Make Like a Squirrel and Save Some Nuts

(Disclaimer: This article is going to assume that you have a level of income sufficient to meet your needs with some wiggle room to spare. In other words, you have discretionary income and you could possibly spend more wisely or differently than you do today. If you are living at the poverty line while working multiple jobs I’m sorry but this is probably not the article for you. With this disclaimer in mind I hope to avoid the usual torrent of angry messages about how privileged and entitled I am.)

I used to live in a big house with a giant back yard. I had foxes, deer, ducks, voles, squirrels and who knows what else doing their thing in that yard. As a result, I never noticed a lot of the little activities that went on out there. Now, in South Philly, my “back yard” is a wooden patio deck with a single potted plant on it. In a surprise to no one when you strip away all the distractions and focus on one thing you notice more about that one thing.

And I just noticed that a goddamn squirrel was digging holes to hide nuts in the dirt of my plant.

The very same day I got a letter from my Health Savings Account (HSA) provider which reminded me to login to my account to check in on it.

Lo and behold I had a not insignificant pot of money that had accumulated that I had completely forgotten about.

In case you’re not familiar with HSAs they can be used as a tax-advantaged, meaning you don’t pay taxes on the money you put into them, savings account for either medical expenses (including elective ones, so if I ever decide to get Lasik I can use that money) or in a lesser-known strategy you can simply use it as an additional retirement account. The point of this article isn’t to explain HSAs in detail, however.

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The point is that you can take advantage of some of the ways we are all irrational and driven by habits and whims rather than good sense when it comes to money.

You know that friend whose cheapness is exceeded only by their ability to accurately and pedantically account for exactly what portion of the check they owe, down to the penny?

Yeah that friend is the outlier. The exception to the rule.  That friend probably already has a retirement account so teeming with money that they could afford to not be so cheap. I’m happy for them, but it’s probably not you.

Most people not only aren’t saving enough for later in life, but they’re actually going into debt far beyond their means. Everyone thinks that they’re going to save or invest money “when they have some extra” but no one ever has any extra because that’s not how most people operate with money.

For example, the average U.S. household carries $15,000 in credit card debt alone.

Imagine if I were to ask you if you’d like to take out a loan for $15,000. More than likely you’d decline, knowing that’s a sizeable chunk of money and not going to be easy to pay off.

Yet the psychological ease of handing over your credit card makes it all too easy to rack up the exact same amount of debt one small charge at a time.

It’s death by a thousand paper cuts. We’re not logical and rational, so we have to temper ourselves against… ourselves.

But the good news is that you can easily flip the script and take advantage of the same irrationalities to make your assets, instead of debts, inflate.

And it’s all totally automatic.

The vast majority of people operate the same flawed way when it comes to money. If they have money in their accounts they spend it, and if they don’t have money they cut back on spending. This might work fine when you’re a child with a piggy bank, but it falls apart when you have multiple credit cards, checking accounts, and auto-payments setup to take money out of your accounts. By the same token, all of these moving parts is what makes this “trick” work so well.

The key is to setup automatic transfers of money into investment or savings accounts, so you never see the money, you never miss it, and you cut back on spending because it’s not there.

There are dozens of ways to do this, but I’ll give you a couple examples of the simplest things you can do.

The absolute first thing you should do money-wise is take advantage of an employer-matched retirement program if your job provides one. This is LITERALLY free money and you would be crazy not to take advantage of it. Whatever it is, a 401k or an IRA, take advantage of it up to the maximum contribution. It’s also…wait for it… automatic. Every company should opt you in automatically by default, but many (most?) don’t.

With that out of the way, it’s time to setup some automatic transfers into other savings vehicles.

As an example, I have money automatically transferred out of my checking account into 4 separate buckets:

  1. Bills – all major bills are on auto-draft so I don’t have to remember to pay them, and I never see that money.
  2. Travel – Jen and I each contribute $200/mo to this, so at least once a year there is enough money for a pretty significant trip that is completely paid for and we don’t have to find the money for.
  3. Retirement – this consists of several different buckets of different investment vehicles. What is best for you is very much going to depend on your situation, but the important thing is that you have something. If in doubt start by maxing out an IRA and then go from there. Do your own homework and get some expert advice, but I use Betterment for a non-trivial portion of my net worth and couldn’t be happier. For the reasoning, check out this Planet Money episode. Betterment is just a very easy way to automatically invest in index funds.
  4. HSA – this is both a health rainy day fund as well as a backdoor retirement account.

squirrel-money-diagramI never see any of this money, and I never miss it. Everything happens with automatic transfers behind the scenes. Of course my spending habits have had to shift with a not-insignificant portion of my income being hidden away from me, but the point is that I don’t notice it.

You spend it if you have it, but you don’t spend it if you don’t have it.

Actual Real Steps to Take

Basically, open a Betterment account. People who talk to me about money eventually wonder why I am such an evangelist for Betterment (Wealthfront is good too. Charles Schwab’s product is not.)

There are some really basic fundamental evidence-based truths about investing that have held up over time.

  1. Don’t lose money.
  2. Invest often and regularly.
  3. Allocate assets intelligently. (aka don’t put all your eggs in one basket)
  4. Don’t try to pick stocks. (See #1)
  5. Don’t time the market. (See #2)
  6. Avoid fees that eat up your returns.

Turns out so-called robo-advisors like Betterment and Wealthfront basically solve these problems for you. They make it easy to automate, they balance everything for you, they have ultra low fees, and they invest you in a wide range of low-cost ETFs that cover broad indices. You can still screw it up by being a stupid human and yanking your money out, but it’s harder!

I don’t care what you use. I’m purposely not including my Betterment referral link because I’ve already maxed out my referrals, but if you want the link to get the free 6 months reach out to me and I’ll send it to you.

But, please, do something.

If you don’t know if you should create a taxable account, a Roth IRA, or a traditional IRA I can give you one simple tip and a reference article. If you don’t have ANY safety net at all, create a normal taxable account so that there is no risk of penalty if you need to use the money in an emergency. If you have that covered you can decide between a Roth and traditional and this article is helpful for that.

What you actually do with the money you’re saving is important, but not as important as that you automate putting the money away.

I’m In Debt!

So all of this sounds great you say, but you’re in debt you say, so there’s no extra to invest nor would it be a good idea with the interest you’re paying on the debt. I’ve been there. Turns out the exact same principle still applies. Take a fixed amount and apply it automatically to your debt until it’s gone. When that is done immediately shift that same amount over to investments. You will be accustomed to a certain standard of living and that won’t change, but you’ll now be putting money away for the future.

How much to squirrel away?

The short answer is an amount that makes you uncomfortable, but not enough to put you in a bad position or cause problems.

As a longer answer here are a few strategies you can use to come up with an amount:

  1. Take your bank and or credit card statement from the previous couple months and go through them line by line. Add up all the charges that are discretionary. Restaurants, bars, Amazon orders, movies, new iPhones, and so on. Be ruthless and honest in this. If you didn’t have to spend it to keep a roof over your head or food in your belly, add it up. Take the whole amount and divide it by the number of months you looked at, and then take 20% of that amount. If you spent $1000 on discretionary things, you’d come up with $200. Start there. Every six months increase the amount by 10%.
  2. Just start with $100. Every three to six months increase it by $100 until it causes too much strain, then back off.
  3. The nuclear option: Go to this calculator and put in your details  Play with the “I save X amount annually” until you get to the number that balances what you are likely to have in retirement, and what you’ll need in retirement. Start putting that amount of money away and force everything else to fall into place.

No matter what you choose to do, the important thing as always is that you take action.

Don’t get lost in the weeds of the details of finance – really, it’s not that complicated. Take and implement the lesson of automation and only then start figuring out how you can optimize your various contributions and vehicles.

The I Hate The Gym Program

It may be hard to believe that I don’t love the gym. As someone who’s spent a not-insignificant portion of my life in gyms trying to get as strong as possible you would think that I’m enamored with the process and it’s something I couldn’t live without–a sentiment that many regular gym-goers do share.

But I don’t. In fact most of the time I see it as necessary drudgery. Sure there are times that it’s exciting to chase a particular goal, or when I am really enjoying what I’m doing, but that’s not the majority of it. I view working out as a necessary chore, something akin to homework, that I have to do so that my body is capable of doing whatever I want it to do. And, yes, I recognize how lucky I am to even be able to work out regularly.

I’m not going to take the time to try to convince you that lifting weights and doing some form of cardiovascular exercise is worthwhile. Suffice to say that if there was a pill that controlled weight, increased your lifespan, improved mental health and general mood, strengthened bones and prevented osteoporosis, reduced the risk of many cancers, reduced or eliminated type 2 diabetes, reduced cardiovascular disease, improved ability to do daily tasks, importantly for older people reduced and prevented damaging falls, increased energy both perceived and actual, improved immune system function, and reduced stress it would be without a question the most popular drug in the history of humanity and everyone would take a daily dose.

But, I am here in full recognition that the number of people who currently exercise regularly (going for hikes and occasionally being outside is great but let’s be clear, it’s not the same as progressive resistance training and intentional cardiovascular exercise) is a fraction of a fraction.

And I realize how much I am at fault here, by letting perfect be the enemy of good. A new gym member asks “how often should I work out?” Well I tell them that three times per week is generally ideal to get the best results. And it is. This is virtually indisputable. But that’s too much for a lot of people.

Something that as a gym owner keeps me up at night is that for the majority of the majority this desire and ability to dedicate a couple hours (including transit time etc) to going to the gym the majority of the week nights hangs in the most tenuous of balances between other priorities and desires. All it takes is a job change, a new baby, a new relationship, a move, or any number of other things and this person won’t come back to the gym at all for 5-6 years until they start the cycle over again.

So I offer a solution.

This program is not going to get you the fastest “results.” This program isn’t optimal or ideal. This program isn’t going to put slabs of muscle on your body or strip layers of fat like all good programs promise. This program isn’t as good as a program that gives you more practice, more progression, and more time under the weights.

But, this program is something I think that someone can, even begrudgingly, drag themselves to the gym to do once a week.

It’s something I think you could do for years, because it’s just once a week. And doing this for years will have a meaningful effect on your quality of life.

Sorry, no 12-week promises here.

If you hate the gym, for whatever reason, but you recognize the value that consistently doing focused exercise over the course of years can hold then this program is for you.

The Program & How to Use It

The program is simple. One workout per week. Some of the exercises will repeat, but they may be new at first. You have an entire week between workouts so this should give you enough time to do your homework, understand the intention method behind the movement, and be ready for the workout. Part of any strength program is taking ownership of your body and learning how to best utilize it. This is no different.

Most of the days are just two exercises. The weights you choose should be challenging. If you picked the lightest weights in the gym you could finish the whole workout in 3 minutes and you wouldn’t get much out of it. But if you choose weights are challenging, such that you need a couple minutes to recover in between sets this will be a good workout.

Sometimes a little specific cardiovascular exercises is included. Keep this easy, at a pace where it might be hard to keep up a conversation but you aren’t struggling to catch your breath.

Don’t hesitate to make adjustments. Three sets not enough? Do another one. Want to go heavier and do fewer reps? Great, do that!

Who knows, maybe you’ll learn to like the gym. Even love it.

Here’s the program itself. I’ve also created a PDF version that has links to tips to how-to videos. Just trade me your email address so I can keep you updated on any changes. If people like this and find it useful maybe I’ll expand it out to a full year program. Click the program image, or click here to download the full version.

Just For Fun

Tweet at me and include the hashtag #IHateTheGym and tell me why you hate the gym. Maybe it’s a one-off experience like Allie’s, or a more general sentiment.

Either way I want to hear your stories.

How to Fix CrossFit – For You

Asking for a crossfit is exactly like asking for a kleenex (small k.) Technically it’s a trademarked brand name, but because of some combination of libertarian idealism and a lack of brand protection you never know if you’re going to get a glorious lotion-infused quadruple ply caressing of your tender nose or if you’re going to scrape it with sandpaper.

As such there are crossfit boxes out there that I wouldn’t send my worst enemy to in the hope that he’ll rip his shoulders out of their sockets doing kipping butterfly flail-ups, and on the flipside there are some truly world-class crossfit facilities that I would send my own mother to for coaching.
I have less than zero interest in trying to “fix” the crossfit world. Thousands of pages have been both spilled and imbibed predominantly by people smugly satisfied that they’re somewhere on the smarter end of the pregression-progression spectrum of training.

But, I’ve had countless situations in which a former client or an online friend has no other option other than to join a crossfit. Sometimes if the choice is between doing your own thing at a commercial gym which ultimately results in you not going at all or joining a crossfit then it’s simply the best option.

At many crossfit gyms it’s not an option to “do your own thing” and it’s a requirement that you follow along with the class and the class programming. This can present a problem, but it’s surmountable for someone who is willing to be just a little bit different. If the box won’t let you make these simple modifications while overwhelming following their lead then it’s honestly a horrible facility and you should reach out to me so I can publicly shame the ownership.

So here is how an individual can fix crossfit, no matter what the ideology or practice looks like inside the walls of the box, just for themselves.

Learn and Utilize Variations

People often get stuck in thinking that if a workout or a program calls for a deadlift that can mean only one thing: barbell conventional deadlift from the floor. Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen ways you could modify a deadlift to make it appropriate. You could do sumo deadlifts, you could change the height of the bar from the floor, you could use kettlebells, and so on and so forth.

Let’s say a workout is as many rounds as possible (AMRAP) in 10 minutes of:

Deadlifts
Burpees
Barbell Thrusters

This is a fairly good example of a classic crossfit workout. And it might be fine for some people. And it might be crippling for others. Here’s how you could easily achieve the same basic movement patterns and intention of the workout in a way that might be more appropriate for YOU:

Sumo Deadlifts
Mountain Climber Sprawls
Dumbbell Thrusters

What would you achieve with this? First of all Sumo-style deadlifts work very well for a lot of people to achieve a better starting position and back position throughout the movement. It’s not a fix-all for everyone by any means, but it’s a good example. If you’re going into lumbar flexion on every rep of the non-modified conventional deadlift every rep it’s going to put you in a world of hurt for the (unmodified) next movement: Burpees. Maybe they are fine for some people, but a lot of people I watch do them lack the core strength and control to keep a neutral position throughout the movement so they over-extend and arch their backs repeatedly. A Mountain Climber Sprawl is a fantastic option that is very similar in intent and execution but it allows you to slow down a little and control the movement. Finally, switching from barbell to two dumbbells allows a little more freedom of movement and is generally less stressful to someone with limited overhead mobility.

In short, learning about movement variations you can use when something doesn’t work perfectly for you is probably the single simplest and most effective thing you can do to make prescribed workouts more appropriate for you.

Ideally, you use biofeedback to select the best movements for you.

Use the Clock, but Ignore the Total Time

One of the core ideologies of crossfit is basically to make every workout a contest by running a clock and keeping score. This can cause a big problem when you start getting fatigued to the point where you have to sacrifice alignment to make the movement happen. But, the clock doesn’t have to be your enemy.

In any workout where you have a fixed time period your goal should be to keep the same pace throughout the whole workout. If you come out of the gate too hard you have to force your way through excessive fatigue to keep up. Bad things happen. But if you pay attention to the clock and keep track of your “splits” for each round, you can pace yourself reliably so that you maintain the same time for each round.

When the goal of the workout is to finish as quickly as possible just ignore the god damn clock it does not matter how quickly you finish your workout. Are we clear on that? I don’t care if you are the last person in the gym and they shut the lights out on you. The cost of getting injured because you were pushing yourself past your limits is not worth the glory of having your time written on a whiteboard with dry erase marker.

By the way, there’s no risk of starting out too slow because if you find that your split time is too low you can always do the workout again and increase your pace slightly. It’s called progressive overload and it’s great!

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Never Use Weights Because They’re Prescribed

There is only one reason to have everyone in a gym use a specified weight: so you can compare scores. Frankly, that is stupid.

Comparing scores is appropriate for competition. Not for training or working out, not for trying to improve a skill or strength. Use a weight because it’s appropriate, not because it’s prescribed. (By the way that’s a great rule of thumb to keep in mind no matter what – if a prescribed weight in your program doesn’t feel right, adjust it.)

It may be useful to look at the prescribed weights as a starting point, but your goal should be to pick a weight that is absolutely perfect for you. Don’t use a weight that is more than you should be using just so that you can do the Rx workout. By the same token, don’t use a weight that is ridiculously light just so you can blaze through the workout.

This is your workout. There are many like it, but this one is yours.

It can be extraordinarily difficult to find a gym where you feel comfortable, supported, and are able to keep coming back day in and day out to better yourself. Sometimes that means that everything (the facility, the community, the environment) is great but the training itself leaves something to be desired. As long as you take a little responsibility for yourself, expand your knowledge just a touch, and are willing to sometimes be the odd man out you can take total control of your training experience and always get the best workout for you – no matter where you’re doing it.

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Your Nutrition Tracker is Lying to You and What to Do About It

I am of the distinct opinion that one of the best things you can do for your long term health and wellness is to, at some point, track your food intake carefully. You don’t have to do this forever, but doing it even for just a few weeks will teach you things that are impossible to learn from reading books or articles or watching videos. People love to deride using a food scale and tracking food carefully as obsessive or unnecessary but it’s not. It is an exercise you do for a time while it is useful to extract the benefits and then you stop. If you’re not able to eat completely intuitively and maintain the exact body composition you want then some information is missing that is needed to inform your intuition. How else can you know the energetic content of food? Are you born with it?

The energetic content of food has been completely divorced from the energetic cost of food. We’re not that far removed from a time when the energetic cost of food was so high that it conveyed status and luxury to be overweight. If you hunt, gather, or grow everything you consume it is awfully hard to take in more than you expend. Even when agrarian societies developed who benefitted from labor specialization and trade it was only the wealthy who have enough excess capital to be able to consume more than they expend.

I like food scale. But honestly, who weighs out parsley?

I like food scales. But honestly, who weighs out parsley?

Michael Pollan captures this wonderfully when he says: “Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself. I love French fries, and I also know if I ate French fries every day it would not be a good thing. One of our problems is that foods that are labor or money intensive have gotten very cheap and easy to procure. French fries are a great example. They are a tremendous pain to make. Wash the potatoes, fry potatoes, get rid of the oil, clean up the mess. If you made them yourself you’d have them about once a month, and that’s probably about right.”

And Pollan isn’t even talking about the acquiring of the raw ingredients, just the cooking! Thanks to all the miracles of modernity I can order hot and fresh cookies to be delivered to my door in just a few minutes and in maybe one quarter to one eighth the time it would take me to burn those calories running on a treadmill I can eat a thousand calories of delicious cookies. (Honestly prob gonna order cookies now.)

But I digress. At some point in your life it’s a worthwhile experiment to purchase a food scale and start tracking everything.

Here’s where you run into an issue. Many of the most popular food tracking apps, such as the famously 475 million dollar My Fitness Pal app, have massive food databases with almost any food you can think of already inputted. Sometimes correctly. Therein lies the rub. You can enter all your food in religiously, keep an eye on your body composition (because it would be silly not to close the feedback loop when you already have the information that’s harder to gather – food intake), and you can be absolutely mystified as to why what should be happening isn’t happening.

Here’s just one example:

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Notice how the calorie count is identical for 4oz and 8oz portions? If you were using this you’d be off by 300 calories. Maybe only 10% for a large fit male, but you could be off by 30% for a smaller woman. For a muscle gain scenario this would be frustrating as you wouldn’t be growing when you’d expect to. For fat loss it would be devastating as you’d start to question whether or not there were underlying metabolic issues when you’re staying the same at 900 calories recorded per day. (By the way, I’ve found that most people who successfully make big changes usually eat the same things almost daily during the period where things are moving a lot.)

I have run into instances (please send me screenshots if you find them, as I can’t find any at the moment) where the macronutrient grams don’t add up to the correct calorie count. There is no world in which 15 grams of fat is not 135 calories, so that’s a problem.

Personally I am a big fan of the Fitocracy Macros app which eschews the food database entirely in favor of allowing you to simply enter in your grams of protein, fat, and carbs. The problem is this requires you to have a pretty good knowledge of what’s in your food, to have labels on everything, or to use an app with a database to get that information. While this may seem like a Catch-22 it’s actually just an important part of the process for which the entire exercise is useful.

So what is one to do when the whole purpose of this exercises is purportedly to learn what’s in your food?

Don’t worry, I got you.

80% of What You Need to Know

When you start measuring everything out and paying attention to what is in everything you quickly learn that a portion is a portion is a portion. For example, roughly speaking about macro-nutrients (we’re not talking about micro-nutrition here):

~15 grams is the standard portion size for fats: A tablespoon of olive oil is the same as a tablespoon of butter is the same as a serving of nuts is the same as a spoonful of coconut oil is the same as a serving (a couple tablespoons) of nut butter is the same as a half an avocado.

What else is a portion of fat? Well that’s for you to learn by tracking.

~30-40 grams is the standard portion size for carbohydrates: A cup of cooked rice, a large hamburger bun, a couple to a few slices of bread, an average donut, a cup of cooked oatmeal are all in roughly the same range of 30-40 grams of carbs.

What else is a portion of carbs? You know the drill.

~25 grams is the standard portion size for protein: 4oz is the standard benchmark serving size for meat portions whether it be chicken, beef, venison, it doesn’t matter. In a quarter-pound portion of meat you’ll always have about 25 grams of protein but you’ll get fairly different amounts of fat depending on the type of meat. A chicken breast might have pretty close to no fat at all, and a ribeye might have a full serving (how many grams is that?) of fat. Fun fact: USDA maintains a very accurate national nutrient database with reliable averages for virtually every piece of real food there is.

In diligently tracking for a short period you will quickly start to see these patterns and develop your own shortcuts and heuristics in your mind to accurately estimate how much energy you’re taking in.

Here’s a spoiler for an example of the kind of thing you’ll intuitively get after going through this process. Let’s say you put together a burger at home with no surprises:

4oz (quarter pound) patty of 85/15 ground beef: a serving of protein and a serving of fat
a slice of cheese: half a serving of fat
some tomatoes, lettuce, and onion: doesn’t matter
a bun: a serving of carbohydrates

Add it all up and you get a serving of protein, a serving and a half of fat, and a serving of carbohydrates. Maybe you like some mayo on your burger which is kinda nasty but that doesn’t really matter. All told you have about 450 calories. From this point on you know that literally any reasonable burger with the basic fixings is about 450 calories.

As a thought experiment, what happens when you add bacon? What about guacamole? What about fried onion rings?

But Seriously

I told you in the beginning that you couldn’t learn this from reading articles. You still can’t. Go buy a food scale. Use it very diligently for a week or two and then revisit. I’m not even telling you to change anything you eat (although you will) but just to become intimately familiar with it. If you have to eat at home more because you can’t accurately track foods from restaurants or whatever I guess that is what is going to have to happen for you to stick to the process.

Once you truly know what food looks like and consists of in portion sizes and energy amounts you can easily use apps as a shortcut because you’re able to double-check the macro and caloric values in your head. “No that 8oz ribeye is not 24 grams of protein, that’s bullshit. I’ll find one that is a better match.”

As usual there is no shortcut. Do the work and you will be richly rewarded.

 

Manpliment Your Way to Better Relationships

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A few years ago I decided to try an experiment with some of my relationships with other men. What would happen if instead of relating with the same locker-room banter of jokingly cutting each other down and teasing, I instead interacted primarily on the basis of compliments?

I coined the term manplimenting to describe the rare beast of the genuine, totally Platonic compliment from one man to another.

They look like this, in case you’ve never witnessed a manpliment:

“The cut of that shirt is exceptional for you, is that tailored?”

“Great shoes man.”

“You’re looking big. Have you been putting on size?”

If you can’t imagine yourself saying these things as a straight man you need to calm down and realize that a genuine compliment doesn’t make you gay, your sexuality does. Got that?

Men learn early on that teasing can be a way to create camaraderie, bond, and solidify friendships as well as something that can be used to create intense pain when used maliciously. But sociologists who’ve studied the use of language in relationships have noted that there is a complex calculus going on as to whether or not a tease or a joke will solidify a bond or be interpreted as an insult.

“Even when the tease was not intended to be hurtful, it still has the potential to be face threatening, since the tease may call attention to some feature of the target, e.g., appearance or behavior that is embarrassing.” (S. Beck et. al)

More importantly, I’d argue that regardless of the outcome, objectively no one feels as good from a tease as they do from hearing a genuine compliment.

Knowing that you’re part of a group or that you’re liked by someone enough to be teased is satisfying, but getting a meaningful compliment always feels better.

So a few years ago I started this experiment in which I tried to fundamentally base some of my new friendships with other men on manpliments.

And the difference is remarkable.

These friendships are more enjoyable, more productive, and more satisfying than other relationships that are based more on the traditional type of male interaction with teasing.

Interestingly, some studies have shown than European men tend to interact more like American women in the sense that there is more complimenting and less teasing. Do European men have richer more meaningful relationships? In my experience, yep.

Giving (and receiving) compliments regardless of gender involves paying attention, reflecting, and communicating which are all skills that can’t hurt to improve and are emotional skills that men often sorely lack.

Manplimenting is a relatively easy and powerful way to practice those skills while building better relationships. What have you got to lose?Man-Camp-Logo-wide

(My good friend John Romaniello and I will be hosting an event exclusively for men in mid-September of this year called Man Camp that will explore topics such as this one in depth. If the idea of improving your life – whether it be through health, fitness, relationships, business or income, or networking – then Man Camp is something you should check out.)

 

How to Take a 16 Minute Nap

Little kids don’t even know how good they have it. Someone cooks them three meals a day, not including snack time. They get to take exciting trips to the park and the library. Just about everything seems like the most exciting thing they’ve ever done, and the moment doesn’t fly by them. Above all though, they get naps. Oh, the naps. Nothing makes me more jealous of kids than the naps they begrudgingly get to take.

Naps are the miracle supplement of healthy, productive people and societies. People on the island of Ikaria, a place where they seemingly forget to die, living measurably longer than people anywhere else on earth, take long naps during the day. Geniuses like Einstein are known to have taken short naps throughout the day, Einstein was said to have held a pencil in his hand until he dropped it – waking him up the moment he entered the deepest sleep. Dogs nap every chance they get, and they’re the happiest creatures on earth.c7e58a0c7abc11e2af5a22000a9f18fb_7

I’m not a genius, or an Ikarian, but I’ve been able to reap the productivity and energy benefits of short naps in only 16 minutes a day. It’s simple, but like anything worth doing will take a little time to master.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Set an alarm for 30 minutes.
  2. Darken the room as much as possible. I nap on the massage table at the gym, or on a couch. Beds are for sleeping at night.
  3. Get comfortable, and warm. Ideally the room would be cool, and you’d have a blanket or something warm to cover your body.
  4. Close your eyes and and let your thoughts go. In the first few minutes, you’ll be thinking about work, relationships, bills, and everything else. Let those thoughts go, almost in a meditative way until you fall asleep.
  5. When you wake up in a fog, wondering if you fell asleep, you probably already did. Get up immediately.
  6. If your alarm goes off, whether or not you were sleeping or even fell asleep you are done for the day. Go on with your day.
  7. Repeat daily, or even throughout the day if time permits.

Most people won’t even fall asleep the first few times they try this, but with a little bit of practice you’ll find that you fall asleep quickly, probably within five minutes of closing your eyes. As an added bonus, you might find that you fall asleep more quickly at night as well.

You will find that you wake up feeling incredibly refreshed. I nap like this about two times per week, usually when I find that my afternoon grogginess is limiting my productivity or effectiveness. Those moments when you’re at your desk and you feel like you could just close your eyes and go to sleep are perfect.

P.S. Combine with an espresso shot before the nap (caffeine takes about 30 minutes to metabolize) for maximum horsepower.

How I Smoke a Perfect Brisket

One of the undisputed secrets to good bar-b-que is time. In my estimation one of the other secrets is dry rub. Combine dry rub and time and you’re well on your way to good BBQ. I don’t know where I picked up this way of doing things but it has worked very well for me so I stick with it. The dry rub I use by far the most often is Dizzy Dust by Dizzy Pig. Hands down it’s the best all-around rub for pork shoulder, pork ribs, brisket, and even chicken that I’ve ever found. I have experimented with making my own rubs, but this is one thing where others can do it better in my experience.2016-03-18 20.04.25

  1. Apply your dry rub extremely generously. Use more than you think you should.
  2. Wrap the meat snugly in plastic wrap. Finish with rubber bands to keep it tight and keep contact on the meat.
  3. Put it in the fridge at least overnight, preferably over 24 hours.

Note that I don’t rub the rub into the meat by hand. Personally I don’t think this is necessary as the contact with plastic and time does more than you could accomplish on most of it, but if you like to get your hands dirty you’re certainly not going to do any harm by getting the rub into every nook and cranny.2016-03-18 20.29.14

 

I use a Big Green Egg (BGE) for smoking (and grilling, and some baking.) They’re kind of expensive, but in my opinion worth every penny. I’ve bought a lot of dumb toys and gadgets over the years and I consistently say this is one of my best purchases. My father-in-law has been getting great results with a Masterbuilt smoker that is about $250 on Amazon, a third of the price. That said, I have never regretted the purchase and the BGE has some major advantages.

2016-03-20 11.43.48
While the BGE is exceptionally good at maintaining temperature even in inclement weather, I use a piece of technology to ensure that on long overnight cooks I don’t wake up to a cold lump of charcoal and half-cooked meat. Or worse, that I don’t ruin or burn up a good piece of meat because the temp went too high. I use a device made by Rock’s Bar-B-Que called the Stoker. Basically it’s an Internet-enabled temperature controller that allows you to monitor the temp of the meat and control the temperature of the pit via a fan. It may not be “old school” but at this point I haven’t seen any pros not use a temperature controller, so I don’t have any qualms about this piece of technology. There are several on the market but I am loyal to the Stoker because it was the first to be Internet-enabled, is much more expandable than others, and has been rock-solid reliable for many many years. Their new models have WiFi, but I just plugged mine into a spare linksys to act as a bridge. (For the nerds in the house, it’s basically a Maxim TINI and the sensors are 1-wire bus sensors. It predates Arduino by at least a full generation.)

Doesn't really look like it in the photo, but smoke is pouring out.

Doesn’t really look like it in the photo, but smoke is pouring out.

I usually start the brisket cook at 225ºF. This time I tried starting at 205 and then kicked it up to 225 after a couple hours. I don’t expect it’ll have much impact, other than on timing when it’s finished. For smoke I’ll usually use hickory chunks as I favor the sweeter, lighter smoke flavor that it imparts. I’ve used mesquite in the past but I tend to grab the hickory more often. Once the charcoal has burned off the initial smoke and the fire stabilizes at the cooking temperature I’ll add 5-6 chunks of wood. I try to place them somewhat strategically so some will burn right away and others will burn later on as the fire moves through the lump. Opening the lid and doing this will throw the temp off for a bit but it’s not a big issue as you’re putting a refrigerator-cold piece of meat in there anyway. I use an inverted ceramic “plate setter” to hold a drip tray which I usually do not fill with any liquid. Some people think adding cider or something to this will add moisture to the meat – I doubt it. I just want to catch the fat drippings so it’s not dropping on the coals and imparting a burned fat flavor.

Put the meat on, and now you wait.

2016-03-20 11.46.32One of the big advantages of a temp controller is that you never have to open the smoker to check anything. Keeping the lid closed keeps the temp stable and the smoke in. It’s not a cheap addition to your setup, but it’s worth it for the peace of mind and consistency.

Timing with these big chunks of meat can be tricky if you don’t have a lot of experience. With brisket I plan on about 1 hour per pound, more like 1.25hours/pound if it’s a big one like this 7 pounder. Pork butts I plan for about 24 hours.

But here’s the key: don’t try to time it to be done right at eating time because you’ll get it wrong and then everybody will hate you because you’re eating hot dogs with all the great sides instead of brisket or pulled pork. Unless you have a ton of experience and you know how long it’s going to take, do what the pros do: start earlier and then wrap it up in tin foil and a layer of dish towels when it’s done and put it in a cooler, your poor man’s Cambro. The cooler will keep the temp safe for serving AND keep the meat hot and moist. When it’s time to serve, pull it out and slice (or pull).

Here’s another great reason to have a temp monitor/controller: At some point during the cook your meat is going to hit a temperature plateau that it won’t break through for hours and hours – folks call this the “stall”. I used to believe that this was a magical time during which unicorns blessed the meat with tenderness and fat by converting collagen. I have since been disabused of this notion and it changed my BBQ cooking for the better. Rather than a co2016-03-20 19.29.15nversion process, all the plateau is is the point at which evaporation of the water in the meat reaches an equilibrium with the low-temperature cooking and results in an almost constant state of evaporative cooling until you run out of water in the meat. Not great. Now, after several hours in the smoke when the meat hits a plateau (around 155ºF) I wrap it in aluminum foil for most of the remainder of the cook. This does two (well, three) things that are beneficial: you retain more water and moisture in the meat, you get a good cup or two of delicious juice to pour over the meat later (I happen to know that some fancy chefs dip their brisket in beef stock before serving to make it more juicy), and it usually signals that you’ll be done cooking in no more than a couple hours. Depending on timing I will sometimes kick the heat up to 250 or 275 at this point to speed things up as you’re not going to hurt the meat at that point.brisket
I pull it off between 195 and 205 and then let it rest for at least 20 minutes, if it’s not going into the cooler. Finally, slice it up. There are entire articles on how to slice a brisket, and I don’t get too fancy about it. This time I sliced the point off the flat and sliced that separately.2016-03-20 22.31.342016-03-20 22.32.59

As with anything, the more you research and the more you practice the better you get. This method is my amalgamation of what I’ve learned and observed as best practices. It may not be perfect, but it produces some damn fine bar-b-que.

Three Ways to Use Biofeedback Training

When people are first introduced to biofeedback training it can be easy to get overwhelmed and have it seem like something that would be nice to implement in their training but feel like it’s too complicated. It’s not, and I’ll lay out exactly how you can use it.

There are three major ways that you can implement biofeedback testing in your own training:

The first is to use it as a way to supplement your intuition and confirm a hunch. This would work best for people who already have a high sense of intuition about what they’re feeling in their body. You know when you feel that something is “off” and maybe even you have a good sense for what to change to make it feel right. In this case you can use biofeedback testing as a way to confirm or deny your hunch. Maybe you’re feeling a little off but you don’t know if it’s “in your head” or if it’s a real sensation – biofeedback can objectify that sensation for you and tell you if it’s accurate.

The second and most common way to use biofeedback training is to test out your major exercises and components of your program. This is a super flexible approach and lets you use an existing program for guidance without the downsides of sticking to a rigid prescriptive program – namely doing things that your body doesn’t react well to. This is the approach I advise most people to use when they first get started with biofeedback training. To implement this, simply test the movements in your program before performing them. If your first exercise of your program is a conventional deadlift then you would perform that movement and test it with biofeedback. If it tests well, then you go ahead with your program as usual. Believe it or not, in most cases this is exactly what happens. In the even that it does NOT test well you would then try some alternatives and make some tweaks to the program that day. The next day you very well may go right back to the program as written. Of course beyond testing exercises in the program it would be best if you also tested the weights or loads you were using, but each individual is free to adjust how much testing they want to do based on their own needs. I’ll circle back on the topic of how much testing to do at the end of this article.

Finally, the most thorough and intensive way to use biofeedback is to test everything. I call this going down the rabbit hole. In my experience this is most appropriate for people have a significant number of movement issues and or are dealing with chronic pain issues. These people can handle the least amount of distress from training, so they have to find that narrow slice of eustress that the right movement, with the right tool, the right load, and the right volume will engender. Naturally this is more time consuming to test so many more variations but it’s really necessary for people who can’t follow an inherently more stressful pre-written program.

Which Is Right For Me?

In my experience and opinion the best way to get started with biofeedback training is to start in the middle and move in the direction that makes sense for you. Most people with experience strength training are already accustomed to using or following a program. Applying biofeedback to a program is really simple, I went into this in detail in this article, and is not a big stretch from what you’re used to. Plus, if you’re using a well-designed program you are going to be able to reap the benefits that it’s designed to provide but calling audibles whenever necessary to keep things moving in the right direction gives you the best of both worlds. If I had a dollar for every time I heard of someone rigidly following a program getting hurt I would have a sad retirement on a private island of broken training dreams.

From there, you can move in one of two directions. If you’re super healthy, functional, and pain free and you have developed a good sense of intuition you can get away with a lot of training without actually testing – just paying attention to that intuitive sense of how things feel. When necessary you can use biofeedback to confirm your intuition.

For some people however, those who are experiencing ongoing pain issues, testing more and more becomes critically important. In these cases you sometimes have to get very creative in thinking of new things to test and finding exactly what works for your body so you can move where you can today.

 

Why We Get Hurt In Training

Getting hurt in training is the pits. Besides the obvious discomfort of getting injured itself and experiencing pain, those of us who train because we love seeing the progress are doubly insulted by the halt a training injury puts to our progress for a while. It’s frustrating, and most of us will do anything we can to avoid it, especially once we’ve been there and realized we’re not invincible.

One of the big promises made to us in Fitness™ is that if you do things with proper form and you do them correctly you won’t get hurt. Well, I think anyone who has been around this game for any length of time knows that it just isn’t true. In theory doing things correctly might reduce your chances of injury, but in reality it just doesn’t seem to play out that way. Sure sometimes someone is doing something horrendously wrong and it leads directly to injury but more often than not we see cases of someone doing something “sorta wrong” and causing no problems at all even over a long period, or someone doing things perfectly right and getting hurt anyway.

Furthermore if it were enough to do things “right” then my colleagues and friends who are the absolute best of the best coaches in the space should be immune to getting hurt. These guys and gals are experts at coaxing great form out of people, they certainly can apply it to themselves.

This lack of the golden promise of good form curing all has led to an entire sub-niche of fitness products being sold – products that are primarily promoted as injury prevention toolkits. It seems like every two or three years a new certification or course or philosophy comes around that promises to make injuries a thing of the past for yourself and for your clients. FMS, Clubbells, Z-Health, PRI, FRC and so on and on and on and on.

Every single one of these systems is predicated on the same idea:

“If you do this, this, and this you won’t get hurt.”

Obviously there are varying levels of complexity to the process, and each one has a unique way of laying out their system of heuristics for what to do and what not to do but the idea is always the same. Do these things to prevent injury.

Yet…….. folks are getting hurt anyway.

What gives?

I’m not saying these systems are entirely worthless, but they fail to deliver on the big promise and people are spending a ton of time and money chasing the next big thing.

It’s my contention that it’s not A) with what form or how you perform movements that leads to injury nor B) what preventive or pre-hab drills or hoops you jump through that prevent injury.

We get hurt because we apply a stress that the body – in that moment – wasn’t able to handle.

In other words, it doesn’t matter prehab or rehab you did before and it doesn’t matter how good or bad, relative to a textbook, your form was. No matter what you did or didn’t do before if you did that movement on that day you were going to get hurt.

Disheartening right? It’s totally out of your control and avoiding injury is hopeless, it’s the (bad) luck of the draw, right?

Well, no, and that’s where I think everyone has been missing the forest for the trees.

What’s missing is a feedback loop that can help you determine which stresses the body is perfectly ready to take on, resolve, and adapt to and which stresses are too far out of the range of limits in that moment. Of course this changes day to day and minute to minute based on all the various stressors that are applied in training or in life.

To date I have not found a more effective strategy than using biofeedback testing to determine what is in or out on a particular day.

Look, the premise is really simple, and it’s not unlike going to the physical therapist after an injury and having them check out your range of motion and strength and adjusting what you’re recommended to do or not do. This is just much, much faster and can happen in real-time with your training.

You simply take an assessment of where the body’s state is right now using range of motion. As I’ve explained before, toe touch works really well for this for most people. Then you do an unloaded version of the exact movement that you’re testing – let’s say a squat. Finally you check your range of motion again to see if it’s better, the same, or worse.

If it’s better, then carry on with your training, adding more weight and testing along the way.

If it’s worse – it’s my experience that you are at a much, much higher risk of injury and it would behoove you not to do that movement that day.

It’s hard to convey how incredibly effective this protocol has been for myself, my clients, and the now thousands of people I’ve taught it to. Here’s something I have heard in the past five or six years, but astonishingly rarely: “I don’t know what happened, everything was testing well and I got hurt.” Here’s something I have heard more times than I would like:

“It didn’t test well, but I really wanted to do it anyway, and on the fourth rep I got hurt.”

Damnit. Your body tried to tell you that it wasn’t a good idea, it gave you a measurable form of feedback that what you just did made your state discernibly worse, and you ignored it pushed forward anyway and paid the price.

Even if you’re not biofeedback testing, you’ve probably experienced a situation where something felt “off” or not quite right and sure enough you end up with an injury, or you just feel like crap after a workout – instead of feeling better like you should!

It shouldn’t happen, and it doesn’t have to happen. I believe you can leave the gym better every single time you train, if you just add this one extra step into your training.

You don’t have to change your program wholesale, and you don’t have to make major changes to how you train. Just add testing in, and when something doesn’t test well make some tweaks to it until you find something that does. It’s that simple.

In case biofeedback testing is new to you, here’s a video walkthrough that will be helpful:

It’s not the movement. It’s not how you do the movement. It’s not what you did before the movement. Good and bad, it’s how we respond to the movement that matters.