Lessons from the Master: Be Like Water

Tranquility by Sean Rogers

Water is not only essential to life, it makes a pretty good role model.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.” – Bruce Lee

Being like water is a fairly common goal within the world of martial arts, regardless of style. Students of everything from gong fu to karate to muay thai have sought to improve themselves by emulating its fluidity, force and formlessness. Not only martial artists can learn lessons from it though. So what does it mean to be like water, and how can doing so help improve our lives?

Formlessness

Another quote by Bruce Lee that’s often tossed around is this one:

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.” – Bruce Lee

Technically that was him reciting lines he wrote for his role on the TV show Longstreet, but I think it still reflects both his thoughts on the matter and an essential property of water that can seriously help people in their day to day lives.

Water, as he says, is shapeless. It doesn’t fight when it’s put into a new container, instead it adapts and changes to perfectly fit its new home. If an object is dropped into the water it doesn’t fight back it just moves out of the way and swallows it up. This formlessness and adaptability is a quality that everyone should strive to achieve.

So how are some ways we can practice this attitude? Think of all the times you’ve been forced into a new situation. Maybe it’s something benign like going to an unfamiliar coffee shop or maybe it’s something more serious like losing your job. What have your reactions been like?

For most people change, no matter how small, is at the very least uncomfortable if not completely terrifying. The natural reaction when people are forced into a new situation is to flee or to fight to get back to the way things were. Instead, try to be more like water. Let go of all that energy you’re wasting trying to cling to the old way things were and let yourself reshape to fit your new surroundings.

The key to achieving water-like adaptation to new situations is understanding the concept of formlessness. The reason water doesn’t fight when it’s placed into a new environment is because water doesn’t have it’s own form. There is no one ‘shape’ of water, it assumes the shape of whatever its container is.

The best way to achieve a similar lack of form is to work on letting go of your self-created identity. I’m not saying you should completely abandon your personality, but rather that you should come to accept yourself as a malleable being. Once you understand that, like water, your defining aspect is that you are constantly changing you can easily adapt to any new situations that may arise.

Fluidity

Ok, I understand that fluidity and formlessness are essentially the same thing since formlessness is a general physical property of all fluids, but bear with me here because fluidity as a concept for our purposes has a slightly more nuanced meaning that separates it out.

When water is flowing, like in a stream or a river, it’s difficult to stop. You can try and push it back but it will slip around you and continue on its way. Like all currents it finds the path of least resistance automatically and follows it without effort or hesitation. If there is even the slightest crack or weakness it will find its way through and keep going.

You can apply this principle to your own life through the practice of wei wuwei (爲無爲) or action without action also sometimes referred to as effortless action. The idea of wei wuwei is central to Taoism and is characterized by releasing conscious control of your actions over to the flow of the infinite Tao.

In more Western terms – go with the flow.

As I said this may sound a lot like the above point of adapting to your surroundings but it’s slightly different. Adapting to your surroundings means changing yourself to become as comfortable as possible in the situation that has presented itself to you. Being fluid, or practicing wei wuwei, deals more with how you deal with obstacles.

Traceurs will understand this concept well. The idea is that when faced with an obstacle you react instantly and naturally taking the path of least resistance around it and moving on. Rather than slam into obstacles you let the natural order of things take its course as you glide around them.

Here obstacles doesn’t necessarily mean physical things. These can be any blocks to your progress tangible or not. When manifested into your general attitude it can also be an effective way to overcome mental blocks. When you hit a block in your thinking or creativity don’t dwell on the problem, just accept that its there and move on.

Dealing with problems this way is not only more effective, it keeps stress to a minimum as well.

There are likely other lessons that you could learn and apply from observing the properties of water, the way when it’s focused into a single stream it can cut through steel, the way a tiny trickle of it can dig out the entire Grand Canyon given enough time or maybe the way it’s nearly incompressible. Can you think of any other good additions? Leave a comment and share them!

Photo Credit: Sean Rogers

The Basics of Warming Up

OnTheDouble Dutch at Golden Gardens

Jumping rope can be an effective cardio warm up. Double Dutch style optional.

Whether you’re lifting, doing endurance work or a little bit of everything, warming up before an intense exercise session is extremely important. Just a very basic warm up can cut your risk of injury by more than half, and they generally only take a few extra moments to complete.

Most people tend to understand that, and try to incorporate some kind of warm up into their routine. The problem is, most people never learn how to properly warm up. I often see people doing way too much, doing warm ups that prepare the wrong body parts for their routine or even doing things that just have no effect like sitting on a heater. In an effort to fix that, here are some of the basics of warming up properly.

The Goals of Warming Up

To understand how to warm up properly, you have to understand what you’re really trying to accomplish during the warm up. Despite its name, the goal of a warm up is not just to elevate your body temperature. Sure increasing temperature will provide a small increase in muscle elasticity but you’re still not going to be fully prepared for the exercise.

The real goals of warming up are increasing joint mobility and also preparing the necessary muscles for the specific exercise about to be performed. Both of these goals are in and of themselves directed at the single goal of maximizing performance on specific exercises.

Proper joint mobility can mean the difference between good form on a lift and bad, can save you from joint injuries and can even increase power output in lifts. The benefits of having the muscles prepped for the specific exercise are the same, more potential power output so you can lift heavier or run faster with less chance of injury.

How to Warm Up

A good warm up should hit both of these areas. Usually, because of the structure of most workouts, its best to begin with increasing joint mobility. How do we do that?

Dynamic Stretches

Dynamic stretches are stretches that are performed in a continuous controlled motion, not quick or bouncy. Some examples would be forward leg lefts, side leg lifts, arm rotations or side bends. The goal for the war up isn’t to do so much that you’re fatigued, but enough to work up to your full range of motion (ROM). A good general guideline is to do about four sets of twenty of repetitions for each stretch.

If you have a dynamic stretch routine that you perform every morning, then you probably won’t need quite as much and can get away with one or two sets of twenty as long as you’re hitting your full ROM. I like to do a quick full body dynamic stretch routine before each workout, both because I tend to prefer full body workouts and because I enjoy the flexibility benefits, however if you are focusing on one particular muscle group you can focus your stretching accordingly.

So why not static stretches?

Frequently you will see well-intentioned people doing only static stretches before a workout. If you don’t know the difference, a static stretch is what most people think of when you say stretching. Touching your toes and holding that position for 10 to 30 seconds is a good example, or sitting in a butterfly stretch. Static stretches are great, if you’re not about to exercise.

Static stretches, while they do increase range of motion, also decrease the potential force output of muscles – by up to 30% according to some studies. If you’re trying to get stronger or run longer you need your muscles at 100%, not 70%. Additionally going overboard on the static stretching pre-workout can push your joints past your normal ROM making them temporarily weaker and more susceptible to sprains and tears.

Muscle Preparation

Once you’ve completed your dynamic stretches, you can get down into the exercise specific portion of the warm up. The biggest mistakes I see here are people who think that any kind of moderate intensity physical activity is suitable for a warm up. It doesn’t work that way. It’ll definitely help a little, but not nearly as much as a proper warm up.

Your warm up movements must resemble your exercise movements.

The idea here is to prepare the specific muscles you’ll be needing. Twenty minutes jogging on the treadmill will warm up your cardiovascular system, but if you’re doing bench presses today it won’t help. For most strength training the solution is simple. Start with a set using just the bar, or the lightest available dumbbells / weight, then a set at around 30% your working weight, then a half set at 80%, then move on to do your prescribed number of sets at your total working weight.

Going running, warm up your legs with some bodyweight squats, lunges and calf raises – enough to feel it but not so much that it wears you out – then get your heart going with some moderate intensity cardio, maybe jumping jacks or light running. Depending on your fitness level, a circuit of 10 squats 10 lunges and 10 calf raises with no rest in-between might be intense enough to accomplish both.

Whatever you do, make sure to warm up the specific muscles you’ll be using in the workout.

Putting it Together

So with everything combined you’ll have a few rounds of dynamic stretches, followed by either a full body prep warm up if you’re going running or playing a sport, or individual warm up sets worked into each individual lift. In total, this shouldn’t add more than ten minutes to your workout, likely less. I think that’s a very small price to pay in order to not only perform substantially better, but to have a significantly lower risk of injury.

Do you have any other suggestions you’d like to add for people to incorporate into their warm ups? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Bananajr

When to Start Exercising

111021-F-XH170-120 by The U.S. Air Force

Man, woman, child, grandparent - doesn't matter. Start lifting now.

People are very, very good at coming up with excuses for avoiding things that they think are unpleasant. It’s human nature. The problem is, frequently these unpleasant things they work so hard to avoid are things that are actually really good for you. Of all of these, exercise seems to be one of the most common.

The excuse that bothers me the most is the age excuse. The more common one is ‘I’m too old to start exercising‘ although I do occasionally also hear ‘I or my child is too young to start exercising‘. Usually these two complaints are even more pronounced when we’re talking about weight lifting.

The most baffling part of that to me is those are the two groups I think need to start lifting most. Ok, I’ll be honest, I think everyone should be lifting weights. Regardless, elders who have never lifted need to start right away because the clock is ticking. There are tons of benefits for older people who lift, increased bone density, improved mobility and most importantly greatly improved stability. For kids it’s important to start lifting as soon as possible so they can get the maximum possible benefit from a young age. Most studies agree strength training does not stunt growth in children, so don’t try to use that as an excuse.

In case you need a little extra push, here’s two examples for a little inspiration.

Naomi Kutin: Age 10

Naomi started lifting around the age of 8 under the guidance of her father, and has been setting world records for her weight class ever since.

Winifred Pristell: Age 70

Winifred, a great-grandmother of three started lifting at 48 and now competes in powerlifting competitions.

No matter how young or old you are, the best thing you can do is to start exercising right now. You’re never too old and you’re never too young. Even if you’ve never done a push up before you could always start with a basic bodyweight circuit or dive right into things with some high intensity interval training. The point is to stop complaining and get out there and do it.

Know of any other inspirational fitness examples? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

The Pros & Cons of CrossFit

Angie by Greg Westfall

Complex barbell movements such as the Snatch and Overhead Squat are common in CrossFit workouts.

If you’re involved in the fitness community even a little bit, chances are you’ve heard of CrossFit. Particularly with recent endorsements by Reebok and the popularization of the CrossFit Games, this fitness program is becoming more and more popular with both the fitness community and the mainstream public. If you haven’t ever heard of it before, you can get the basics here.

The increasing popularity has also lead to some extreme opinions about the program, the mention of CrossFit in various fitness communities often results in heated battles between those fanatically in favor of it and those vehemently against it.

Caroline and I have spent a full month training almost daily at a local CrossFit box here in Cincinnati, in addition to our own supplementary training at home, and we thought we would give our own opinions so far of what appear to be the pros and the cons of following CrossFit.

Pros of CrossFit

Adam’s Thoughts

CrossFit is definitely an effective way to get in shape. The workouts at the box we attend are split into two halves, the first focusing on perfecting exercise form and on building strength and the latter running through a traditional CrossFit metcon style workout. That means whether your goal is building strength or losing fat the workouts help with both.

The training is fairly varied, with workouts consisting of a wide range of movements and providing a full body workout overall. Being primarily circuit training with as little rest as possible between exercises the workouts also help increase endurance and improve your VO2max. Flexibility isn’t emphasized much directly, outside of dynamic stretches during warm ups, but unless you already have high range of motion in your joints the exercises will also help improve mobility since there’s a focus on reaching full ROM in each rep.

Caroline’s Thoughts

When done right, Crossfit can provide a fun workout that is challenging and will improve your conditioning and also build a little bit of strength. Varied, challenging workouts keeps it interesting for the easily bored and you are always pushed to your limits – often enough to experience an endorphin rush by the end of the class.

Cons of CrossFit

Adam’s Thoughts

Due to the nature of most of the workouts, particularly the tendency to put a focus on completing circuits as fast as possible, proper exercise form can start to get ignored. When that happens injury becomes extremely likely. It seems like a lot of the CrossFit people I’ve spoken with have suffered significantly more injuries than most weightlifters. It’s anecdotal, so I can’t back that up with data, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

Another concern is the at least tacit recommendation that people perform the WODs posted on the main CrossFit website on a regular basis unsupervised whether or not they are at an appropriate fitness level. The box we attend doesn’t advocate that practice, and instead creates custom scaled programming for each individual, but I’ve heard from a lot of people who had boxes they went to who only did the WODs posted by the head office. This can create scalability problems too, for example when people who have never deadlifted before are told they need to deadlift 250 pounds 3×10 for time.

Lastly, there seems to be a serious cult attitude surrounding some areas of CrossFit. The trainer that runs our box has other education and certification but has confessed to needing to be somewhat quiet about any modifications or scaling he uses, because the head office has come down on trainers who have voiced concerns about the program in the past. One person even described their experiences with CrossFit by calling it “the Scientology of fitness”.

Caroline’s Thoughts

I agree with Adam for the most part, I’d only like to add a couple of other issues. The workouts, while fun and challenging, don’t really have a goal they are pushing toward, or at least not one that I could see. As I’ve heard said before, getting better at Crossfit is the focus of Crossfit, and that was our experience. It will make you stronger and faster, but only in a slow and inefficient manner.

The emphasis on kipping bothers me a bit too. Crossfit loves kipping pull-ups, and insists that you should do them even if you can’t do a full dead-hang pull-up. I understand the intention of kipping, but it’s not the same movement as a normal pull-up and it cannot replace normal pull-ups. It’s terribly annoying to see people, particularly women, who can’t do a normal pull up but sit there and do multiple kipping pull ups – they are sacrificing true strength and are just asking for an injury.

The final issue I’d raise is the pushing people to complete the WOD as prescribed. While a little push can be beneficial to encourage someone to work their hardest, it can also backfire in the result of an injury by trying to do too much while extremely fatigued.

In Summary

The largest problems with CrossFit seem to stem primarily from the capabilities, or lack thereof, of the trainers at the facility you attend. Unless you’re already at a fairly high level of fitness, attempting to follow the CrossFit program straight off the main website without having any guidance by a certified trainer seems dangerous at best.

Our CrossFit experience overall has been pretty positive. I think that’s mostly because we happened to find a highly experienced, knowledgeable trainer. Unfortunately the world of personal training, whether it be at a standard gym or a CrossFit one, has just as many people who zipped through their certification and have no business guiding anyone’s fitness program as it does qualified professionals who know their stuff. In fact, there’s probably more of the former.

My advice then is if you’re looking to lose fat, gain endurance and a moderate amount of strength that encompasses a broader range of functionality, go ahead and give CrossFit a try. Be very, very choosy about where you go though, and make sure to find a box that understands sports medicine & training outside of CrossFit and is dedicated to scaling things to meet your goals.

Do you love CrossFit? Hate it? Think we completely missed some big pros or cons? Let us know in the comments! (Just keep it civil please.)

Photo Credit: Greg Westfall

3 Methods for Learning a New Language

Lost In Translation by Tochis

Lost learning a new language? Try one of these methods.

Most people who set out to learn a new language have no idea where to start. Do they follow this program, or that program? Do they take courses, buy books, go with a computer program, a set of CDs? Maybe it’s best to just do all of it.

I’m not going to say here which way I think is best (though I certainly have my opinions), but rather give some options for the wayward language learners who are adrift on their linguistic journey but have, as of yet, failed to develop any cohesive plan for how to get to their destination. Each of these three methods is broad, and all of them have their pros and cons, but hopefully you can find something you’ll like.

Remember that these are just general strategies, and not set in stone. You can use one, none or all of these. The person who reaches fluency isn’t the one who chose the ‘correct’ method for learning, they’re the person who chose not to quit.

The Traditionalist

The Traditionalist route is that of the classroom. Included here are not only literal classroom classes, but also tutors and self-study courses since, let’s face it, almost all the self-study courses out there have nearly identical study structures to what you get in a college class. I’m not going to describe how they work or how to follow this route, you should already know. You enroll in a class, find a tutor, or buy an expensive computer program.

This route is best for people who need more guidance. If you’re the kind of person who wants to be taught, but doesn’t want to put a lot of the back-end effort in acquiring and cataloging your own study materials, this route is for you. Now that’s not to say this is for people who are lazy, it’s still going to be a lot of work – you just don’t have to do any of the prep.

Pros

  • Guided study, often with a teacher.
  • Extremely structured environment.
  • Increased accountability.

Cons

  • Often very expensive.
  • Little to no control over material.
  • Limited one-on-one attention.

The Robot

The strategy of the Robot is to divide and conquer, making this strategy best for severely analytic people or those who need lots of small, measurable goals to shoot for. The first step is to learn as much vocabulary as possible from the target language, often with a focus on frequency lists. Once an appreciable amount of vocabulary has been memorized, often in the neighborhood of the 2,000 most common words, students using this method begin to study grammar and using their vocab to read.

Once grammar has been internalized, or even while learning it, real communication with native speakers begins either through text or in person chats. The idea is to learn enough vocab to be mostly able to read, then learn grammar and combine the two into speech.

Pros

  • Extremely systematic and goal oriented.
  • Easy to study on your own.
  • Most resources required are available for free.

Cons

  • Can take an extremely long time to get to speaking.
  • Monotony of study can be discouraging.
  • You have to find your own materials.

The Socialite

The strategy of the Socialite is to start communicating as soon as humanly possible. This strategy is best for extremely outgoing people and those who really want to start interacting in the language right away. Students using this strategy generally start out like the others, as spending time learning some basic grammar and vocab is necessary, but also seek out native speakers as soon as they can.

Whether this means moving to a country that speaks their target language natively, or just finding a bunch of new friends locally or online who are native speakers, a priority is put on spending as much time as possible chatting. This chatting, and subsequent corrections and explanations by the native speaker, form the base of the learning method with slightly more traditional ancillary study filling in the gaps.

Pros

  • Speaking from day one means better communication skills.
  • Access to native speakers ensures natural sounding speech.
  • Conversation based approach prioritizes learning around utility and interest.

Cons

  • Can be scary or intimidating when just starting out.
  • Puts more responsibility on the student to perform.
  • Easy to drift focus or lack cohesive goals.

There are probably hundreds of other general language learning strategies, but I think these three cover the widest range of people. Like I said before, there’s no reason you can’t mix and match – the idea is just to give an idea of some of the methods people use so you can find one that suits you best. The most important thing if you want to learn a new language is to go out right now and get started.

Have you used any of these general methods? Do you have a favorite, or even a fourth you think I should’ve added? Share it with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Tochis

Memorize Any List In Order Forever In Under 30 Seconds

Tallin, Estonia by Claudio Ar

Your Memory Palace doesn't have to have such moody lighting - unless you're a supervillain.

I used to have an atrocious memory.

If I didn’t take a list when going shopping, I would forget to buy things I needed. If you told me your name, you could expect to tell me again the next several times we met. If it weren’t for automated reminders no one I know would ever get a birthday card. Even phone numbers weren’t safe in my cerebral sieve.

Thankfully I was able to fix all that with a technique that’s easy to learn, incredibly effective, and can be used in the blink of an eye to not only memorize any sequence of facts but to memorize them in proper order – the Memory Palace.

The Memory Palace, also called the Method of Loci isn’t a new technique. It has a track record going back to at least the 6th century B.C. and has been used by eight-time world memory champion Dominic O’Brien to memorize 54 decks of cards in order (2,808 cards if you’re trying to do the math) after seeing each card only once. Now I don’t expect you’ll be needing to pull off any feats like that anytime soon, unless you’re trying to show off or win a few drinks from friends, but it comes in handy for a million other things too – shopping lists, language learning, studying for exams and anything else where you need to memorize a sequence of facts quickly and permanently.

So What Is a Memory Palace?

The Memory Palace technique works by drawing on the power of associative memories and the fact that people are very good at remembering places they know very well. A Memory Palace is any place that you know extremely well, your home for instance, that you can vividly imagine and attach items to in your imagination in order to be remembered.

Essentially, you visualize you walking through your Memory Palace and ‘see’ all the things you need to remember in sequence added to the memory. The strong emotional ties to your Memory Palace help hold the data in your head.

How Do I Use the Memory Palace Technique?

1. Pick Your Palace

Technically your palace can be anywhere that you can visualize. That being said, there are a few tips that will make it a little easier to use. First off, the more vividly you can visualize the location, the stronger the association will be. It’s fine to use an imaginary place, but only if you can really visualize it.

Secondly, the bigger the location, the more you can memorize. That doesn’t mean you have to pick some enormous place to start out with, in fact it’s probably better you start out small, but as you get better at it you can start graduating to larger and larger locations. You’ll be mapping out a path through your Memory Palace soon and the more stops you can have in it the more hooks you’ll have to hang data on.

Using myself as an example, I’ve chosen our house. It’s small enough to remember easily, but large enough to accommodate lots of stops. Best of all, I see it everyday so I can visualize it perfectly with almost no effort.

2. Pick a Path

Step two is to choose a familiar path through your already familiar location. If you’re using a real location, and you should be if it’s your first time doing this, pick a path you regularly take in real life.

If you chose your school, then use the path you take from class to class everyday. If you use your work, use the path you take from the front door to your desk, or wherever you have to go each day. Much like the location itself, the more familiar the path the more effective the technique. To start with this path doesn’t have to have a lot of stops, but as you work up to memorizing longer lists you’ll need to extend the path as necessary.

Having chosen our home as my location, I’m going to make my path through it similar to the one I take coming home. I come in through the garage, walk through the living room and then the kitchen on my way to the stairs. Before I go upstairs I take my shoes off and toss them in the closet, then go up to our home office. I could have chosen something more complicated, but that’s one that I’ve probably actually walked hundreds of times by now and it’s easy to remember.

3. Take a Practice Walk

This step isn’t as important the more you use the technique, but starting out it’s crucial. You need to visualize yourself walking through your Memory Palace along the route you just defined. This visualization needs to be as vivid and sensory as possible.

Don’t just think through it as quick as you can, stop in each area of the path and try to think about every little thing you see, what you smell, what you hear, you can even reach out in your mind and touch things. As you’re going through you need to also pick out as many little identifying items or landmarks on your path. You’ll need those as anchors for installing memory hooks in the next step.

I have my location and my path, so now I run through a practice visualization. Our old garage door grumbles and shudders as it goes up. Caroline’s Camaro is in there, shiny after just being washed. I run my hand over it and feel how smooth and cool it is. I smell the unmistakable scent of fresh cut grass as I walk by the mower, stained green from recent use. I open the door and step up into our house. It’s cool and dark in the hallway from the garage. I move the barrier that keeps the dog from getting back there and head into the living room. I can smell food cooking in the kitchen. As I walk by the pool table I feel the felt and the tiny little tear on the end by the door.

I’ll stop there, but you get the idea. I would go on like that until I got to the office. Remember to make it vivid.

4. Install Your Memory Hooks

The next step in preparing your palace is to place your memory hooks. I’ve written about memory hooks before if you aren’t familiar with them. The idea is to take your list of items you have to remember and hook each item into a place along your path through the Memory Palace.

Each hook should not only be as vivid as everything else you’ve imagined, but it should also be weird or ridiculous. Things that are strange are a lot easier to remember than things that aren’t. Don’t just picture whatever you have to remember lying there, make it interesting.

So let’s say for our example I had a shopping list to memorize. We’ll say that list is bacon, avocados, chicken, eggs, spinach, bell peppers, carrots, and onions.

I open our garage like normal but it doesn’t complain like normal. All the moving parts have been oiled up with bacon grease, and there’s bacon wound around the springs. Even the chain has been replaced by a knotted rope of bacon. I touch the car like before and pass the mower. This time, I don’t smell grass, I smell guacamole. I swipe a finger over all the green coating the mower and taste it. Avocados! When I open the door to the house the cool, dark hallways has become the back of the dairy section at the supermarket and a giant chicken is stocking cartons of eggs…

Ok, you get the point. I would go through that whole list making some kind of weird incident for each item making it as sensory of a visualization as possible.

5. Use It

Once you’ve made all your associations and memory hooks, you’re ready to use your Memory Palace to recall that info whenever you need it. Once you get to the store, walk back through your path in your head and experience all those crazy things again, (the bacon door, avocados on the mower, etc.) and you’ve got your list.

The best part is because of how quick our brains work you can construct and imagine a pretty long sequence of events in a fraction of the time it would take for a person to physically do all of that. That means that you can access your list quickly.

Additional Tips & Tricks

That’s the basic way of using the Memory Palace, but there are lots of little ways to play around with the technique. If you need to remember multiple long lists simultaneously, you can set up several different locations or even multiple paths through the same location.

You can also embed other memory techniques within your Memory Palace. So if you needed to remember the colors of the rainbow in a list with other things you could see the grave of ROY G. BIV (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet) in your path with a rainbow etched into it.

Similar techniques can be used to encode lots of information into one hook. If I needed to remember to get three packs of bacon and two pounds of avocados in my previous example, I could add a giant ‘three’ written in bacon on the garage door and had two avocado smeared lawnmowers stacked on top of a giant scale. You can fit a surprising amount of information into each hook as long as your imagination and visualization skills are strong enough.

Have you got any other creative tips or tricks for using Memory Palaces? Have you tried this technique out and had success or problems with it? Share it with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Claudio Mufarrege

Getting Better Sleep

Sleep-Like-A-Baby-By-Peasap

I can't guarantee you'll sleep like a baby, but you will get closer to it.

What is often undervalued, desired by all and depressingly lacking in abundance? It’s sleep! Everyone needs it and everyone wants more of it, but sometimes there’s something in the way between you and a good night’s rest. Sometimes it’s an early morning flight, burning the midnight oil working on a project or leftover tension and stress from the day. Life has a way of getting between you and your much needed sleep.

Yes, you need it. Sleep is absolutely essential for basic physiological functions and then some. Sleep is necessary for musculoskeletal growth and repair, neurological and cognitive performance, immune system function and cellular repair. Getting enough sleep means enhanced memory performance, athletic performance, recovery from workouts, weight loss, energy, creativity and immunity along with lowered blood pressure, reduced stress levels and reduced inflammation.

Lack of sleep can cause several problems in the short term, and really ugly problems long term: from impaired cognitive function (slower reaction times, poor memory, lack of alertness) to higher blood pressure and it also puts you at greater risk for obesity and diabetes. A lack of sleep can even shrink your brain.

Unfortunately, sleep doesn’t come easily to all of us. I’ve always had a hard time getting to sleep, starting when I was in college letting my glowing computer hum all night, not being able to fall asleep despite hopping into bed at a reasonable time and cursing the alarm for having to wake up much too soon. Barring a sleep-related disorder, there are some things you can do to help you get to sleep easier and have a higher quality of sleep too. I’ve put together a brief list, most of which I have personally experimented with, of easy things everyone can do to get better sleep.

Fix Lighting Issues

This is probably the biggest and most common issue for everyone. We are constantly surrounded by unnatural light that disrupts sleeping patterns and ruins the quality of our sleep. Interestingly enough, studies suggest that blue light wakes us up, while red/rose light helps us get to sleep.

So, remove all sources of blue light – turn off televisions and computers and replace any blue lights in your bedroom with dimmer, rose-tinted lights. You can also cover windows and cover or turn clocks around to face the wall. In fact, I’ve had great success with just completely blacking out my room. Turn off or cover all sources of light in your room and try to avoid light for at least an hour before bed. The darkness/rose light helps your brain produce melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate circadian rhythms.

Establish A Routine

Set a strict bedtime to ensure that you can get 7-9 hours of sleep. Depending on your current habits, this may take a while to implement and experimentation to prefect, but in the end is the only way to guarantee getting enough sleep. Make sure to give yourself plenty of time before bed to unwind and mentally prepare to sleep.

Relieve Stress

Have you ever laid down at night tired but couldn’t get to sleep because your mind was still reeling from the day and thinking about tomorrow? Stress hurts your ability to sleep, which just makes you more stressed, creating a vicious cycle. You can break it by setting time aside each day to work it out.

How best to relieve stress is going to vary from person to person and situation, but the best things that have worked for me are exercise, cutting off technology 1-2 hours pre-bed, pre-bed stretching, writing, and reading. I don’t always do all of these things, but I do most of them each day.

Disconnecting and writing were incredibly helpful for me to deal with worry and anxiety. Do you really need to read your email right before bed? You’ll risk just adding to the stress and whatever it is, it can wait for tomorrow. Writing whatever was in my head – from to-do lists to random wants to plot lines for books – also helped me to organize my thoughts and clear my mind so that by the time I hit the pillow I was completely empty.

Fix Your Diet

Unsurprisingly, if your diet is bad and your hormones are off you’ll have issues getting to sleep. Make sure you’re eating healthy, and not eating too much right before bed. If you need to eat before bed, try tossing back some nuts as they contain magnesium and tryptophan – both of which will help you get to sleep.

Avoid sweets and particularly chocolate before bed – as they can disrupt your system and chocolate contains caffeine. Speaking of which…

No Afternoon Caffeine

I suppose this goes along with diet, but I felt it important enough to get it its own bullet point. While some experimentation is in order to find your perfect times, I’ve found that having any coffee after around 3:00 p.m. effects my ability to get to sleep.

Avoid Alcohol Right Before Bed

It may be fun and relaxing and even put you to sleep faster, but alcohol before bed is a bad idea. It will ruin the quality of your sleep and you’ll probably be woken up overnight to use the bathroom. If you want to drink go ahead, but be responsible and don’t drink too much, and make sure you drink early enough to have some recovery time to get it out of your system before bed. Waking up with a hangover is no fun either.

Embrace the Siesta

There’s no such thing as too cool to nap. A good power nap midday not only will give you more energy and alertness though the rest of the day, but it shouldn’t affect your nighttime habits negatively. Naps improve productivity and reduce stress and risk of heart disease, so go ahead and indulge in a good 10-40 minute nap.

When I’ve been running low on sleep, I’ve found a good coffee nap does wonders to help me get through the day. What’s a coffee nap? Simple: drink some espresso or coffee relatively quickly and then go nap immediately after – before it has time to kick in. I set a timer on my phone so that it will vibrate after 15 to 20 minutes, then hang onto it and doze off. The vibrations are enough to wake me while not being annoying or jolting me awake.

What Helps You?

This is by no means an extensive list, however it does hit some of the major items that often need improvement. What other things have you done that have helped you get to sleep? Share your ideas in the comments below!

Photo Credit: Peasap

7 Reasons to Curl in the Squat Rack

Squat Rack and Plates by Robert Douglass

Clearly this woman and her minuscule guns are about to get swole.

I don’t need to tell you why you need to do bicep curls. You want ripped guns? You want women to faint when you flex? You want to be able to crush walnuts in your elbow crease (but not be able to touch your own shoulders)? You do bicep curls.

If you’ve been to a gym before, you’ve probably seen a few of the stations in the picture up there. Usually, they’re relegated to some dark corner with the free weights, far from all the cable machines and ellipticals so they don’t interfere with the serious gym goers. They’re called squat racks. No one knows why.

These squat racks are specially designed gym stations built solely to perform the one exercise every fit person must do – bicep curls. (Tweet this.)

“But wait,” you whine because you’re a sad little girly man who doesn’t have to turn sideways to squeeze his massive, pulsating arms through doorways, “I thought you could curl anywhere, why curl in the squat rack?”

I’ll Tell You Why

  1. It’s What They’re Designed For – Clearly, a squat rack is purpose built for curling. It’s obvious. Why’s it called a squat rack then? Who knows. Their specially designed cubomantic shaping makes for the ideal space to move a barbell up and then back down again. Obviously, squats are supposed to be done on yoga balls. Who would want to do those anyway, I’m pretty sure they don’t even work any important muscles. When was the last time you flexed your quads at the beach to impress the ladies?
  2. Squats Destroy Your Knees – Even if you were some kind of genius and knew what muscles squats worked, they’re super, incredibly dangerous. One time, I was enjoying a nice iced beverage at my gym’s smoothie bar when I considered maybe doing a body weight squat at some point. Blew out my ACL. True story. Don’t be stupid like me. Knees weren’t meant to bend, they were only meant to prop up your glorious biceps.
  3. Key Gym Positioning – Do you know why they put the squat racks where they do? You don’t. Shut up. In every gym they’re almost centered in the ideal place for curling. First, they’re put in front of a mirror. What’s the point of curling if you can’t see the pump? If you didn’t have mirror to reflect your glorious visage, you’d look awfully stupid dropping the weights and flexing after each set. Even better they’re often positioned in the corners of the gym. This means they’re acoustically ideal for reflecting the mighty roars you release with each rep. Even worse, you might not hear when your spotter screams “One more rep!” or “Light weight! You got this bro!” from two feet away. Acoustics. It’s science.
  4. Ultra-Safety – You already know you have to have a spotter. You could probably die or something if you don’t. But is it really O.K. having just one spotter? Sure, they make you feel safer with their hands at your elbows and their comforting warmth pressed against your back in a totally non-sexual completely platonic bro-hump of safety, but how much can they really help? After all, you’re clearly the alpha male here, it wouldn’t be proper to have friends who have bigger biceps than you do. How can you expect them to help? The squat rack provides bars and pins and stuff, so if the unthinkable happens and you miss a set your precious toes are safe.
  5. Versatility – Most people realize there’s no limit to the types of curls you can do in the squat rack. Bicep curls. Hammer curls. Reverse grip curls. Bicep curls. Bicep curls. I could go on. Bicep Curls. But did you know that you can do other exercises in the squat rack? I don’t just mean taking dumbbells in there to superset barbell curls with dumbbell curls I mean exercises that are actually not curls. It’s true. The squat rack is the perfect place to do your push ups, crunches and leg lifts – not that you need to do calisthenics, but it’s a good way to show off to the rest of the gym how incredibly powerful your biceps are.
  6. Because I Said So – You’re still reading this? After all the great reasons I’ve given you to curl in the squat rack, you’re seriously still reading this and not racing off to the gym to do your curls? Do you even curl? Get to it, Princess.

As you can see there are clearly six good reasons to curl in the squat rack. I’m sure there are actually seven, but I can’t be bothered to write the last one down. It’s chest day (everyday is chest day) and I have to go do my curls.

Photo Credit: Robert Douglass

If you’re coming to this post after the fact, and didn’t see the date, it was written on April 1st. If you don’t know why that’s significant, I highly suggest you Google it.

An Introduction To Kettlebells

My Kettlebell by Mr. Vincent Freeman

Kettlebells have been getting more and more popular lately, and with good reason. They’re compact, fun, and offer a full body strength and endurance workout comparable to what you can get from an Olympic weight set and power rack without as big of an investment.

So, What’s a Kettlebell?

Likely you’ve seen them or heard of them – they look like cannonballs with handles, and have been popularized by Russian trainer and martial artist, Pavel Tsatsouline. Kettlebells are generally used to perform ballistic movements that train not only strength, but also flexibility and the cardiovascular system. The variety of workouts utilizing kettlebells offers total-body strength. From your grip to your legs you’ll feel worked all over from just a few minutes of working with them. Because of their handle and unusual shape, they have some special properties – like momentum. Swinging a kettlebell requires focus and all your primary and stabilizer muscles.

Being solid metal they aren’t cheap. If you can’t afford kettlebells, can’t justify the cost, or are like me and have a complex against having a fixed-weight piece of equipment, there are alternatives. There are several adjustable-weight kettlebells, many that even allow you to use your own plates. If you’re feeling a little DIY you can make your own with PVC, a basketball and some sand or concrete, or you can make a t-handle or d-handle. Many of the movements can be mimicked with a dumbbell, too. However, certain kettlebell movements just can’t be done without a proper, comfortable handle.

Benefits of Using Kettlebells

Efficient Exercise

Kettlebells demand your full attention and engage your entire body, offering a full body workout that can be done relatively quickly.

Functional Strength

The movements in kettlebell exercises work multiple muscle groups, increase endurance and power creating functional strength. Sure, kettlebells could be used to do curls, but who would want to?

Versatility & Portability

Want to workout on the road? At work? Want to go for a hike but want some added pack weight? Try a kettlebell. Being so dense they can pack a lot of weight despite being small. Being so little they can turn pretty much any movement into a workout.

Fat Loss

Kettlebell workouts are hard, there’s no way around that. The difficulty, intensity and engagement of the entire body turns your body into an efficient, strong, fat burning machine.

Kettlebell Exercises

This list is by no means a complete list of things you can do with a kettlebell, but these are a few of my favorites. Correct form is essential, so be sure to read the descriptions and watch the videos before you try them (or, ideally, have someone who knows their way around a kettlebell show you.)

The Two-Arm Swing

Popularized by Tim Ferris’ Four Hour Body, the swing is a basic, but excellent workout. You can do it with one hand or two and it works everything from your shoulders to your thighs. You begin with your feet shoulder width apart and toes pointed slightly out, the weight in between your feet or slightly behind them. Squatting down, you grab the kettlebell and quickly stand up while pushing your hips forward. The kettlebell will swing up – the movement driven primarily by your core and lower body with a bit of help from your shoulders. When you reach the top of the movement, pull the kettlebell down to the start position.

Turkish Get-Up

Deceptively challenging, the Turkish Get-Up is one of the most fun and difficult movements. To begin lay on your back while holding the kettlebell straight up in the air with one hand. The kettlebell should be resting against your forearm and your elbow should be kept locked during the entire motion. Make sure you keep your eyes up on the kettlebell. Carefully prop yourself up on your free hand and bring your opposite (side with kettlebell in hand) knee up. Put your free-side’s knee on the ground, and your kettlebell-side’s foot on the ground bringing yourself into somewhat of a kneeling lunge position, and finish by standing up – kettlebell arm still up in the air.

Clean and Press

Begin by picking up the kettlebell like you are doing to do a swing – squat down with it between your feet and grab it one handed then drive it upward with your hips and legs. When you lift the kettlebell, keep your elbow in so the kettlebell will wind up at your shoulder. As the kettlebell reaches the shoulder dip down, slightly bending your knees to get your elbow underneath the kettlebell and then press it up. Lower the kettlebell back down to the start position.

Snatch

You will be doing a very similar movement to the Clean & Press except with slight variations and much faster – so please be cautious! The snatch also begins the same as the kettlebell swing – as the kettlebell is coming up bend your elbows a little. Once the kettlebell reaches chest height you will reverse pull the kettlebell using primarily your shoulders and lats. The kettlebell will flip over your hand to rest on the top of your wrist / forearm. Once the kettlebell is higher than your head you push through to extend your arm fully in a strong upward punching motion. This movement is particularly technical so be extra careful doing this one.

Conclusion

These are just a handful of exercises you can do with kettlebells, really the options are almost limitless. Any exercise that can be done with a dumbbell can also be done with kettlebells, so feel free to experiment with more familiar exercises like the bench press or squat. If you’re not ready to invest in buying your own kettlebells or making your own DIY version, most big box gyms are beginning to offer them for use or at least offering kettlebell classes. Do you have any other kettlebell training advice to offer? Share it with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Mr. Vincent Freeman

10 Lessons Learned From Traveling

Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.

Source unknown.

There’s lots of guides out there telling you the billion and one things to pack and be prepared for, warnings about knowing customs and to never make certain gestures, always carry cash, always have credit cards, or reminders that the police aren’t always your friend, etc. but this isn’t one of them. These are a few of the lessons we’ve learned from traveling, lessons that have had a big impact on us and how we travel.

Stuff Holds You Back, Embrace Minimalism

You’re all packed and ready to go on your adventure abroad. You’ve got everything you need in three suitcases – including the kitchen sink. You’ve got clothes for two weeks, soaps, shampoos, three pairs of shoes, towels, all your camera gear, laptop, Kindle, iPad, iPod, iPhone, cosmetics, hair spray/gel, entertainment for when you are on the plane, and somehow there’s still room for souvenirs.

Stop right there.

What do you actually need to pack? What will you be doing on your trip? You’ll need much less than you think. Halve your stuff, and then halve it again. Take only that. Everything you need can fit in a backpack.

Your stuff owns you and ties you to it. The more you have, the less you’ll be able to move around (and the more it will cost!) and the more you’ll worry about your stuff getting lost or stolen. The less you have to carry and worry about, the more free you will be to move and enjoy your trip. So only pack what you know you will need. Minimalism isn’t for everyone, but if you are traveling, you should embrace it.

On our first trip abroad, I packed too much. As a result I was constantly worried about it getting lost (it did) and it made each trip to the airport harder. Even while we were settled in, we realized we couldn’t just go outside of the main city for a day or two like we had originally wanted to, because our stuff tied us to our apartment.

So what should you take? Only what you need, and cannot buy once you get there. Consider what you’ll be doing and pack the absolute minimum. You really don’t need your whole wardrobe – and clothes can be washed anywhere around the world. For tech gear, prioritize what you are bringing to place emphasis on devices that can multi-task. Like to take a lot of photos? Get a smartphone. Want to read? Buy a smartphone or e-reader. Music? Smartphone. Maps? Smartphone. Email? Smartphone. Writing? Smartphone.

Be as compact as possible and learn clever packing tricks to maximize efficiency of space, and should something happen or if you need something, buy it while you are there and return/sell it when you’re done with it. There are groceries, 7/11s and Quick-E Marts everywhere so you can buy the cosmetics, toiletries or whatever other items you need and toss it before you leave.

Cloud Storage

When you leave to go to the next destination or even home, you should leave filled with memories and photos rather than a bunch of stuff. Taking pictures has gotten so much easier over the past fifteen years, and good cameras have gotten cheaper. I managed to take over 60 glorious gigabytes of photos during one summer trip alone, all of which were stored on my laptop’s hard drive. I knew they were vulnerable, and planned on backing them up as soon as we returned. I would have, and should have, backed them up during the trip – but I foolishly depended upon my web host’s server for said backup and had no idea that access to it outside of the US would have been blocked.

Naturally, my laptop’s hard drive died as soon as we got home. The data couldn’t be saved without using the services of a company dedicated to data recovery, which cost me over $2,000 – the price of my laptop. The whole experience made me sick to my stomach, but I paid it because those photos meant that much to me.

If you don’t have it already look into cloud storage – especially before you go. They didn’t exist when we left on our trip, but they do now and it would be stupid to not take advantage of them. On the plus side, many of them have apps to sync data from your smartphone too (bonus!) Also be sure to check if you’ll have access in the country you’ll be going to – trying to use the internet in China was so difficult we essentially took a sabbatical from it. It’s good to have more than one option.

Don’t Buy Stuff

This goes along with the first tip – don’t buy souvenirs, trinkets, gifts or anything like that. People back at home rarely want a reminder that you went abroad, and those trinkets often just take up space and gather dust. Aside from the fact that they are just things – often low in value but the price is jacked up to prey on tourists, the main important point is that they have significantly less value than experience and memories. A better use of your money is to go do things rather than buy things.

Also, your stuff owns you – refer to the first point.

Alternative Accommodation – It’s Not Scary!

Hotels are expensive, and can significantly shorten a trip to anywhere – so why not skip them and find an alternative? For newbie travelers I can understand there being some reservations about Couchsurfing and the alternatives – but as we’ve learned there’s also a risk of getting a crappy hotel and it can be a lot worse. Host families are a great way to stay in a new land, learn the language, culture and where all the interesting things are. But it’s not for everyone.

Only want to stay a few days? Why not Couchsurfing or a hostel? Want to stay longer? Get an apartment ahead of time, or stay in a hostel/couchsurf until you can get one.

Damage

It's difficult to see, but several ceiling tiles crumbled and the drywall bubbled and cracked and started to fall. Click to make bigger.

Our accommodations were the worst during the actual ‘study’ part of our trip to China. In addition to the terrible plumbing, thin walls, rock hard beds and improper ventilation, one day we were hit with a heavy rainstorm that caused flooding (I stomped across campus back to the dorm with water up to my waist – hoping I didn’t fall into one of the many poorly marked pits where they were doing construction) the teachers and cooks fought to keep the water out, but unfortunately couldn’t. In addition to the flooding, several parts of the building began to fall apart too. The travel abroad reps at our university who picked the location for the study-abroad program made it sound much, much more luxurious than it actually was. The picture above isn’t the worst of the structural damage, but unfortunately most of my pictures were too blurry to be used.

On the flip side, I was quite entertained at the situation and value the experience. It was, if nothing else, much more interesting than a perfect situation.

Water left in the hallway, buckets that were once used to toss water out the windows and catch water dripping from the ceilings. At least the game tables were saved.

Water left in the hallway, buckets that were once used to toss water out the windows and catch water dripping from the ceilings. At least the game tables were saved.

Teachers, cooks and administrators sweeping water out of the building after the storm.

Teachers, cooks and administrators sweeping water out of the building after the storm.

Work or Volunteer To Stay Longer

If you want to stay gone longer than a week or two, you’ll need some sort of income. You can do this through making money online – or you can get a job or volunteer where you want to stay. Luckily, there’s a lot of options available.

If you’re reading this blog, then you obviously speak English. If you’re good at it, teaching English abroad is a great option as it’s wanted nearly everywhere. Nomadic Matt has excellent comprehensive resources for working, volunteering and teaching English abroad.

Don’t Just Look, Experience

You can visit a country without ever really experiencing that country… How? By sightseeing, visiting tourist traps and sticking to the expat scene. If you avoid people and the culture of different countries you’ll be missing out on what I find to be the biggest values in traveling. You don’t have to speak the language (although it helps, even if you can only speak a few phrases, and anyone can do it) to experience a country, but you do have to interact with the people that live there, adapt and do things you may not have done before.

It’s particularly difficult in a country where you don’t speak the language and where few people speak English. Despite not being good with Korean at the time, we did our best and it was appreciated. From the people we met, we learned things we likely wouldn’t have otherwise, we went to restaurants we might not have found, tried interesting food, I could go on forever with just our experience in Seoul alone. Get involved with the things that are going on.

Relax and Get Lost

Get Lost

Attribution needed

Er, please don’t go away. I mean explore. There’s a time and place for schedules, sightseeing and to-do lists. Traveling is not a race, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Take your time, explore, do unexpected, spontaneous things. Taking your time and not rushing around allows you to relax, savor the experience, food and people, and to really connect with the area and people surrounding you. Save some time for exploration, you may be surprised at what you find.

One of my favorite times we got lost was when we stumbled upon a kung-fu shop in Beijing, wandered in, and wound up spending the evening chatting with the owners, learning about the things they sold, their family – notably one of their sons who has won several competitions. They even took us into the back of the store and showed us their personal favorite weapons. Stuff that we, as fellow martial arts, really love.

Boiling Point

Leave Your Stereotypes At The Gate

If you travel and actually experience countries, instead of only sightseeing and sticking to the expat scene, you’ll learn pretty quickly that stereotypes are ridiculous and that the way you do things isn’t necessarily the right way. Nearly every country is modernizing, but in their own unique way – not westernizing (and definitely not Americanizing).

Learn, respect and celebrate differences. You’ll gain a lot of insight and may even realize that some of things you do seem backward.

There Is A Whole World Out There, Go EVERYWHERE

Speaking of stereotypes, it always makes me a little crazy when people restrict themselves to just certain places in the world because of a stereotype they have or because of something they’ve seen on TV. I’ve heard people say “I only want to go to X because it’s beautiful” (as if there aren’t other beautiful places out there, or other reasons to go to country X), or restricting themselves to western countries because they are afraid of what else could be out there.

Go everywhere, have an open mind, and expect to be surprised.

“If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go.” – Anthony Bourdain

Fear Holds You Back

I’m just going to jump into this one, and say that you need to get over the fear of making mistakes, or doing scary unfamiliar things, because the regret of not doing or the voice in the back of your head that always whispers “what if?” will always haunt you. Stop thinking so much and just do. Places change quickly, and if you don’t do it you may not get the chance to later.

If you really have a hard time getting over the fear, realize that in 99% of cases it’s completely irrational. Weigh the benefits and risks, and the impact of the possible outcomes. What’s the worst that could happen? How bad would that really be?. As long as you don’t die or get thrown in jail, I’d say you’re good to go.

It’s All About Freedom

Minimalism, cloud storage, ignoring your fears, it’s really all about freedom. Freedom to travel, freedom to experience new things you wouldn’t have otherwise and freedom to stay longer – or shorter – if you wish. As we continue to travel we’ll learn more and share it when we do, but what have your experiences been? What advice do you have for new travelers? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Side note: some of the images in this post are not our personal photos, and I couldn’t find attributions for them. If you know who to attribute them to, or if they are yours, please let me know and I’ll fix it.

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