’m going to do 1000 muscle-ups in an empty …” it was basically like a gym. In an empty gym without any heat. It was in the winter. [00:05:30] That would be mind-boggingly demotivating to be by yourself.

Chris: As with more legends, I did hear tell [inaudible 00:05:39] one of the second-generation guys from Lisse in France … He either did 1000 or did 600 or 800, or some phenomenal number, but on his own in a playground on a fairly thick bar. Just did three, walked to the other side of the playground, did three, and … [00:06:00] Yeah. It goes to show the challenges that those guys would do to find out what they are capable of and to build what they were capable of.

On the value of challenge

Craig: If I remember correctly it was 14 and a half hours. Why would anyone want to put themselves through not necessarily that specific challenge but a challenge of that magnitude in general? What’s the potential payoff?

Chris: To learn something about yourself. Modern life doesn’t give you many chances of seeing what you’re capable of.

Craig: [00:06:30] Opportunities for growth.

Chris: Yeah. Seeing where your limits are. Yeah, I didn’t get better at muscle-ups that day for sure …

Craig: I think the quality went down.

Chris: Yeah. It was three days before I could do another one. I came out of it knowing that when things got really awful I could still keep going. Then when things got really awful I still had a bunch of great people around me that were able to [00:07:00] either …

Craig: Understand the viewpoint maybe?

Chris: Yeah. Also, I don’t know if it was inspire me or motivate me or just that energy kept me going. I wasn’t doing it because other people were there watching. I didn’t care what they thought of me. That was not the boost I got from having other people around. It was just other people in the space either going through the same thing or supporting us and bringing us cups [00:07:30] of teas.

Craig: Yeah, there were people helping.

Chris: Or doing their own challenges in the background or just staying awake, in the case of my, now the strongest Keighley, but at the time a much, much smaller, younger, and weaker Keighley.

Craig: Right away what comes to mind is where did you learn that lesson originally? You weren’t born with that lesson. Where did that come from? How did you learn that that was a good way to seek growth was to seek these kinds of really big challenges?

Chris: I [00:08:00] think that probably … Look, I can’t pinpoint when I came across that as a very specific, “Ah, this is eureka moment of this is the mindset I want to adopt”. I think it was a gradual influence of probably people and training over time. Guys like Stephane Vigroux when they were coaching in London and coming up with, “Yes, we’ll do some wonderful technical movement training” and we’ll just do some physical training but as a more common way [00:08:30] of just making yourself stronger.

But then just all these little challenges, whether it was stories of the challenges that they used to do … That’s how Stephane [Vigroux] started. He went to learn from David and he was just some scrawny little teenager. David [Belle] would be like, “Oh, go do 1000 pushups.” Steph would go away and do it and come back like, “What’s next?”

Craig: Then you’re on-call for seven days and whenever I call you or text you you do it immediately, right?

Chris: Right. The influence of those kind of people and probably the training they had coming [00:09:00] up as they were learning about disciplining themselves of … Yeah, this challenge is going to give you more than just the training of the challenge.

Just over time I’d see good guys like Steph [Stephane Vigroux] in London…

Thomas Couetdic… [otherwise known as] Thoma Dubois… was also in London…

Kazuma. Kazuma came and taught with…

It wasn’t even Parkour Generations as it was in the very earliest months. But, I’d say parkour coaching as it was in the first [00:09:30] three or four months and then eventually Parkour Generations.

For sure, Forest [Francois Mahop] and Dan as well.

A very strong ethos of both tough physical challenge but as a way of building you mentally as well as physically. I never went in search of that. I think it was definitely I went there to get stronger …

Craig: Slow discovery process that you realized, “This really works”, right?

Chris: Yeah. Both, “I want more of it” because [00:10:00] when you succeed in a challenge that you’re not sure about the sense of success and achievement is almost infinitely greater than succeeding in a challenge that you knew you’re going to do. I don’t think I was ever chasing that high but it certainly gives you a very strong feeling of pride in yourself and what you can do.

Craig: Right. Self-validation.

Chris: Yeah. I don’t know if I’d necessarily characterize it as validating it myself as [00:10:30] much of almost like a pleasant surprise about yourself. It’s like, “Ah, actually, I can do this.”

On using challenge as a way to grow

Craig: You’re very experienced as a tutor. I know you normally teach the adapt level two courses and you’ve done tons of teaching sessions all over the world. But I don’t know what percentage of your students are day one beginners. The question that I have in the back of my mind is, at what point does really big challenge … Is [00:11:00] that something that’s a really good tool for people? Can you really do that from day one if you find the correct challenge? Or should you start with small challenges and go scale them up as you find your feet?

Chris: Yeah. Well, obviously, the scale of the challenge is going to be entirely dependent on what people are capable of because the really big challenges are the ones that are either just out of reach or in your last 1% of reach. Whether it’s day one or day …

Craig: 1000.

Chris: [00:11:30] Yeah, 10 years, 20 years down the line. It may evolve over time. Like the challenge in 20 years may not be as great in number as the challenge on four or five years in but how far it is out of your reach there will always be a challenge in that zone. From the beginning it’s probably more a question of how people respond to challenge. [00:12:00] Someone can be on day one and respond to challenge really well and if they try something and it turns out, “Ah, I’m not yet capable of it” …

Craig: They also learn something, right?

Chris: Oh, yeah. It’s still a very valuable experience but some people will take that a little bit more at face value and some people may need challenges a little bit more in the yellow zone that are going to be difficult but are definitely achievable just to help them understand the merit of those ideas and help them feel [00:12:30] empowered through those challenges rather than beaten down by them.

Craig: Can I actually be training without their being the presence of challenge?

Chris: I think you’d be missing out on a huge element of the discipline if that were the case. It doesn’t have to be a crazy physical challenge like the muscle-ups because …

Craig: Yeah, I can’t do that every day.

Chris: Yeah. For some people, balancing on a [inaudible 00:12:56] for 10 seconds … Like if you fall off after five seconds, get back up. [00:13:00] Fall off after three, fall off after six. You spend an hour trying to balance for 10 seconds without falling off.

Craig: That’s a challenge. Yeah.

Chris: Absolutely, and a much greater challenge than just a strong guy banging out a couple hundred pull-ups for the sake of it. You don’t know if you can do the balance, right? That’s when they’re in their top 5% … Let’s dial it down from 1%. We don’t want to be quite so much in the stress zone the whole time. The genuine uncertainty of, “Can I do this?” Because that’s how you discover [00:13:30] something. If you knew that you could do it anyway you’ve not discovered anything.

I think you don’t always want to be like this. It can be a very stressful way to train if every session is, “I’ve got to challenge myself in a very demanding way.” But I think the way we learn or get better at almost any human skill is through challenge. It’s applying it. If you’re cooking you don’t stay cooking toast for 20 years.

Craig: Right. You need to move the bar, right?

Chris: Right, but [00:14:00] every time you move the bar you’re like, “I’m going to try something that is more challenging. Can I raise myself to meet that bar?” The people that make the most progress will be the ones … Not necessarily I’m saying they’re the best guys but the people that make the most progress will be the ones who are willing to change themselves. Where that end point is will change from person to person, but their personal growth will be defined to some extent by how much they are willing to encounter challenge at the right level for where they are physically, [00:14:30] mentally, experientially.

On finding challenge in more common activities

Craig: We’re here at Gerlev [International Gathering] and this is your sixth time here. You’re an old veteran at this. Elsewhere we have been discussing with lots of people what’s great about Gerlev… and you guys built a tire tower and we’re talking like large tractor tires. I don’t know how they even lifted them let alone stacked them. That thing must have been 20 feet high. When they were done they had a leaning Tower of Pisa. People hanging off of it trying to keep it upright. I was off [00:15:00] elsewhere and I looked around and I’m like, “Oh, a tire tower. What?”

That was an interesting challenge. I’m sure somebody said, “Hey, we should stack the tires” and then off you went but what was the value of it? It looked like a ton of fun and pushing it over was awesome too. Was that a challenge? Or was that just you guys having fun?

Chris: It certainly felt like a challenge because … It was a challenge of many, many, many challenges because at the beginning it was just, “let’s stack some up.”

Craig: Yeah, [00:15:30] where’s the biggest one? Put it down.

Chris: Yeah, then it quickly became both a … Not so much a mental challenge of, “Can I push through this?” Actually, let’s do some physics and engineering here. How do we get these lighter tires, as we got further on, up significantly greater and less stable heights.

Craig: Yeah, the whole thing was swaying and some of the people at the top they had to have their feet 12 feet off the ground easily. That was three people high.

Chris: Yeah, well, the people at the top [00:16:00] seemed to be much more comfortable than the people at the bottom. I don’t know if that’s because we were cushioning them or just they had significantly less idea of what the angle was like.

Craig: Or how hard the asphalt is.

Chris: Yeah, it was … Phillip, one of the guys I believe from Parkour One, certainly from Germany, just had a little challenge for us, which was, “Let’s do this.” As with all challenges, it started out, yes, as a bit of fun [00:16:30] and then you hit the point of, “Oh, how do we do this?” The moments of, “There’s lots of boxes around. We can use the boxes to stand on to get the tires up there.” The box making the challenge easier.

Craig: Do we need that? Can we do without that?

Chris: Samson, another one of the Parkour One guys, made a very good point of once we got the final tire on was how much less satisfaction we’d have got if we brought the boxes in to do [00:17:00] so. Not like it would have tainted our achievement but it would have lessened the achievement.

Craig: There are a lot of parkour memes and one of my personal favorites if you’ve ever trained with me … If you haven’t, please find me, I would love to train with you. One of my favorites is gapping and if you haven’t seen this and you haven’t done it it makes no sense. It’s basically trying to squeeze through the smallest space that you can possibly squeeze through. Then, “That was too easy. Now do it backwards” or upside down or if it’s a ladder, squeeze through the top [00:17:30] rung. Those kind of things. My first question is, is that the same sort of challenge? What are your thoughts on why are we drawn to that?

Chris: I think as with anything else if you choose the right hole it’s exactly … For some of the guys who have done it it’s been as hard a challenge as probably anything else they’ve done. I tend to find it a bit easier. Just in the sense that if my ass fits through the rest of me gets in.

Craig: [00:18:00] I’ve noticed that I’m getting a really good eye for spotting gaps that would be challenging and interesting for me and I know, for example, if I can get my shoulders through then I fit through. Everybody knows which part of their body isn’t going to fit through and which direction … They look at that and they spot those distances and things that are really easy for you might be impossible for me. It draws you in the same way that spotting interesting jumps do. You know that’s just possible [00:18:30] and I really should go over there and do that and then off goes someone.

Chris: What’s the longest you’ve seen someone to get through a gap successfully? It doesn’t have to be successful. One gap, how long were they there for?

Craig: I don’t think I’ve struggled for more than 10 minutes on a particular one. It’s probably about the longest I’ve ever seen.

Chris: 25 minutes was the record in 35 degree heat. I think got halfway through, came out for a bit for water, came back to his hips for a water break, didn’t come out of the gap. Two or three people were standing over him with his [00:19:00] hands creating shade and space. Chau Belle coming across and looking very unimpressed that we were doing this whilst he was teaching around the corner.

It was one of the real challenges of the day. Can we do this? I think in the split second he maybe didn’t understand what was going on and just saw some people messing around. Yeah, one of the hardest things we’ve done. And scary in the sense that, at least the way that I do it … If my bum gets through, [00:19:30] the rest of me will go but I may need to exhale quite a lot.

Craig: …and which ribs are attached and which are moveable?

Chris: Can I get through it quick enough or do I have to do the world’s shallowest breath halfway through before I can keep going? That’s always an interesting one of just, absolutely zero air left in your lungs and then trying to shuffle your way out.

Is there a story you would like to share?

(This question is part of the “Story Time!” project.)

Craig: One of my personal passions is collecting people’s stories. I’d love to just hear whatever you have that you’re passionate about.

Chris: [00:20:00] Lots of little moments from within the muscle-up challenge that we were speaking about. Spread throughout the day a lot of people that got involved who weren’t necessarily expecting to get involved. Khiel [aka Andy Day] actually stayed and originally I think he was just going to do 100. Just his own personal challenge of seeing if he could get there. Then he got to 100 relatively easily and quickly.

Then kind of 300 was dawnign on him as a possibilities. [00:20:30] He stayed and kept going. I think he had to go to a wedding before he could get to that number, which is delightful and unexpected. Both company but the idea that he also learned something about that day, or, about himself that day.

My little brother, who now is an absolute monster, but at the time was a 14 year old kid … I don’t think any older than 14. Been doing parkour for maybe a year and a half. Something like this. He [00:21:00] decided that he was going to join in in his own way. He was very much doing one arm at a time muscle-ups. I think he made 120. I hadn’t even heard of a muscle-up when I was 14. I’m going to be biased. I’m always going to think that my little brother is special. That was one of those early moments of, “Ah, he’s something.” Then the fact that despite the fact that it took me 14 and a half hours, [00:21:30] and he used to have much more regular bedtimes, he refused to go to sleep until I’d finished. He stayed awake until I think it was half-midnight by the time I had finished. I think he curled up in a cardboard box at one point. Blane found him in a corner. Soon as I was done he was very much ready for bed.

Then me trying to fall asleep but being woken up because my forearm was cramping badly in my sleep. Trying to go [00:22:00] back to sleep with my mobile phone laying on my fingers to just keep my hand open and stop it from cramping.

Somewhere around the 770 mark I sat down for about an hour with no idea of if I was going to stand up again. It was really that … That was where my dark point kicked in of, “I actually don’t know if I continue from here. I don’t really want to stop but I actually don’t know [00:22:30] if I can”, or if it’s sensible to, or both. When I finally was like, “No, I’m going to try and do a few more” I just put the entire The Sickness album by Disturbed on, which is my favorite weight lifting album at the time, and for about the next hour just doing one muscle-up. Stalking around the room looking like an angry little emo kid. Eventually making it back to the bar, doing another one, and then just storming off again for a minute or two [00:23:00] and coming back.

Craig: Plus one, plus one.

Chris: Yeah. The very many cups of teas that people that people like Naomi and Tracy would bring us. The sad moment when I got to a point where to raise the tea to my mouth I had to sit on the floor, balance the cup on my knee, hold the handle with my hand, and use my leg to raise the cup to my mouth because it hurt my elbow too much to hold a cup of tea. [00:23:30] Realizing that I still had 150 muscle-ups to go. Those are the moments when it was, “Is it wise to carry on?” Because, if I can’t lift a cup of tea I don’t know what business I’ve got hanging off the bar.”

Craig: Of course, the obvious question is was it wise?

Chris: Hindsight tells me it was. I’m here. Everything is fine. Was it wise to risk hurting yourself? I don’t think it’s wise to do [00:24:00] it all the time. I think in this kind of occasion … For me, this is probably still one of the two or three biggest challenges I’ve ever done, in my life just in terms of the relentless … I don’t want to say darkness but the relentless struggle is harder. Anything else has been over in a much shorter period of time.

I think risking things very sparingly and knowing that you’re really going to come out … [00:24:30] If it was just to say, “Oh, I’ve done 1000”? No, it wasn’t worth the risk. That may have been why I started the challenge. Like, I started it to say I could do 1000 muscle-ups. Then the darker it got the more it was just, “Can I do this?” If I’d still had the mindset of, “Can I do 1000?” I probably wouldn’t have, because that wasn’t a good enough reason to keep going when it hurt.

And if it had been bad enough [00:25:00] I would have stopped. If it is, “I am definitely damaging myself”, no, that’s not worth the risk. If it’s just, “How does this feel? I’ll try another five. I’ll see what it’s like after that.” People bring us tea. Yao, being an absolute legend and providing very regular massages for those of us that were still trying to go. People like Blane just smashing away at a tire in the background with a hammer doing 1000 hammer swings instead.