Life Lessons Learned from Pokemon

Attack of the Giant Pikachu by St3f4n

How to fight giant Pikachus isn't one of the lessons.

Today is the 16th anniversary of the release of Pokemon and to celebrate I’ve been playing it all morning. I realized, playing back through it, that there are a lot of good lessons about life that you can pull from Pokemon. I’m not talking things like friendship and togetherness – none of the sappy garbage that started when they made it into a show. Useful life lessons from the original Red & Blue (or Green if you’re in Japan). Let’s see what Pokemon has to teach us.

Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover

I remember the first time I bought a Magikarp off the guy in the Pokecenter on Route 3. For only $500, it seemed like a really great deal. Then I tried to use it in a battle. The thing was useless. Worse than useless really since it took up a slot that could be occupied by a pokemon that can actually fight. The only move it had was ‘Splash’ which did absolutely nothing.

Thoroughly convinced that I had just wasted $500 on the most pathetic excuse for a pokemon ever, I stashed it away on Bill’s PC to rot. After a while it occurred to me though that game designers tend to do things for a reason, so there had to be something I needed that stupid fish for.

As it turns out my hunch was right, if you put the effort into leveling it up, Magikarp evolves into Gyarados – a giant flying blue dragon with some of the best stats in the whole game.

The lesson here? Don’t count something out just because it seems pathetic and worthless at first glance. It may be that underneath there is something of real value, you just have to work to get it out.

You Can’t Do It Alone

If you want to catch all 150 pokemon, you literally cannot do it by yourself. See, the game designers were brilliant enough to make it so that neither version had all 150. On top of that, some of the pokemon would only evolve if you traded them. That means that if you wanted all 150, you had to find somebody to trade with. Ok, I guess you could have been an anti-social brat and bought both cartridges but don’t ruin my point here.

The same was true of that Magikarp we were just talking about. Since it’s only attack did a whopping zero damage, if you wanted to level it up into Gyarados you had to let other pokemon do its fighting for it.

The same is true in the real world. If you really want to succeed, surrounding yourself with people who are supportive and helpful will go a long way toward getting you to your goals.

Money Solves Problems, But…

Like real life, Pokemon doesn’t just leave you with one option for solving your problems. Don’t feel like putting in all the hard work to level that Magikarp up into a Gyarados? No problem! You can pay the guy at the Pokemon Daycare to do it for you. In fact, you never have to level your own pokemon up if you don’t want to, you can pay to have it done for you. How wonderfully pragmatic of a lesson to include in a game – got a problem? Throw money at it!

There is a catch though. When you leave pokemon with the guy at the daycare he gets to choose what moves they keep. Sure your pokemon may be high level now, but if the day care jerk drops Dragon Rage in favor of Growl they’re going to be useless.

Money doesn’t solve all problems, and there may be catches to the solutions it does provide, but in the end having more money will always mean having more options.

Never Stop Improving

This is something that isn’t unique to Pokemon, but is a factor I like in all RPGs. In any other genre of game, the hero / main character already has the skills necessary to win. Take Halo for example. When you start the game you are Master Chief. You’re serious business. You’re the boss. You’re Chuck Norris in a robot suit. Sure you find bigger guns, but if you wanted to you could probably beat the whole game only pistol whipping things.

The point here is that in Halo you start out as the best you can be. There’s nobody better than the Master Chief and there never will be. In Pokemon the exact opposite is true. You’re just some kid. You’re not special at all, you’re nobody.

The same is true of your pokemon. There is absolutely no way you could take your little baby Bulbasaur and beat all the gym leaders without leveling it up. If you don’t level it up at least a little even Brock will stomp you, and all his pokemon are weak to grass attacks.

So what do you do? You level up. You walk back and forth in a square of tall grass like a mental patient until you have stomped so many Pidgey that you’re getting death threats from the Pallet Town Audubon Society. You constantly work and fight and train to make all of your pokemon as great as they can be.

You should have the same goal in meat space. Not to pace back and forth and mortally wound scores of birds – to never stop improving yourself. In everything you do, your work, hobbies, fitness, whatever, you should constantly be striving to improve yourself.

Variety > Uniformity

The world of Pokemon, like our world, is not black and white. Out of all the 150 pokemon there really isn’t one best pokemon. Mewtwo and Dragonite have fantastic stats, but one good super effective hit and either can easily be eliminated by a lesser pokemon. Each one has different strengths and weaknesses.

If you want to capitalize on all those strengths and eliminate the impact of those weaknesses, you need to have a variety of pokemon. This is why all the gym leaders inevitably fail. They overspecialize. Any schmuck with a Squirtle can breeze right through the first gym without breaking a sweat because they’re all rock type.

If you make the same mistake, you’re done for. You may think grass type pokemon are awesome, but if you walk into Blaine’s gym and that’s all you’ve got you won’t last five seconds. Then you have to go dig up a water type pokemon and train them for forever to get to the next gym.

The real world parallel is that you have a much, much better chance of reaching your goals if you have a variety of skills and knowledge. By always working to be as good as you can be in a wide range of different areas, you can make sure you’re not pigeonholed when you hit an obstacle that defeats your specialty.

Dedication Pays Off

Abra make me furious. When you first find them they’re rare, they’re exotic and they’re psychic type. Psychic. When everything else you’ve seen are bugs and purple rats, that’s awesome. You need one. So why are they so infuriating?

Teleport. All the Abra have it when you find them, and it instantly makes them escape from battle. You spend forever crawling through the grass, beating countless other run of the mill pokemon until finally, finally an Abra pops up. You get one chance to catch it, then it teleports away and you have to spend forever waiting for another to pop up.

After several hours of trying to catch one every teleportation makes the urge to hurl your Game Boy into the wall harder and harder to resist. You don’t stop though. You keep at it for as long as it takes because you know who don’t have Abras? Quitters.

That kind of perseverance pays off in life too. The only way to fail is to give up, and when you finally achieve your goal (or catch that accursed Abra), it’s all the sweeter for the struggle it took to finally get there.

Follow Your Dreams

You know what I always thought was the coolest thing about Pokemon? Here you have this kid, my guess maybe 13 years old, who decides he wants to be the best pokemon trainer there is. He’s got school. He’s a little kid. He can’t even drive yet. He doesn’t care though, he has a dream.

When he decides to throw everything out the window and go be a pokemon trainer, does his mom try to stop him? Does she tell him to go get a proper education and a real job? No. She tells him to go for it and sends her kid out into the world all by himself to follow his dream.

Ok so maybe sending a 13 year old off on a solo trip around the country isn’t necessarily 5-star parenting, but that’s not the point. He ditches everything to go follow his dreams and doesn’t let himself be satisfied until he’s at the very top. He’s got an awesome supportive mom to help him along, but I get the feeling he would have done it even without her approval.

You should have the same attitude. If you’re not happy, don’t just settle. Set a goal, an ambitious goal, and work toward it. Of all the things you can learn from Pokemon, learning to follow your dreams is the most important.

Do you have any other lessons you’ve learned from Pokemon? Share them with us!

Photo Credit: Stéfan

The Meaning of ‘Fit’

Sports by Slagheap

I don't think there's any argument that this is an example of 'fit'.

Everyone wants to be fit.

In the U.S. the fitness industry pulls in billions and billions of dollars everyday trying to meet the demand for new and effective ways to get fit. Books, magazines & television programs are everywhere shouting the benefits of new exercise programs, eating plans or expensive gadgets.

Through all of it, the only single constant seems to be the inconsistency. One author tells you to do this, another tells you to do the opposite while yet another says to do both or neither. Adding to the confusion is the fact that you have no clear definition for what ‘fit’ even means.

Compare a world class marathoner to a world class sprinter and their bodies composition will be worlds apart, but society considers both fit. Match up a gymnast and a sumo wrestler, a basketball player with a linebacker or a bodybuilder with an Olympic lifter and you’ll find none of them have the same body compositions, but all are considered fit and all of them train, eat and live differently. So what do we do about it?

The lazy response would be to just throw the whole endeavor out the window and collapse on the couch with a box of doughnuts, but that’s not what we’re going to do. We need to come up with one solid working definition to work toward.

Defining ‘Fit’

The easiest way to figure out what our definition for ‘fit’ should be is to go back to its original meaning. The original meaning had a handful of parts to it including: well-suited, adapted or appropriate, qualified or competent, prepared or ready and, lastly, in good health. I think we can distill that down into healthy and well adapted to one’s environment.

We’ll skip over the ‘healthy’ part for just a second and go to the ‘well adapted’ part first. If you’re well adapted to your environment, it means you can exist in that environment with relative ease and little to no stress or harm as a result of being there. We’re just talking physical fitness here, your psychological and emotional fitness is something you can discuss with a mental health professional, so that narrows things down to just your physical ability to operate in your environment as best as possible.

Since everyone’s environment is different, this gives a little leeway to account for differences in what people do. For example, fitness for a Marine is going to be different than fitness for a bodybuilder because they operate in different environments.

Now, here’s where we hit a bit of a snag. See, the majority of people are not professional athletes. Most people don’t have any specialized physical activity that they regularly engage in, even for recreation. On top of that, technology has advanced to the point where existing in modern society requires very little effort on our part. We have supermarkets, cars, plumbing, central air and a fantastic medical system. Overall, particularly compared to the rest of human history, survival takes almost zero effort.

To account for this, we divide fitness into two groups, specialized fitness and general fitness. Specialized fitness encompasses all fitness for people who are in a specialized field that requires certain physical characteristics. You know who you are and you know what ‘fit’ means for you, so we’re not going to pursue that any further.

General fitness is fitness for everyone else. People who don’t have a sport or activity they need to specialize for. These people can be tricky since, because of all those technological advances I mentioned, you can eat until you’re 400 lbs. and still live a halfway decent life. Even so, I don’t think a 400 lb. person could generally be considered fit – there’s that ‘healthy’ part to consider, and I wouldn’t bet on a long life expectancy for someone who weighs that much. We also have the problem of deciding which model of specialized fitness general fitness should mimic.

A Proposal for General Fitness

The way I see it, if you take away as much of that helpful modern technology as possible and simplify things down you find that everyone has a few basic things they all have to do:

  • Move their own bodies – One of the basics that essentially every person has to do is be able to effectively move their own body around. For someone to be considered ‘fit’ then they should be able to move their own bodies in as wide a range of movements as possible with as much ease and as much control as possible. Movements should be quick and effortless.
  • Move other things – This may seem like it should be lumped into the previous point but the two skills are actually appreciably different. A fit person needs to be able to pick up and carry their children, lift and move boxes or furniture or help pull someone up off the ground.
  • Be healthy – If you’re strong and meet the first two criteria, but you’re constantly getting sick or eat Twinkies and french fries until you have a heart attack, then you can’t be considered fit. A fit person should have as few illnesses and injuries as possible and should be able to enjoy a long life.

One of my favorite quotes that I think sums up this whole ideal is ‘Être fort pour être utile’ which means ‘Be strong to be useful’.

You need to be strong and healthy enough that if something goes down, whether that something is serious business like a car accident or earthquake or whether it’s something minor like your kid falls asleep and you have to carry them to the car, you can do whatever needs to be done.

Who then should you seek to emulate to meet that goal?

Gymnasts.

How to Be Fit

Of all the different models of specialized fitness, gymnasts fit the above the best. They can move their own bodies around in an efficient and effortless way, they have the reserve strength to move other objects without any trouble, and they enjoy much stronger immune systems than the general public.

Lost Keys by BombDog

You don't have to be Spiderman like Daniel Ilabaca here, but if you want to be you have to be fit.

Most importantly, unlike some other specialized fitness models like bodybuilders, gymnasts tend to possess an extremely high strength to weight ratio. That means out of all the options they are the most versatile and that’s exactly what the average person needs.

The best way to get started down that road is a combination of clean eating and strength training. If you’re looking for a good way to build up your fitness while having fun, you may even want to give practicing Parkour a try.

So what do you think? Do you agree with my assessment for what most people should aim for to be fit? Do you have a better idea? Share it with us in the comments.

Photo Credit: Slagheap & BombDog

Why Women Should Lift Weights (Part 2 of 2)

Crossfit Fever Games by CrossFit Fever

Convinced that you should do strength training and lift weights, but not sure where to begin? Look no further – I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know to get started quickly and safely.

Wait, you do know why you should lift weights, right? No? Well, go back and read part one.

Before you begin working out, it’s important to make sure your diet is in check. What you eat will have a profound effect on how you perform during your workout, how you feel, and how fast and well you recover. We highly recommend the Paleo diet for both athletes and anyone looking to optimize their health. Having a good diet is essential to gaining and maintaining strength, recovering, keeping your hormones in check and having the energy to do these workouts in the first place.

The exercises I suggest in this article are for people who want to be fit and enjoy optimal health. Everyone should strength train and lift weights so in this article I’m just going to cover the basics. This is a starting point, the beginning. What you should do as far as strength training largely depends on your goals – but I’m just going to focus on attaining basic, functional strength that everyone should have to maintain optimal health.

Before you go running into a gym, let’s cover the basic movements you should be doing and how to do them. I’m talking about lean, strong muscles gained by doing workouts that target lots of muscle groups all at once – compound workouts – no curls or any workout that only focuses on one muscle at a time.

These movements will always be in the form of:

  • Pushes
  • Pulls
  • Squats
  • .. And generally picking up heavy things

Body Weight & Dumbbell Workouts

If you’ve never done any sort of strength training and have been fairly inactive, you need to start slow and somewhere easy. This is where you get an idea of how much you can do, and perfect your form. Having good form is crucial to not hurting yourself and ensuring that you are getting the most out of your workout.

Body weight and dumbbell workouts are an excellent place to start out for someone new to strength training: there’s no need for a gym membership, it’s inexpensive to get started, you can practice good form without too much risk and it will give your body a chance to get used to being used.

So, what body weight workouts should you do? Well, let’s go for…

The Exercises:

  • Push-ups
  • Pull Ups, Rows and Inverted Rows
  • Squats
  • Planks & Side Planks

These are the basics, and all can be done with body weight alone.

Since we are going for strength gain and not mass, you’ll need to keep your repetitions and sets low – 5×5 is a good place to start. Yes, just five sets of five push-ups, pull ups, or squats, with brief rests of about 30-90 seconds in between. If you need to rest longer, then do it, but ideally keep it shorter. You could even cycle them (circuit training) so that your “rest” is doing another activity, then going back to the previous one. If it is easy, then add weight and then do your 5×5.

Adding weight for some exercises, like the squat, is pretty simple – just hang onto some dumbbells while you do it. For others, like the push-up, it’s not quite that simple, but there are other solutions. You can wear a backpack with light weight in it, prop your feet up on a box or chair while your hands remain on the floor, or you can shoot for a hand-stand push-up. Should the push-up on the ground be too hard, you can do like I had to do, and raise your upper body by doing your push-up with your hands on a stair step (which also makes it easy to see how stronger you’re getting, by how close to the bottom step you get). To make a push-up harder, raise your feet on something. To make it easier, raise your upper body. If you have a lot of trouble there are ways to build up to doing your first real push up.

Doing an inverted row, for example, can be made easier or harder depending on how far out your feet are from where you are pulling yourself up to.

Woman Doing Push-Ups with a Weighted Vest at a Crossfit Event by Amber Karnes

These simple exercises, done 5×5 should take you between 15-30 minutes, and only need to be done at least one day per week, but no more than three days per week. You have no excuse not to do it! Between each strength day, take a day off to rest and be active in other ways, so your your muscles can recover.

How to do Body Weight Workouts with Proper Form

Practicing good form from day one is essential, so, even if you think you already know how to do these workouts, please read through this just in case there is something you didn’t previously know. I’ll also include links to videos that explain how to properly perform them so you can get a visual for what you’re attempting to do.

Push-ups are a basic movement that pretty much everyone knows how to do: you get on the floor, either on your toes or on your knees, keep your back straight, palms on the ground on either side, lower yourself slowly and then in a controlled, quick manner… Push yourself back up! Just remember: straight back, and not let your butt poke out.

If you can, you should do pull-ups. Find a tree limb, buy a doorway pull-up bar, or make your own, whatever you can use. Grab on with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart and palms facing away. Leading with your chest, pull your body upwards until your chin is level with the bar. As slowly as you can, lower yourself back down. Repeat.

If you can’t do a pull-up yet, then do dumbbell rows or inverted rows to work your way up to one. For the dumbbell row, place the dumbbell on the floor. Place one hand/knee on a bench to stabilize yourself while you bend over, keeping your back straight, and grab the dumbbell in your opposite hand, and pull it straight up to chest level, and then slowly lower it back down. Repeat for the opposite side.

For the inverted row, find a bar you can toss a towel or rope over (and, ideally, affix a pipe to). Grab the bar/rope/towel how you would with a pull-up, and place the back of your heels forward so you lean back (optionally, you can also put them on a raised surface). Keeping your body straight, pull your torso up to the bar like you would a pull-up, and then slowly lower yourself back down. Repeat. The farther from your center of gravity your feet get, the harder this will get.

The squat is, in my opinion, the most essential exercise. It is also extremely complex, so this description will take a while. I’m sorry, but this is crucial, especially since so many people just don’t know how to squat right. So much of what you do depends upon the dozens of muscles this workout targets – and yes it is much, much more than your knees and thighs. If you do it right, your life will be easier, better, and you’ll enjoy physical freedom for years. If you do it wrong, you’ll set yourself up for pain. This is not to scare you, but rather to emphasize how important good form is here. You need to do squats so please, start slowly and have someone check your form for you (or do it in front of a big mirror, video tape yourself, whatever you need to do, do it.)

To perform a proper body weight squat, begin standing with your feet a bit more than shoulder width apart. Your knees and feet should be pointing away from you at about 45 degree angles, and you’ll want to keep them in line with each other the entire way down and back up. Slowly lower yourself – first by poking your butt out backward, almost like your sitting – until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground, although ideally you will go as low as you can. If this is difficult, then just practice going lower and lower each time. Remember too to keep your gaze down and forward about three or so feet in front of you. Additionally, remember to keep your back straight the entire time. Do not round, or over extend your back. And, well, repeat.

The squat, when done correctly (great form and going as low as you can), is not only the safest, but also the most optimal exercise for your knees and posterior chain. It produces more stable knees than any other exercise, and works the entire set of muscles from your lower back to your knees in unison, together, how they would normally be used. So, if nothing else, then do squats for optimal physical health.

Once regular bodyweight squats get to be too easy add weight with dumbbells, or try doing one-legged squats (commonly called pistols.)

Planks and side planks are easy to perform but surprisingly difficult. Thankfully, you only really need to do one set. You might want a mat or towel under you for comfort, but begin by lying on the floor face down, keeping your back, butt and legs straight, your feet together and you will rest on your elbows (which should be kept under your shoulders.) Hold this position for as long as possible, working your way up. Once doing 90 seconds is easy, try adding weight (like a backpack.)

For side planks, lie raised on your side with your forearm on the floor under your shoulder – perpendicular to your body. Keep your legs together and straight in alignment with your back and hips. Hold this position for the set time, and then do the other side.

Picking up heavy things is a tricky one. Without a barbell it’s difficult to do a deadlift, but you can always find work-arounds. Get buckets full of sand or concrete, dumbbells or kettlebells, a box with canned food in it, or find some other random, somewhat heavy thing to carefully pick it up and then put back down. Deadlifts are the only other absolutely essential exercise that everyone should do, and also where everyone is their strongest. However, it is also crucial to start slowly so you can practice good form. Yes, it may get annoying but I’m going to repeat it over and over because it is that important.

Ideally you’d be doing your deadlifts with a barbell, but if it is not available to you, you can mimic the movement or do alternative, similar movements like the Farmer’s Walk, which is to pick up a weight in either hand, walk a set distance, and then put them down. And, of course, repeat.

For a deadlift, begin standing in the center of whatever you’ll be picking up, with your feet shoulder width apart and the object as close to your toes as you can. Keeping your back straight and slightly bending your knees, bend down and grab the object and then lift until you are standing straight up and arms hanging, keeping the object close to you. The movement will be driven by your hips and lower back, so make sure to keep your back straight and your head and chest up. Carefully reverse to put the object back down, and repeat.

Body weight workouts are a great place to begin however, as you’ll find they will quickly become just too easy, and you’ll need to add weight.

Lifting Weights

Ideally, you’ll workout with barbells and not stop with body weight and dumbbells. You can go to a gym, or you can buy a set for your house at a sporting goods store or craigslist (I highly suggest looking into a power rack.)

Barbell exercises are much like the body weight equivalents, only much harder and much more beneficial.

The Exercises:

  • The Barbell Bench Press
  • The Standing Barbell Overhead Press
  • The Barbell Squat
  • The Deadlift
  • The Pendlay Row

This is where it gets serious. These will tax your system enormously, so do make sure you eat right and don’t over train. Do only 5 sets of 5 repetitions of each of these, except the deadlift – which you should do just one set of five. Additionally, split this up into two workouts: Workout A (Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press) and Workout B (Squat, Overhead Press, Pendlay Row.) Again, shoot for three days a week with a rest day in between each. If you can’t, don’t sweat it. As long as you exercise for one day each week you will see benefits, just not as much.

You should begin with the bar – a proper (olympic) bar weighs 20.4 kg/45 lbs, and slowly working your way up each workout session – adding 5 lbs each time. Although for your first week or two I highly suggest doing the entire workout with just the bar so you can practice form and get it down, then adding weight each session.

If it gets too difficult, try doing 5 sets of 3 reps or backing up a little and working your way up again. Even if you can only do 5 sets of 1 rep, with a long break in between each, you will see progress.

To warm up, keep it intuitive. If you do 50 jumping jacks before you lift weights – you’ll be weak and likely sloppy. Instead, you should do the workout with lighter weights. So, do a set of 5 with the bar, a set of 5 at half-weight, then finally the 5×5 at full weight. For example, if you are going to squat 100lbs, do a set of 5 with the bar, a set of 5 at 75lbs, then 5 sets of 5 at 100lbs.

How to Lift Weights with Proper Form

When you begin working out with barbells, practicing good form is even more crucial. Begin with just the bar – no weights – and practice the exercises.

The barbell bench press is a common and thankfully easy exercise. Lie on a bench with your back flat and feet flat on the ground. Make sure the bar height is comfortable and adjust as necessary. Grab the bar with your hands elbow-width out (or, biceps parallel to the ground) dismount the bar from the rack and slowly lower it to the middle of your chest and press back up until your arms are fully extended. Repeat.

Performing the standing barbell overhead press is similar to a bench press, which is why you do it on your alternate day, but it does work a few different muscles. You’ll want to begin either by cleaning the weight (a deadlift, then pulling the weight up and onto your chest) or start from a rack. When you hold the barbell, it should be able to rest on your chest just below your collar bone, and your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart and your feed shoulder width apart. Press the bar up above your head until your arms are fully extended, then slowly lower it. Repeat.

Much like a normal squat, the barbell squat is complicated, so bear with me. Ideally, use a power rack to squat. Begin with the bar racked a few inches below shoulder height, so you will squat under it to dismount the bar. Repeat.

For the deadlift, begin standing in the center of the bar with your feet shoulder width apart. The bar should be over the middle of your feet (with weight on it - if it is empty then it will be just in front of your toes.) Bend down, back straight and knees bent slightly, and grab the bar either with a front or alternate grip (front grip means both of your hands are over the bar facing the same direction while alternate grip means one hand faces toward you and one faces away from you) and lift until you are standing straight up. Lifting the bar should be powered by your hips extending. Be sure to keep your chest up and back straight. Once you've lifted it, carefully reverse and put the bar back down, keeping it close to you. Repeat. Watch your knees that you don't hit them!

To perform the Pendlay Row begin almost like a deadlift - with the barbell on the ground in front of you, except this time the barbell will be forward some and you will be bent over it. While keeping your back straight and upper body parallel to the ground, grab the bar and pull it up to your chest, then lower it back down to the ground. Keep your gaze forward during the lifts. Repeat.

Other random parting advice:

This is your template - a starting point to lift weights so you can enjoy strength and optimal health all of your life. Feel free to tweak this workout to your needs/desires, but whatever you do, DO NOT remove squats and deadlifts, and make sure you are doing compound movements at high intensity (high weight) with excellent form (unless, of course, gaining mass is your goal, then go for it).

Why always squats and deadlifts? Well, they create the most positive hormonal response - which you want, to build muscle and burn fat. Furthermore, they are the most important as far as optimal movement since they work everything from your back and posterior chain to your legs and knees.

Three exercises each session may not seem like much, but once you begin adding weight you'll understand why. These are compound movements with heavy weights, working nearly every muscle in your body, which gets very taxing. This is why it is important to not over train. Over training will cause your body to release cortisol (bad) and weaken your immune system (very bad.) Lifting weights will take a bit longer than a body weight workout, between 30-45 minutes to complete.

During your workouts focus on your form, breathing, and don't rush it. Slow, controlled movements are always better than rushed, sloppy ones. By going slower, you'll see more strength gain, as well as ensuring that you are doing the movement correctly.

On non-strength training days, feel free to do whatever other activities you want. You can try out Tabata Sprints, go for a walk, play, whatever you want. Just don't lift more weights - recovery time is as important as the workout itself.

Speaking of recovery, there are two big important parts to it. Sleep, and nutrition. Make sure you get several hours of quality sleep, and eat reasonable amounts of vegetables and protein. You will be hungrier than normal but it's okay - you need it! Eat until you are satisfied and don't over do it (4000+ calories per day.)

Additionally, track everything for about a month or so: measurements, weights used, etc. This way you can see clear increases in strength and track how your body changes. Using this you can adjust your diet or workout to whatever you need.

Finally, I focus in this article on bodyweight and free weight workouts, which are far, far superior to using a machine or smith machine. I could write a novel on how useless they are, but, I've already written a lot so in a nutshell: machines not only make working out easier in a non-beneficial way, but they also do not work the muscles like a free weight does. Machines work you with fixed cables and weights, and life isn't on a fixed track. Free-moving weights require more muscles to keep you stabilized. Smith machines are horrible in particular because they force you to practice with incorrect form which is just plain bad. Finally, most machine movements are isolation movements - great for bulk but functionally useless.

The Workout

You officially know everything you need to know in order to begin with strength training and lifting weights. So, to review, here's what you should start doing to build strength:

Body Weight & Dumbbell Version

  • 5x5 Push-ups
  • 5x5 Pull-ups, Dumbbell Rows, or Inverted Rows
  • 5x5 Squats
  • 1x__seconds Plank + 1x__ sec Side Planks (one for left and one for right)

Free Weight Version

Workout A

  • 5x5 Barbell Squats
  • 5x5 Deadlift
  • 5x5 Barbell Bench Press

Workout B

  • 5x5 Barbell Squats
  • 5x5 Standing Barbell Overhead Press
  • 5x5 Pendlay Row

Oh, and one more thing...

This ten year old girl is stronger than you.

Photo Credit: CrossFit Fever and Amber Karnes.

10 Ways to Find Native Listening Material

I am on your side by Kevin_Morris

Coffee and book not required.

Having access to lots and lots and lots of native spoken material for listening comprehension is extremely important. Unfortunately, not everyone is surrounded by speakers of their target language. If you’re one of the lucky people who can travel to a country where their target language is the spoken, then this article is not for you. You have no shortage of access to native listening material.

If, on the other hand, you’re stuck in a country that doesn’t speak your target language – listen up. You can find native speaker listening material to practice with, and it doesn’t require plane tickets.

  1. Podcasts – With a quick search you can find podcasts in almost any language. You don’t have to limit yourself to instructional or lesson focused podcasts either (though there are certainly tons of them). It can help more to find podcasts for native speakers of your target language about a topic you’re interested in.
  2. YouTube – Just like with podcasts a quick search in your target language can open up a whole world of videos. You can search for topics you’re interested in, instructional videos, movie reviews or anything else. If you find a video you particularly like or with particularly useful conversation in it then you can download the video off of YouTube and then rip the audio to an .mp3 with AoA Audio Extractor. Then you can listen to it wherever you want.
  3. Movies – Movie services like Netflix are constantly adding more and more foreign movies, most of them subtitled and not dubbed. You can also buy a lot of U.S. movies re-dubbed in other languages off of Amazon. If both of those fail you there are tons and tons of streaming sites you can find that feature movies and shows from various countries or, if you’re feeling a touch unscrupulous, there are plenty of torrent sites out there featuring foreign media. You can also use the Audio Extractor linked to above to pull the audio off these and make the conversations into .mp3 files to listen to while you do other things.
  4. RhinoSpikeRhinospike.com is a service where you can have a native speaker record text in your target language and post the .mp3 file for free. In return you can record audio files for people learning your native language. There are a lot of great ways to make using Rhinospike more efficient, from writing conversations to have recorded to downloading off of the archive, but it’s useful enough just using it as intended to get free, customized, native-speaker produced audio to practice with.

  5. Music – Listening and singing along to music in your target language may not be the best way to improve conversational listening comprehension, but it is a great way to work on pronunciation and mimicking native accents. It can also go a long way toward easing you into thinking in your target language as you find more and more songs from your target language endlessly looping in your head. With Pandora, GrooveShark and Spotify you have no excuse for not finding some music you like in your target language.
  6. Audio Books – Audio books may require a little more hunting depending on what target language you’ve chosen, but the benefits are endless. You get hours of material written by a native and read by a native on a range of topics and including conversations. Plus, like the rest of these you can put them on your .mp3 player of choice and listen to them while you’re doing other things. Win.
  7. News – Whether or not you have a TV service that gives you access to international news stations, most post videos online for free. A quick search in your target language for the word ‘news’ and ‘video’ should turn up tons of results. Newscasters are often trained to speak quickly but clearly in whatever accent is that country’s most neutral, so they make a good example to try and match.
  8. TV Shows – Okay, maybe this should be lumped in with movies, but it’s easy to find tons of TV shows to watch in your target language. Barring that you can usually find the more popular U.S. TV shows dubbed into your target language. Re-watching every episode of Lost in your target language is an excellent, if time consuming, way to get some practice.
  9. Skype – As you practice more and more on things like Lang-8 or start poking around on CouchSurfing or social networks in your target language, you’ll begin to make friends who speak the language you want to be speaking. This is easily the best thing ever for learning a new language. That’s not to say you should view these people as nothing more than tools for conversation practice, you should be aiming for real friendships, but usually people are more than happy to have a quick chat on Skype. Make some time everyday, even if it’s just five minutes, to have a quick video chat with someone on Skype and you’ll progress faster than you know it.
  10. ForvoForvo.com is similar to RhinoSpike, except with a focus specifically on the pronunciation of single words or phrases. While this means you can’t get whole conversations recorded like you can on RhinoSpike, it does offer an excellent opportunity to get those really tricky words or sounds that you always have trouble with smoothed out and perfected. Best of all, you can focus on all the particularly difficult phonemes or make playlists of similar sounds to build your own target language tongue twisters.

These are just the first ten options for finding native audio that came to mind, there are tons more out there. If you have any you’ve particularly liked using in the past, share them with us in the comments! We’re always looking for more suggestions.

Photo Credit: Kevin Morris

Why Women Should Lift Weights (Part 1 of 2)

Woman Doing Barbell Front Squat by Completeeveryday

<sarcasm>Ohh, look a her! Her muscles are soo huuuge... </sarcasm>

The topic of women strength training or working out with any weight that isn’t light as a feather and coated with bright colored plastic is one that ignites a great debate. Real science and good advice get lost between the broscience and magazines that spread myths, unfounded “advice” and fear.

An unfortunate amount of people, particularly women, get the short stick when it comes to exercise – especially strength training. Like I said myths, fears and ridiculous, unfounded advice often keep women away from working out with weights when in my opinion, we should be running toward them (but not into them.)

I’m tired of it. All of it. I’m here to tell you that you should be working out with weights – and not the little pink ones. I’m talking barbells. Giant, heavy barbells.

I didn’t think like this when I was younger. Like lots of women, I was guided by magazine wisdom, fear and a lack of knowledge. I wanted to be fit and look great (who doesn’t?) but feared getting too bulky. When I started I was skinny fat – at 169.5 cm (5’6.75″) tall I only weighed roughly 49.9 kg (110 lbs). I had literally no muscle – I couldn’t even lift a gallon jug of water – and, despite being skinny, still managed to have a flabby belly. After a scary visit to the doctor I woke up and began my own health journey. I had no idea what I was doing so I started out with conventional wisdom – eat ‘healthy’ and do cardio. Lots and lots of cardio. That’s the only way to stay fit and not become a she-hulk.

Right?

Wrong.

My belly went nowhere and still couldn’t lift that darn water jug. I decided to turn to science and learned I was doing everything wrong and needed to lift weights. I weigh more now than I did back then, but my waist is smaller, I’m stronger and I can do a heck of a lot more.

So, here I am now, telling you to lift weights and do strength training. Though I’m sure you’ve got some objections I’ll have to deal with first.

You bet I do! Lifting weights will make you into a bodybuilder! Duh! Everybody knows that!

Does everyone really know that?

This is one of the most ridiculous myths in fitness. People look at bodybuilders and think “Ohmaigawd, they’re huge and are lifting huge weights so if I lift weights I’ll look like that too!” This is not only unfounded, but to think that you could just so simply become a bodybuilder is, quite frankly, an insult to bodybuilders and a gross lack of understanding/knowledge as to how they got where they are. You don’t just accidently become a bodybuilder, and it sure doesn’t happen overnight.

A lot of factors go into becoming a bodybuilder. It requires years and incredible amounts of dedication to a specific diet and a specific workout routine, plus a good bit of genetics and supplementation (legal or otherwise.) All of which are not things I’m going to suggest in this article, nor are things we suggest on this site (since, you know, we aren’t into bodybuilding.)

Like I said above, it doesn’t happen by accident and it doesn’t happen quickly. Additionally, don’t do isolation exercises, and as long as you can tell the difference between your mouth and a vacuum cleaner (No excessive calories – like over 3000 per day, no GOMAD, etc.) you won’t get bulky. It also requires lots of testosterone which women don’t generally make much of naturally anyway, and even men have a hard time making enough of it naturally to become a bodybuilder. Some testosterone is good for a variety of reasons, but healthy women also create a fair bit of estrogen which fights the muscle-building process (also why men are naturally more stronger – less estrogen!) so you’ve really got nothing to fear.

In short, the closest you could get to a bodybuilder is by going nuts with a can of spray-tan and a can of PAM.

Okay, maybe it wont make me bodybuilder-big, but I don’t want to get bigger at all!

Not lifting weights because you’re afraid they will make you look big is like saying you’re afraid of reading a book for fear of looking like a nerd. It really boils down to what you do, and how you do it. What I’m going to show you in the next post is how to lift weights to build functional, lean, strong muscle. Or, strength training. Keyword here is functional – if it got really big then it would just get in your way and slow you down.

Now, I’ll concede, if you’ve never worked out a day and have very little muscle you’ll see some gains, but it wont continue forever. You’re just making what is already there better, not adding anything to it.

I don’t really care about getting strong, I just want to do some toning/scuplting/firming.

First off, erase those three words from your vocabulary. Particularly “toned” – they’re all made up, meaningless words crafted by marketers and magazines to sell you more junk. And, quite frankly, lifting a tiny 1/2 lb dumbbell for a hundred reps is an incredible waste of time, money and energy.

If anything, weight lifting will give you a much more curvier shape – tucking in around your waist, a rounder butt and nicer thighs and arms. Plus, you get the perk of being stronger which comes in handy all of the time – and will be helpful as you get age – especially you’re of retirement age.

Okay, fine, but I just want to lose the fat on my belly and see a bit of abs. Can I just do the workouts targeting that?

I once heard someone say that “abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym” and it’s completely true. Roughly 80% of body composition is a result of diet, and only 20% is fitness.

If you think you can “target” certain areas of loss, well, that also is a ridiculously widespread myth that originated from someone who doesn’t know and obviously didn’t bother to look into how the human body loses weight. Sorry, it just doesn’t work like that. You can build muscles in targeted areas by working them, yes, but fat burning is all dependent upon your genetics. The only possible way to spot-reduce fat is plastic surgery.

But guys lift weights! I’m not a guy!

Yes, yes they lift weights too. Unfortunately broscience and magazines have conspired to instill in society this idea that men and women are two completely different species. While we have our obvious differences that make us male or female, our basic muscular-skeletal makeup is the same. Therefore, men and women get stronger doing the same movements.

So you’re telling me to lift heavy weights – and you are sure this won’t make me big and bulky…

Like I said before, you won’t become a body builder by accident. It takes time and incredible dedication to a very specific routine and diet. The movements/workouts we at Road To Epic advocate, which I will cover in the next post, won’t make you big because they promote strength and myrofibrillar hypertrophy, instead of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

What’s the diff, you may ask? Because you’re apparently in some kind of hurry. In a nutshell, myrofibrillar hypertrophy produces hard, dense muscle fibers which make you stronger without a lot of bulk and is produced by lifting heavy for few repititions (2-6). Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, by contrast, is the result of increased sarcoplasm (a fluid-like substance) creating a puffy look and is attained via lifting somewhat-heavy-but-not-maximal for several repititions. Not to mention, the workout movements themselves are different.

So, in other words, different diet & workout routines for different goals.

But I’ve never done it before and don’t want to look stupid!

Really? You’re more concerned about not looking stupid than your health?

Okay, fine, then why SHOULD I lift weights?

Progress! Excellent! I’ve been eager to talk about that…

Why You Should Lift Weights

There are so many reasons why you should do strength training. But, here’s just a few:

  • You’ll Get Stronger “Well, duh” you say, but I’m being serious, it needs to be repeated. Lots of people underestimate how great being stronger really is. Getting stronger is a GREAT thing! Not only will you be able to carry more weight (furniture, suitcases, books, groceries, kids, pets, etc.) but you will also see benefits when doing other physical activities. You won’t get tired as fast, you’ll have greater mobility, better posture, less likely to sustain an injury, and if you keep it up when you hit your senior years, you wont need a cane or scooter and will be able to move around better than most other elderly folk. Speaking of elderly…
  • Greater Bone Density Yes! Lifting weights/strength training increases bone density! Screw you, osteoporosis! (One of several studies here.)
  • Live Longer Aside from it helping our joints, bones and mobility, it also helps us live longer! It helps in a number of ways, but most importantly, the more lean muscle we have the more organ reserve we have – or our organs have greater functional capacity to support life and fight illness and toxins. As we age, it naturally goes down, as does our lean muscle. However, muscle mass and organ reserve tend to be correlated, so if we increase one we increase the other. This is aided by the fact that when we have more lean muscle mass, the muscle helps our bodies deal with stressors and aids your organs, so they have to work even less.
  • Improved insulin sensitivity Why is this important? Essentially, greater insulin sensitivity means you handle glucose well, which means less dietary glucose becomes body fat and less insulin is required for normal functions (Study here.)
  • Lifting Weights Accelerates Fat Loss It’s true! Alwyn Cosgrove, a fitness expert, wrote an in-depth and well-cited article about the Hierarchy of Weight Loss taking a careful look at cardio vs weight lifting. One study he looked at highlights it best:

    “Overweight subjects were assigned to three groups: diet-only, diet plus aerobics, diet plus aerobics plus weights. The diet group lost 14.6 pounds of fat in 12 weeks. The aerobic group lost only one more pound (15.6 pounds) than the diet group (training was three times a week starting at 30 minutes and progressing to 50 minutes over the 12 weeks). The weight training group lost 21.1 pounds of fat (44% and 35% more than diet and aerobic only groups respectively). Basically, the addition of aerobic training didn’t result in any real world significant fat loss over dieting alone.”

  • Look Better Naked I know I said it above but it needs to be repeated, strength training will make you have lean muscles with will give you a curvy look. Squats and deadlifts in particular will give you a tight, rounded butt too – who wouldn’t want that?

Okay, so, you’ll live longer, have stronger, more dense bones, feel better, perform stronger and faster, fight illness more effectively, have better recovery from disease, lose weight, and also improve your insulin sensitivity. Do I need to say more?

And yes, I could easily go on with even more reasons why you should strength train, but I think I’ve made my point with these – the main important ones. Is strength training starting to look appealing now? Wouldn’t you want to lose weight with less time working out than by doing hours on a treadmill? Wouldn’t you want to have nice curves and a lean, strong and efficient body that lasts into the golden years? It’s never too late to start.

“If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it” cannot ring any more true in the realm of fitness. If you don’t work your muscles, they’ll disappear and you’ll be left a skeleton, barely able to move around (if at all.)

We’ve blasted broscience and magazine wisdom, and shown you just some of the awesome benefits of strength training. You’re ready to give it a shot, but where do you start? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that in Part 2.

Photo Credit: Completeeveryday

Learning Languages with Sticky Notes

stickynote by J_O_I_D

These can be a powerful language learning tool

I’ll be honest, I have a sticky note addiction. Whenever I need to remind myself to do something, or make a note of something for later, I reach for a sticky note. Though they have brought about some changes in my note taking habits even my iPhone and Evernote aren’t enough to quell my brightly colored addiction.

Thankfully there is an outlet which not only lets me plaster the entire house in sticky notes but is highly productive and helpful as well – language learning.

This is hardly a revolutionary idea. I’m sure everyone who’s giving learning a second language a shot has, at some point, written out vocab on sticky notes and plastered them onto the item they describe. It’s a fantastic tool for learning since you get both the positive effects of randomized spaced repetition and the added benefit of a lot of tactile context associated with the word. When you see the word for ‘refrigerator’ in your target language every time you go to have a snack or grab a drink the association forms before you know it.

That makes sticky notes an excellent solution for those who want to learn the names of everything around the house without worrying about a lot tedious memorization. I think we can do a little better though than just slapping nouns on everything.

Maximizing Sticky Note Efficiency

  • Use Multiple Notes – Sure it’s great to tack the word ‘refrigerator’ on your icebox and learn one new word, but why stop there? Instead, put up a handful of sticky notes with not only the name of the item they’re stuck to, but some example sentences using various grammar structures. Underneath ‘refrigerator’ you could have, ‘I open the refrigerator’, ‘He closed the refrigerator’, ‘Is there any bacon in the refrigerator?’ or whatever else. That way you don’t just reinforce the word every time you see the note, you reinforce a bunch of words and grammatical structures.
  • Actively Engage the Notes – I know for most of you this is going to sound stupid and obvious but it needs to be said. You cannot learn via osmosis. It’s not enough to just tack notes up everywhere if you never really engage with them. Every time you use that object or see that note you should read it and the example sentences that come along with it and think about them for a second or two. When you open the door read ‘I am opening the door’ off the note aloud in your head. This active association of the word or phrase with the action will go a long way toward solidifying these terms and sentences in your memory.
  • Include Adjectives – Is that just a door, or is it the large, brown, squeaky bedroom door? Language isn’t just about nouns, so make sure to include some adjectives in there too. You don’t have to go overboard, but this will add a lot more flavor to the sentences you should already be including.
  • Continue to Expand – As you learn new words and sentence structures add more sticky notes to things you’ve already labeled. Did you just learn how to form a question? Start adding questions to all of your sticky notes. Did you learn a new verb like ‘pound’? Go through and label all the items you can ‘pound’ on – the door, the desk, the keyboard etc. – with new sentences incorporating the word. If you find you have too many sticky notes, remove the old ones you have memorized but keep trying to repeat the sentences in your head. Your learning materials should grow along with you.

Now making these sticky notes can be a process that spreads out over weeks, it doesn’t have to be all done at once. Once your house is covered you’ll quickly find you’re picking up more and more each day and, more importantly, starting to think more in the target language – a crucial part of speaking fluently.

Have any other suggestions for how to make the use of sticky notes more efficient fot language learning? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: J_O_I_D

Workouts for Wimps: Your First Bodyweight Circuit

Extremsport by Mueritz

Babies do push-ups, planks and squats all day long. You can too.

Circuit training is one of the most efficient ways to combine strength building, endurance building and fat burning all in one neat little time saving package. In addition to high intensity interval training, circuit training is perfect for people who want to get as good of a workout as they can in as short a time as possible. Making them bodyweight circuits has the added benefit of not requiring any expensive equipment or a gym membership. If you’re really out of shape but don’t have the cash for a gym membership or hours to waste on a treadmill then bodyweight circuits are for you.

What Is Circuit Training?

At its most basic circuit training is a workout routine that places the whole sequence of workouts one after the other and then moves the rest periods from between sets and puts them in between each exercise circuit. So instead of doing for example five sets of push-ups with rest periods between sets followed by five sets of squats with rest periods between each one and so on, you would do one set of push-ups followed immediately by one set of squats followed by the next exercise with no rest between.

This not only speeds up the workout meaning you can get more done in less time, it also adds an intensity to it similar to high intensity interval training that fires up your CNS. That translates not only to more strength but also a higher VO2 max, better endurance and a much more favorable hormonal response leaving you building more muscle and burning more calories for a longer time after the workout.

The Beginner’s Bodyweight Circuit

This circuit is for absolute beginners. People who have a decent level of fitness should go for a slightly harder circuit or modify these exercises to be appropriately challenging.

  • 10 Push-ups
  • 20 Bodyweight squats
  • 10 Inverted bodyweight rows
  • 30 Second plank
  • Rest for 2 minutes

Complete that circuit five full times as quickly as possible and with no rest between exercises except the two minutes at the end of each cycle and you’re done. Do this at least two times a week with at least one full recovery day in-between each circuit day and you’ll start seeing improvement in no time.

Push-ups – Do whatever push-up you need to to be able to complete all ten, but don’t make it too easy. If you’ve never done a single standard push-up find an easier push-up variation here.

Bodyweight squats – Keep your back straight and toes pointed forward and bend at the knees until your thighs are parallel to the ground, just like sitting back into a chair. It’s ok to hold onto something sturdy if you need a little help balancing. If you need a little more assistance find a low chair or a bottom step – sit down on it and then stand back up without using your arms and count that as one rep.

Inverted bodyweight rows – This exercise sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. There are a few ways to do them though. The easiest is to lay underneath a sturdy table looking up. Grab the edge of the table and pull your chin up to it while leaving your heels touching the ground. Low tree limbs work as well, as long as you have something you can pull your chin to while leaving your heels on the ground. The farther you are from standing straight up the harder it becomes.

Planks – To do a plank lay on the floor face down and place your forearms on the ground so your arms are touching the floor from your fingertips to your elbows. Then lift yourself up on your toes and straighten your back so your forearms and toes are holding the rest of you up and your belly is no longer resting on the ground. Do your best to keep a straight line from the back of your head to your heels the entire time and hold this position for the time required.

That’s it! If you need a little extra motivation challenge your friends to a race through the whole circuit or try and beat your previous time every time you workout. It doesn’t look like much on paper but you’ll find that circuit to be a good challenge and if you want to lose weight and build some muscle you’ll start seeing results before you know it.

Have any experience with circuit training or some suggestions for ways to make it better? Just have some questions about this particular circuit? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Mueritz

Learn Efficiently by Understanding Comfort Zones

Empire State Pigeon by ZeroOne

Getting out of your comfort zone doesn't have to be this extreme...

Learning a new skill is hard, time consuming work. Whether you’re learning a new language, learning to play guitar or learning to breakdance – it all takes a lot of effort. Luckily, we can make it an easier and more efficient process if we understand our comfort zones. Few people do, and I see the same problem coming up again and again in people learning all sorts of different skills. They either don’t understand their comfort zones, or they understand them but don’t know where to focus their efforts to maximize learning. As a result, they either sit at a standstill and never progress, or they drive themselves into the ground and never make any progress. So how do they fix it?

Understanding Comfort Zones

Comfort zones are exactly like they sound – the zones of differing levels of comfort for an activity. By comfort, I mean any type of comfort, social comfort, mental comfort, physical comfort, emotional comfort, whatever. The type of comfort applicable will depend on whatever skill it is you’re trying to learn.

Now you can divide these zones into as many as you like in general but for our purposes only three are important. These three zones are the Easy Zone, the Challenge Zone and the Frustration Zone. Each of these is represented in the picture as a concentric circle. The green is the Easy Zone, the yellow is the Challenge Zone and the Red is the Frustration Zone. Let’s look at each one of these in detail as applied to someone learning a new language.

Comfort Zones Diagram by Adam Wik

These are the three basic comfort zones you can occupy while trying to learn a new skill.

The Easy Zone

Any practice or learning that requires little to no effort and generates little to no discomfort falls in the Easy Zone. In the case of learning a new language, some things that would fall into the Easy Zone might be occasional work with a computer program, a one hour language course conducted mostly in your native language or for some people, flipping through some flashcards.

Lots and lots and lots of people fall into the trap of never leaving the Easy Zone. This isn’t surprising, people don’t like to be uncomfortable. The problem is, practice in the Easy Zone is just too easy. The reason it’s called the Easy Zone is that nothing you do here is any real challenge. As a result, you’re never pushed beyond your current limits and never make progress. People who focus all their efforts in the Easy Zone feel like they put in a lot of time, but they stagnate because it’s halfhearted.

The Challenge Zone

The Challenge Zone is the sweet spot. This is where all the most efficient learning happens. Practice here is challenging, like the name would suggest, but not so difficult as to be frustrating. For a language learner this might be writing a letter or e-mail in the target language, ordering a meal in the target language or having a short conversation. Anything that causes a good bit of discomfort goes here, whether that’s the mental discomfort of struggling with new sentence structures in an e-mail or the social discomfort of having to have an actual conversation with a native.

The reason the learning happens here is because this is the not-too-hot not-too-cold Goldilocks zone. When you focus your efforts on this zone you’re working on things that are far enough beyond your current level to challenge you, which is what forces you to grow. The real trick is to not go too far into…

The Frustration Zone

If you hit the Frustration Zone, you’ve gone way too far. The Frustration Zone encompasses any practice that causes so much discomfort, is so difficult or so stressful that it burns you out and makes you frustrated with your attempts. Some examples for a language learner might be trying to understand an entire movie, read a whole book or take a college course in the target language way before they’re ready.

Now that isn’t to say those three things aren’t great ways to learn a new language, but if you jump into the them too early they can seem impossible. After a while of throwing yourself at something that seems impossible, frustration inevitably sets in. Frustration leads to quitting, or at best a lot less practice because you dread doing it. A lot of people dive into things with the best of intentions and wind up pushing it too far. They never get any further than the people who keep it too easy because they burn out and quit before they make any real progress.

Making It Work

The first step to making your learning more efficient is to figure out where the Challenge Zone is. Sit down and think about all the practice you could possibly do, and figure out what makes you uncomfortable or what seems hard but isn’t so daunting that you would have almost no chance of success. Once you’ve got that, just focus all your efforts into those activities.

The list will change from person to person and from skill to skill, but as long as you keep most of your practice time in-between way too easy and way too difficult, you can guarantee you’ll be learning something and you won’t be likely to give up in frustration.

Have any experience stepping outside your comfort zones? What are some things you’ve found help you learn more efficiently? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: ZeroOne

Workouts for Wimps: Beginning High Intensity Interval Training

The Runner by Hamed Saber

You used to know how to run.

Note: This article is intended as a starter for people who have never worked out a day in their life or are extremely out of shape. If you’re already in decent shape but looking to take things to the next level, you will probably want to head over to a more advanced article on high intensity interval training.

If your goal is to lose weight, increase endurance or just to run a little faster and you want to reach that goal with the minimum amount of total work time invested – high intensity interval training (or HIIT) is for you. Besides a properly structured strength training routine there are no other forms of exercise that give so much benefit in such an efficient package. With only 5 to 15 minutes per week you can get HIIT’s full benefit. Everyone can spare 15 minutes a week to be healthier.

So What Is High Intensity Interval Training?

Simply put – training in an interval pattern at a very high intensity. Ok, moving on…

Alright, I know, you want more than that. High intensity interval training is a system of training that uses alternating periods of work and rest (intervals) to allow the person doing them to perform maximal or near maximal effort for a longer total time than without rest periods.

Why Is HIIT So Great?

There are a handful of reasons that high intensity interval training is a better option than long, slow drawn out cardio like jogging. Here are just a few:

  • HIIT is efficient – Due to the intensity of the exercise HIIT puts a lot of stress on your respiratory, cardiovascular and central nervous systems in a very short amount of time. This may sound bad, but this stress is good in small doses. Just like with weight lifting that’s how you get stronger. That intensity means you can get more benefit from 5 minutes of HIIT than you can from an hour of running.
  • HIIT increases your metabolism – That stress on your CNS I just mentioned also means that unlike with most exercises your body stays geared up long after you’ve finished actually exercising. That means that three hours later when you’re sitting around playing Skyrim or watching TV your metabolism is still roaring as if you were active.
  • HIIT releases growth hormones – Yet another benefit of the stress put on your system is that high intensity interval training triggers the release of Human Growth Hormone, Testosterone and Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 just like strength training does. This lovely cocktail of hormones means quicker fat loss, more rapid muscle growth and improved insulin sensitivity. All good things.
  • HIIT improves aerobic and anaerobic systems – High intensity interval training improves performance in anaerobic areas (intensity / power output) and aerobic areas (endurance). Unlike a five mile run which only improves aerobic performance (and even then questionably) HIIT gives you a two-for-one deal. On top of that, high intensity interval training improves your VO2 Max, a measure of how efficiently your body processes oxygen. That means you can do things harder for longer.

How Do I Start HIIT?

The ‘high intensity’ part of high intensity interval training is not there sarcastically – HIIT is intense. This is the main reason it’s so beneficial but it’s also the reason it can be dangerous. Now this HIIT routine is already assuming you are completely out of shape or just starting exercising but even so it will put a lot of stress on your heart.

If you are at a point where you’re at elevated risk of having a heart attack than take it slow and talk to your doctor before you really get going. Properly applied HIIT will get you and your heart in the best shape of your life, but overdoing it can put you in the emergency room or worse. Be careful and use your head.

With that out of the way, here’s what you do:

5 minute warm up. This will depend on your overall fitness level, a very brisk walk or some easy jumping jacks should do the trick. The idea here isn’t to get out of breath, or even tired really, but to prepare your system for the shock it’s about to get.

30 seconds of full exertion. Here’s where you get going. This will also depend on your overall fitness level. The idea is to do something as hard and fast as you can manage. For some that might mean a furious set of jumping jacks or a quick stair climb for others it might be a full-on sprint. Running up a steep hill as fast as you can for 30 seconds is a good place to start if you’re not sure where your limit is, or 30 seconds of sprinting on flat ground. By the end of 30 seconds if you’re not huffing and puffing you need something harder.

2 minutes of active rest. As soon as your 30 seconds are up switch to active rest. Now, when I say active rest I don’t mean just standing there – walk around in circles, stroll back down the hill or casually work your way to the bottom of the stairs. Savor it, because you’ll find these 2 minute periods go way too quickly.

Repeat 7 more times. As soon as your 2 minutes are up immediately start into another 30 seconds of full exertion, followed by another 2 minutes of rest, followed by another 30 seconds of exertion and so on until you’ve done a total of 8 sets of 30 seconds. This sounds easy. It’s not. If you absolutely cannot make the full 8 sets then remember where you quit and do one more set each workout until you hit 8 total.

5 minute cool down. This is as important as the warm up. After you’re finished with all your sets take 5 minutes more to gently cool down. Take an even more casual 5 minute walk, do some light stretching and let your breath slowly return.

That’s it! To begin with, only do one session of high intensity interval training per week. If you’re doing strength training (which I highly suggest you do) you should either do your HIIT on a day you don’t have a strength workout or, if you must do them on the same day, do it after your strength training.

Eventually, you can move up to two or three sessions per week and shorter rest periods, but for now it’s best not to overdo it. HIIT really does put a lot of stress on your CNS and it’s easy to overtrain if you don’t give yourself enough time to rest in-between sessions.

One more tip, never do HIIT shortly after having eaten. Trust me.

Have any other advice to add for people just getting started with high intensity interval training? Leave them in the comments! It’s always helpful to learn from other people’s experiences.

Photo Credit: Hamed Saber

3 Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo

I Will Find The Droids I'm Looking For by Stephan

Last month I decided to dive headlong into a new challenge – writing 50,000 words in 30 days for National Novel Writing Month. Ok, so really I decided to write 60,000 in 30 days but that’s not important. The important part was the challenge, and it was definitely a challenge.

As much fun as it was, and as happy as I am that I was able to surpass my goal of 60,000 words, I also must confess I’m glad that it’s over. I went into it thinking that, given the amount of writing I do on a regular basis, it would be a piece of cake. Unless we’re talking about a piece of lead cake wrapped in razor-wire and resting on a downed power line, I was way off. It was a grueling 30 days and seriously tested my ability to commit to a project like this. Having trudged through the hardship I’ve found my reward isn’t just 60,000 words of terrible first-draft fiction – the experience has also taught me a number of valuable lessons.

1. It’s Easy to Conquer Big Tasks Through Deconstruction

I’m sure everyone has heard the old saying about how one goes about eating an elephant – one bite at a time. While I’m not one to put stock in something just because it’s an old aphorism, I have to concede that the moral of that one holds true. In fact, the whole premise of NaNoWriMo is built around it.

To most people, writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days seems like a monumental task. It is, really, but that’s not to say it’s unobtainable. In the end it works out to only about 1,667 words per day. If we assume an average typing speed of about 80 WPM that’s only about 24 minutes per day. You can double that to account for pauses to think and distractions and round up a little to an even hour.

Everyone has at least one hour per day they can devote to writing. When you look at it in that light, it doesn’t seem so difficult anymore. In fact it, it seems a little surprising everyone hasn’t written their own novels.

This divide and conquer strategy can be applied to any big task, with or without a deadline attached. The trick is to go over whatever your task is and deconstruct it into manageable chunks.

Want to lose 20 lbs. in a month? That’s only 5 lbs. a week or roughly 3/4 of a pound per day. If you focus on just losing at least 3/4 of a pound everyday, you’ll hit your goal easily.

Want to learn to play guitar? Pick one thing per day to practice (a few chords, a scale, the first few bars of a favorite song) and before you know it you’ll be better than you ever expected to be.

2. You Can Develop New Habits

Not just bad ones either, good habits. Habits that you want to develop. It’s not even all that hard when you approach it the right way.

Like I mentioned before the whole premise of NaNoWriMo is to dissect this giant 50,000 word goal into daily, manageable bites to achieve it in 30 days. If you don’t want to fall behind, you have to be putting your time in every single day to at least hit that 1,667 word minimum. Interestingly, this has the side effect of teaching you a little bit about habit formation. By the end of the month, I found that if I went a day without writing anything it bothered me. Writing daily had become a new habit.

The true key to habit formation isn’t to possess some kind of superhuman willpower with which to force yourself to do something each day until it’s habitual. That will never work. You just can’t fight your nature like that for that long, in the end you’ll always lose. The key is to only commit to a little bit and slowly, as you acclimate, to increase the intensity.

Think of it like exercise. If you’ve never worked out before you wouldn’t jump in and expect to bench, squat and deadlift 300 pounds three days a week as your new routine. Even if, by some miracle, you could do it the strain it put on you would probably make you dread the second week. You would inevitably crash and quit. Instead, you start out at low weights and work your way up.

NaNoWriMo works the same way. If they asked people to write 5,000 words a day, it would never work. People would make a few days, but overall the task would prove too much and people would give up. For some reason, I always see people take this approach when trying to develop a new habit. They commit to working out every single day of the week or to studying for two hours every night or the like. It’s always too much and it never works.

Instead, take the NaNoWriMo approach. Start with something easy and work your way up. Five minutes of flashcards everyday for a week. Anyone could do that. Then bump it up to ten minutes. Still easy. Then fifteen. Before you know it, you’ll be studying for an hour every night just because you’re used to it. That’s how you develop a habit.

3. Procrastination Is Poison

I have a confession to make; I am a serious procrastinator. No matter what it is I’m trying to accomplish that sweet, seductive voice whispers in the recesses of my mind, “There’s always tomorrow… You can do it later… You’re not in the mood to work right now…” Always it tempts me away to other, more wasteful pursuits.

NaNoWriMo proved to be just what I needed to exorcise my procrastination demons, primarily just by being so demanding.

About halfway into the challenge, I faltered. Things got in the way, we had computer problems, excuses excuses excuses. Before I knew it, almost a full week had passed and I hadn’t written a word. Thankfully, NaNoWriMo gives you lovely charts and graphs plotting your progress and projecting just how many words you’ll need to write per day to finish.

My little lapse in attention had almost doubled what I would need to write every day if I wanted to finish on time. What was worse, each day I procrastinated added to the workload of the rest of my days which made them even more daunting which made me want to do the work even less. The more I procrastinated, the more hopeless my chances of finishing on time looked and the more I was inclined to procrastinate.

In the end, I sat down one day and pounded out about 10,000 words in one sitting. I’m still trying to get the blood stains off my keyboard, but it caught me back up to where I needed to be.

If you’ve set yourself to a task, particularly one with a deadline, it is vitally important that you don’t allow yourself to procrastinate. One way to avoid it is to challenge yourself to complete just a little extra work each day, or to pretend your deadline is before your actual deadline.

Now, you don’t have to give NaNoWriMo a shot to learn all these lessons, but I’d encourage everyone who’s interested to give it a shot sometime. If you’ve had a go at NaNoWriMo in the past and have some other lessons to add feel free to share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Stephan

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