I have an uncle who frankly does not have the best social mannerisms. He’s brusque if not outright rude and sort of aggressively avoids all of the niceties and pleasantries of normal conversation. But, you know, other than that he’s great. At some point when I was growing up, he started saying “I don’t do ‘why’ questions.” Obviously this was a way of avoiding potentially challenging conversation, but in an outlandishly off-putting way, it was also a way of avoiding bullshit conversations.
More and more I am growing to appreciate how much why doesn’t matter.
People are obsessed with why, despite the fact that most answers to “why” are utter bullshit.
“You should do a warm-up before your workout.”
“Well because one reason is that you need to warm up the joint fluids so they lubricate the joint better.”
Really? That’s interesting because there’s very little evidence that exercise significantly elevates joint synovial fluid temperature. You know what does increase joint temperature? Acute inflammation and degenerative joint disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. That’s ungood.
Does that mean you shouldn’t warm up? No, because we know from the sum of our experience that it usually just feels better if we warm-up. It just means that the “why” is bullshit and is a waste of all of our time to both recite and listen to.
Give or take a couple decades ago genetics was the answer to every “why” question with regard to development, disease, growth, health. Genetic determinism was the de-facto paradigm for thinking about everything, as the state of the art of the time was that genetic code almost exclusively determined outcomes.
Ooops. Turns out that was total horseshit and now we are beginning to unravel epi-genetics, literally using the Latin/Greek prefix for “around” because we’re lazy and can’t get unstuck from the genetic paradigm, and understanding that genetics are more like a Mad Libs than a script, maybe determining possible outcomes that depend on environmental influences. Want a real mind fuck? There’s plenty of evidence that not only the environment of the organism matters, but the environment of the parents. (If you’re curious, google Irish potato famine epigenetics.)
In fitness everybody likes to get all boned up about why. why. why. Why is the sumo deadlift better than the conventional deadlift? Why is a low carb diet bad? Why is a low carb diet good? Why does pain occur without an obvious injury? All sorts of explanations at various levels of mechanism are proffered most of which are utterly specious.
In an academic sense I am all for intellectual curiosity and exploring mechanisms.
But when it comes to practical application we do ourselves a great disservice in focusing even a modicum of attention on the “why” that could be focused on the what and how.
We really don’t understand the mechanisms that cause muscles to get bigger and stronger.
We understand very, very well what actions we can take to make muscles get bigger and stronger.
Are you familiar with the black box model?
In engineering, a black box is a device whose inner workings are unknown, but whose inputs and outputs are observable.
So we have no idea what is going on inside this black box, but we do know that if we put heavy exercise into it, we get stronger muscles out of it.
Taking this model a step further we know that each black box is slightly different, and slight differences in input will result in different outputs. In other words maybe one black box responds really well to heavy singles, but another responds best to heavy triples. The only way you can know how a specific box responds is by testing it individually.
Me telling you some trivia, that may or may not even be correct, about one of the mechanisms inside the box doesn’t get you any closer to knowing if you should do singles or triples to get the best output.
Even further, if you can’t specifically act on the mechanism then it’s TOTALLY useless! But you can always act on more input->output information.
With practice this will fundamentally shift your thinking for the better.
Early on in my strength training days I came across kettlebells, the DragonDoor forum, and several RKCs which was formative in how I approach strength training. At the time the RKC was arguably the premier kettlebell training and certification organization and while I didn’t agree with all of their dogma (and still don’t, but much of it has softened and become less rigid) at that time it still very much influenced my thinking for the better.
As such the certification requirements and of the 5 minute snatch test, the half-bodyweight press, pistol test, and so on are things that are so embedded in my strength codex that I couldn’t forget them if I tried.
But the one test seems to have been elevated to mythical proportions, the RKC snatch test. This is the one that prospective RKC attendees build up in their minds and work themselves into a frenzy over only to ultimately just barely pass it or bomb out because they got too worked up.
Guys and gals I am here to tell you that it is not that hard.
Let’s reframe this before we go any further. Whoever told you the RKC snatch test was extremely difficult wasn’t giving you their subjective analysis of their experience, they were continuing a tradition of hazing that made this simple rite of passage out to be bigger than it is. Sure, it’s challenging, but anyone with sound technique and moderate strength and work capacity is more than capable of not only passing the RKC snatch test but making it look easy.
So let’s talk about the practicalities of how to train for this test.
It goes without saying that you need sound technique. I’m going to assume that you have that, but if not then dial it in with drills and practice.
The test is 100 snatches in 5 minutes, with a 24kg for most men and 16kg for most women. See the official requirements for breaks for body weight and age group. In any case the same principles apply.
If you had all the time in the world, the test would be trivial so it’s the time limit that causes problems for people. At a normal but quick pace 5 minutes is enough time for about 140 snatches. Conversely it only takes about 3:45 to do 100 reps if you don’t rest.
So where does the time go?
Hand switches and resting eat up that time very quickly. A single hand switch costs you about 3 seconds where a snatch only takes about a second, maybe a second and a half, not to mention you have to do an swing which means you’re doing most of the work of a snatch without getting credit for it. Setting the bell down and resting costs you even more time and work to get going again.
Thus, we can conclude that we want to minimize the number of times we have to switch hands, as well as not set the bell down to rest at all.
So the first thing you want to work on is the ability to withstand that fatigue in the forearms. A popular rep scheme for people barely making 100 is 15+10+10+10+5 (per hand) but this involves 9 hand switches. Imagine if you could do 25 per hand before switching (without creating too much forearm fatigue) you’d be half-way done with the test before costing yourself any extra time.
The best way to do this is to work on long single-sets pushing as far as you can, past the point where you can easily get back to doing another set. Gradually moving that wall further and further out.
This approach tackles the end of the spectrum of fatigue that forces you to switch hands.
Coming from the opposite end is dealing with the need to put the bell down to rest because you simply can’t keep moving due to “lung” capacity. Look, I put lung in quotes because this is a woefully imprecise way to describe it, but you and I both know the feeling of not having enough breath to continue working.
To solve that problem, work solely on building up the capacity to keep moving for the full 5 minutes switching as often as necessary with a smaller bell. If you can’t snatch for 5 minutes even with a smaller bell, start with doing swings instead until you can do them at a rapid pace with no rest for the full time period. Then go back to snatching switching as often as necessary. Once you can snatch for the full 5 minutes, even if you have to switch hands every 5 reps, go up a bell size.
Integrate to Dominate
These are literally the only two things you need to work on to easily smoke the RKC snatch test. By the time you show up on testing day, you will be able to confidently finish your 100 reps and put the bell down in time to drink an espresso.
Now these are the principles. They are here for your taking. However, if you are in need of a specific plan then I must shamelessly plug a program I’ve created. You will find no better preparatory tool than the Dellanavich Kettlebell Regime. If a $20 bill is worth it to you to pass the RKC snatch test with ease then pick it up. Not only will you breeze through the test, but you’ll gain training principles that you can use for a lifetime.
I’m nearly a mile up in the air sitting in the open door of an airplane. It’s nighttime. I’ve got fireworks strapped to my leg. On my back there are a couple hundred square feet of nylon that are supposed to save my life. Nylon and fire don’t usually mix well. Down below, I’ve got a square of concrete not much bigger than a basketball court to land in, surrounded by people and multi-million dollar airplanes include the Navy’s Blue Angels. I don’t feel like I can do this. I could climb back inside, and while it would hurt my pride tremendously (and my team in terms of completing their performance) at least I wouldn’t be taking an ambulance ride (or worse) if I failed.
But I’ve been here before.
On basically every skydive I’ve made before I’ve landed in the same size area or smaller – over 800 times. I have the skill and the ability.
I’ve been here before when I’ve gotten under the bar for a new PR squat.
I’ve been here before when I’m pulling on a PR deadlift, the bar isn’t moving (much) and I’m wondering if this is when I find out all those rumors are true and your spine will really shoot out your ass from deadlifting.
I’ve been here before when I’m on the first mile of a several-mile tempo run and I’m sure I can’t possibly keep this up.
I’ve been here before when I’m stepping out on the platform to attempt a weight I may have never done before, or is at the very edge of my limits and everyone is watching.
It’s okay to feel that anxiety, that fear, that nervousness. There’s no sense in pretending it’s not there, because it is. And it’s either going to stop you from taking action or it’s not. So feel it. Let it flow through you. And then go do it anyway.
If you can’t do it, take a small step backwards to whatever makes you just a little bit less nervous and then do that.
But if you’re not stepping through that anxiety sometimes, you’re not winning. You’re not finding out what it feels like when you overcome that anxiety, when you inform your senses, your intuition, your judgement that you are in fact capable of more.
Here’s a funny thing about fitness:
We don’t know how muscle grows.
Sure, we have some good ideas as to what conditions create muscle growth, or hypertrophy, and bodybuilders have been using these method for centuries at a minimum to build bigger muscles.
But no one actually understands the full depth and breadth of the interactions on a cellular level to the point where they can say definitively: this is how muscle growth occurs.
The closest thing that we really have to a map of the territory is Brad Schoenfeld’s seminal paper, “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy.” Read the paper if you like, but the conditions can be summarized and memorized very easily:
- Mechanical Tension: The muscles lengthened under load.
- Muscle Damage: Micro-traumas to the muscle tissue.
- Metabolic Stress: Byproducts of muscle energy utilization build up in the muscle.
When you have one or more of these conditions the result is that the muscle grows. Really, it’s as simple as that.
Therefore, it stands to reason that if you can increase one of those factors, you might get more hypertrophy. Might.
In the 1970s a young Japanese man started experimenting with restricting blood flow return in the hopes of increasing the build-up of metabolites and stimulating greater muscle growth. As the story goes he applied his techniques very successfully when he underwent knee surgery for torn ligaments and after six months in a plaster cast his muscles hadn’t atrophied at all thanks to his protocol. He later went on to study the method at the University of Tokyo where it was dubbed “Kaatsu training.”
The broad strokes are simple: Restrict return blood flow around the muscle group, and then perform a lot of relatively light reps to build up metabolites.
For reasons that should be fairly obvious this works best on discrete muscle groups that are easy to occlude, like the arms or legs. It would be hard to do on your lats.
Now this is where I have to tell you I have always been extremely hesitant and critical of BFR training. The weight of evidence is clear that it is effective. In short, it works. But the reality of occluding blood flow is always going to increase risk, and the limited nature of the body of research may not fully amortize the risks in a wider population. I would suggest you pursue this method with extreme care. I would argue that it’s abnormal to occlude blood flow beyond what is caused by the swelling of muscle under normal training circumstances, and there may be second-order effects that haven’t been picked up. Personally, I would never use this with clients. Additionally the risk of injury or damage under improper execution is extreme, and as with any complex procedure there is always risk that someone will screw it up.
Now that you know where I stand on it, and you are taking your own personal responsibility and making an informed decision, here’s how to do it:
You’ll need a way to occlude blood flow. What prompted this little experiment was a Dutch company launching a Kickstarter for inexpensive and very functional BFR straps sending me a pair to try out. I have no financial ties or incentive with the company, but I can tell you they work and the price is fair for a tool that makes it easier. You could use any old gym band, but it can be extremely uncomfortable to get the tension right.
Speaking of tension, the goal is a 7 out of 10, where 10 would be extremely painful and completely constricting bloodflow. If your limbs get tingly or numb it is too tight.
One way to approach it is to superset opposing muscle groups and then do three sets of 30-15-15 reps. So like in the video you might start with curls, do tricep extensions, and then go back to curls.
You do this in one continuous set, paying attention to keeping a slow-ish methodical tempo throughout. Obviously if you’re starting with a set of 30 you’re going to want to go pretty light. The goal here is not to create a ton of mechanical tension, it’s simply to build up those metabolic byproducts.
When you’ve completed all 60 reps, release the cuff. Don’t release it in between.
Here’s a short video of an arm session with the Marshall Roy the other day:
I love analogies. I think they’re super useful in helping us understand the world. Jen sometimes makes fun of me because I’ll try to build an analogy and it will fall flat, but in general I think I’m pretty good at creating analogies to explain concepts.
For example, a car’s check engine light is a pretty good analogy for pain in the body. Depending on how much you know about cars you know that the check engine light can mean anything from low oil pressure which means impending doom and your engine could literally grind itself into metal shavings in the next few minutes, or it could mean your gas cap is loose and needs to be tightened. The only way to know for sure is to take it in (or get a reader) and read the codes to see what is going on. Pain is similar. Sometimes it just means you need to change your positioning a little bit, and sometimes it means you have cancer.
The problem with analogies is that they fall apart when you try to explain complex non-linear systems with them.
So let’s take the old “bucket” analogy for stress.
You have a bucket and in goes all of your stress and the bucket can fill up but it can only take so much and then when it overflows ostensibly you’re fucked.
The problem with this is that it’s totally linear and totally negates the complexity of stress.
I call it the version 1.0 understanding of stress. Basically stress is bad and when you get too much of it then it’s really bad.
So you try to extend the analogy a little bit and you poke some holes in the bucket, and you add a tap that is constantly trickling into the bucket and you say “OK now you have all of this stress coming into the bucket, some of it is good and some of it is bad. Stress is constantly leaving the bucket through the holes in the side but if you overflow the bucket you’re still fucked.”
This is better. You’re starting to move into the version 2.0 understanding of stress in that everything is a form of stress and there is good stress and bad stress (eustress and distress.)
But what if I told you that some of the water coming into the bucket could mix with elements in the bucket causing some of the holes in the bucket to either shrink or enlarge changing the rate of outflow, and then that one stream into the bucket isn’t sufficient to explain it so you’d have multiple streams, and then that the actual shape and size of the bucket could change based on the streams in and out and…
You can see where this is going. The analogy falls apart because you can’t explain a complex system using a simple one.
But it’s been useful to understand the progression in understanding stress. Now let’s ditch the metaphor.
Think of stress as nothing more than a signal or input to the body. When you do a bicep curl there is a cascade of signals, but the main message is “this area of the body is going to be stressed” and the healthy body says “ok, let me lay down some more tissue there to make it more resilient to stress in the future.”
When you eat food you’re providing building blocks but you’re also signaling that building and restorative processes can commence – protein specifically kicks off muscle protein synthesis. When you sleep it’s a signal that a whole host of restorative, autophagy, and cleanup processes can begin. When you are scared or in fear it’s a signal for the body’s defensive processes to kick in – the pulse quickens, hormones are released, the eyes dilate to take on whatever caused the stress.
One of the keys to really, truly understanding stress is knowing that the effects are associated to the stress signal, not caused by it.
As an example, the first time you jump out of a plane you are going to experience the fear response I referred to above: your pulse quickens, adrenaline is released, your focus narrows, you may experience time dilation in which everything seems to happen slowly. Most skydivers can’t tell you anything about the first skydive other than that they successfully pulled their parachute and landed.
On your 500th skydive you can tell each of your five partners what they specifically could have done better with their body position, ask them if they noticed the other plane pass pretty close by, and remember that you had to reach down to pull your shoe back on when it came loose. If your heart rate and hormones had been monitored there would have been no change.
Same stress, same person, completely different effect. So what’s different? The context.
Stress + Context = Response
This is why what is distressful for one person, say running 3 miles, is totally eustressful and restorative for another person. Or for the same person at different times in their life!
Understanding this you can begin to comprehend why the prescription for a restorative or eustressful intervention may not be the same for two different people under intense “life” distress. Again, an example is helpful:
Two middle-aged men who are otherwise identical are having an exceptionally stressful week at work and at home. The only difference between the two is that one has lifted heavy his whole life and the other hasn’t lifted much at all and has only recently started strength training. Psychologically our middle-aged-meathead loves training and finds it a release and escape from his worldly concerns, while our new trainee is enjoying his new routine but finds it somewhat exhausting.
How do you plan their training sessions?
If you’re an average coach or trainer you will back off their session to make it easier because you understand that an overload of stressors can turn almost anything into distress and you’ll send them off with an admonishment to get more sleep.
But the great coach will go further. They’d back off the training intensity for the new trainee because they understand that in context the mere act of doing any strength training at all is stressful enough for this guy and it doesn’t need to be a hard week on top of what he’s already got going. But our meathead thrives on training and the stress response he gets from hard training is more like what you’d see from something that actually promotes recovery rather than something that is destructive or distressful.
The great coach will take advantage of knowing this, they’ll also know that volume more than intensity tends to wear down the experienced lifter, and they’ll take advantage of the high sympathetic nervous system tone during this stressful week to have the lifter set some new maxes – doing essentially the opposite of what might sound intuitively best. But in context it’s actually better, because our meathead friend’s body is physiologically primed to respond best to exactly that.
Only in knowing, or predicting, what the response is can you judge the stressor. This is version 3.0 understanding of stress.
One reason biofeedback through ROM or HRV can be useful is that you can use the past to inform your predictions about the future. I know several folks who use their HRV religiously and they know what types of training stimuli will push their HRV up or down based on where they are at the moment. I’ve seen ROM biofeedback used successfully for years to predict what stimuli are going to be responded to positively or negatively. You can of course only know – via measurement – after the fact of the stimulus, but you can make pretty good predictions if you look at the patterns of history.
If you take one thing away from this article it should be that stressors aren’t defined by physical therapists, marketers, doctors, meditation teachers, strength coaches, or anyone else. The only thing that qualitatively defines a stressor is the response.
Once you understand that you can stop jamming round pegs in square holes and start making coaching and training recommendations that are ideal for your charges.
Maybe that sounds like a bit of a malapropism, but really it’s true. Mondays always hold that special power of feeling like a fresh start and when Monday happens to fall on the second day of the year, or the first day you aren’t nursing a hangover (truth is I wasn’t, I had a wonderful New Years Eve watching lathe, vertical mill, and other machining tutorials on youtube) is a special fresh start indeed.
Last year was very much a transition year for me, which is a way of saying that I feel like I have a good excuse (selling our house and moving half way across the country) to not have accomplished as much as I would have liked to.
This year I have big goals to make up for lost time. One of the main ones is to talk to you all more often, about more topics that I think are important. Fitness is of course going to be a key topic, but it won’t be all fitness all the time. If you’re not interested in anything other than fitness, so long! I’ll miss you. But if you’re looking at the big picture and you want to talk about the stuff that matters stay tuned.
Here’s the first thing that really matters that I want you to be thinking about this year: Standing up for what you know is right and what you believe in.
The past few weeks have brought about a couple social protests that have been interesting enough to really get me thinking about this topic. A couple weeks ago I got involved in a little social satire that accidentally blew up into national news. Then yesterday some NoDAPL protesters scaled a beam in Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium and dropped themselves and a huge banner from the ceiling – calling for U.S. Bank to divest from Dakota Access.
Now, I don’t really care what you believe about the DAPL, because it doesn’t matter to my point. My point is that if you call yourself a freedom-loving American then you have to have tremendous respect for these non-violent social gadflies who risked their own butts to create social tension.
Just like the other social protest people flocked to social media to wring their hands over what could have happened if “something went wrong” or “someone got hurt.” Folks, the world is a dangerous and scary place. Very often the harm that is happening by maintaining the status quo is far greater than whatever freak situation might get someone hurt in a non-violent protest. It’s a cost of doing business. And if you call yourself an American who wraps themselves in the warmth of the constitution you should be damn thankful that there are people willing to take on those risks.
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”
Martin Luther King, everyone’s favorite rubber-stamped methods-condened social revolutionary wrote those words from JAIL.
Again, let me reiterate: It doesn’t matter if you think they should plow that pipeline right through the middle of a river. If you love freedom, you have to love someone who is willing to stand up for their beliefs especially when they’re going to pay consequences for it. Otherwise I’m told North Korea is lovely this time of year and you will surely be pleased that there are no dissenters amongst your midst.
Which brings me to you. I want you to have the guts to stand up for what you believe in more often – even if it’s unpopular. Maybe it means telling someone on the street to pick up their dog’s shit. Maybe it means standing up for someone you don’t know who is being harassed on the street. It’s not always going to be safe. It’s not risk free. Take some risks. Strengthen your spine with deadlifts and declarations.
If you’ve been looking for a hero I have good news and bad news: you’re the hero.
I hope you have an amazing year and we’re going to be talking a lot more often.
Guru in the fitness world has become synonymous with snake oil salesman. My buddy the glute guy, Bret Contreras, has a regular series of “Grill the Guru” posts and videos where he takes down pseudo-science and questionable justifications by well known fitness personalities. Being called a guru, to most people, would be taken as an insult.
But as so often happens guru has been appropriated and misused. It’s a Sanskrit term which has important meaning in Indian culture and tradition, and is used in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and other religions and cultural traditions. The connotation in these traditions is a teacher – but much more than just a teacher. A guru is someone who has deep and expansive knowledge, as well as the varied abilities as mentor, counselor, guide, and journeyman with the ability to impart knowledge and wisdom.
Guru is far from a pejorative – it’s a revered position.
So we took this term of honor and ruined it as we often seem to do, because we apparently can’t have nice things.
But I think it’s a mistake to think of the word guru in this way, and I think more people would do well to have a guru.
If you were to exclusively follow my buddy Bret Contreras your training would be fairly strength-focused consist of large compound movements done for relatively low reps (1-5 in general) along with some higher rep accessory movements and a lot of glute and booty exercises for both low and high reps. You wouldn’t stress over nutrition too much, focusing on eating real food with lots of protein and not getting into a lot of supplements.
What if you only followed my wife, Jen Sinkler, for your fitness information? Well your training would be biased a bit more towards strength or sport and involve a lot of large compound movements with a lot of movement variation and rep ranges from low to high. You’d probably throw in some circuit workouts which are well-known to improve general fitness and work capacity and are usually fun. Nutritionally you’d follow sort of a Paleo-plus-cupcakes strategy of eating a lot of whole foods, keeping protein high, and not worrying about the occasional dessert or junk food. Your workout fashion would be on point.
If you followed my friend Mike Vacanti you’d pay a little more attention to your nutrition I’d wager – at least for a while – by diligently tracking your macros and making sure you hit the targeted proteins, fats, and carbs every day. You wouldn’t worry too much about how you got there as long as it was mostly real food sources, and you’d eat a fair amount of ice cream. Your training would look a lot like a recurring theme with a bit more focus on bodybuilding instead of maximal strength, lots of large compound movements combined with higher rep accessory work for the aesthetics.
Or, if you followed my pal Pat Flynn your training would be spartan but effective – using only a minimal complement of barbells and kettelbells to create workouts that are primarily strength based but short, difficult, and effective. There’s a good chance your journey would have started with a fairly-challenging fat loss program that would have you limiting what you eat to only the bare essentials, but after that you’d relax the reins a bit and focus on moving the big rocks and keeping your diet high in protein, good fats, and relatively low in added carbs or sugar.
What about someone who leans a little further towards a more extreme philosophy? If you were sold on the Paleo principals and you followed my friend Robb Wolf you would train primarily with large compound movements along with some hiking, carrying, or low intensity cardio. You might even be convinced to try out Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Following the Paleo principals would have you eating a lot of protein, a fairly high amount of good fat, and you’d keep your carbs really low. For most people this would work exceptionally well, but a few would notice the low carbs affecting their performance and ability to train – those folks would adjust upwards according to their tolerance until they find the sweet spot. You might care a bit more about where your food come from and you might pay more attention to things like circadian rhythms and how much natural light you get.
My point – if you haven’t been able to discern it yet – is that the broad strokes are all pretty much the same no matter who you listen to. As a result, when you take everything that one person says as gospel, and then take everything that someone else says as gospel and try to reconcile them you’ll get hung up on minor details that conflict but don’t matter.
This is the danger of not having a guru, or having more than one guru.
I’d argue that you’re better off trusting one source to be your mentor or “guru” until which time they either prove they’re not trustworthy or you determine that their approach and philosophy just doesn’t jive with your constitution – no matter how deep or correct their wisdom is.
I wouldn’t be ashamed to say I have a guru. What about you?
(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.
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:
- Bills – all major bills are on auto-draft so I don’t have to remember to pay them, and I never see that money.
- 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.
- 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.
- HSA – this is both a health rainy day fund as well as a backdoor retirement account.
I 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.
- Don’t lose money.
- Invest often and regularly.
- Allocate assets intelligently. (aka don’t put all your eggs in one basket)
- Don’t try to pick stocks. (See #1)
- Don’t time the market. (See #2)
- 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:
- 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%.
- Just start with $100. Every three to six months increase it by $100 until it causes too much strain, then back off.
- 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.
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.
Walking 4mph at an incline on the treadmill while the perfect Swedish girl next to me gracefully jogs at 9mph 😒 #ihatethegym
— allie (@allie_leachman) October 13, 2016
Either way I want to hear your stories.