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David Letterman’s cup technique

David Letterman and Cups

David Letterman dressing for a taping of “Late Show.” Each cup to the left represents a completed show. New York Times

Everything about me seems ethereal. My work isn’t physically manifested. A carpenter’s work is real. The chair, the house. The end result is concrete.

I write…but it’s all digital. Half the books I own are digital, too. I don’t have stacks of journals or books to show for my work. I train…but there’s no thing that shows the work. (I have training logs, but they only span two notebooks across, ohhhh, nine years?) There are memories. I have videos. Much like Letterman.

I think of how many times I trained over the years. How many times I tricked. I don’t know how much work I’ve done. Maybe stack pennies? Every training session, add another penny to the stack. Or use index cards. Or maybe just buy the cups. Stack the cups. Build your own cup mansion.

Imagine, when you feel lazy or unmotivated, looking at your stack of cups. See that? Your stack of cups. Imagine having a tangible visual representation of your work.

The body changes slowly. It requires a lot of days of doing things right…a lot of days doing things a lot of people don’t do. Wouldn’t it be nice to see those days? Better yet, see those days accumulate? Day after day after day.

There’s something to this concrete real representation that hits me.

Are you going to add another cup to your stack today?

Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times
Hat tip: Austin Kleon

Juggling goals: losing fat, building muscle, bettering bodyweight skills, becoming athletic


I’m trying to figure out how to balance three separate but kind of related goals. 

First, I want to put on about 10-15 pounds of muscle while getting down to about 12-15% body fat. (I’m currently sitting at 208 pounds between 20-21%.)

Second, I want to become a bodyweight beast, making feats like handstands, one arm push-ups, and muscle-ups look easy. 

Third, I want to increase my movement capabilities in freerunning by upping my speed, agility, and power.


They aren’t “kind of related.” There’s a common thread. And the common thread: your body fat.

  • Looking good naked means losing fat.
  • Bodyweight skills are a lot easier when you’re lighter. So, yeah. Lose body fat.
  • Freerunning is high impact. Joints can only handle so much stress. Every extra pound is extra impact…especially if it’s useless body fat.

So each of your goals ties back to body fat. If you want to make the most widespread progress across all your goals, put your foot down and squash the body fat. But remember that losing fat doesn’t mean “cutting” in the way most people think of “cutting.” 

Don’t turn into a cardio bunny. As you lose fat, strength train with a barbell. Include a progression for bodyweight skills pending how good you are now (progress horizontal to vertical with bodyweight rows, vertical to horizontal with push-ups, et cetera). At 20% body fat, most bodyweight skills will be hard(er) as compared to you doing them in the future at the same strength but leaner. A barbell will help you get a good training stimulus without being bottlenecked by your current bodyweight.

Also prepare your body for the freerunning. You can do a lot of ankle work. See A Trickster’s Guide to Ankle Strength. As you reach more towards the 15% body fat range, start teaching your body how to land and roll.

The idea being when you’re finally at your ideal body fat percentage you’re prepared to launch into your dreams. You’re prepared to now hit the higher bodyweight skills because you started adapting the muscles and connective tissue. Same goes for the freerunning.

A small (but effective) cheat code to help you become motivated

Konami Cheat Code Motivation

It’s the opposite of masturbation. You want something, but you can’t seem to make yourself do the work in order to get the reward.

You’re searching every nook and cranny. It’s lost more than Oceanic Flight 815. Where oh where has my motivation gone?

Ever feel this way? Ever look high and low for motivation for something you were convinced you wanted?

If so, then I have a cheat code for you.

It’s unlike any other motivation tip, trick, hack, shortcut, sneakcut, <buzzword> I’ve tried.

The thing you are dreaming of doing will bleed out of your pores. Your body will plead for you to scratch the itch.

That’s what happened (is happening) to me, at least. It’s easy an easy cheat code to start using, too. So what follows is the how and the why so you can get started three seconds ago.

You’re stymied.

But not by the millions of majestic insane super complicated microbiological events (so intricate my left earlobe is combusting just thinking about them) that allow you to jump higher, build more muscle, and learn new skills.

You’re stymied, instead, by motivation. Can’t even get off the starting blocks.

If I were smart, I’d make a pill. Willpower™ – Gives You the Power to Will. (Don Draper, I’m available for hire.) Or Willpower™ – Gives you the Will to Power. (I think the statue of limitations on Nietzsche has since passed, right?)

Maybe you did some reading on motivation. (Maybe you even looked for Willpower™.) Maybe you found out about willpower. (The actual thing and not Willpower™.) And then maybe you read The Willpower Instinct and found out about a ‘lil willpower h4x0r: meditation.

Meditation might preserve some willpower. But you probably have enough willpower in throttling through your bones right now.

You reach for the chocolate cake when it’s on the kitchen counter. Willpower is lost! 

But you probably wouldn’t if it were in a lion’s den. Willpower is found! 

So yeah. Your willpower is there.

And, uhh. Bad news on the whole meditation thing…

Starting a meditation practice tends to require willpower. So you’re using willpower in order to gain willpower for something else that requires willpower.

Using willpower in order to gain willpower is a little bass ackwards, even for an overthinking nerd like myself.

Maybe you thought you’d be more motivated if you had something serious to lose…like your ego.

So you sent nudes of yourself to your best brofriend and told him to soil social media with the goods (your goods) if your “x” goal wasn’t finished by your “y” date.


Just kidding.

Public shaming might make for some motivation. But is it really your long term plan? To put money on the line from now until the day you die? To be fueled by loss aversion and potential punishment instead of personal gain and self-satisfaction on the road to physical mastery?

Maybe these cooky things work for you. Or will work for you. Who knows? Give ’em a try.

But the method I’m about to show you doesn’t involve convince yourself to do something you don’t really want to do or using willpower to save willpower.

My method will let <the thing> come out of you as if it were meant to be all along.

Goku Blutz Waves

There existed a moment when I was eighteen. It was like tripping a Saiyan’s ape instinct when seeing the moon. In The Talent Code, Coyle calls this a moment of ignition.

Training regularly and eating right no longer required motivation or willpower. It just was. 

But I also know what it’s like to want something and not have the utmost motivation. Let’s face the first world reality: most of what we do helps our broken psyche sleep more comfortable each night. We aren’t going to get mauled by a lion if we miss a PR or flake out on learning how to do a backflip.

I’ve been antimasturbating in the tricker world for the past year or so. I got over my foot injury. Been looking through the lens of want but haven’t been able to tap into the blutz-wave-ape-instinct want.

I was just like everyone else. Looking for motivation.

But then things changed.

I started doing something. Something small. Something common place. Something so stupid and easy sounding that you’re going to have one of those this is too easy for it to work feelings. So I encourage you to stick around and see why it works so well.

Rasmus Ott is a hero of mine.

He’s one of my favorite trickers. He’s a lot of tricker’s favorite tricker, actually. He’s good. Real good. Better than my self-doubting self would ever allow myself to envision becoming.

A place inside of me whispers, “You’ll never be as good as Ott. Why try?”

And this is why I choose to watch Ott trick as often as possible. 

And this is the cheat code: watch.

  1. Find videos (or a video) of someone doing <the thing> you want to be motivated to do and then watch. It has to be a video.
  2. Watch as often as you can, but make it a point to watch every morning when you wake up and every night before you go to bed. In between, watch as often as possible.
  3. Make sure <the thing> and <the dude(s)> showcase ability superseding what your self-doubting self could ever imagine yourself doing.
  4. Don’t watch in a pumped-up-motivation ape-chest-pounding way. Just watch. Watch. Try to absorb everything into your mind. Try to channel cosmic osmosis.

And now for the why.

Anthony Mychal Tricking Corkscrew

Why does this work so well?

  • I want to do things I don’t believe I can do. I’m a self-defeating turd. Watching “impossible” things makes them common place. It’s hard to continue to believe things are impossible when you see them being done six times every day. It’s even harder to believe things are impossible when you see them being done with ease. I see, I believe.
  • Your body is a wizard. When you watch someone else, you aren’t just being entertained. You’re learning. Your brain is unconsciously digesting the movements and the skills. You’re improving your own ability to do them [1]. This doesn’t happen with a poster or a picture, which is why it has to be video.
  • Seeing things often will reply said things often in your head. When I’m in the shower I can see my body moving and doing <the thing>. So when it comes time to do <the thing> I feel like my body already knows what to do.

And when this gets repeated in your head day after day and you see yourself doing <the thing> day after day, it’s as if your body says, “Please. Please. Let me show you I can do this. I’ve been picturing myself do this. I know I can do this. Just give me a chance.”

Beyond motivation for <the thing>, I’ve also noticed…

…motivation for things complimentary to <the thing>. And this has been a most welcomed side effect. For me, tricking is <the thing>. But I find myself much more motivated to work on my flexibility and mobility every night knowing that it’ll help <the thing>.

It’s a two-for-one deal.

And unlike other willpower methods, there’s no hurt in making this a regular practice. You don’t need anything you don’t already have (like seven dragon balls). You’re on your phone all the time anyway. Download a YouTube app and get trigger happy.

Sacrifice some of your swiping left and swiping right. Besides, chicks’ll dig you more if you’re able to do some of the cool things you (currently) aren’t motivated to do.


[1] This is in The Talent Code and also The Inner Game of Tennis. It’s credited to mirror neurons. I don’t know if the phenomenon has been worked out, but the phenomenology seems to be there.

Body Composition, 15. Meathead

You didn’t know your body was a meathead, did you? When it shoves glycogen inside of the muscle, the glycogen is locked away solely for the muscle! Ha! Screw you brain, the muscle is more important than you!

Except, for most people alive and breathing, the muscle isn’t more important than the brain. And this is why most human beings are wired for fat gain. Body fat can keep you alive under times of harsh nutritional duress. It can be broken down into ketone scraps and give the brain what it needs. But muscle glycogen has no chance for that fate.

So it seems your body would rather be stricken physically inept yet breathing and cognizant if it meant staying alive. This is starvation 101. Can’t do much physically, but at least you’re still ticking and tocking.

Doesn’t make sense to store precious energy inside a permanently locked vault. You wouldn’t put money in a permanently locked vault, would you?

Luckily, muscle isn’t a permanently locked vault. It’s locked under most circumstances, but not all. And your body is more than willing to bust open the vault when needed.

Muscle glycogen is muscle fuel (shocking, I know) of a certain flavor. So how to open the vault? Use your muscles a certain way.

You eat. You eat enough. You have excess. Brain and sedentary logic says, “Flinch excess to body fat. Because, ketones and all that jazz. Fat is the safest place to put the extra in the long term.”

But now you throw yourself in a city rampant with lions and where you have to regularly sprint (not jog or walk, for reasons you’ll come to know soon) to stay alive. What if you have to run away from lions and you don’t stock your muscle with energy? Suddenly, there’s conflict.

On the one hand, you have the safe bet in body fat storage. On the other hand, if you don’t cater to your muscle, you’ll get eaten by a lion. When you get excess, where’s the best place for storage?


Thoughts on sets, repetitions, volume, and building muscle

Anthony Mychal Front Double Biceps

I’m often asked about the relationship between repetitions, volume, and building muscle. I used to kill myself over matters like this. I used to worry about whether five reps (or maybe six reps!) would be my golden ticket. I’ve since relinquished most worry because I’ve adopted a certain worldview. Below is the meat of this worldview, followed by some equally as meaty takeaways.

How muscle is built

First, if you’re caught up in this, you’re over thinking things. To this day, no one really knows how muscle is created. There are theories. But before you get all sticky in the theories, ask yourself: why do you care? There are a lot of people that learn how to build muscle without knowing the sloppy details (ahem, “theories”) of muscle building.

Go to any gym in your area. Even terrible gyms, like Planet Fitness. You’ll see a lot of meatheads with muscle. They won’t be able to tell you the first thing about a sarcomere. (I don’t know if I can tell you much about a sacromere either.)

There’s a difference between the phenomenology and the phenomenon. Find the latter. The list of theories on muscle growth grows with time. There exists caveats with each explanation. You can listen to ideas of micro-trauma via weight-training and whatnot, but there are no lions and gorillas pumping iron and worrying about microtrauma.

Empirical evidence

Trying to hack the human body requires first accepting (that is, unless you’re trying to be a con artist and trying to fool others into buying the next gimmick) that there are more causal factors affecting any given outcome than we typically attempt to fathom. See emergence. See reductionism. We try (unsuccessfully) to peg muscle building down to one thing, but it’s rarely one thing.

What do we know? I’m a fan of empiricism. That’s my backbone. So we’ll start with some consistent observations. We know that astronauts wither into nothingness when living in the vacuum of space. Their bone density and muscle tissue plummet. So there’s something about the stress of gravity and gravity-esque stress that appears to support muscle.

But we also know gravity isn’t the lone factor enabling muscle growth. Otherwise women and men would have the same muscle mass on average. Not the case. So you dig further. Hmm, hormones. Yeah. Those seem to impact things. Then dig further and understand that food impacts hormones, so there’s nutrition to consider.

n-Body problem

Already I’ve introduced three factors impacting muscle growth. And if I can playfully borrow, from physics, the three body problem: when more than two things are involved in a system and you’re trying to predict outcomes, get a pocket protector, stop going to the gym, get some glasses, and become a full time scientist. Because that’s your only shot at making a prediction.

Muscle mass, to me, isn’t sets or reps. Overtly, at least. It’s nothing glamorous that can exist on an enticing blog headline (accompanied by a number, creating a listicle). Muscle mass is, instead, a manifestation of an existence that demands the creation of muscle mass. And then giving the body what it needs to support the investment.

If living in the vacuum of space eats muscle and living on Earth vomits muscle, then its best, if you want to be even more muscular, to live on Jupiter. Barbell and bodyweight training are the best gravitational replicators. Maybe you knew their power. Good. Still doesn’t solve the set and rep quandary. But it’s not supposed to.

Think of existing on Jupiter. Dealing with a constant stressor. The Soviets (just about all worthwhile sports science was born here, and most western studies simply regurgitate what has already been known for decades) found one thing correlated to muscle growth more than anything else: volume. And volume is (SETS x REPS x WEIGHT). What kind of training allows you to accumulate the most volume? Something that’s of decent enough weight that you can do for decent enough reps and repeat for decent enough sets.

Muscle building formula

Ambiguous, right? Perhaps this is more hardcorely put by Dan John, who might have stolen it from someone else (I can’t remember): the answer has never been high reps for low weight or low reps for high weight, it’s always been high weight for high reps. You need a combination of stress and volume.  For stress, think relative load. More weight = more stress. For volume, think reps across a training session (or even week), not necessarily reps in one set.

Ultimately, the closer you train to your maximum (and thus, lower reps per set) = better for the grand stimulus. But training at 1RM intensity isn’t sustainable. You can’t accumulate a lot of volume.

  • Too heavy = can’t accumulate a lot of volume because you’re held back by sets and reps.
  • Too light = can’t accumulate a lot of volume because you’re held back by weight.

Being cliché, there’s something to the 5-10 repetition range that seems to be an ideal blend. But get away from repetitions and all that jazz for now. Go back to Jupiter. Think of two things: (1) being able to exist shortly within the higher stress environment, (2) being able to tolerate for a longer time the higher stress environment.

  • Higher stress environment = better.
  • More tolerance within said stress = better.

So the higher your strength, the better. But, also, the more you express that strength, the better. There are two ways to express the strength:

  • Strength-endurance = many sets in one session without much rest between sets.
  • Strength-tolerance = ability to express strength at a high frequency.

I’ve seen some of my best muscle gains doing high frequency training (strength-tolerance). It bridges the gap between strength-endurance and volume, in my eyes. For instance, people often forget, unless you can crank out 20+ consecutive chin-ups, you’re often working with, say, a 15RM doing just bodyweight chin-ups for a set of 10 reps.

Where a lot of people may be able to do one set at 10 reps, they may not be able to do 2, 3, 4, or 5 sets without gnarling into a ball of fatigue or taking serious breaks in between sets to finish the workload. So if you’re trying to accumulate more volume, you’re probably better off spreading the workload across multiple sessions. Maybe do 2 sets of 10 chin-ups three days per week instead of 6 sets of 10 chin-ups one day per week.

Of course, this ignores the fatigue and metabolic accumulation that happens when condensing the workload into one session with minimal rest in between sets vs. condensing the workload into one session with generous rest in between sets vs. spreading the workload across multiple sessions. The absolute adaptations in each scenario won’t be the same. Just like eating 5000 calories one day and 0 calories for four days won’t be exactly the same as eating 1000 calories for five straight days. But I feel that most biological questions are filled with more uncertainty than we tend to estimate.

I think the muscle mass should be seen in flux, like the rest of the body. Sometimes not caring about muscle (or losing muscle) can be the most powerful way to eventually trigger muscle building. Sometimes boosting neural abilities can help future muscle building pursuits. Sometimes boosting metabolic…

…you get the idea. Emergence. Everything is connected in ways we probably can’t fathom, and in ways we are probably hurt by trying to fathom. So let’s get to some meaty takeaways.

A. You need to give your body reason to build muscle.

Beyond what’s going to get programmed with Earthly gravity stress and being human, you need to signal for the creation of more muscle mass. There are two facets of this: stress (higher gravity, AKA more weight to overcome) and volume. So I’d say anyone stronger has the potential to be more muscular.

And then beyond strength, the next qualification is expressing said level of strength frequently. And to calculate “frequently” you’re probably best looking at SETS x REPS and considering the weight used in relation to your 1RM.

B. 20RM to 10RM.

Save for edge cases, I’d say training with a weight that’s between your 10RM and 15RM is the way to go, with your 10RM being a weight you’re going to chuck multiple sets of 5’s with and your 15RM being a weight you’re going to chuck multiple sets of 10’s with.

You can extend to 20RM for edge cases, methinks. Anything lighter and you’ve extended beyond the realm of traditional strength training, perhaps into the realm of slow-twitch protocols. But I wouldn’t worry about those until you’re already plenty strong and muscular and thus probably not asking this question to begin with.

On the other end, it’s not that anything heavier can’t be of use. It can be. But you then have to do many many sets, which can become about as fun as smashing your head into a wall until it bleeds. It can also be rather aggressive on your joints and your body.

C. Consider food.

Energy can’t be created or destroyed. If you want your body to fathom more tissue, your body has to get the materials from somewhere. If you aren’t eating more food than you need across an extended period of time, then your body won’t have the supplies needed. Your body isn’t going to break down and sacrifice your internal organs in the name of building muscle. Muscle is extra. Plumage. It’s like a boat. You only buy a boat if your basic needs are covered and you have some extra cash.

D. Don’t give yourself the chance to care.

Getting into behavior economics has impacted my training more than any anatomy, physiology, or sports science book. I’m an overthinker with the inability to make decisions and the propensity to be handcuffed by choices. And so something I strive to do more and more: eliminate my chance to choose.

Back when I was trying to create programs for myself, I made it easier by storing all of my equipment away save for a barbell and gymnastics rings. This forced me into hammering away a handful of exercises.

If obsessing over sets and reps is destroying your progress (not feeling confident, always changing and looking for something magical) then here’s what you do: eliminate your choice to care.

We’re a product of random rules. Convention. We have plates of certain weight for no good reason, save for it helping Olympians lift one more pound than the next goober. What if you created a kind of training atmosphere that demanded you go through times of both high repetitions and lower repetitions?

A lot more guys (me included) would be better off playing the 10-25-45 game, which is another Dan John thing. You either add 10’s to the bar, 25’s to the bar, or 45’s to the bar. This forces you make harsher jumps and train both with a weight you’re less comfortable with for low(er) repetitions and with a weight you’re more comfortable with for high(er) repetitions.

Final takeaways

Given the advice above, there are some final guideposts.

  • For Level 1 n00bs, getting stronger (handling more weight on the bar) is the way to go because strength allows you to accumulate more volume.
  • Those that want to get strong without gaining muscle should be mostly worried about keeping volume to a minimum.
  • There’s not as much of a dichotomy between strength and muscle mass as most people believe. There are some differences, philosophically, when training solely for muscle. But that’s a conversation for another day.
  • There’s an inverse relationship between training frequency and volume per training session. More volume in one session = more fatigue = more rest needed. So if you train a movement pattern less often, you need to do more sets to hit the needed volume.

And I’m sure there are more things I’m missing. This started out as an email reply and blossomed into this essay you’re reading now. Hopefully it’s helpful. When it doubt, think gravity + tolerance. More gravity = better. More tolerance (via reps, sets, frequency) = better. I don’t know if it needs to get more complicated.