Willpower, Discipline, and Obedience: How to Do What You Set Out to Do

Yeva and a Sausage 2 by GG Vogman

Does willpower keep the dog from eating the sausage, or obedience?

I’ve written a lot about willpower and discipline in the past because it’s a subject that fascinates me. Consider this, with the Internet it’s possible to find step-by-step instructions on how to do nearly anything. Practically anything you could ever want to do is right there, so why don’t people do it? If you’ve always wanted to speak Portuguese or play the guitar, why can’t you yet? Why aren’t you working toward that?

It’s because you don’t put in the time? And why don’t most people put in the time? Because they lack the discipline.

All the other pieces are in place for you to do whatever it is you’ve always wanted to do – the last thing is for you to have the control over yourself necessary to follow through with it.

By understanding willpower and obedience, you can do just that.

A Different Way to Look at Willpower

Willpower can be something of a tricky subject depending on how you approach it.

On one hand it’s generally accepted that it’s a finite resource, if you try to exert too much of it you eventually run out and the best way to get more is to exercise it with gradually stronger challenges like a muscle.

On another hand some research would suggest that effect is largely a result of how we perceive things. That would mean the best way to get more willpower is to firmly believe you’ve got more.

What both of these ideas have in common is that they view willpower as the ability to do something in the moment contrary to your innate desires. You want to eat that entire pint of ice cream, but you know it’ll put you over your calorie target for the day so you exert your willpower to not eat it. You want to screw around on Facebook or Reddit instead of getting to work, so you exert your willpower to force yourself to be productive, etc.

This is the common perception of what willpower means, if someone gives in to their momentary desires they’d say they lack the will to resist the temptation.

I think there’s a better way to look at it though. Rather than seeing that as a lack of will, it’s more a lack of obedience.

Willful or Obedient?

As an easy example of what I mean, I’ll use someone who smokes. Let’s call him John.

John, as noted, smokes cigarettes. John would also like to quit. He tells himself he has made the decision to quit, but then a few days later lights up a cigarette and starts smoking. If asked why he’s smoking even though he said he quit, John would attribute this akratic behavior to him not having the will to resist the urge to smoke.

Is that really the case though?

I would argue that it’s John’s will that causes him to smoke at that moment. In this sense your will is that which manifests your desires in the moment. John desired a cigarette and was willful enough to bring that desire to fruition.

So if will is the force that manifests your current desires, why does John’s will cause him to smoke? Isn’t it his desire to quit smoking?

No, actually. At least not in the moment, it’s the desire of his past self to quit smoking. Even then, technically past John didn’t even make a decision to quit smoking, but rather just had an idea that he’d like to quit. What’s the difference?

A decision is defined by action, whereas an idea doesn’t require any. Past John declared that he was going to quit smoking, but didn’t actually take any action at the time. That means he just had an idea about quitting smoking, he left the decision – the action to be taken – up to future John.

Eventually we arrive at John right now who must make a decision, does he bow to the will of past John and refuse to smoke, or does he follow his own will and have a cigarette?

Imagine for a second that rather than John deciding he shouldn’t smoke anymore someone else, his wife for instance, told him to quit. Later that day John finds that he wants to have a cigarette, clearly in this scenario if he has one he’s expressing his own will and if he doesn’t he’s being obedient to the will of his wife.

What then is the difference between that and the struggle between past John and current John?

The issue isn’t that he lacks the will to overcome his desires, it’s that he lacks the discipline to remain obedient to the will of his past self. It’s much harder to see this in decisions we make ourselves, because in general we consider our past selves and our current selves to be a single entity.

In the end, there is no appreciable difference between past John telling current John not so smoke and John’s wife telling John not to smoke. In either case John must either obey and not smoke, or exercise his own will and have a cigarette.

Becoming Disciplined

So if this is the case, shouldn’t we be able to find a model somewhere of people who are more able than most to complete a plan they made in the past irrespective of any desires they have in the present?

As it turns out, we do have an excellent model of this – the military.

People who have gone through military training are often held up as an example of people who have a great deal of self-control, discipline and, in the traditional sense, willpower. They’re considered more able than the common person to accomplish something the set out to do.

However, the military clearly doesn’t operate by encouraging its members to be willful. On the contrary it teaches you to obey the commands given to you nearly without thought. One of the apparent purposes of basic training is to crush recruits and beat them down physically and psychologically until their will is broken. Drill sergeants do not exist to encourage recruits to be willful.

Once your will has been broken down and your instinct is to obey the orders of others, it becomes easy to obey the orders of your past self.

That being the case, if we want to do what we set out to do in the past (get fit, learn a language, finish a project, etc.) than we need to develop military style discipline. The most obvious answer for how to accomplish that – aside from joining the military – is to mimic their methods for instilling discipline in recruits.

The easiest way to start is to choose one small thing to do everyday that you know, in the moment when it comes time to do it, you aren’t going to want to do.

At first this should be something small and insignificant, my personal favorite choice is the freezing cold shower.

Commit right now to taking a freezing cold shower tomorrow morning. Do you know what’s going to happen? Tomorrow you’re going to stand in front of the shower, turn it as cold as it can get, and then you’re probably going to panic.

You know it’s going to be cold. You know it’s going to be awful. You’re going to want to back out, to do it another day, you’re going to tell yourself it’s a stupid idea. At this point you’re either going to be willful and crank the heat back up, or you’re going to do what you said you would and get in that cold shower.

The key here is to obey without giving yourself the chance not to. To condition yourself to ignore that urge to disobey and just jump in the shower. The first day is going to be the worst. After that though, it’ll get easier. Before long there won’t be any struggle at all anymore.

By continually doing exercises like these, starting small and then working on to bigger things, you can eventually overcome your will and develop the discipline to obey your past decisions no matter how badly you want to violate them in the moment.

Once you can do that, you can pretty much accomplish anything you want.

What do you think? Is willpower more about having the strength to ignore your desires, or having the discipline to obey the desires of your past self? Is there a real difference between the two? Let us know in the comments.

Photo Credit: GGVogman

How to Calculate Your Macros Part 2 – Macronutrient Ratios

Bountiful Feast by Virgil Chang

So by now you ought to know all about what macros are and how to count them and you should have gone through the first part of this two part article and figured up an estimate of how many calories you need and want to aim for per day. That means that we’re ready for the final part of the process – figuring out your specific macro ratios & amounts.

If you haven’t gone through at least the previous article to figure out your caloric needs, go do that really quick. You’ll have a much easier time following along and you’ll be able to have your macros ready by the end of the article. You’ve got to know your calories first though.

All set? Good.

Choosing Your Goal

The first step in figuring out your actual macronutrient ratios is going to be choosing what specific goal you’re pursuing; a cut, a slow bulk or recomposition.

Cutting and slow bulking you were introduced to in the previous article, but recomposition is going to be new here. Recomposition is going to be for all the people who read the last article and thought to themselves that they didn’t fit in either category well. It’s also for people, particularly athletes, who for whatever reason need to keep any muscle loss during their cut to an absolute minimum or potentially even build additional muscle while losing fat.

That being said, choosing recomposition as a goal will make things go much more slowly. The majority of people will probably want to go with a cut, particularly if you’re looking to burn off fat.

Assuming you didn’t already choose one when figuring up your calories in the previous article (you should have) here’s the quick rundown of who each is for in general:

  • Cut – For anyone whose primary goal is fat loss. The goal is to lose as much fat as possible while sparing as much muscle as possible.

  • Recomposition – For anyone whose goal is fat loss but who absolutely need to maintain or gain muscle at the same time. Athletes or people who are already near 10% body fat and are trying to shave off those last couple percentage points will be the majority of this category.

  • Slow Bulk – For anyone whose primary goal is muscle gain. The objective here is to gain as much muscle as possible while gaining as little fat as possible. For best results most people here should already be lean enough to have visible abs.

Once you’ve figured out where you want to be, we can get down to figuring your exact macros out. For example purposes I’m going to bring back our example gentleman from the previous article. I’m going to name him Stan this time around for ease of reference.

If you recall, Stan is 200 lbs. and 20% body fat. He did all the calculations from the previous article and found he has a Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) of about 1,838 calories per day and an estimated Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) of about 2,325 calories per day. Let’s take him through all three goals.

The Cut

We’ll start with the cut both because it’s the one most people are likely to need and because at 20% body fat it’s definitely the one Stan needs.

You have two options here. The first is the more basic and it’s just to follow an even caloric deficit across the entire week cycle. This is what we did in the previous article, Stan wants to lose weight so he picks a caloric target less than his TDEE and greater than his BMR. For our purposes now, let’s say 2,000 calories per day average. Then he’d adjust from there after some time based on his progress. There’s some room for wiggle but as long as his average over the week is about 2,000 calories per day that’s the important thing.

The second option is getting a little more complicated, but will get a little better results.

It involves changing the number of calories and the macronutrient breakdown based on whether it’s a training day or a rest day. Training day here meaning primarily lifting or resistance training, not necessarily cardio or metabolic conditioning things.

This makes it a little more work, but there’s an advantage to getting more calories and having more of your calories coming from carbohydrates on training days and getting fewer calories with more of those calories coming from fat on rest days. How this works in detail deserves its own article so I won’t go into it in depth here, but the general idea is you’re providing your body with more of what it needs to get through tough workouts and get protein to your muscles on training days and putting your body into a better fat burning environment on rest days.

We’ll look at the flat calorie intake option first.

Let’s go back to Stan and his 2,000 calories. He’s decided to make things easy with a flat calorie intake. Now that he knows his calories he needs to figure out what the macro breakdown will be. Here’s what you want to shoot for on a cut:

  • Protein – Between 1 to 1.5g of protein per pound of lean body mass.

  • Fat – Between 0.4 to 0.6g of fat per pound of lean body mass.

  • Carbohydrates – However many grams necessary to balance your calorie budget.

So Stan figures up his lean body mass (LBM) by multiplying his body fat percentage by his total weight and then subtracting that number from his total weight. (200 lbs. x .20 body fat = 40 lbs. of body fat, 200 lbs. bodyweight – 40 lbs. body fat = 160 lbs. lean body mass) He gets an LBM of 160 lbs.

Stan likes his meat and even though he’s cutting wants to spare as much muscle as possible and possibly add some, so he chooses the higher protein intake of 1.5g per pound of LBM. 160 lbs. LBM x 1.5g protein = 240g protein. Stan writes that down so he doesn’t forget it later.

Next we have fat. Stan picks an even 0.5g of fat per pound of LBM here which puts him at 80g of fat per day. (160 lbs. LBM x 0.5g fat = 80g fat)He notes that down too.

Lastly come the carbohydrates. Here Stan needs to figure out how many calories he’s got left in his budget and then how many grams of carbs that equates to. If you remember from the first macros article, protein is roughly equivalent to 4 calories per gram (technically less but for math’s sake we’ll call it 4), fat is equivalent to 9 calories per gram and carbs are equal to 4 calories per gram.

Stan multiplies these values by the protein and fat macros he wrote down and comes to 960 calories worth of protein (240g protein x 4 calories = 960 calories) and 720 calories worth of fat (80g fat x 9 calories = 720 calories) for a total of 1,680 calories accounted for.

Stan’s goal was 2,000 calories per day so we subtract that 1,680 from that to get a remaining balance of 320 calories. We apply the previous process in reverse and divide that by 4 and arrive at 80g of carbs. (320 calories / 4 calories/g of carbs = 80g of carbs)

That leaves Stan with daily macro targets of 240g of protein, 80g of fat and 80g of carbs. Since the caloric value of macros is constant if he eats exactly that much he’ll hit his target of 2,000 calories every time.

We’ll get to more specifics on what to do with this information a little later. For now, you should at least understand how to get to those values.

So what if Stan wanted to be a bit more complicated but reap the benefits of changing his macros on training vs. rest days?

First, rather than pick an even caloric deficit of 325 calories per day (2,325 TDEE – 2,000 calorie target) he would choose two different calorie targets, one for his training days and one for his rest days.

You want to aim for a small caloric surplus (above your TDEE) on training days, but enough of a caloric deficit on rest days that the total weekly calorie expenditure falls in a deficit. In other words, you want to eat more than you burn on training days, but overall burn more than you consume weekly. A good place to start for most people in my experience is with a 10% caloric surplus on training days and a 30% caloric deficit on rest days.

So in Stan’s case we take his TDEE of 2,325 calories and add 10% to get his training day calorie target of 2,560 calories per day (2,325 TDEE x .10 = 232 + 2,325 TDEE = 2,557 calorie target rounded to 2,560) and then take his TDEE again and subtract 30% from it to get 1,630 calories per day (2,325 TDEE x .30 = 698, 2,325 TDEE – 698 = 1,627 calorie target rounded to 1,630).

You could just do the same thing you did above to assign macros to these values, but since we’re already being a touch more complicated you might as well go the extra mile and cycle your macronutrient ratios as well. It’s not a make-or-break deal, but there’s a definite advantage on the hormonal side of things to consuming significantly more carbs and less fat on your training days and significantly more fat and less carbs on your rest days.

Just like there isn’t a golden calorie ratio that just works for everyone there isn’t a golden macro ratio split that’s guaranteed to fit everyone’s needs. You’ll need to adjust as you go based on how your body’s responding to things.

I like to start most people out at a 75/25 25/75 split since I usually get a good response from it and can dial in from there. That means 75% of your remaining calories after you take your protein out will come from carbs on your training days and the remaining 25% from fat and the reverse on rest days.

I like to keep protein consistent for simplicity’s sake, I would also recommend not going below between 50 to 60 grams of fat per day average over the week. Going below this tends to create problems with people’s hormone production (in short, less testosterone, low energy, diminished sex drive, etc.).

So here Stan would take his training day calories of 2,560 and subtract his protein calories first to get 1,600 calories (240g of protein = 960 calories, 2,560 training day calories – 1,600 calories). Then we figure out what 75% of that is which comes to 1,200 calories (1,600 x .75 = 1,200 calories) and then, since carbs are worth 4 calories each, divide that number by 4 to get 300 grams of carbs per day (1,200 / 4 = 300g carbs).

We do the same thing for fat but with the remaining 25% to get 45 grams of fat (1,600 x .25 = 400 calories / 9 calories per gram of fat = 45 grams of fat rounded up). This is less than the 50 to 60 I recommend but it’s close enough that the higher fat levels on rest days will usually even it out.

That leaves us with 240 grams of protein, 300 grams of carbs, and 45 grams of fat on training days totaling to around 2,560 calories – due to the rounding there will be small discrepancies, don’t sweat it you should be adjusting as you go anyway to dial in on where you need to be.

We do the same thing for rest days but in reverse and we get 240 grams of protein, 56 grams of fat, and 42 grams of carbs.

Personally, while it does even out to just over 50 grams of fat per day average I would consider upping the fat just a bit here and lowering carbs further on rest days – especially if you feel those signs of reduced testosterone production. It would take a bit of playing with.

Recomposition

I’m not going to spend as much time going through examples here and on the slow bulk since you should understand the math having gone through the cut section. The math is all the same here, except instead of using the 10% over and 30% under calorie split we do a split of 10% over on training days and 10% under on rest days.

This should be the option primarily for people who need to cut down a little but have a strong need to conserve every ounce of muscle mass or for people who are new to training and currently very weak. The slow bulk option is there too but you can get excellent results with the recomposition set up if you currently look like Steve Rogers’ before picture.

When it comes to the macro split we can use the same 75/25 25/75 split here as well. Keep in mind though that we will be adjusting as we go. Give it a few weeks of consistent adherence, evaluate your progress and then make alterations as necessary.

In Stan’s case, for reference, he would be targeting 2,560 calories on training days broken into 240g of protein, 300 grams of carbs, and 45 grams of fat and 2,095 calories broken into 240g of protein, 96 grams of fat, and 72 grams of carbs.

Slow Bulk

The slow bulk follows the same basic pattern, except like with the cut you have the option of following the flat calorie surplus laid out in the first article on macros or by doing the more complicated but slightly more favorable caloric and macro cycling.

If you choose the flat model you just use the previous article to determine how much of a surplus to shoot for based on your training level then divide up your macros like we did with the cut.

  • Protein – Between 1 to 1.5g of protein per pound of lean body mass.

  • Fat – Between 0.4 to 0.6g of fat per pound of lean body mass.

  • Carbohydrates – However many grams necessary to balance your calorie budget.

Let’s say Stan’s in the beginner category and has never really done any lifting before. He shoots for a daily surplus of 300 calories which brings him to 2,625 per day when added to his TDEE of 2,325. He then follows the chart above to divide it up – 240 grams of protein again takes 960 calories out of his budget leaving him with 1,665 left, 80 grams of fat takes 720 more calories out leaving 945 calories which leaves 235 grams of carbs per day to balance things out.

If you’re going for the split you want to have a calorie structure of 30% surplus on training days and a 10% deficit on rest days. Essentially the inverse of the cut.

In Stan’s case, following the same process we’ve used the last few times, we come up with a training day calorie target of 3,025 calories partitioned into 240 grams of protein, 390 grams of carbs, and 57 grams of fat and a rest day target of 2,093 calories partitioned into 240 grams of protein, 96 grams of fat, and 130 grams of carbs.

Choosing one of these you should be able to get your initial calorie and macro set up down to start. Make sure you track things as closely as you can and keep an eye on how you’re progressing. If things aren’t heading in the right direction the you need to adjust a little and go from there. Specifically how to adjust is something that needs its own article, but in general if you’re not losing fat you need to adjust your weekly calories down a touch and if you’re not getting stronger or building muscle you need to adjust your weekly calories up a touch.

If you need some more specific advice on how to set up your macros, or you just don’t want to be bothered with all the details, we do have some coaching spots available where we take care of all that for you.

Confused about how we got to certain values? Have any questions about how to set things up for certain goals? Leave them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Virgil Chang

The 80/20 Guide to Nutrition

Homework by Nathaniel Watson

Nutrition doesn’t have to be this complex – as long as you know what to focus on.

Nutrition is a complicated thing.

It doesn’t have to be, at least unless you really want to start getting into the energy pathways and biochemical stuff. If you’re just looking to lose weight, get a bit stronger, or just be overall healthier the nutrition knowledge required to get you there is actually pretty simple. The problem is the fitness industry in general (Yes I realize I am, de facto, a part of that industry but I’m trying to do better here) emphasizes all the complicated – and often expensive – aspects of nutrition first and ignores the things that matter most.

Nutrition and all the goals linked to it follow the 80/20 principle as much as anything else does. There are a minority of high return actions that will lead to a majority of your results and a majority of low return actions that will lead to a minority of your results – in other words about 20% of what you do will get you about 80% of your results, while the other 80% of what you do will only be worth about 20% of your results.

The best course of action then, with anything, is to focus on that 20% of actions first that will give you 80% of your results.

So What’s Really Important?

Going from most important at the top to least important at the bottom, I’d divide things up as follows:

  1. Calories

  2. Macronutrients

  3. Micronutrients

  4. Meal Timing

  5. Supplements

If you flip the list over it could be a ranking for things you’re most likely to see articles about in health & fitness magazines.

The problem is that complicated and detailed processes are sexy and make us feel like we’re doing something. They also offer people an out as for why what they’re doing now isn’t working. They follow a program for a week or two, possibly with poor adherence, don’t see the results they want and then see a magazine article telling them the secret to weight loss is five small meals a day while carb cycling and taking green tea extract.

‘Oh,’ they say to themselves, ‘no wonder I’m not losing weight. I’ll do that instead.’

Then inevitably they don’t get anywhere on that plan and come across something a few weeks or a month later and decide to try that. They wind up feeling like they’ve worked super hard and tried everything and nothing’s worked, when really they’ve just bounced from one complex thing to another. It’s like nutritional busywork.

I’ve had people in consults at the gym complain about how they have so much trouble losing weight. When I ask about their nutrition habits they rattle off twelve supplements they’re taking and explain how they eat six meals a day timed at very specific intervals and avoid gluten like the plague – but it’s still not working. They wonder if they have thyroid problems or are just genetically predisposed to be overweight.

Then when I ask how many calories they actually get in a day, they say they have no idea.

Why people have a tendency to ditch the boring, unremarkable but effective things for the flashy, sexy but useless things deserves an article of its own. For now though, lets look at the order in which you should be focusing on things.

Calories

Calories are the most important variable in any kind of physique change.

I’m going to say it one more time because the ‘A calorie isn’t always a calorie’ rhetoric has been pretty loud lately.

Calories are the single most important variable in weight loss or gain.

Now I will concede that the primary thing calorie balance will affect is weight change. What types of tissue that weight consists of is largely determined by other factors like training and your macronutrient breakdown (which is why it comes next in the hierarchy).

It doesn’t matter what else you’re doing in your diet, if you want to lose weight but are in a positive energy balance because your’re getting too many calories on a daily basis you’re not going to get there. Trying to out exercise your diet is a bad plan as well – it just leads to running yourself into the ground trying to make up for all the junk you ate. You should train to meet a training goal, not to balance out your calorie budget.

If you have no idea where to start, you should head over to my article on calculating calories for different training goals and figure out where you need to be.

Macronutrients

Macronutrients – Macros from here out because I’m lazy – are the second most important thing after calories.

If you want a more in-depth explanation you can read my full beginner’s guide to macros, but the basic explanation is that macros are the basic units of nutrition – Protein, Fat, and Carbohydrates. Like with the letter ‘Y’ and its occasional vowel status we can also add Fiber and Alcohol as sometimes being considered macros depending on the circumstances and who you’re asking.

In the general sense your macro breakdown is one of the primary factors in determining if it’s muscle or fat tissue that you’re gaining or losing as a result of your calorie balance. While manipulation of them is not necessary to reach most physique goals it does make things much, much easier and more efficient.

Additionally, some of the more fine-tuning oriented physique goals like a body recomposition that don’t involve a lot of actual weight change are going to be more heavily influenced by what you’re doing with your macros than other goals.

I’ll have the second part to my macros article up soon which will go over in more detail how to arrange your macros for various goals and will update this article once it’s up.

Micronutrients

Micronutrients are next on the list in order of descending importance.

Where macronutrients are the big units of nutrition like protein and fat, micronutrients are all the little things like vitamins and minerals. I also include water here which we’ll get into in a minute. In general the primary distinction is that while a macronutrient has caloric value, micronutrients provide no calories.

If you live in a developed country chances are pretty low that you’re going to be deficient enough in any micronutrients to cause any severe health problems. As a result, it’s not as important to be concerned with them if your calories and macros aren’t already taken care of.

That being said, there’s a decent difference between your micronutrients being at sufficient levels to get by without anything like scurvy or goiters showing up and being at optimal levels. Everyone is going to be a little different in their needs here, but you should aim for eating a lot of fibrous vegetables and getting at leat one or two servings of fruit per day. Ideally changing it up as often as possible, don’t just eat bananas everyday because they’re convenient.

A multivitamin isn’t a bad idea but it’s not a replacement for fruits and vegetables. There are just too many phytonutrients and zoonutrients that aren’t going to get into a multivitamin (things like lycopene, flavonoids, and indoles). Think of a multivitamin as an insurance policy just in case you don’t get enough fruit and vegetables in a day.

I also include water here because, while water is definitely important in terms of survival, most people reading this aren’t going to be in danger of getting so little water they have severe health problems. Like the micronutrients there’s a difference between enough and optimal, but worrying too much about whether you’re getting 6 cups of water or 8 in a day won’t matter much if the other stuff we’ve gone over isn’t where it needs to be.

When it comes to water recommendations there are just too many variables like climate and activity levels to give any kind of catch-all recommendation for an amount. Instead I like Lyle McDonald’s recommendation of trying to have at least five clear urinations per day.

That means five trips to the bathroom per day where your urine comes out clear, not yellow or dark. If you can manage that you know you’re getting enough water for your situation.

Meal Timing

Meal timing is next step down on the ladder of importance, and one step higher on the ladder of things you’re likely to see people needlessly obsessing over.

I cannot count how many people, clients and otherwise, I have come across who were concerned with getting their meals timed exactly perfectly. This can range everywhere from the bodybuilding (and lately weight loss) apothegm of having to have five small meals a day as evenly spaced as possible, or to being concerned with whether they should eat their post-workout meal within 30 minutes or an hour of finishing – Thor help you if there’s a protein shake or pre-workout supplement involved in there somewhere.

This is not to say that meal timing can’t play a role in the effectiveness of your nutrition program, but most people put way too much focus on it. It’s like worrying about whether you should put summer or winter tires on a car that’s missing its engine.

Most people probably won’t need to worry much about meal timing. My personal inclination is toward intermittent fasting, and its a protocol I use with a majority of my clients. That being said everyone’s different and it’s complicated stuff. I’ll be putting together an article (or a series of them more likely) on all the details, but for now I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Get your calories and macros down and sort out your vitamins and minerals first.

Supplements

At last we come to the end of our list – supplements.

Supplements are big business and they feed into people’s quick-fix inclinations. As a result they wind up being an area people spend way, way too much time worrying about. In our car without an engine analogy supplements are the sound system. Nice to have, makes the trip easier, but it isn’t going to help get you from point A to point B much in and of itself.

You can do just fine with zero supplements but they can be helpful at times, so here are the handful I would recommend if you really want to do some fine tuning and have a little extra money to throw around.

  • Whey Protein – Not necessary since you should be trying to get as much of your protein from whole food sources (i.e., meat) as possible on account of all those zoonutrients, but I’ll concede it’s a lot more convenient and potentially more economical if you need a higher protein intake to use shakes to fill in the gaps.

  • Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) – Only really necessary if you’re going to train fasted. So if you’re on an intermittent fasting schedule and prefer morning workouts or just prefer training fasted for any reason then getting some BCAAs before and after will make a substantial difference. If you don’t fall in this category these aren’t really necessary.

  • Fish Oil – Fish oil & omega-3 fatty acids have strong evidence to support that they’re beneficial in a mild way to a wide range of areas including mildly reducing inflammation & blood pressure, strongly reducing triglyceride levels and mildly enhancing brain function. That means while not vital, it at least helps a lot things a little bit.

  • Caffeine – Caffeine obviously gives you energy and has been shown to improve performance in training sessions. I would not personally bother with an expensive pre-workout supplement that’s got a bunch of extra filler and costs an arm and a leg when you can get an equivalent boost to performance by downing a cup of a coffee or an espresso 30 minutes or so before training. I would not recommend this if you train later in the evening though since quality sleep is more important than a slightly enhanced training session.

  • Vitamin D – Vitamin D deficiency can be a problem depending on your habits and where you live, particularly in the winter. Being in Ohio I will occasionally supplement some vitamin D during the colder months since I’m indoors a lot more and mostly covered up. If you can, you’re much better just going outside and getting a bit of sun. It doesn’t take much to get enough.

  • Creatine – If your goal is to build muscle creatine can definitely help. It’s probably the single most researched supplement out there and is safe and generally pretty inexpensive. It’s not magic though, and some people have unpleasant side effects like digestive problems, so your mileage may vary. The one possible exception is if, against all better judgement, you’re a vegan or vegetarian then it’s much harder to get enough creatine from dietary sources and you’ll probably benefit more from it than others.

That’s it. That’s really all I’d recommend and conditionally at that. Please don’t run out and buy everything on that list because you probably don’t need it – but understand which ones might be helpful for you once you’ve got the rest of the stuff in this article nailed down.

If you prioritize things along these lines and focus on the high return variables like calories first, you’ll make a lot more progress toward your goal a lot more quickly. Just remember not to lose track of what’s most important and to stay consistent and you’ll get there.

Have any questions or anything to add? Leave a comment and let us know!

Photo Credit: Nathaniel Watson

3 Common Language Learning Obstacles

Parkour Visions Adult Obstacle Challenge by Beth Jusino

Facing obstacles can be painful, or it can be a fun challenge – it’s all a matter of attitude.

Learning a new language is a long and involved process and, while it can be a lot of fun most of the time, odds are you’re going to run into some major obstacles.

I always like to take the parkour view of things and think of roadblocks like these as challenges to overcome, but I do recognize that some of them can be extremely discouraging – especially when they slow or halt your progress.

I’ve put together a list of some of the most common obstacles language learners find themselves stuck at and frustrated with from a collection of personal experience and the experiences of all of my language coaching clients along with suggestions for ways to get around, over or through these walls between you and success.

1. I Can Read or Have Learned a Lot, But Still Fall Apart When I Speak

I put this first because it’s probably the most common obstacle I see affecting people who have followed the standard one teacher to twenty students classroom format or have tried to learn on their own through some of the popular at home language learning products.

People study and study and study some more and, after months or even years, feel pretty good about their progress in the language. Maybe they took classes all through college, or bought and completed that home study course that the commercial said NASA / the CIA / whatever-impressive-organization uses. They might not call themselves fluent necessarily, but they feel comfortable saying ‘I speak ,’ rather than just ‘I’m learning .’ Secure in their ability to speak, our intrepid language learner walks into a local market from a country that speaks their target language natively or maybe even steps off a plane in that country.

They strike up a conversation with the first native speaker they meet, eager to flex their new linguistic muscle and, to be honest, probably show off a little. When the native speaker responds something that sounds a little bit like what they studied comes out, if you blended all the sounds together and played it at triple speed.

Our poor language learner panics. They caught a few words, they think, but that was it. Was that a different dialect? What did that one word mean? Bewildered, their mind scrambles to remember the right response and freezes up from the shock of it. They stumble their way through, but in broken sentences and with a lot of ‘um’s. Nothing like the easy flow of all those practice dialogues.

All that time studying, and they feel like they can barely communicate.

If it sounds familiar, or if you haven’t gotten to the ‘I tried talking to a native speaker and wound up looking like a deer in headlights’ stage but see it coming, don’t worry – it happens all the time.

So how do you fix it or avoid it entirely.

Don’t wait to start talking with native speakers.

The biggest problem I have with the standard classroom model or most home courses is that you either get no practice with native speakers or very limited practice with only one or two. Usually the best you can hope for in a class is practice with a native speaker instructor, but their time is divided between you and 19 other people. Most of your other speaking practice will probably be with other students. In home courses you’re lucky if you get anything better than mp3 files to chat with.

You should be talking to as many native speakers as you can as soon as you can. Even if you can only say ‘Hello’ in your target language, go say hi to a native speaker.

It doesn’t have to be in person, finding native speakers to Skype with is easy with sites like iTalki and Lang-8. If you would prefer face to face conversations look on Meetup for groups related to your target language or look on Couchsurfing (you can meet for coffee and chat or if you want a lot of practice opportunities offer to host a traveler that speaks your target language).

The point is to start early and keep talking with native speakers as often as you possibly can.

2. My Vocabulary Isn’t Sufficient to Have a Conversation / I Don’t Know Enough Words

This problem is one that tends to lead directly into that most common issue above – correctly or not people feel like they just don’t have a big enough vocabulary to really talk to natives or use the language so they never try. This turns into a type of self-sabotage because they never allow themselves to get the kind of exposure and real world practice they need to reach their goal.

Fixing this problem is two-fold.

The first aspect of it is realizing that you don’t need a big vocabulary to practice with a native.

If you know a single word, that’s enough. Use it. Then ask the native speaker to tell you more words. It really doesn’t take that much. About 80% of most conversations are made up of only 20% of the lexicon. That means that you don’t need to know how to say words like circumlocution, defenestration, or empiricism in order to talk to 80% of the people you’ll meet. Probably more, honestly. Just jump in and use what you’ve got, filled in with lots of gestures and explanations using more basic words.

The second aspect of fixing it is, well, actually fixing it.

Go choose a SRS program you particularly like – I’m personally fond of Memrise – and find a collection of the 1,000 most common words in your target language. Now that you’ve got that, just practice them on your SRS until you’ve got those 1,000 down. I guarantee you that will be enough vocab for a majority of conversations, and from there you can expand out to the next 1,000 most common and then the next.

3. I Can Have Conversations, But I Want to Sound More Native

While personally I think accent reduction and working toward sounding ‘native’ in a target language is more of a frivolous or tertiary goal compared to actually being able to have fluid conversations, I recognize that it’s something a lot of people would really like to aim for. Whether it’s for business purposes, wanting to move to a different country and fit in better or just for the sheer coolness of being able to speak a second language that well – a lot of people would like to reach that level.

There are a few things to keep in mind here:

  1. 1. This is going to be pretty difficult. Compared to actually learning the language complete accent removal will take a lot more focused, intentional practice. In other words, it’s going to be a lot of work and probably take a while before you get there.

  2. 2. Contrary to what some people would have you believe it is not impossible to completely remove your accent in a language acquired as an adult. You don’t have to have grown up bilingual to speak two languages accent-free – regardless of what people might claim. It just takes a lot of effort.

Since it is something that’s going to take a considerable amount of effort, I highly suggest ensuring that you have some damn good reasons for wanting to remove your accent. Motivationally speaking, if you need to speak a second language accent free to avoid losing your job and winding up on the street you’re going to be a lot more motivated to stick it out through all the grueling work than the guy who decided it’d be kind of cool to be able to speak another language like a native and show off in bars.

If you are willing to put the work get ready to talk to yourself a lot, because your best tools are going to be mimicry and shadowing.

I won’t go in to extreme detail because accent reduction deserve an article (or, probably, a series of them) all to itself. You can get started by going through and deconstructing the phonetic makeup of the language you’re learning. Usually you can do this on Wikipedia, just type in the language you’re learning and the word ‘phonology’. For example here’s Japanese Phonology and Korean Phonology.

From there, you can identify what sounds are identical to those in your native language, what sounds are non-existent in your native language and are completely new to you and, the most difficult, what sounds are similar to ones in your native language but slightly different. I suggest learning IPA if you haven’t already.

Next find native speaker examples of these particular sounds either through music, from native speakers you know or from online via Forvo or a similar site. Once you have them you can plug them into your audio editor of choice (I personally like Audacity because it’s functional and free) and then slow the audio down enough to clearly identify the sounds but not so much that you distort them.

Then practice. Practice. Practice and…. maybe practice.

Shadowing is an easy way to get practice on your own, although I also suggest finding a native speaker who can listen and then correct the nuances. A dedicated speech coach would be ideal, but they tend to be pricey.

There are certainly more obstacles people run into, but these three seem to come up frequently. If you can think of any others you’d like to see addressed, or have more questions on how to get over these, leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Beth Jusino

How We Learned Fluent Korean in 6 Months

Hangeul Day by The Republic of Korea

Learning fluent Korean in a 6 month timeline was one of the first challenges we took on back when we started Road to Epic – it was a big success and a lot of what we learned during the experience has influenced our articles on language learning since.

Recent renewed interest in the challenge has made me realize though that I never really did a satisfactory job of outlining exactly how we did it. That was a big oversight on my part, so I’m posting this to make up for it and lay out exactly what all we did to meet our six month deadline successfully.

I’m going to split it into three sections because that’s essentially how we broke things down.

The Vocabulary

Even when I’m not working under the constraints of a deadline, I don’t like to waste time. There are just way way too many words out there to try to learn all or even most of them – particularly in 6 months. Thankfully, you don’t need to know much vocabulary to be fluent.

We applied the 80/20 principle and focused on the most commonly used couple thousand words only, that way we were learning the words that we would be most likely to hear and use the most first and ignoring extraneous vocab like ‘defenestration’ that probably won’t come up much.

In my experience having a good handle on the first 3,000 most common words or so gives you the tools to have a fluent conversation 90% or more of the time so that’s what we focused on. 3,000 words divided into six months comes out to about 17 words per day which is totally reasonable. We learned 1,000 words in one month for a bit of a sub-challenge and, while definitely a bit work-intensive, it wasn’t all that painful to accomplish. 3,000 in six months isn’t bad at all.

To do the actual learning part we used a combination of memory hooks and spaced repetition system (SRS) learning.

At the time we mostly used Anki which you can download here.

Anki uses a spaced repetition system to show you flashcards in tailored intervals to maximize long term retention. There’s a huge library of pre-made flashcard decks and we simply chose the best looking deck of the most commonly used Korean words.

While we didn’t use it at the time, Memrise has since come out with a free iOS and Android app that uses a similar spaced repetition system but with crowd sourced pre-made memory hooks so you don’t have to come up with your own.

I currently prefer Memrise to Anki, mostly because of the convenience factor, but there’s no reason you can’t use both or whichever one you personally prefer.

Once we had our SRS program and our decks of the most common Korean words we scheduled set times everyday to practice on them just like we set scheduled times to work out.

The Grammar

For the grammar we were really only concerned initially with the very basics. Like with the vocab we made a point of focusing on the most common grammatical points first (simple present tense declaratives, interrogatives, etc.) and worried about the more complicated stuff as it came up (conditionals, subjunctives, etc.).

One of the biggest helps was one of our Korean friends who was kind enough to translate a bunch of example sentences for me that I wrote specifically to tease out some common grammatical points. I have a background in linguistics, so I knew what to look for and wouldn’t necessarily recommend this approach for most people unless you’re into grammar on its own. If you do want to find someone to translate some example sentences for you but don’t know anyone who speaks your target language I recommend iTalki and Lang-8 which we’ll get to in the next section on practice.

What I would recommend is a combination of Talk To Me In Korean and Monash University’s My Korean.

Talk To Me In Korean (henceforth TTMIK because I’m lazy) is one of my absolute favorite resources for Korean language learning. On their site at TalkToMeInKorean.com they have a ton of excellent grammar lessons. We jumped around quite a bit since we knew what we wanted to target first and had the most questions about, but you can do the lessons in order if you’re not concerned about specific things.

My Korean is a free textbook put out by Monash University. You can download it here for free. We used My Korean similarly to how we used TTMIK, mostly jumping around and targeting things we specifically wanted to practice or learn. Again though you can go cover to cover and get a ton out of it. It’s one of the best Korean textbooks we’ve come across.

Like the vocab practice we had an hour or so set aside each night of our six months to either go back over a grammatical point we were still struggling with or to learn a new one that we hadn’t gone over yet.

The Practice

Last but absolutely not least comes the actual practice.

If your goal is fluency, i.e. being able to carry on a casual, fluid conversation with a minimal amount of breaks, then practice is just as important as the other two above. Speaking a language is a skill and just like how you can’t learn to swim by reading lots of tutorials and never getting in a pool you can’t learn to be fluent by doing all studying and no practice.

In our case we made heavy use of our native Korean speaking friends alongside the sites iTalki and Lang-8.

iTalki is an excellent resource that you can use to find native speakers to practice with or even dedicated language teachers you can have remote lessons with over Skype.

In our case we used a pretty even mix of both. We didn’t have time scheduled everyday for Skype sessions, but we had them as often as possible and filled in conversations with our local friends as much as we could.

We used Lang-8 as often as possible as well by writing posts on there using whatever grammar item we were learning at that point as much as possible. That gave us a way to practice them while still putting a little thought into things and get corrections from native speakers in a written form that we could save long term.

In addition to these three areas there was a lot of passive learning (watching Korean media, listening to Korean music, reading Korean news and books, etc.) but I don’t consider these things to be nearly as important a the dedicated and focused learning and practice.

Have any other questions about what we did or any suggestions of things you’d add to help other learners? Any good resources for people learning something other than Korean? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: The Republic of Korea