Conquering Your To-Do Lists Before They Conquer You

Compartmentalized Trays by Roo Reynolds

Compartmentalizing your tasks can make them much, much easier to handle effectively.

Caroline and I are both severe to-do list addicts (Caroline perhaps even a little more than me).

This can be both a blessing, and a curse. On one hand it makes it very easy to organize our tasks and have a good plan going forward for what we need to be working on. It gives a nice shape to conquering our goals, like a step-by-step quest list in a video game, and takes a lot of the uncertainty and nebulousness away from what we’re working on.

On the other hand, it provides an easy platform upon which to load so many tasks that we inevitably break under the pressure of all of it. After all we’re both very ambitious people – giving us a blank sheet to list everything we want to do is like setting us lose in an Indian buffet, we’re going to load our plates up like we haven’t eaten in weeks. As a result our to-do lists crush us and we wind up being even less productive than if we hadn’t bothered with them at all.

So what’s the trick to making effective to-do lists that help you get things done, but don’t grind you into the ground? Compartmentalization.

Compartmentalization and Chunking

Compartmentalization, or chunking as I like to call it because it’s easier to type and reminds me of the Goonies, is basically taking your insurmountable pile of tasks and placing them in easy to conquer compartments or breaking them down into manageable chunks.

This method of managing your to-dos has a range of benefits:

  • Less Procrastination – A common cause for procrastination is the discomfort caused by facing a task that looks utterly daunting. We’ve talked about this a bit when discussing timeboxing, when you have a huge, impossible looking task in front of you it’s all too easy to deflect and put it off until later. It’s a natural expression of pain avoidance and is hard to fight on your own since it’s so deeply wired into our behavior.

    By breaking down those big, scary tasks into smaller, easy to manage chunks it makes it less scary and easy to overcome the urge to procrastinate. It’s easy to put off cleaning the entire garage, but if all you have to do is tidy up a single shelf it’s hard to put off. After all, that’ll take like 5 minutes. When you add up a bunch of those little tasks over a week or two though, suddenly you’ve cleaned the entire garage.

  • Harder to Burn Out – Chunked to-do lists make it much, much easier to avoid burnout for similar reasons to why they help avoid procrastination. Breaking up those enormous looking tasks make it feel a lot more like you’re working on a wide variety of things rather than one big project. Slogging along writing a book may feel like an endless task, driving you to burnout since you don’t feel like you’re making progress. Focusing on completing chapters instead gives you tangible markers of progress and keeps you from feeling overwhelmed.

    Compartmentalization like this also helps you avoid the type of overloading we always fell prey to. Breaking things down into small chunks make it easier to see things in the big picture, and when you can do that it’s far easier to prioritize. What really needs to get done immediately / today and what can wait for a day or two?

  • Improved Energy Management – This ties in a lot with the burn out benefits above. I’ve talked in the past about how energy management can be a lot more important than time management. We all get 24 hours, and it’s great to try to spend them efficiently, but if you feel like shit all day your best laid plans gang aft agley.

    Chunked lists make it easy to schedule in time to relax and recharge without feeling like you’re being lazy or slacking off. You know you’ve gotten everything you needed to get done completed, and at the same time have plenty of time to recharge and tackle the next day fully energized and guilt free.

Weekly/Daily Lists – My Favorite Method for Chunking

While there are a lot of different options for ways to chunk up or compartmentalize your to-do lists (and I encourage you to play with others to see what you like) I am personally very fond of the Weekly/Daily list division.

I’ve found that in addition to all of the general benefits listed above, Weekly/Daily lists also help me be far more proactive about my tasks by providing me with a small glimpse at the bigger picture. Trying to cram everything on only a daily to-do list always made me myopic and short-sighted – having an entire week to play with gives me the perspective to arrange things out ahead of time and further avoid my tendency to overload myself.

I’ve also found that keeping the division at days and weeks rather than further out, like having a monthly to-do list for example, is short enough to not fall victim too much to Parkinson’s law while still being long enough to give me the freedom to strategize my tasks out into the future.

So how do you use a Weekly/Daily list?

Either at the end of the week, or at the beginning of the next if you prefer that more from a psychological standpoint, list out all of the things that you need to get done in the coming week. In general, I prefer to prioritize larger projects here over smaller things, but there’s totally a place for little to-dos like ‘mow the lawn’ or ‘buy groceries’.

At the end of each night, or again first thing in the morning if you prefer, write down all of the things you need to get done the next day (or that day if you’re the morning planner type). These can be either smaller chunks of the larger weekly tasks, (e.g., if a task for this week is write five articles then a daily chunk of that task might be write one article, or come up with five article ideas, etc.) or individual small tasks that needn’t be chunked like mowing the lawn.

You focus only on your daily list each day, and when you’ve finished it you’re done. You can spend the rest of the day relaxing.

Tips For Getting the Most Out of a Weekly/Daily List

While it’s a fairly easy process to build and use weekly/daily lists, I’ve found in my time experimenting with them that there are some finer points that make them more useful and make the whole process a little easier.

  • Monthly Reviews – Like I noted above, having a monthly to-do list on top of a weekly & daily one tends to wind up being more problematic than helpful. Aside from encouraging falling into Parkinson’s law it makes it easier to procrastinate, and sometimes makes it harder to focus in on the things that are really important in the immediate sense. That being said, looking out a month ahead can give the benefit of having a clear long term goal to work toward.

    The solution is to have a single monthly review day, similar to a severely pared down version of our annual review process. On your monthly review day you take a retrospective look at the previous month, figure out what went well and what didn’t, and then set some lose targets for the following month to serve as a foundation or inspiration for your weekly lists.

  • Avoid Scope Creep – If you’ve never worked in an industry like web or software design, scope creep is when you’re nearly finished with a project for a client and they send you the dreaded, “Hey, could we also do x,y,z?” Your two week project becomes a three week project, then a four, and a five, and so on.

    When it comes to weekly/daily lists, avoiding scope creep means not allowing yourself to add anything to your daily lists on that day. If you finish all your day’s work before noon, that’s it. Don’t add anything else. The minute you give in to the urge to add just a couple more things the sooner you’ll be building an infinite to-do list again, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid. There will be days when you need to make adjustments, but it should only be for things that are extremely urgent or emergencies. If you finish your list, it’s time to relax.

  • Use a Today/Tomorrow Board – Sometimes things do need to get pushed back, either because something else came up or you just over-scheduled yourself. I like to manage this process by keeping my daily lists on what I call my Today/Tomorrow Board.

    My Today/Tomorrow Board is just a small marker-board that I have divided in half horizontally. In both the top and bottom sections I’ve written ‘Today’ and ‘Tomorrow’ in one of the corners. In one box I have a little mark next to ‘Today’ and in the other box next to ‘Tomorrow’.

    In the half with ‘Today’ ticked, I write my daily list for that day. In the other box, ticked ‘Tomorrow’, I write the next day’s tasks as I think of them. Then when the day’s finished, I can move any tasks I haven’t scratched off my list down to the ‘Tomorrow’ section as well as whatever else I determine I need to do the next day. The next day I just erase my tick marks and switch them, so yesterday’s ‘Tomorrow’ box becomes today’s ‘Today’ box and the other the new ‘Tomorrow’ box.

    While there are certainly other ways to manage things like this, I’ve found this system works particularly well for me since it’s always sitting on my desk. I can glance up and get a quick snapshot of what else I have to work on for the day, as well as what I’ll be working on tomorrow. It also makes it easy for me, when I remember something spur of the moment that need to get done, to add it quickly to my tomorrow list before I forget.

  • Don’t Drift from Your Daily List – Lastly, it’s extremely important not to let yourself lose focus on your daily list, the things you have set to complete today. It can be tempting to start thinking about the rest of the week, what other things need to get done, etc. Once you do this though it’s easy to completely drift away from what you actually need to be doing – the things on that day’s list.

    Once you’ve chunked everything out, forget that everything exists except for that day’s list. Nothing should occupy your concern except for the things you’ve laid on the table before you for that day. Personally, having my Today/Tomorrow Board has been a big help on this front for me as well, as it’s psychologically comforting to me to being to place something on the ‘Tomorrow’ list and say “Ok, it’s written down for tomorrow, I know it will get done then, I can forget about it.”

Finding What Works for You

These methods for compartmentalization are my personal favorites, and I’ve gotten a lot of benefit out of them, but everyone works a little differently. I strongly encourage you to try them out along with some other methods to see what fits your personality and work style best.

If you’ve found any others you particularly like, or discovered any other tips for making the weekly/daily lists even more effective, leave a comment and share with everyone! It always helps to hear about other people’s experiences.

Photo Credit: Roo Reynolds

Learning to Think in your Target Language

Losing my Mind by Mark Auer

One of the biggest obstacles in moving from the beginner or low intermediate levels of a language into more advanced stages is the problem of constantly translating in your head instead of learning to think in your target language. This is a problem that effects everyone and is a common place for people to either give up, or just accept that it’s the way things are when you learn to speak a second language. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Problems with Translating

Even if you don’t have the lofty goal of becoming simultaneous interpreter or doing anything tricky like that with your language learning, having to translate everything you hear or want to say into and out of your target language is a painful, taxing process. There are two big issues with always running everything through the translator in your brain.

The first is that it slows everything way, way down. In a natural conversation between you and another person in your native tongue you don’t have to really think about what the other person is saying. It’s processed unconsciously and you can respond right away. In some cases you’ve probably even responded to people’s questions before you were aware of what you were saying.

That makes conversations quick and fluid, which is what we need.

Conversely when you have to translate everything there’s a bottleneck at both the input and the output. This can be exacerbated in languages like German where you might have to wait through miles of sentences before you finally get that all important verb. Then you have to process that back out into English, come up with your response in English, processes it back into German and say it.

By the time you’ve done all that, particularly if you’re in a group of people or trying to follow a natural group conversation, you may have fallen way behind by the time you even open your mouth to speak.

The second big issue with this method of translating before speaking is that it can make your native language bleed into the language you’re learning making you speak either incorrectly or at the very least in a very unnatural sounding way.

An English speaker for example might ask for a glass of water by saying ‘我可以有一杯水吗’ (lit: I can have a cup of water?) which, to a native Mandarin speaker sounds weird – potentially like you’re asking if you physically have the capability of possessing a cup of water. They’d understand, but it’s very clearly Mandarin crammed into an English box. A more natural way might be ‘能给我一杯水吗’ which is more like ‘Give me a cup of water?’ if you directly translated it into English.

The translating process encourages you to make these kinds of mistakes because you’re not conversing in Mandarin in the real sense, you’re just translating English into Mandarin. It can make it sound like the other person is trying to talk to someone using Google Translate. It’ll get the job done, but it’s clearly going to sound a little off.

What Does it Mean to Learn to Think in your Target Language

Technically speaking when you boil it down to its essence no one ‘thinks’ in any particular language.

What we call ‘thinking’ is an electrochemical reaction in our brains. What we’re talking about here is the sensory experience of ‘hearing’ words as you think. You may say that this means that we do all think in a language, but people who have deaf since birth have no experience of spoken words and don’t think in them, infants who don’t speak a language can still think, and there are plenty of other higher intelligence animal species that no one would argue are ‘thinking’ even though they don’t speak any human languages.

What we’re worried about here though is that combination of your ‘inner voice’ that you think with and your ability to process non-language information directly into and out of a particular language without having to pass it through the translation filter of another primary language.

So how do we get to that point?

Silencing Your Mental Native Tongue

There are a handful of methods I think work particularly well for getting over the natural habit of translating from your native language into your acquired one and back.

  • Speaking Practice with Native Speakers – This, in my opinion, is paramount for successful language learning in general. Find a native speaker as soon as you can, whether in person or online, and start practicing with them. Even if the furthest you can get is “Hello, how are you doing?” that’s still preferable to cloistering yourself with a textbook in fear of embarrassing yourself.

    Get out there and talk to people. The more you do the more you’ll begin to outgrow the habit of mentally translating.

  • Ditch the Dictionary and Make Visual Flashcards – At least, the traditional kind of dictionary. Part of what contributes to the habit of mental translation is that the standard way to learn a new word is to have it defined by its connection to a word in your native language.

    We learn by connections and conditioning. Assuming you’re a native speaker of English, when you hear/see the word ‘water’ you probably mentally picture the physical substance that particular arrangement of sounds symbolizes in English. The problem is, when you’re learning German for example, you might have a flashcard that says ‘Wasser’ on one side and when you flip it over it says ‘water’.

    This conditions you to not think of the physical substance these sounds represent, but rather hearing ‘Wasser’ makes you think of the particular arrangement of sounds that make the word ‘water’, then you have to decode that second arrangement of sounds into the physical thing it symbolizes. This happens relatively quickly, but it still slows things down.

    It also causes a problem when going from English to German, because your brain has to conceptualize the physical thing we call ‘water’, then it has to connect that to the English word that we use to symbolize that physical thing, then it has to dig up what German word was connected to that particular English word. Whereas if you had H2O encoded directly with the German word it would be one less step.

    Using visual flashcards and dictionaries is the way to go to avoid this problem. Rather than have one side say ‘Wasser’ and the other ‘water’, have one side say ‘Wasser’ and then put a picture of water on the other side. A similar idea if you don’t have a visual dictionary handy is to look up words by typing them into a Google image search. That way you learn the word via the image or concept it represents rather than learning it by its equivalent in your native language.

  • Monologuing and Free Writing – It may seem like a small thing, but just yammering to yourself about a random topic in your target language or having times where you sit down and write about whatever you want, or even just journal the day’s activities, can make a big difference in getting over the mental translation problem.

    The key is to make an active effort not to translate as you do it and just talk to yourself in your target tongue without letting your native one creep in.

    I, personally, like to do it out loud when I can. There are added benefits to activating the motoneurons involved in actually speaking the word in the same way that there are benefits in repeating an activity that you want to get particularly good at like shooting a basketball or drawing free hand. You can certainly just talk to yourself in you head though if you’re concerned about people thinking you’re crazy.

    If you find it hard to just talk or write spontaneously without any kind of pre-set topic then try to summarize something you’ve read or watched recently, or pick an easy topic like describing your day or talking about your favorite food. The point isn’t necessarily to produce something noteworthy as it is to drill in that comfort in not translating.

I’m probably forgetting some other methods that work well to silence that inner voice translating things into and out of your native tongue, but these handful should get you well on your way to overcoming it. The sooner you can get out of that translation habit and into thinking in your target language the sooner you’ll be able to produce even more fluid sentence and conversations. If you can think of any you like that I’ve missed, leave a comment and share with everyone!

Photo Credit: Mark Auer

Why Behavioral Change is Hard and What You Can Do About It

Adventure Time - "Dude, sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something." by Jake the Dog.

Want to make a big behavioral change in your life? Maybe you want to get fit or commit to learning a language or instrument, or even to start meditating.

At some time or another, everyone sets goals they hope to attain someday that will require significant changes to their lifestyles. Unfortunately though, most will fail to achieve those goals.

Every new year, gyms are crowded with well-intentioned “resolutioners” who want to become healthy, perhaps lose some pounds, and be a better version of themselves in the new year. By February the number of those who stick around will be halved, then by March that number halved again. Only a very small percent of those who started will stick around.

Behavioral Change Motivated by Negative Emotions

A lot of the people at the gym are motivated by the things that make them upset or by a negative conscious. They’re upset about being overweight, feeling guilty for not exercising as often as they should.

The same goes for many other pursuits, even learning instruments – they focus too much on what they can’t do, or the guilty feelings for missed practice sessions.

Studies have shown that those seeking to make long-lasting behavioral changes are most successful when they are self-motivated and founded in positive thinking.

So don’t focus on the negatives – focus on the good that will come from that behavioral change, on how good it feels to know you’ve hit your targets along your way to that goal. Focus on the wins you have had – it’s better to exercise once a week for 15 minutes, than not at all.

Your inner dialog effects your success rate, your confidence and your moods. The more you can make it a positive voice instead of a negative one, the happier and more successful you’ll be.

Visualizations and personal mission statements have been shown to help people succeed in their goals and in changing the tone of their inner voice.

Practice visualizing succeeding in your goals and make time at the beginning of your day to recite your personal mission statement, like “today will be a productive day – I’ll practice Spanish and go to the gym.” Or “I’m hardworking and make awesome videos – I dedicate myself to making the best videos available.”

“The most successful people recognize, that in life they create their own love, the manufacture their own meaning, hey generate their own motivation.”
– Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Take on More than You Can Handle

Your willpower is finite and so is your time. Taking on too many goals at once will not only drain your willpower and motivation, but will lower your focus and ability to devote time to meet those goals.

Once one thing fails, it’s easy to slip into a negative mind-set and let it all fall apart.

People who seem to be able to “do it all” and “magically have time for everything” didn’t start out that way – they built it up slowly.

To ensure your goals will be successful, start with just one or two and add to it as you feel able to. Once meeting your first couple goals is so easy and habitual that you do it without even thinking, then you can add more.

Stay in Your Comfort Zone

A lot of behavioral changes will require that you do something uncomfortable. They will make you do things you don’t normally do, in the name of making you into a better person.

Practicing a language requires you get out of your comfort zone – you’ll eventually need to go out and practice speaking with other people.

Eating healthy foods, hitting calorie and macro targets, exercising all require that you get out of your comfort zone. It’s just easier to not do those things, and eating ‘bad foods’ make you feel really good right now.

An simple way to address the comfort zone issue is to break it up into small, swallow-able chunks and to congratulate yourself on the successes you do make.

Practice speaking in your target language for just a few minutes, and build it up from there. Same goes for exercising – don’t try to go all out and lift or run for an hour. Eating healthy food all day isn’t easy for everyone, so start with just one meal.

Once those small commitments aren’t painful anymore, then you can increase the time or difficulty.

“We avoid risks in life, so we can make it safely to death.”
-Philosoraptor

Make Things as Hard as Possible

Sure, you can keep track of how much you’ve spent on ‘entertainment’ in your head. And you can remember to practice playing your ukulele for fifteen minutes a day if it’s hidden in it’s case and tucked in the closet, right?

Right?

Nope.

We aren’t perfect, so the more we can make behavioral change easier to do than to not do, the better. Rather than fully putting away your instrument after practice, keep it somewhere in the open where it is easy to see and think “Yeah, I’ll just grab it and practice for a few minutes.” The hassle of taking something out of it’s case is small, but enough to discourage someone from doing it.

If keeping to a budget is difficult, forcing yourself to only spend cash on your entertainment will eliminate the need for (often wrong) mental math and keeps you on track to that big goal.

If you want to exercise early in the morning, keep your exercise clothes out ahead of time – set them out before going to bed so that it’s in your way and easier than not to put them on and go work out. Put your meditation and language-learning apps on the front screen of your phone so you’ll have that many fewer steps to comply.

Vague, Un-actionable Goals

We’ve talked a lot about how having vague goals practically ensures failure. When you have a big goal like “lose weight,” “learn guitar” or “become financially independent” it’s incredibly easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and paralyzed by not knowing what to do.

Take the time to make your goal specific and then explicitly list out the steps required to achieve that goal – this will go a long way to ensure your success. Once you’ve completed the goal and actions-to-goal sheet, put it somewhere easy to see and take a look at it from time to time to remind yourself that your goal is doable, and you know exactly how to do it.

Breaking down big goals into smaller, mini goals will help not to feel overwhelmed and will give you clarity. You know what you need to do and you know you can do it. The only thing is to actually do it.

Don’t Build New Habits

One of the easiest ways to achieve a goal is to incorporate it into who you are, to make it a part of your habits and being. Unfortunately, many people don’t take the time to do this. We want to skip the hard work of behavioral change and just reap the benefits – but it doesn’t work like that.

If your goal is to workout three days a week for an hour per session when you haven’t set foot in a gym for the past year, starting there is likely to fail. Going to the gym three days a week is something you aren’t used to doing and the time commitment will wear you out.

If you want to make meditation, language practice or instrument practice into a daily activity, the same idea applies – jumping into a huge time commitment will wear down your willpower.

Instead of taking on a big commitment that is a huge behavioral change, start with a small change. Meditate or practice for just five minutes per day. At the beginning, five minutes may seem ridiculously easy, but the point is to make the act of practice a habit. Once that is down, you can slowly increase the time.

Don’t forget to track your progress toward those habits, too. Using the Seinfeld chain method, keep a piece of paper on a wall and mark it for each day you successfully complete the goal task. Having a visual reminder of your successes will keep you positive, motivated, and ingrain this habit.

Focus on the act of complying, not with the results. Making the task become a habit and a part of your lifestyle will ensure not only success, but sustainable success. Results will follow.

Don’t Identify Triggers

Have you ever had a day when something is just off and when one thing is off it spirals downward until everything has gone wrong and you just give up?

Sometimes it’s easy to point to what went wrong – but often it’s not so easy. Say you went over on your calories at lunch and beat yourself up over it, then by dinner time thought, “ugh, I screwed up. Forget it, let’s eat pizza for dinner.” Maybe you did this consciously, maybe unconsciously.

Keeping a journal during your change and having regular check-ins once or multiple times per week will help you to identify triggers that caused you to de-rail your progress. Once you can identify those triggers, then you can work on creating a plan to deal with them. If you went over your calories at lunch – remember that it’s not a big deal, keep your dinner to what you planned. Remember that there will be bumps along the way.

Behavioral Change is a Process

Changing your habits and behaviors is hard work. Humans are complex and even under ideal circumstances, they can fail.

You don’t exercise once and suddenly become a gym-rat or play guitar once and suddenly become a riff-master. It takes patience and persistence. Learn to love the process and the results will come.

The key to successful behavioral change is simple though: don’t give up. The path to successful behavioral change is never straight and often requires starting over and over. But that’s okay – failures are a way to start again with more knowledge than before (what worked? What didn’t?) Take a break if you need to, but then get back to it.

It requires an immense amount of courage to get out of your comfort zone and to become more than average. If you have any major behavioral changes you want to make in your life it’s important to remember exactly what you’re doing you’re trying to become more than average. To become awesome – or epic.

If it were easy, everyone would be their ideal selves.

“The higher the mountain, the more treacherous the path.”
– Frank Underwood

How Mindful Meditation is a Workout for Your Brain

Meditation

You don’t need to be a monk to meditate, nor do you need a huge time commitment.

For the longest time the idea of meditation always conjured up images monks sitting cross-legged on mountaintops, cliffs, under waterfalls or some similar wilderness space all while being completely silent for hours on end. I thought it was a spiritual thing and the benefits were all just myths or pseudoscience.
However a growing body of studies caused me to take a second look at it and since experimenting with it personally, I highly recommend everyone give it a try.

What Is Mindful Meditation

There’s several different ways to meditate, however most of the scientific research focuses on mindful meditation, or Zazen (literally: seated meditation.) As such, that’s what we’re going to focus on in this article.

In mindful meditation, you focus on one specific thing – it could be a sensation or your breathing. The point is to focus on this one thing and when you catch your mind wandering, you gently bring it back to that focal point.

We train our bodies in a gym – doing reps to increase our strength and cardio to improve heart health. Meditation is like going to the gym, but for your brain. Unlike a gym, it’s cheaper and doesn’t require any fancy clothes and doesn’t have any potential for worrying about how you look in front of others.

Zazen is not so much about spirituality as much as it is about training your concentration and attention – the ability to be present, quiet your mind and focus on one thing.

Our brains have to process a lot of information – this information is like confetti being released from a ceiling and you are your brain trying to grasp on to each of them. Our attention is everywhere and it decreases our focus, productivity and increases our stress levels. With meditation, we learn to slow down and control that flow of information.

Mindful Meditation Works by Literally Changing Your Brain

Technology has enabled scientists to get a better understanding of what happens in our brains when we meditate and how it affects our brains. Thus far have been absolutely fascinating.

Using fMRI scans one of the biggest things scientists have learned is that it causes a decrease in beta waves, meaning our brains stop or slow down processing information.

In addition to controlling the flow of information, it also increases gray matter which has a huge impact on our lives, as I’ll describe below.

What Does This Mean For You?

Increased Focus

During mindful meditation, we are practicing holding on to a singular focus and bringing it back when our mind drifts – this practice enables us to be better at focusing even when we are not meditating.

Decreased Anxiety

This was a huge one for me, as I am prone to trouble with anxiety. Consistent meditation loosens the connections of particular neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex – commonly called the “me center.” This part of the brain processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences.

Typically, the neural pathways from bodily sensation and fear centers to the Me Center are strong – when you experience a negative or upsetting situation a reaction is triggered in your Me Center that makes you feel scared or under attack.

Meditation loosens these connections, meaning our reactions are more toned down and under control. Something
that would have previously lit up the Me Center would barely register.

As this connection is weakened, the connection in our Assessment Center is simultaneously strengthened. So, when we encounter a scary situation, rather than being gripped by fear and anxiety we are able to calmly and rationally assess the situation.

Decreased Stress

Meditation also helps reduce stress – part to lowering anxiety, but also in part by helping us perform while under pressure.

Increased Memory

One of the more fascinating discoveries is that meditation can help improve memory recall. Multiple studies have found that those who meditated were able to focus and remember facts better than those who did not.

Increased Gray Matter

Meditation has also been linked to increased gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. More gray matter can lead to more positive emotions, longer lasting emotional stability, less stress, and heightened focus. Even ore, it’s linked to diminished age-related effects on gray matter and reduces the decline of our cognitive functioning. How cool is that?

Not enough for you? How about increased creativity, lowered blood pressure, reduced pain, increased compassion, confidence, well-being and overall quality of life. If you suffer from anxiety or depression meditation is one of the most powerful things you can do to help.

Meditation is not a cure-all for every ailment, however it is incredibly beneficial. So why not give it a shot?

How to Meditate

In order to glean the highest benefits of meditation, you need to integrate it into your lifestyle. You’ll benefit from just two minutes a day, or if you are ready to jump into it, meditate for between 10 to 30 minutes.
You can go it by yourself, or you can use an app to help. I’ll explain both ways for you here:

On your own

  • Find a comfortable, quiet place and sit. You can sit on the floor or in a chair – whichever doesn’t matter. As long as your back is straight, you are comfortable and there will be no or limited distractions.
  • Rest your hands on your thighs or rest them together in your lap.
  • Close your eyes, and take a few slow, deep breaths. Notice any sensations you feel – the sensation of your back against the chair, your feet on the floor, the weight of your body on the cushion. Notice your muscles in your face, shoulders, stomach, and legs. Don’t try to change anything, just notice it.
  • Take another deep breath and relax your facial muscles. With another breath, relax your shoulders. Go on from head to toes.
  • Just breathe. Focus on your breaths, flowing in and out. The only thing going on in your mind should be “breathe in, Breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.” Count your breaths up to ten, and then restart.
  • It wont take long for your mind to drift, to start thinking about the things you have to do today or anything that troubles you or excites you. This is natural. Acknowledge it, don’t chastise yourself over it and bring your focus back to your breath. Pick up where you left off.
  • At the end of your meditation (you can set up a timer) take a final breath, and bring your attention back to the room. Notice how you feel now. Slowly open your eyes.

As you progress, this process will become a lot easier. After a couple of weeks meditation you’ll begin to reap the benefits – a sense of calm and control, increased focus and less stress, among the many others.

When you meditate is up to you, however I highly suggest making it a part of your morning routine. I like to call it my start-up process. I have found that doing it first thing assists in feeling calm and focused throughout the day. However, you can also meditate before bed or midday – and you should if you are feeling particularly stressed. Just take a ten minute break to meditate.

Mindful Meditation with Apps

Calm

Calm is my favorite app for meditating. With it you have two options: guided meditation or a timer and doing it yourself. Two of the sets of guided meditation are free, while the rest are accessible for between $0.83-$1.66 per month.

The major benefits to Calm for me are the background white-noise options – you can listen to babbling brooks, a sunny meadow, or rain on leaves. I’ve found personally that having some form of white-noise while I meditate helps me keep that singular focus.

Calm App

Calm’s main screen.

Calm App

Calm’s Guided Meditations.

Additionally, you can choose the noise to signal the end of your session from a pre-set selection. I like them because most of them are non-jarring noises like a singing bowl or harp. Or, you can have no noise set.

Furthermore, Calm logs your sessions and helps keep you motivated.

Breathe

Breathe is a little bit different from Calm in that before you get to the meditation it forces you to take note of your current state by asking you some questions such as how you are feeling mentally and physically, and what words you’d use to describe them. From this, it offers up suggestions for guided meditations or you can go it yourself with just a timer.

Additionally, it has options to help teach you how to meditate, a list of guided meditations if you’d like to skip straight to one, and to see your progress.

Breathe App.

Breathe’s Main Screen.

Breathe App.

Breathe also teaches how meditation works.

Honorable mention: Headspace.

Headspace is also a cute little app that also teaches you about meditation and how to meditate. I like the app, however I feel that its use is stunted – your only option is to use the first 10 guided meditation sessions before you have to pay for more. There’s no option for “just meditate _ minutes.” However, if you like it the full version is not expensive at all.

Challenge

So here we challenge you to try meditation for just one month. Using the setup below, make this a part of your lifestyle by implementing it small chunk by small chunk:

  • Week 1: Meditate just one minute every day.
    Commit to just sitting down and taking one minute out of your day to meditate. Just one minute. You can do that, right?
  • Week 2: Meditate 5 minutes every day.
    Now that you made it through a week of one minute, time to increase the work. Try for just five minutes each day.
  • Week 3: Meditate 10 minutes every day.
    Again, if you made it five, you can do ten.
  • Week 4: Meditate 15 minutes every day.

Note and observe any differences you felt before and after meditation.

If you take up the challenge, come back and tell us how you felt in the comments below! If you are a seasoned veteran, we invite you to share your thoughts and tips as well.

Photo Credit: Sebastien Wiertz

How to Calculate Your Macros Part 2 – Macronutrient Ratios

Bountiful Feast by Virgil Chang

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

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

All set? Good.

Choosing Your Goal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recomposition

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

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

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

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

Slow Bulk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Virgil Chang

The 80/20 Guide to Nutrition

Homework by Nathaniel Watson

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

Nutrition is a complicated thing.

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

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

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

So What’s Really Important?

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

  1. Calories

  2. Macronutrients

  3. Micronutrients

  4. Meal Timing

  5. Supplements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macronutrients

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

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

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

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

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

Micronutrients

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meal Timing

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

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

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

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

Supplements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Nathaniel Watson

3 Common Language Learning Obstacles

Parkour Visions Adult Obstacle Challenge by Beth Jusino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do you fix it or avoid it entirely.

Don’t wait to start talking with native speakers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing this problem is two-fold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are a few things to keep in mind here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Beth Jusino

How We Learned Fluent Korean in 6 Months

Hangeul Day by The Republic of Korea

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

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

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

The Vocabulary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammar

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Practice

Last but absolutely not least comes the actual practice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: The Republic of Korea

How to Calculate Your Macros Part 1 – Calculating Calories

Portion by Bradley P Johnson

Now that you know what macros are you might be asking how to figure out exactly how many of them you need every day in order to attain your fitness goals. The beginner’s guide gave some general guidelines, but here we’ll get a little deeper into it.

The first thing we need to figure out in order to determine where your macros should be is exactly how many calories you need to be getting on average to meet your goals. (I’m assuming you know your goal, e.g. lose fat, gain muscle etc., so if you don’t make that step one and figure it out first.)

Why calories first? When it comes to losing weight (i.e., fat) or gaining weight (i.e., muscle) the single most important factor is your calorie intake.

Calories Are King

There are easily a thousand different diet models all claiming to have the one magic secret to helping you lose weight. Most of them focus on eliminating this or that or playing with meal timing or fasting for so long or some other thing – but the fact remains that when it comes to the foundation of gaining or losing weight calories are really all that matters.

Whether you’re eating 100% ‘clean’ or nothing but Twinkies and junk food if you’re genuinely taking in more energy than you use you will gain weight and if you’re using more than you take in you’ll lose it.

Now before the ‘A calorie is not a calorie’ crowd get their torches lit and pitchforks distributed I should note, what that weight is – muscle, fat, etc. – can be determined by where those calories are coming from. That’s a question of what color to paint the house though and we’re still talking foundations here. We’ll get to where the calories should come from and when you should get them later, first we need to know how many you need.

Calculating Your Current Calories

There are a handful of ways to go about this ranging from more to less complicated and more to less accurate. All of these are trying to determine your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) which are your ‘coma calories’, the amount of energy your body would burn if you did nothing but lay there in bed all day and not move. It’s essentially the bare minimum amount of energy your body needs to keep running without any added activity.

The most complicated, though arguably most accurate, is RQ testing through a system like what eNewLeaf offers. Technically speaking their resting metabolic testing should be extremely accurate compared to the other calculation options I’ll give. I’ve used them in the past and was happy with the results.

That being said, I think it’s a lot easier to have a less accurate initial estimate and then adjust up or down from their based on your rate of progress. Testing like what eNewLeaf provides can be expensive and considering your values will change over time would require repeat visits.

The one potential benefit this type of testing offers other than providing more accurate initial values is that it can also tell you which energy systems your body prefers using. In basic terms how efficient your body is at actually burning fat.

It can be an interesting thing to know, but I don’t find it terribly useful and it won’t change our macro calculations so I wouldn’t bother unless you really want to know this stuff.

My preferred method personally is the Katch-McArdle formula. This is still a best guess situation but it tends to get pretty close and then you can adjust from there after a few weeks once you see how things are going. There are just too many individual variables for this to get an accurate value for everyone but I’ve found it’s the best combination of accuracy and convenience.

The Katch-McArdle Formula: BMR = 370 + (9.8 x lean mass in pounds)

If you’re more metric minded change that 9.8 to 21.6 and pounds to kilograms.

Your lean mass is the weight of your body minus the weight of all of your fat. To figure this out you’re going to need to determine your body fat percentage – there are a lot of ways to do this ranging from pinch tests to bio-electric impedance to complicated things like hydrostatic weighing. Most of the nicer bathroom scales will do it for you (I particularly like the Aria) and if you belong to a gym any one of the trainers should be able to give you a pretty good estimate.

Once you have your body fat percentage subtract that amount from your total weight to get your lean mass. So a 200 lb. person at 20% body fat would mean they have 40 lbs. of fat on them (200 x .20) and 160 lbs. of lean mass (200 – 40).

If you have no idea whatsoever about what your body fat percentage might be and no good way to find out you can use the revised Harris-Benedict equation instead. This one differs between men and women.

Men’s Harris-Benedict Formula: BMR = 88.362 + (6.251 x weight in lbs.) + (12.189 x height in inches) – (5.677 x age in years)

Women’s Harris-Benedict Formula: BMR = 447.593 + (4.203 x weight in lbs.) + (7.869 x height in inches) – (4.330 x age in years)

And in metric:

Men’s Harris-Benedict Formula: BMR = 88.362 + (13.397 x weight in kg.) + (4.799 x height in cm) – (5.677 x age in years)

Women’s Harris-Benedict Formula: BMR = 447.593 + (9.247 x weight in kg.) + (3.098 x height in cm.) – (4.330 x age in years)

These are going to potentially be a little less accurate, but they’ll do well enough for the moment.

Once you have your BMR you’re going to want to adjust it a touch to account for your daily activities to get your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). In my experience most people vastly overestimate their daily activity levels. For that reason I usually recommend a x1.2 multiplier for most people. This usually winds up being a bit of an underestimation but works if you’ve got a desk job. If you’re on your feet most of the day (waiting tables, working on machinery, etc.) then you may be better off with a x1.4 multiplier. If you’re in a genuinely strenuous line of work (roofing, construction, etc.) then you can bump it up to a x1.6 multiplier.

Don’t try to factor exercise in here, just your day to day activities. In other words if you have a desk job but workout 5x per week you should still start with x1.2 as your multiplier.

So our 200 lb. 20% bodyfat example from before would use Katch-McArdle to get a BMR of 1,938 kcal. (370 + (9.8 x 140 lbs.) = 1938) and then, since he’s got a desk job, would add in the multiplier to get to a TDEE of 2,325 kcal. (1938 x 1.2 = 2325.6). Always round down to the nearest 5 or 0 for simplicity’s sake. These are estimates remember and will need adjusting over time anyway.

Now that we’ve got our TDEE – the estimated number of calories we need to take in to remain exactly the same weight – we need to figure out how to manipulate those numbers to reach our goal.

Calculating Your Target Calories

We don’t want to just stay the same, so you’re going to need to either take in fewer calories if you’re trying to lose weight or more calories if you’re tying to gain weight. I’m going to use the general Leangains terminology and call them a Cut and a Slow Bulk respectively.

Since most of the people I coach are looking to lose weight, we’ll start with the cut.

Calories for a Cut

Since we’re looking to lose weight while cutting that means that you’re going to need to adjust your calories down from your TDEE. How much you’re going to adjust down is going to be based on how much weight you want to / can safely lose per week.

People who have more to lose, i.e. people with a higher initial body fay percentage, can generally safely lose more weight per week while people who are closer to their goal and have a lower body fat percentage will be on the lower end of the spectrum. Here are some general guidelines for what you should be able to expect safely.

  • 30% Body Fat or Higher – 2.5 to 3 lbs. per week

  • 20 – 29% Body Fat – 2 to 2.5 lbs. per week

  • 15 – 19% Body Fat – 1.5 to 2 lbs. per week

  • 12 – 14% Body Fat – 1 to 1.5 lbs. per week

  • 10 – 11% Body Fat – .5 to 1 lb. per week

Find yourself on the chart and then figure out from there how many pounds of loss per week you want to aim for. These are basic guidelines based on a combination of outside data and my own experience with clients. Note that you can always aim for a slower cut than what’s listed under your body fat percentage but don’t try to do more. If you’re 30% body fat there’s nothing wrong with aiming for a nice slow 1 pound per week, just don’t shoot for losing 3 pounds per week if you’re only 12% body fat or you’re likely to run into problems.

Once you’ve determined how many pounds of loss to shoot for we need to translate that into calories. The general rule is that it takes 3,500 calories to create a 1 pound change in weight. I say general because it’s not technically an exact science but it gets the job done.

So our previous 200 lb. 20% body fat example would look at the chart and decide he wants to shoot for 2 pounds of weight loss per week. That means he needs to put himself in a caloric deficit of 7,000 calories (3500 kcal x 2 lbs. = 7,000 kcal) per week.

If you’re a little on the short side, I would recommend aiming a little on the lower side. It doesn’t always make a big difference but it does help sometimes.

Always aim to make your weekly caloric deficit a product of diet alone and not training. There are a handful of reasons for this. First of all, there’s a high variance in calorie burn for the same activity from person to person. While the bomb calorimetry isn’t perfect either it’s more accurate than estimates of what you’re burning during an activity. Second adding in a ton of extraneous training just to burn more calories is going to add substantially more stress to your body than just reducing intake and we don’t want too much stress. Lastly, your training should be focused on its own goal not on burning up extra energy because you ate too much.

The most basic way to achieve that weekly deficit is to divide your total weekly deficit need by 7 and then subtract that amount from each day’s intake. So for our example person he would want to cut 1,000 calories each day from his TDEE to eat 1,325 kcal daily (2,325 kcal TDEE – (7,000 kcal / 7 days) = 1,325 kcal).

Personally, this sounds a bit aggressive and our example gentleman may find 1,325 is a bit low for comfort. In that case he could bump up to a slower but more comfortable 1 pound loss per week at 1,825 kcal per day. Usually if your target dips too far below your BMR you might find it’s kind of miserable and unsustainable. It’s all about finding what works best.

I’m also a fan of Leangains-style calorie/macro fluctuations which would involve higher calories on training days and lower or rest days rather than a flat deficit each day. Regardless of how you do it, the important thing is that your weekly calories add up to the specified deficit.

Calories for a Slow Bulk

So what if you want to gain weight rather than lose weight? You essentially follow the same process in reverse.

Here the calories are going to be determined more by your training level than by your body fat percentage or body composition. I like to break it down along Alan Aragon’s lines of Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced trainee.

Here’s how to figure out where you are based on three main lifts.

  • Beginner – Anything below Intermediate, usually less than 2 years of training.

  • Intermediate – Bench Press: 1.2 x body weight, Squat: 1.6 x body weight, Deadlift: 2 x body weight, usually between 2 to 5 years of training.

  • Advanced – Bench Press: 1.5 x body weight, Squat: 2 x body weight, Deadlift: 2.5 x body weight, usually 5 years or more of training.

If you’re in the Beginner level you can expect between 2 to 3 lbs. of muscle gain per month and should shoot for a surplus of around 200 to 300 kcal per day to start.

If you’re in the Intermediate level you can expect between 1 to 2 lbs. of muscle gain per month and should shoot for a slightly lower surplus of 100 to 200 kcal per day to start.

Lastly if you’re in the Advanced category you should expect only about .5 lbs of muscle growth per month and should aim for a small surplus, somewhere at or below 100 kcal per day to get started. Advanced trainees will find it’s much easier to track strength gains and other metrics than it is scale weight since at this level increases in pounds will be smaller and harder to notice.

So our example person at 200 lbs. and 20% body fat wants to go on a slow bulk and add some muscle. He’s an absolute beginner at weight training, so he can expect to put on at least a few pounds per month and needs to shoot for a surplus of 200 to 300 kcal per day. If he goes right in the middle that puts him at a target of 2,575 kcal per day (2325 kcal TDEE + 250 kcal = 2575 kcal per day).

Adjusting your Calories

Your daily calorie needs are going to change.

Even outside of training and the weight change involved with adjustment of caloric intake there are so many other factors involving your metabolism and Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) that there’s no way you’ll keep them consistent for long.

As such, you’re going to have to adjust your calorie intake up and down as you go based on what your goals are and how much progress (or lack thereof) you’re seeing in either direction.

You don’t want to make too drastic of changes too soon, so I would always stick with what you’re doing for at least two solid weeks before making adjustments – preferably three or four. Solid weeks here means hitting your calorie targets every single day.

If, after three or four weeks consistently hitting your targets on a cut you find that you’re not losing as quickly as you’d like or not at all then adjust your calories down by between 5 and 10% and see how that affects things. If you’re losing too quickly adjust up by 5 to 10% – losing too quickly or more than is indicated on that chart above likely means you’re also losing muscle which is a bad thing.

If you’re on a slow bulk and find yourself not making any progress after hitting your targets for three to four weeks then increase your daily calorie intake by between 3 and 6%. If weight is gained too quickly for where you are on the training levels above you’re likely putting on fat in addition to muscle and should decrease your daily calories by 3 to 6% instead.

Keep in mind that, particularly if you’re new to training or making large changes to your macro percentages (particularly carbohydrates) you may have some drastic fluctuations in water weight in that first week. Stick it out and give it time before you make any substantial adjustments.

This is the first step in figuring out your macros. We’ll get into how to actually structure your macro percentages in the next article, but this will be the foundation those are built upon.

If you’re feeling uncomplicated, you can just use these values to lose or gain weight. While there are potential benefits to getting more involved and complicated with things it’s not necessary, so if you just want things to be easy set your calorie targets based on everything above and stick to them without worrying about specifically what it is you’re eating.

Have any questions about setting your calorie goals up or any suggestions or personal experiences you’d like to add? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Bradley P. Johnson

The Beginner’s Guide to Macros

Christmas Dinner by George Redgrave

Counting macronutrients doesn’t have to be complicated.

If you’ve been digging into information on weight loss – especially information by people more active in the fitness side of things and less in the selling diet fad books side of things – you’ve probably heard of macronutrients (macros for short because we’re lazy).

It can be bewildering at first because it’s seems like a lot more nutritional information you have to digest, but thankfully it’s not as hard as it sounds. If you have no clue what people are talking about when they discuss counting macros, or if you’re just not sure where to start in getting control of your diet, this is the best place to start.

What are Macros?

Macros are essentially the biggest unit of nutrition (some may call it splitting hairs, but Calories are a unit of energy – not nutrition – so they don’t count). They’re the foundation of the pyramid, the most very basic building blocks for keeping you alive and making all that fleshy stuff and bones and organs you like so much.

There are three main macronutrients, though some people separate them into five categories. The three main ones are:

  • Protein

  • Fat

  • & Carbohydrates

The other two, depending on who you ask, are alcohol and fiber. Strictly speaking they probably should be considered as separate macros from everything else but we aren’t going to worry about that here. For right now, just consider alcohol and fiber to be carbohydrates and leave it at that.

One of the defining characteristics of macronutrients is that they’re the only things that have calories.

Micronutrients, like all your vitamins and minerals, possess zero calories. While important for different reasons, we’re not going to worry about them at all for right now – just the macros.

So let’s take a look at some of the different macros individually.

Protein

We’ll start with protein because, while there’s probably no actual most important macro, a lot of people would argue protein deserves that distinction – particularly in the health and fitness community.

What is it?

Protein is the basic building material of just about everything in your body. It helps us build more muscle, retain muscle on a caloric deficit, recover from our workouts more quickly and has the highest satiety factor while simultaneously requiring the most energy to digest reducing it’s caloric impact.

The official calorie count for protein is 4 calories per 1g of protein, and for our purposes that’s what will go with, but you should know that because of the energy spent digesting protein it’s really closer to the 3 calorie range.

Where do I get it?

Primarily meat, fish, eggs, dairy and protein powders. You can get it from plant sources if you absolutely insist on being a vegetarian or vegan – but you should know that those sources are poor and you’re unlikely to be as healthy or have as easy a time of things as your omnivorous companions.

I’m always favorable to macro sources that are whole foods (as in, unprocessed stuff, not things from that particular store) though meat can be expensive and inconvenient to prepare at times, so protein powders and shakes are an acceptable supplement in order to make sure you hit your targets.

Do check your food to make sure it’s a good source of protein even if you’ve been told it is. I often hear beans and nuts recommended as good protein sources when really nuts are almost entirely fat and beans are made up of substantially more carbohydrates than protein. Always be skeptical and double check, a lot of ‘high protein food’ claims are mostly marketing. In general, you can never go wrong with meat and whey though.

How much do I need?

In general a good range to shoot for if you’re trying to bulk up is in the range of .8 to 1g of protein per pound of lean body mass (that’s about 1.8 to 2.2g per kg for the rest of the world) every day. If you’re on a cut and trying to maintain your muscle mass while dropping fat you’re going to want it a little higher to ensure you preserve as much lean mass as possible. In that case you’ll want to bump it up to about 1 to 1.3g of protein per pound of lean body mass (2.2 to 2.8g per kg).

Note that these ranges are based on your lean body mass. That means your bodyweight minus your bodyfat. You do this by finding your bodyfat percentage and then subtracting that weight from your total body mass. For example, a person who weighs 200 lbs. at 20% bodyfat would have a lean body mass of 160 lbs. and would likely be on a cut so would shoot for between 160 to 208g of protein per day.

It should also be mentioned that while there are rumors out there of how too much protein will damage your kidneys – they’re false. There are no studies substantiating the claim that high protein intake damages kidney function. One study even showed no kidney damage on a diet of 1.27g per pound of bodyweight (not lean body mass) per day. That would be 254g per day for our example person above. So don’t worry about getting too much.

Why have upper limits on the ranges then? Primarily because after a while while more protein isn’t harmful, it’s not really helpful either. It’s also expensive – meat isn’t known for being cheap and even whey powders can be pricey – and takes up room in your diet that can crowd out our other two macros. With the diminishing returns going overboard isn’t really going to help a lot, even on a bulk.

Fat

Fat’s the enemy isn’t it? Causes heart disease, Ancel Keys and all that. Hence all the products shouting about being low fat right?

Well, no.

What is it?

Fat is essential nutrient required to keep your brain and just about everything else running smoothly.

The reasons for why the low fat craze was a terrible idea sparked by bad science that was hyperbolized by an ignorant media deserve an article of their own. Fats are required to live and are necessary for brain function, vitamin absorption and hormone regulation among other things. In fact, one of the most immediate side effects of a low fat diet is a severe drop in testosterone production and sex drive.

They’re also the most energy dense of the macronutrients coming in at 9 calories per 1g of fat.

If our muscles can be said to be fueled by carbs and built by protein, your brain can be said to be fueled by carbs and built by fat.

Where do I get it?

The best places to get quality fats are from fatty meats (bacon anyone?), most dairy, nuts / nut butters and oils. Avocados are also a good source of them and the only fatty food that is probably considered a fruit.

For the purposes of this article we’re only going to worry about fat as a whole, but it should probably be noted that overall there are better and worse sources of fat. Monounsaturated, Polyunsaturated and Saturated fats are all fairly good for you in the proper amounts of each. Trans fats, or hydrogenated fats, however are absolutely terrible for you and should be avoided at all costs. Thankfully the bad kind don’t occur on their own in nature, we have to make them, so as long as you stay away from stuff in packages you’ll be fine.

How much do I need?

That depends again on your goals. If you’re trying to bulk up making your diet consist of around 20 to 30% fat in calories is a good range to aim for. That means if you’re shooting for 2,500 calories per day (potentially a little low for a bulk for most people but the math’s easier) that would be 400 to 600 calories per day coming from fat. Divide those by 9 (because of each gram of fat having 9 calories) and you get about 55g to 83g of fat per day.

Conversely if you’re on a cut I would recommend keeping it a little lighter. Keeping your caloric intake low on a cut is important and with fat coming in at 9 calories per gram it’s easy to get carried away and go way over your calorie target. You don’t want to go too low either though or you’re going to tank your hormone production and feel horrible.

A good range to shoot for then while on a cut is between .4 to .6g per pound of lean body mass (.9 to 1.3g per kg). That should allow you to keep your calories in check without impairing hormone function and suffering all the detriments of an excessively limited fat intake.

Carbohydrates

Surely if fat isn’t the enemy carbs are right? Shouldn’t everyone be low carb and gluten free? Isn’t Paleo the best thing ever?

Again, it’s not exactly that simple. Though the long explanation is going to be saved for another article.

What are they?

Technically speaking carbohydrates are the one macronutrient that you don’t absolutely need to survive (with the possible exception of alcohol if you count it separately from carbs). If you don’t eat any fat you will get very ill (sometimes called rabbit starvation), if you don’t eat any protein the same thing will happen. Eventually both of these things can kill you.

If you don’t eat any carbs you’ll feel crappy for a few days while your body adjusts and the it’ll start using gluconeogenesis to turn other macronutrients into glycogen and you’ll be fine.

So why eat them at all? Well for on thing like fats they have a generally positive effect on hormones that’s hard to replicate through other means. Additionally they’re the easiest way to replace muscle glycogen effectively, and if you’re going to be training hard (you are going to be training hard, right?) then you’re going to want at least a little carb intake to help you through it.

Outside of all of that, honestly, carbs are tasty. You don’t have to punish yourself to be healthy.

Where do I get them?

From almost any food that’s considered unhealthy or which makes your Paleo and Atkins friends turn white with horror when you raise to your mouth.

Joking aside, carbs come from grains, starches, vegetables and sugars. Alcohol too for our purposes since, while technically unique, it behaves close enough to how carbs do to be counted that way. There are complex carbs (vegetables and greens) which are somewhat better for you and simple carbs (sugar, refined grains etc.) which are somewhat worse for you. There’s also dietary fiber which we’re including here but can also be considered technically separate.

Run of the mill carbs, both simple and complex, weigh in at 4 calories per 1g of carbohydrate. Alcohol on the other hand being so energy dense (we do use forms of it to fuel cars you know) comes in at 7 calories per 1g. Dietary fiber lands on the other end of the spectrum. Soluble fiber (stuff you can digest) comes in at a mere 2 calories per 1g. Insoluble fiber, which you cannot digest, comes in at 0 calories per 1g. Because you can’t digest it.

How much do I need?

You need just enough to fill out the rest of your calories after you’ve figured out your protein and fat intakes. Once you’ve added up your protein (x4 calories per gram) and your fat (x9 calories per gram) subtract that number from your total daily calorie target. Then divide that by 4 (because there are 4 calories per 1g of carb) and you’ve got your target carb intake.

On a side note regarding our two extra additions to this category – keep your alcohol intake reasonable. There are benefits to a little alcohol consumption, but too much will damage your testosterone levels, your brain, your liver and probably your life in general. Enjoy in moderation. Fiber you definitely want to make sure you include as the right amounts will help make you feel full, keep cholesterol low and keep things in your digestive track moving smoothly.

You should shoot for at least 20g of fiber per day to reap all of the benefits from it. Don’t let your fiber intake exceed about 20% or so of your total carb intake though or you might be in for gas, constipation and bloating.

You need just enough to fill out the rest of your calories after you’ve figured out your protein and fat intakes. Once you’ve added up your protein (x4 calories per gram) and your fat (x9 calories per gram) subtract that number from your total daily calorie target. Then divide that by 4 (because there are 4 calories per 1g of carb) and you’ve got your target carb intake.

On a side note regarding our two extra additions to this category – keep your alcohol intake reasonable. There are benefits to a little alcohol consumption, but too much will damage your testosterone levels, your brain, your liver and probably your life in general. Enjoy in moderation. Fiber you definitely want to make sure you include as the right amounts will help make you feel full, keep cholesterol low and keep things in your digestive track moving smoothly.

You should shoot for at least 20g of fiber per day to reap all of the benefits from it. Don’t let your fiber intake exceed about 20% or so of your total carb intake though or you might be in for gas, constipation and bloating.

Learning How to Count

Hopefully you know how to count in general. If not I’ll wait while you go watch some Sesame Street and brush up a bit.

The trick to counting macros though is two-fold. The first problem is that if you don’t know what you’re looking for, what’s important and what’s useless information a nutrition label can be kind of confusing. The second problem is that a lot of food, specifically a lot of the generally healthy food which you should be eating more of, does not come with nutrition labels.

We’ll start with the foods that come with nutrition labels because they make it significantly easier to figure out your macros accurately. After all you just have to be able to read and do basic addition.

Food with nutrition labels

So what’s the important stuff on a nutrition label? In order from top to bottom on the label:

  • Total Fat – This is what you count as your fat.

  • Total Carbohydrate – This is what you count as your carbs.

  • Protein – This is what you count as your protein.

Technically you also need to pay close attention to the serving size. We’ll get to more on that in a moment though. So what all on the nutrition label can you ignore? Everything else.

  • Saturated / Unsaturated Fat – Not important and these add up into that total fat category you’re counting. I would potentially advise keeping an eye out for trans fats (which should be avoided entirely), but that’s about it.

  • Cholesterol – Vilified for years even though there’s no good research to show there’s anything wrong with dietary cholesterol. Don’t worry about it.

  • Sodium – Unless you have very high blood pressure there’s no need to worry about it at all.

  • Dietary Fiber – Included in the total carbohydrate count. I do recommend getting a bit of fiber as noted above, but in general it’s usually not worth counting on its own.

  • Sugar – This is also included in that total carbohydrate count and can be ignored. I won’t get into it too much here, but sugar is not evil, toxic or poison. Count your total carbs and don’t worry about sugar for right now.

  • % Daily Value – This is how much the government recommends you get of this nutrient assuming you follow a 2,000 calorie diet. Not only would it be insane for everyone to follow a 2,000 calorie diet due to the countless differing variables from person to person but, even if you’re on a 2,000 calorie diet, the recommended ratios of macros are awful in my opinion so I wouldn’t recommend following it anyway. Do everyone a favor and ignore it until it goes away.

  • Vitamin A, C, Magnesium, Zinc, etc. – All these little extra things are your micronutrients, your vitamins and minerals essentially, and don’t add any calories. Might be interesting for you to know, but it’s not worth worrying about for right now.

  • Calories – Most people are surprised by this one, but you don’t need to count the calories if you’re counting your macros. That’s because the only things that have calories are macros. So if you know how many of each macro you’re getting and how many calories per macro as listed above, you know your calories.

Now you know what’s important and what’s not, you just need to count up the important stuff and multiply it by the number of servings you had. This is where paying attention to the serving sizes on the label and owning a food scale will come in handy.

If you really want to accurately measure your macros, you must have a food scale. I’ll give you some general eyeballing estimation figures you can use in a pinch but they’re not super accurate. You also can’t measure things by number and volume because those amounts can vary wildly between things of equal weight.

Anyone who’s done any baking knows that a loose cup of flour and a packed cup of flour are two very different amounts which is why recipes always give you the amounts of things like that in weights (at least, competent recipes). Similarly, even using the measuring lines they give you or an actual tablespoon, you may measure out five tablespoons of butter and have amounts ranging from 10 to 20 grams that all look the same. Since a single serving of butter (and one precise tablespoon) is 16g this can throw your macros and calories way off.

For a single serving of butter like that it would only be off about 50 calories, but over the course of multiple foods across multiple meals across multiple days you can wind up severely off your macro targets and by extension make zero progress.

You can get a digital food scale off Amazon for around $25. Even less if you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of functionality. Once you’re in the swing of it weighing your portions out only takes an extra minute each meal too, so it’s no real inconvenience. In my experience the kind of people who whine about having to buy a scale and weigh food are the people that make up excuses to skip workouts and the people that never make any progress – accept it.

Food without nutrition labels

So what do you do if the food you’re eating doesn’t come with a nutrition label? The easiest place to start is by turning to the Internet.

Websites and apps like MyFitnessPal and LoseIt! are built specifically to help you track the nutrition content and macros of what you’re eating. Just look your food up, enter in the amounts you ate and you’re good. Nutrition Data is another option if you just want to look something up.

The relevant apps also let you scan bar codes to pull up nutrition information on and log the food you scanned making it even easier to log the stuff with labels too.

So what if you’re eating out at a restaurant or are just seriously too lazy to measure things properly and see actual results?

The basic estimation guidelines are as follows:

  • 3.5 ounces or 100g or so of raw meat (including fish) is about 20g of protein. One average chicken breast is about 20g of protein, a 6 oz steak (a bit more than the size of your fist) is about 40g of protein.

  • 70g of uncooked rice is about 50g of carbs. This will be about 1/2 a cup of uncooked rice or a big mounded handful. Cooked it’s going to vary by water amount. Pasta is the same. One slice of standard white bread is 20g of carbs.

  • Greens and green vegetables can be counted as having 0g of carbs. Technically they’ve got some, but if you’re just ballparking the numbers there’s no point worrying about them because they’re so small.

  • Go easy on the sauces. If it’s vinegar or water based don’t bother counting it. If it’s fat based including things like butter, olive oil or mayo you can consider each spoonful to be about 15g of fat.

  • Eggs are 6g of protein per egg.

Whether you’re estimating or being precise (you should be precise) you can also use Fitocracy’s macro tracking app to keep things noted down. It doesn’t include foods to look up, but it lets you enter things manually and see where you’re at as you go through the day.

Hopefully all of this has you all set on what macros are and how to start tracking them. If you have any additional questions leave a comment! If you want a little more in-depth assistance getting your macros down I do offer coaching packages, just send me an e-mail or stop by our coaching page if you’re interested.

Photo Credit: George Redgrave

Page 3 of 912345...Last »