3 Must-Have Fitness Apps

iPhone 4S by MattsMacintosh

One of these isn't required to get fit, but it definitely helps.

There are a lot of fitness apps out there. A whole lot. It’s not surprising given the wide proliferation of smart phones, but with so many options to choose from both paid and free, how do you know which fitness apps are really worth it?

We’ve narrowed the list down to three must-have apps. Unlike most fitness app reviewers, we don’t just look at whether the app does what it says it will or has boatloads of features. Instead we think the things that make a really fantastic fitness app are all about fun, motivation and convenience. They have to make working out something you enjoy, motivate you to go out and do it and be as convenient and intuitive as possible to let you use them whenever and wherever you need to.

1. Fitocracy

Fitocracy Logo

Fitocracy - A great way to get more awesome.

Fitocracy easily wins the number one spot on our list. If you have even the tiniest inkling of geekiness or competitiveness, you will love Fitocracy. It turns your fitness program into a game. Every time you log exercises you earn points to level up. Just like a video game there are Quests to complete and Achievements you can earn that represent huge milestones in your fitness journey. The app is free for iPhone, if you’re an Android user there’s no version out for you yet – but don’t let that stop you from using the site, you’ll be happy you did.

Why do we love it so much?

In addition to being free and convenient, it really makes working out fun. There is a serious motivating factor to the quests and achievements and few things make you want to go workout more than knowing you’re just a few hundred points from leveling up. What we love even more is the fantastic community that has grown on the site. If you’re feeling competitive they’ve recently added PvP battles to make that community even more motivating. You can get the app in the iTunes store or go the Fitocracy website to sign up and get it.

2. Zombies, Run!

Zombies Run Logo

What could be more motivating than zombies?

Making the second place spot is Zombies, Run! This app follows the same gamifaction principles Fitocracy does, but with a twist. In Zombies, Run! you take on the role of Runner 5, a scout/resource gatherer for one of the few human colonies that has survived the zombie apocalypse. Each mission is played through your headphones in-between your music as you run. Along each run you can pick up random items to distribute to the base once you get back and grow the township. Random zombie chases will keep you pushing yourself, don’t run fast enough and you may have to drop a precious item to distract the zombies.

Why do we love it so much?

I have always hated to run. Always. I’ll lift, I’ll sprint, whatever, I’ve never been a runner. This app makes me want to go out running. The missions are genuinely fun, and the story is written and delivered well enough to keep me wanting to find out what happens next. I even want to run longer because the longer I run, the more items I can find and the more I can grow the township. It’s coming to Android on June 14th, but you can get it now on iPhone from the iTunes store or the Zombies, Run! website for $7.99. It’s worth the price.

3. RunKeeper

RunKeeper Logo

RunKeeper. If you run, you should have it.

RunKeeper comes in at three almost just out of sheer usefulness. RunKeeper does an absolutely fantastic job of tracking your runs, walks, hikes, bike rides and just about every other exercise that can be tracked by GPS. It also has coaching available which you can set up manually, so implementing a Couch to 5k training regimen or doing rounds of Tabatas is no problem. It also keeps track of all of your data over time and lets you know when you’ve set personal records. Best of all it automatically syncs with Fitocracy and soon will sync with Zombies, Run! too.

Why do we love it so much?

It makes Fitocracy and Zombies, Run! complete with spot on GPS route tracking and automatic coaching programs to improve pacing or structure some interval training. It’s intuitive, convenient and even though it uses the GPS is pretty easy on the battery. You can pick it up on the iTunes store or on the RunKeeper website. The app itself is free – you can pay for a premium account but so far I haven’t found it necessary, the basic version is great as it is.

If you own a smartphone and you have any interest at all in fitness, do yourself a favor and go give these apps a try. All of them are fantastic at making exercise easy, rewarding and extremely fun.

Do you have any other fitness apps you absolutely love? Do you have any of these three? Tell us what you think in the comments!

Photo Credit: Matt’s Macintosh

The Four Zen States of Mind

Zen Circle 1 by Triratna Photos

The circle is a common representation of the idea of mushin.

As much as Caroline picks on me for being a Zen master and never getting stressed or concerned about anything, the fact is I am not one. Even so, that hasn’t stopped me from finding ways to apply Zen principles to my everyday life.

I’ve always had a love for the martial arts and a side passion for philosophy, Eastern, Western and everywhere in-between. I’ve found that the parts of philosophy I really love are the parts that you can directly apply to life. Maybe that’s just a reflection of me following Bruce Lee’s philosophies, who knows. Either way I think the real meat of philosophy is in practicalities, not pontificating or postulations. As a result I’ve collected four states of mind from Zen teachings and the martial arts world that you can work toward to make you a happier more effective person.

Shoshin

Shoshin (初心) is the first state of mind we’re going to talk about. Shoshin means “Beginner’s Mind” and is characterized by an attitude of eagerness and openness when beginning an endeavor. When you are in a state of shoshin you should be feeling enthusiastic, creative and above all optimistic. Think about a time when you were getting ready to start something new that you had always wanted to do. You were fired up and ready to go, you knew it would be great and you were open and ready to do or learn whatever it was you were about to start. That’s shoshin.

When can you use shoshin?

The most obvious use for assuming a state of shoshin would be whenever you’re about to start something new. Working to approach every new endeavor, even ones you may be nervous about or dreading, with an attitude of open eagerness helps to make most situations that you once thought were unpleasant much more enjoyable. One of the key aspects of shoshin is an absence of preconceptions and a general sense of optimism. When you are in a state of shoshin you shouldn’t be thinking too much about what you think is going to happen, you should just be eager to accept whatever comes and assured it will all be for the best.

This release of preconceptions and attitude of viewing everything with fresh eyes is one of shoshin’s most valuable qualities. You can work on placing yourself in a state of shoshin even when doing something you’ve done before to keep each experience fresh and to ensure that you aren’t making poor decisions based on preconceived biases. It also helps train you to keep a positive and eager outlook about everything that might come your way.

Fudoushin

Fudoushin (不動心 also Romanized as fudoshin) means “Immovable Mind”. This state of mind is characterized by a steadfast determination and absolute control over oneself. It should be noted that this doesn’t mean one in a state of fudoushin is being stubborn, or angry. Rather a person in fudoushin is calmly resolute and cannot be swayed, tempted or concerned. A man sitting peacefully in the eye of a tornado would be a good mental image to exemplify the idea of fudoushin.

When can I use fudoushin?

Fudoushin once cultivated can best be used in situations where you are under stress. These might be genuinely dangerous situations like a house fire or they may be fairly benevolent ones like car trouble or problems at work. The idea of achieving fudoushin in stressful situations is, I think, one of the quintessential stereotypes of the Zen master here. Most people picture the old monk reacting serenely in the face of extreme or mortal danger and that is essentially what you’re looking to emulate.

Now, I certainly hope you never find yourself in a situation where your life depends on you keeping a calm, collected head. Even so normal day to day life can be seriously stressful. A pursuit of fudoushin can go a long way to keeping you sane. You may never need to react calmly in a disaster, but being well versed in the art of taking a deep breath and letting the stress go could keep you from hurling your computer through the window when it crashes without saving your work.

Mushin

Mushin (無心) means “Without Mind” and it is very similar in practice to the Chinese Taoist principle of wei wuwei (爲無爲). Of all of the states of mind, I think not only is working toward mastery of mushin most important, it’s also the one most people have felt at some point in time. In sports circles, mushin is often referred to as “being in the zone”.

Mushin is characterized by a mind that is completely empty of all thoughts and is existing purely in the current moment. A mind in mushin is free from worry, anger, ego, fear or any other emotions. It does not plan, it merely acts. If you’ve ever been playing a sport and you got so into it you stopped thinking about what you were doing and just played, you’ve experienced mushin.

When can I use mushin?

Always. Honestly, I have yet to find any task where my performance was not improved by getting my head out of the way and just doing. Our thoughts wander, they bounce around through our heads and distract us, cause us to worry, cause us to over think things or become overconfident. When you quiet your mind and exist in the moment as an entity that has no concerns about the past or the future but is fully present and acts intuitively you can perform without distraction.

Beyond all of that worries, doubts, regrets and fears serve no purpose other than to cloud your judgement and make your life worse. By learning to live only in the current moment and let everything else go you can lead a much happier more peaceful life.

Zanshin

Zanshin (残心) literally translates to “Remaining Mind” and really has two parts. The first aspect of zanshin is a general and constant state of relaxed awareness or perceptiveness. This state means that although you’re not actively watching out for things you are constantly aware of your surroundings and situation. The second aspect of zanshin is a concept of follow through. In martial arts proper expression of zanshin is your actions and mental state after you have performed a technique or defeated your opponent.

When can I use zanshin?

The awareness aspect of zanshin is useful always, and can easily be cultivated along with mushin. In fact, learning to develop a state of mushin also helps cultivate zanshin as zanshin is best achieved by always being present in the moment and not letting your mind wander with distractions.

The awareness aspect of zanshin doesn’t have to just relate to your physical surroundings though. True zanshin means constant situational awareness. That means being present enough to notice when someone might be upset with you, or recognizing when your financial or career situation may need some improvement as well as being perceptive enough to identify the opportunities that arise to make positive improvements.

The follow through aspect of zanshin will also make all of your endeavors more successful. Proper follow through ensures that even if you fail at something you attempt, you can see the results of what you did and learn from those mistakes leading you to a success on your next attempt.

There are other states of consciousness, as well as various techniques to help train one to achieve them, in Zen Buddhism and in martial arts, but I think these four are the most powerful for improving people’s day to day lives. Do you have any others you would add or good ways to practice these? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Triratna Photos

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

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.

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