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Anthony Mychal

Anthony Mychal is former skinny-fat dude on a philosophical-physical pilgrimage: flipping and freestyle acrobatics, flexing and physique training, thinking about and tinkering with physical freedom

General organism strength: the what and the why

Not all strength is equal.


  • You can get stronger using a pec deck machine.
  • You can get stronger using the bench press.
  • You can get stronger using push-ups.

You can build strength lots of ways, but the effects will vary pending what you’ve gotten stronger at.

We’re talking about strength because strength is good for physique and performance. (Although, surprise surprise, the relationship isn’t linear.)

But now it’s time to talk about the exercises to use for strength training, otherwise you can be hammering away at “strength training” without getting as much benefit possible.

I kind of blew the pooch earlier: freeweight and bodyweight training are different beasts than most other forms of training.

And this is where using machine training as a reference point becomes useful.

You can feel the burn on machines, man! And they’re so much safer than those circular hunks of iron! Right? So if you can still feel your muscles work, then what’s the matter?

But there’s something special about you moving and controlling your body through gravity…and then beyond gravity. And when you think about freeweight and bodyweight training, that’s all you’re doing.

Every time you stand up from the toilet, you’re working against gravity, but—really—it’s similar to lifting a barbell. Imagine yourself on Jupiter, standing up from the same toilet. If you weigh 220-pounds here, you’d weigh 529-pounds on Jupiter.

Sit on the Earthly toilet, load up a barbell with a cumulative 309-pounds, and then put the barbell on your back. You have Jupiter living conditions. Now stand up.

How’s this different than, say, machine training?

Because you have to consider the totality of stress. And there are two factions of stress.

Local stress is strain on the structures involved. You can make a simple muscle contraction very locally stressful just by contracting as hard as you can.

  • Flex your bicep as hard as you can.
  • Lockout your knee and flex your quad as hard as you can.
  • Stand up, then try touching your heel to your butt — contract your hamstring as much as possible.

Global stress goes beyond and looks at how the exercise effects you, as an organism. Because training stress is much, much, much more than muscular stress.

As Buddy Morris once said:

The stress of training is greater than that of a broken bone because it encompasses the entire system. It encompasses the cardiac, cardiopulmonary, detoxification, hormonal, metabolic, central nervous system, neuromuscular, and […] immune system. That’s all affected by training. And those systems do not recover at the same time.

So, yes, training directly stresses the structures involved. The bones, the muscles, the tendons, the ligaments, et cetera…

But it also stresses structures that influence the rest of your body. The nervous system you use to contract your muscles in a squat is the same nervous system you use to write with a pencil.

Training causes different degrees of total organism stress. This global training effect was coined general organism strength (by a pretty famous sprint coach named Charlie Francis, I believe).

Every exercise delivers a local hit (to the muscles and structures directly involved) as well as a global hit (to the entire organism).

Think of getting the flu. Your entire body goes out of whack (fever-global), but there’s also a very specific response to the thing that’s doing the damage (antibodies-local).

Your body is selectively dealing with a specific pathogen (benching stressing the chest and triceps), but you also have a fever because of the general immune response.

This is why sedentary people can get stronger in the squat (or even the bench press) by bike riding. The activity stresses you, as an ORGANISM, on a global level. And if you aren’t very trained, this global stress bleeds throughout your entire body.

Charlie Francis had his sprinters do heavy bench pressing a few days prior to a competition to serve as a general-global hit to the organism. This kept his athlete’s “fresh” and “trained” without stressing the legs.

Global stress also explains the crossover effect. If you have an injured limb, training the uninjured limb also strengthens (or retains strength within) the injured limb.

And even more? Pavel Tsatsouline often says, to retain strength during an absence from training, train your midsection and your grip.

Think of general organism strength as a power level or a “level” in an RPG. It tells you about your potential abilities, but, at the same time, it tells you nothing about your specific abilities.


In general, exercises that have low global impact are for the birds. This is why methods like dynamic tension by Charles Atlas didn’t quite prove effective.

But what impacts global stress?

Lots of things:

  • Used percentage of maximum ability (% 1RM). The closer to your max you train, the more global the stress gets.
  • Number of muscles involved. The more muscles that are involved, the more global the stress gets. So a deadlift (in which your legs, back, and grip are heavily taxed) is much much much more stressful than a bicep curl.
  • Body position (standing, seated). Standing exercises are typically more stressful because there’s more muscle mass involved. Takes a lot of energy to stabilize your body in space.
  • Total weight lifted. A bench press can be more taxing than an overhead press even though it’s done lying down simply because you can press a whole lot more weight during the bench press.
  • Specific muscles involved. The hand and feet are neurologically intensive areas. If you do a lot of intense grip work, your system will be more fatigued than if you could have gotten away without using your hands. (Think of a deadlift with straps vs. a deadlift without straps.)
  • Level of psycho-physiological arousal. Bashing your head against the wall and listening to Trivium will zap you more than being relaxed and listening to classical music. DON’T LET THE RESIVOIR DOGS KNOW YOU’RE LIFTING.
  • Complexity of movement. Complex movements are more stressful. More joints, more muscle mass. But also more mental energy (to fathom the complexity).
  • Novelty. New things are more stressful than old things.

The best way to think about it: how close am I to moving my body through space in a way that opposes gravity?

The more supergravity the conditions, and the more holistic the conditions (spread across your body), the bigger the general stressor.

Ah, yes — perhaps now you see a little why getting stronger within freeweight and bodyweight training are preferred.

Now, this isn’t exactly shelling out the darkest parts of my programming philosophy. I’ll get to that soon though. (Hint: slow cook the global, make it boring…have fun with the local, keep it fresh.)

First, onto the why of strength. Next letter, of course…

Strength + Performance + Physique … the beginning of a mental model

What I’m saying is: I’m eventually going to take a poop on machine training (and most mainstream ways of training).

We start here though:

You hear it all the time:

  • Wanna’ become a better athlete? Get strong.
  • Wanna’ built more muscle? Get strong.

But what does it mean?

“Get strong.”

Let’s piece together this mental model strength, performance, and physique.

Starting with “strength” itself.

Is strength the entry into meatheadism? Someone that spends all day at the gym? With muscles so big you can’t scratch your own back? Accompanied an unnecessarily and unseasonably dark skin tan? And perhaps a commensurate amount of unnecessary hair gel?

Strength is best under understood by its opposite: the absence of strength.

This is why I wrote about Gertude. And astronauts.

I also wrote about Hume, but, well, I’d rather not bring up bad memories…

I wrote about these things to get here: consider strength to be your ability to overcome or deal with physical resistance within in a movement or a position.

The resistance in everyday life = gravity.

Most of us are strong (to varying degrees) thanks to antifragility. Remember the enlightening yet confusing ball of mess from before?

You’re physically strong because you’ve existed in an environment (Earth) that demanded you to be physically strong.

In the year 2156, your grand grand grand grand grand grand grand grand grand son might be born on a ship, in the vacuum of space. And he won’t have nearly as much physical strength as you do because his environment doesn’t demand physical strength.

No wonder aliens are so scrawny!

To quantify the relative-ish stress of gravity…

  • Earth = (0)
  • Space = (-1)

Now let’s take B3-5C, you’re a grand grand grand grand grand grand grand grand grand son that was born in space, and throw together a thought experiment.

If B3-5C wants to upgrade his physical abilities (-1), he’d come to Earth (0). He’d arrive in a wheelchair. But he’s human. He’s antifragile. His body would adapt.

Soon he’d be cruising through Earthly space-time. He’d be “upgraded” in relation to what his former environment gave him. And if he ever decided to go back to space, his friends would be all sorts of jealous of his huge muscles and new physical stature.

Now take yourself. You want to upgrade your physical abilities.

What’s one way to exceed normal Earthly physical adaptations? Flip the switch. Go to a (+1) environment, like, uhh, Jupiter. (The gravity is 2.4 times that of Earth’s. Close enough.)

This is the Hyperbolic Time Chamber in a nutshell. You go exist in supergravity, you come back and everything is easier that you’d normally do in the “real” world.


Unfortunately, we can’t go to Jupiter. Kami’s Lookout doesn’t exist. We don’t have a hot blue haired genius chick friend that can create a space capsule equipped with the ability to create artificial supergravitational situations.

But we do have a practical way to replicate the kind of stress that our body would be exposed to in a supergravity environment.

(Ready for the incredibly shocking punchline?)

Free-weight and bodyweight training are the best ways to replicate a supergravity environment.


Pay attention here, because this part is important.

We’ve been so infiltrated with so many bogus ideas of “working out.” Or with what a “workout” is. Or how a “workout” is supposed to feel. Or something…I don’t even know anymore.

But I do know I’ve been throwing around the idea of gravity for a reason.

The idea of overcoming gravity is important because gravity doesn’t judge. It’s a holistic downward force (quite an intense stress) atop your entire body from head to toe, spine to extremities. We have muscles and bones worth a salt because of Earth’s gravity. We are strong because of gravity.

We are strong because gravity is STRESSFUL.

Yet there’s often disrespect for honest to goodness HOLISTIC STRESS based training methods…(and simultaneous respect for non-stressful training methods).

Case in point: machine training. But I’m not ready to squat down on machines just yet.

At first glance, and what mainstream media tries to bake into your brain (probably because the perpetrators themselves don’t even know any better): physique and performance are all about muscles.

Feel the burn. Get a pump. Work those muscles hard. Squeeze those muscles. Muscles this, muscles that. See your body as individual muscles. Rest individual muscles 48 hours. Get on this machine, that machine. As long as your muscles are contracting, you’re good.


But muscular stress isn’t the lone gunman.

Reductionism is trying to understand things by breaking them into smaller pieces. (Here I’m obliged to use the analogy that 99.9% of people use because it works oh so well and because I’m not exactly Mr. Creative.)

Want to understand how a clock ticks? Take it apart. See how the gears inside interact with each other. Want to understand humans? By the same logic, break them into systems, organs, and then atoms. See how the bits and pieces mingle.

But humans aren’t clocks. Humans are more like clouds. Clouds have no discernible shape. You can’t slice a cloud into chunks with a knife. Or break it into its itty bitty pieces. You can’t predict their shape.

Yet this is what we do when trying to understand our physical selves. We focus on muscles, likely because they are easy to see.

And we love things that are easy to see, don’t we?

The word you often hear muttered in the same breath as reductionism is emergence. Emergence, in philosophy, has been around since the days of Aristotle and is best said as: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You can’t understand the whole in full by looking at the pieces of an emergent system.

Training can’t be understood with solely a muscle view. Especially if you’re interested in sports training and juggling different types of training stressors either now, or in the future.

The umbrella it all falls under is stress.


Remember, stress is information. And your body reacts to certain kinds of information better than others. See a bear. See a wasp. See a fly. Which is going to get your attention? Which is going to send the best signal?

I’ll let you think on this. (Hint.)

Next letter, we’ll continue.

A silly story about gravity, adaptation

So…last letter. I tried to write cool follow ups. But I think it’s best if I show you this lonnnnnggg, insane, and silly story I wrote quite some time ago.

Warning: there are no headlines. There are no pictures. I’ve written quite a few letters to get to this point, most of which had entertainment within them. If you’ve liked what I’ve written so far, take the time to chomp through this. Make your own pictures in your mind as you read.


A portly alien fellow named Jupe hangs out on Jupiter. By “hangs out,” I mean that Jupiter’s gravity tacks him to the floor. He walks around and functions as if he has a barbell affixed to his spine, and as if his hands and feet were attached to cinder blocks. He moves slowly and clumsily.

Erth is another alien. Unfortunately for Erth, he was born to a lesser alien race. He had a bother named Zeal, but his parents made the unfortunate mistake of sending Zeal to Jupiter. When Zeal stepped out of his zero gravity enabled spaceship and onto the surface of the planet, the gravity of Jupiter exploded his guts on the spot.

After Zeal’s death, the parents did some research. They found out that Earth’s gravity was more tolerable for their kind, so they sent Erth down to do some testing.

Although Earth’s gravity is tolerable to Erth, he’s is in the same boat as Jupe. He’s tacked to the floor. Barbell on the spine, concrete blocks on his hands and his feet. It’s a tough life.

No matter how long Jupe and Erth spend on their respective planets, they’ll always struggle. Their physiology is calibrated upon birth. Like an android. Upgrade only comes via surgery, much like a car. Open the hood, replace old parts with new parts.

Hume is a human that was born on a spaceship in the vacuum of space. He’s a pretty gangly and fragile looking fellow. He is selected by his parents to check out planet Earth. (He’s an only child.)

Upon arriving, Hume is stricken with Earth’s gravity. It’s not forgiving. He’s used to space. Earth is giving him a tougher time than it did Erth. Hume is face down, stapled to the floor.

Erth sees Hume one day and laughs at him.

“Pitiful human,” Erth says. “I feel bad for you being born into such a weak race. I’ll show you mercy and keep you alive.” Erth vanishes to do the work his alien parents sent him to do.

Every day, Hume struggles against the Earth’s gravity. Every day, Hume makes microscopic progress. He’s able to wiggle his fingers. Toes. Then he’s able to slide to his hands and knees. Then he’s able to stand.

Then he’s on par with Erth; he’s mobile, but it’s a struggle. He keeps evolving. Adapting. And Erth crosses Hume’s path months down the line, just as Hume is growing to strength equal to Erth. Erth is shocked to see Hume standing and moving around (albeit slowly).

“How are you able to walk now?” Erth asks.

“I don’t know,” Hume says. “It’s been a slow process, but my strength has grown every day.”

“Hmmm. Well, you’re still a stupid human,” Erth says. “You’ve managed to rise to a power level similar to mine, but there you shall stay. No human can compete with a superior alien race. Now, if you excuse me, I must continue my work.” Erth vanishes once again.

Hume begins the work his parents sent him down to do. As the days go by, Hume moves better. Easier. His hands no longer feel like they’re in concrete. His feet, the same. Then, one day, it no longer feels like he has a barbell on his back.

“I can’t believe this,” Hume thinks to himself. He remembers back to his past encounter with Erth and how it looked. Both of them we’re walking barbarians. They took one giant step at a time, only to have their foot crash to the ground. Only after the foot was planted could they lift the other one to walk. They teeter tottered from side to side on a pivot. Foot after foot.

Things were different for Hume now. He could walk with more grace. And as he thought back to his past, he pondered his developmental ceiling. “Hmmm. When I got here, I could barely wiggle my finger. Now that I can stand and walk a little bit, I wonder if I can squat down?”

So Hume does. It’s tough, but he lives. He squats and squats and then asks himself, “Hmmm. Now that I can move pretty well, I wonder if I can leave the surface of the Earth?”

So Hume tries to jump. He barely gets off the ground, but he does. He continues his training. Soon, he’s jumping higher and higher. He starts leaping from foot to foot, what us earthling’s call sprinting.

“I can actually maneuver without needing both feet planted on the surface of Earth!” Hume says to himself. “I’ve been getting better and better with each passing day. There’s a good chance that, if I keep training, I’ll be jumping higher and higher to the point of jumping all the way back to my parent’s spaceship!”

The days pass. Hume’s abilities grow. Soon he’s running and jumping and hopping and looking very human, from an Earthly perspective. Compared to his ghastly gangling space self that landed on Earth long ago, Hume is much more muscular. And as he jogs to his next commissioned work site, he comes across a village full of Earth born and raised humans. It’s the first time he’s met another human since he’s been on Earth. He’s happy to meet a group of people of his own kin, so he stops and talks. He meets a boy from the village named Albert.

“It’s amazing,” Hume explains, “I’ve gotten better, physically, every day since I’ve been here. I’ve grown muscles! I can’t wait to jump back to my spaceship when my job is finished.”

“I hate to tell you this,” Albert replies, “but you’re not going to jump back to your spaceship. In fact, your abilities as you have them now probably won’t improve all that much more. Same goes for those wonderful muscles you tout.”

“But, how?” Hume says. “I’ve gotten better every day. Why would it stop?”

“You’re getting better because your body is adapting to the stress of gravity,” Albert says. “It’s fine and dandy and wonderful, but gravity is constant. You’ve merely been exploring your movement abilities to their full abilities under the umbrella of this constant.”

Hume looks around at the village of humans. He sees the average muscle tone on the villagers. He sees the plateau with his own eyes. No human from the village is jumping into space.

“You’re just about done exploring your movement abilities,” Albert continues. “You’ve gone from being barely able to move, to being able to move slowly, to being able to move quickly. The only reason why you’ve progressed through this arc is because you have muscles, tendons, ligaments, and other things that enable you to absorb and propel force. Otherwise, you’d move around like a machine. A bulldozer. Something without an elastic component.”

“The human body is an amazing system…but it’s finite. You can only move so many ways. Now that you’ve explored all those ways within the constant of gravity, your physical adaptations will creep closer to a plateau.”

Hume stands there, soaking up every word as Albert continues. “When you could barely stand, let alone squat, your body was reacting harshly to the gravity. Humans are unique. When confronted with a stress, we don’t simply adapt to survive the stress. There was an alien fellow that visited this village a few months back. I feel bad for him because he didn’t have this unique ‘thing’ us humans do. He’ll always be walking around as if he had concrete blocks for arms and legs. Clumsy. Clunky. Ugh.”

“Humans don’t adapt to survive. Humans adapt to thrive. So when you’re faced with a stress (like that of gravity), you adapt in a 1-UP fashion. When you could barely stand, your body adapted in a 1-UP fashion. You gained the ability to stand and then 1-UP, so you were able to squat a little bit. Then you squatted a little bit and got another 1-UP. Then you were able to leave the surface of the earth a bit, which led to another 1-UP. You then jumped higher and higher and higher.”

And, with this, Hume sat down. He could tell Albert had a lot more to say. Albert continued.

“Your body won’t respond to the same stress the same way over time because as you improve your abilities, what was previously a 1-UP becomes more commonplace. And what’s commonplace doesn’t scale the same. There’s a nonlinearity to this whole thing.”

“Say, for instance, you decided to jump off a one inch object one million times. No problem, right? But say you decided to jump off a one million inch object (83333 feet) one time. By all mathematical standards, they both are equal in impact.

(1 x 1000000) = (1000000 x 1)

But the nonlinearity makes all the difference. And, quite frankly, the gravity here on Earth only tacks us down by a magnitude of about 9.8 meters per second squared. So when it’s just you and your body, there’s no way to scale beyond this stress.”

“There are humans on this planet that lift weights in order to exploit this 1-UP mechanism that a philosopher named Nassim Taleb coined antifragility. Some humans go into a gym and load a barbell with 100-pounds. They struggle under the 100-pounds, just like you struggled with gravity. But the body, with its antifragility, adapts to then handle 105-pounds. See that? Lift 100, but the body doesn’t adapt to 100. It adapts 1-UP. So then they go lift 105-pounds. Then the body adapts to handle 110-pounds. Then the process continues up and up over time.”

“This is all fine and dandy for those people in the gym that have circular iron discs at their disposal because when their body adapts to 100-pounds, they simply add more weight to the bar. But you? You’re like the human in the gym, yes, but it’s as if you are stuck with lifting 100-pounds from now until the end of time because gravity doesn’t scale upwards. It’s a constant. So, in some sense, think of yourself as that same guy in the gym. Imagine you had 100-pounds of iron discs. You’re going to reach a point where you can’t add more weight. Same goes for living with gravity. You hit a point where you’ve ‘mastered’ gravity within the typical movements of a human.”

Hume looks around and sees the villagers walking and squatting. He sees them moving their arms about. He sees the typical movements Albert is talking about. Albert continues.

“Once you reach the 100-pound cliff (which is the cliff of gravity in parallel to the story), you’d only then be able to scale just as you have: by ‘leaving the earth.’ After squatting 100-pounds, you could jump with 100-pounds, for instance. But, keep in mind, different adaptations follow. Your body grows different when you struggle to lift 100-pounds compared to when you’re throwing 100-pounds around like a cabbage patch doll.”

“If you were dedicate, there would come a point where you’ve done everything you could imagine doing with the 100-pounds, at which point you plateau. If you wanted to improve your performance and physique beyond, you need to find a way to scale the stress upward. Same goes for existing within gravity. Earth’s gravity has given you all it can give. And your human body, with all of its wonderful intricacies and abilities, has reaped all it can reap from it.”

Hume looked distraught. He wanted to jump even higher and be even more muscular.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Albert says, “you don’t have to be finished. You still have antifragility within you. You still adapt 1-UP. But if you want to keep climbing, you have to seek higher and higher stress.”

“But how?” Hume asks.

“Well,” Albert says, “you can scale stress many ways. Some people lift weights. Some people jump off high objects and force harsh landings because of their body’s acceleration though gravity. Some people expose their body to torque forces.”

“But since you came from outer space, you might want to try something else. There’s a planet called Jupiter in our galaxy. The gravity there is higher than Earth’s. You can go there. Repeat the same process you went through on Earth.”

With those words, Hume got to his spaceship and headed for Jupiter. Upon his arrival, he found himself in a familiar situation.  He was tacked to the floor. Couldn’t move. Struggled.

He met Jupe. Jupe, like any alien, insulted Hume. (Hume would have the last laugh.) Hume followed the same adaptation curve, going from moving slowly and requiring great effort to effortlessly and being able to jump and do everything he was able to do on Earth. His grew even bigger muscles.

After he mastered Jupiter’s gravity, he wanted to thank Albert. He went back to Earth. When he walked out of his spaceship, he felt extremely light. He was able to jump much higher and move much quicker than his previous Earthly self.

“Wow,” Hume said to himself. “My body is used to Jupiter. It’s so much easier to move on Earth now!”

He found Albert one day, and Albert said, “Ah, Hume! Good to see you. You look a lot different. I see you pulled off The Goku.”

“What’s The Goku?” Hume asked.

“Oh nothing,” Albert said. “Now come help pluck potatoes from the ground for harvest.”

Why gravity (not milk) makes strong bones


An astronaut was rocketed into space. He was twenty years old. He stayed there for ten years. His shuttle is now re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

Before he began orbiting the Earth, he was a typical human being. He could run, jump, throw, and move marvelously through Earthly space-time.

But now?

He’s being carted off the space shuttle in a wheel chair.

His twenty-year old marvelous moving self has fizzled. He’s now Gertrude incarnate…and he’s only thirty years old.

You were twenty years old when the astronaut went into space. But you stayed on Earth for the past ten years. You’re thirty now, too.

You don’t need no stinkin’ wheelchair.


What’s the deal?

  • Human, in space, ten years, can’t move.
  • Human, on Earth, ten years, can move.

When you don’t overcome gravity, you lose the ability to overcome gravity. So you, as a human being living on Earth, can overcome gravity precisely because you are a human being living on Earth forced to regularly overcoming gravity.

I’ll let that sentence sink in for a moment…

Gertrude. Gertrude has no reason to move. She gets her meals delivered to her bedside. She has become a slug. Slowly oozing across her bed to find the remote is the extent of her physical activity.

She stopped sifting through Earthly space-time…just like the astronaut.

Your body is reading the matrix of the environment. Epigenetics 101.

Cutting through Earth’s space-time sends a love note to your body:

Dear Self,

There is this thing called gravity. It’s kind of rough on me. I’m out here moving around and it’s throwing me against the ground.

So here’s the deal…

As long as I’m out here being an idiot (jumping, running, frolicking, humping my neighbor in secrecy), I need you to keep my bones sturdy. I need you to keep my muscles up to snuff. I need you to keep my joints greased.

I’m sure you get the idea.



(other) Self

And then your body reads the note and makes choices based on best biological fitness interests.

(Consider: there’s more than one factor influencing the decision making process. You can tell your body it needs strong bones, muscles, and all that jazz, and your body might fully agree…but if you aren’t giving your body the materials to support the maintenance and upgrades, well…)

Gertrude isn’t sending the love note. She’s not powering through the fabric of Earthly space-time.

One pretty reliable constant within the ether of biological fitness: don’t be wasteful.

Bones are stronger than steel. It takes a lot of energy to keep those guys strong. Same goes for muscle. Same goes for…

If you don’t NEED strong bones, then, by golly, you won’t have very strong bones. Why would your body waste precious resources on steel strong bones when it can survive just fine with wimpy waffle bones?

It’s like paying a mortgage a beach house…that you NEVER use.

It’s stupid.

Now, some humans pay the mortgage on unused properties…because us humans have some stupid quirks. Luckily our body, System 1, is a little more rational.

Consider all the situations where your body no longer overcomes gravity. Imagine living in space. Or imagine lying in bed. Or keeping your forearm in a cast.

What happens?

You lose strength. You lose muscle mass. You lose bone density.

Your body recreates itself to match the demand of use…within reason.

(And you thought milk made bones stronger. Shame on you.)

Now, I know what you’re thinking…

If the human body is so smart, why doesn’t it just keep building stronger bones and bigger muscles over time? Why aren’t humans turning Super Saiyan after walking around the high school track?

Isn’t that “sifting through gravity” Mr. McSmart Pants?

Good question.

Here’s the answer:

The adaptations you’re able to gain within the confines of gravity are bottle necked.

And, to understand why, you have do some homework: revisit antifragility.

Your homework will pay off next letter.


Meet Gertrude


Gertrude is my lovely 98 year old grandma that will eventually pancake into explosion.

But Gertrude is alive…for now.

I’m telling you about Gertrude because she’s an important character in my mental model to explain training methods (namely barbell and bodyweight training) and their effects (on physique and performance).

Fasten your seat belts. I don’t know where we will end up, but I know where we will start.


Think of the human being that you are at this exact moment in time. You can wiggle your toes. You can hop, jump, and skip. You can run. You can throw a ball. You can pick your nose. You can hump…things.

TL;DR: you can move yourself, you have a certain degree of physical capacity.

Now think of Gertrude.

Gertrude lives in a nursing home. She’s 98 years old. She’s not one of the elderly anomalies with a Master Roshi disguised power, doing the splits, owning the shuffle board competition in the rec center.


Gertrude can wiggle her toes. That’s about all she can do. She uses a walker to move from place to place.

Unlike your vim filled bones, Gertrude’s bones are fragile.

If you decided to hump your neighbor in a fit of adulterous rage, you’d be able to jump out of the bedroom window that’s five feet from the ground (when you’re co-offender’s husband [wife?] got home) and run away.

If Gertrude flung herself from window ledge five foot high, a clean up crew would have to squeegee her guts off the concrete patio slab.

Point made: there’s a HUGE difference between you and Gertrude.


Imagine if we shuttled ‘ol Gertrude into the vacuum of space. Would she still need a walker?

Suddenly the difference between your parkourin’ behind and Gertrude’s non-existent behind isn’t so huge.

Gertrude has an enemy on Earth that doesn’t exist in space:


Earth’s gravity is under appreciated because it’s a constant medium crashing atop your body. Just like water to a fish.

It’s best to imagine Earth and gravity as something real instead of invisible space. So imagine floating above the surface of the earth. Weightless. Now imagine strings poking out of Earth’s surface. Those strings insert into every one of your joints, like a reverse marionette. Then, pending the level of gravity, the strings pull downward.

Gravity glues us to the floor in the vertical direction.

You are always sifting through this medium…unless you’re Gertrude. She can’t sift very well, so she just erodes away in bed. She lost the ability to overcome the downward pull of the gravitational strings.

But you? You can still overcome the pull a bunch of different ways.

Gertrude blames the natural aging process for her decline. Most Americans would.

“I’m just getting old,” she says. “Look around me. Everyone my age is like this.”

Age plays a role. Humans are finite creatures, after all. But there’s more to Gertrude’s woes than age.

And as whackadoodle as it sounds, understanding Gertrude’s physical decline is the key to unlocking an understanding of most physical inclines.

This is our “launch pad” for next letter.

(In air quotations for secretsz reasons!!?)

I use these instead of steroids


Mental models are my steroids.

The mistakes? The reasons people struggle with fitness more than they should? All circles us towards the importance of mental models.

And the sad part?

Those fighting to fix the mistakes, fighting to reclaim their bodies…

The last thing they look to fix is their mental models.

Let’s not be lemmings.

What are mental models?

In Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, Peter Bevelin writes…

A model is an idea that helps us better understand how the world works. Models illustrate consequences and answer questions like “why” and “how”.

Models help us avoid problems. Assume that we are told that the earth consists of infinite resources. By knowing the idea about limits, we know the statement is false. Someone gives us an investment proposal about a project that contradicts the laws of physics. How much misery can be avoided by staying away from whatever doesn’t make scientific sense?

Mental models are the lens through which you see the world. They are a trampoline for expectations. They are a launch pad for your approach towards building habits needed in order to solve a problem.

Here’s an example:

  • Lens A = you can easily build ten pounds of muscle in one month.
  • Lens B = you can expect to build around ten pounds of muscle in one year.

Not terribly dissimilar. But Person A will go about business a lot differently than Person B.

Maybe Person B stops benching that random Tuesday when his shoulder tightens up because he knows it’s about consistency over the long run. Maybe Person A keeps benching that same Tuesday and ends up with a partially torn pec.

Maybe Person A gets frustrated and disheartened when he looks in the mirror and doesn’t see amazing progress. He then questions his eating and his training. He loses faith in what he’s doing. He’s lost. But Person B has faith it’ll all work out, so he sticks to his guns.

All speculation, of course. Not saying one is right, and the other is wrong. In the example above, Person B might slack off and not try hard.

The point: imagine how the lens changes attitude, motivation, mindset, feelings, et cetera…

Would you buy invisibility pills?

There are a few different waves to surf on the ocean physical fitness until you reach the shore. This first = the mainstream sludge wave.

People that use the Shake Weight, people buy diet pills, people that do P90X…

…they have a mental model of human adaptation that allows them to believe:

  • Giving a cylindrical metal device a hand jibber will make them ripped.
  • Swallowing a pill will incinerate fat regardless of what else they slide down the gullet.
  • Jumping around like an idiot for zillions of repetitions (despite being sedentary for years) will somehow not lead to chronic lower body pain.

Allow me to hop off my high horse. I wanted one of those blue ab wheel contraptions SO BAD when I was a kid. I wanted it to melt the fat off my belly. (I got one. It didn’t work.)


It’s easy to hate people that continue to make absolutely terrible fitness products. But you know what? Kudos to them. To all of them. They’re able to spray paint turds gold and make millions of dollars.

Instead of hating those people, rabblerabblerablerabble, I have a better idea: create and teach practical mental models that make, oh, I don’t know, 89% of what mainstream fitness is all about completely unbelievable. Something better served for Land of Oz. Or Willy Wonka.

Why doesn’t anyone sell invisibility pills? Because the mental model most people have doesn’t allow them to be so gullible.

It’s like that.

When you have a certain mental model of the body, a lot things become invisibility pills.

Why mental models are steroids

Mental models help for issues beyond the more, ehhhhh…remedial. If the first wave is mainstream muck, the second wave is nerd brain, AKA: information overload.

I’m pretty sure this is where you’re at. You probably know strength training is a really good idea. You probably know squats and bodyweight exercises are a really good idea.

But what about the specific exercises? The sets? The reps? The program? The nutrient timing? I WANT IT TO BE PERFECT. ALL. PERFECT.

Mental models are my steroid because they eliminate uncertainty that tends to derail my stupid philosophical overthinking brain — the part that makes me overthink and under do.

But once you have a mental model that matches your method, it’s game over. It’s clear what needs done. All that’s left is the doing.

Unfortunately, most people in the same situation seek method after method without thinking about a mental model. Which is a never ending loop.

In other words, if one diet pill doesn’t work…

  • New method seeker: Sooo, what about that other pill?
  • New model seeker: Golly, this pill didn’t work. I wonder if pills work at all?

Philosophical junk to gloss over

The philosophical question: how in the world have we become so dissonant with how our own bodies operate? How is our brain so clocked out when it comes to knowing its own body?

The sad part: we don’t come equipped with mental models. There is no human instruction booklet.

We formulate mental models based on what we see. Repetition increases affirmation. You wouldn’t buy levitation pills. You have no empirical evidence of humans being able to float.

But you DO have empirical evidence of fat loss, muscle building, and physical change. Problem being the observations aren’t REALLY immediate. The best way to create an accurate mental model of those that transform is to live with the person undergoing change. You can see what they do day in and day out (how they eat, live, train).

Unfortunately, we’re left with before and after pictures…which make things seem instantaneous — something that works against us when setting up expectations (which accompanies any good model).

It’s easy to create models of gravity. Everything you throw falls to the ground. It’s easy to create models of danger. Put your hand into a fire, it burns. It’s easy when feedback is immediate.

But you don’t lift weights once and two seconds later transform.

Of course, this is just philosophical drivel. Perhaps it’s best to just say: for whatever reason, the popular model model(s) of the body are broken. Or were never even fixed to begin with.

Let me show you my models…

Time for the big reveal: here is my mental model of physical fitness!

Just kidding.

A comprehensive mental model that explain every facet of fitness is kind of like a physicist’s unified field theory. It’s what I’ve been seeking for a long time, but I’ve come up empty handed.

So, instead, my mental models are fractured…yet have crossover.

If you’ve been following along, I’ve spewed a few ideas out there as a philosophical foundation. Epigenetics. Biological fitness. These are models I’ll reference over and over.

But now I want to move into the models that are a little more applicable…

  • Strength, muscle mass, performance – all exist under one model
  • Body composition – one model
  • Skinny-fat syndrome – one model
  • Skill training (tricking) – one model

And I’m asking you to bare with me. The things that vomit onto this screen aren’t always connected in my head. I go on tangents when I feel something might be mildly useful. The idea of creating simple and easy to digest models is the goal, but it might not spat out that way at first.

My big goal is to look at the scrap heap that’s left after I’m all said and done and polish it into something better. Writing things helps me better understand them myself. Buckle your seat belt.


Why mental models myths

Mental models only need to do the job at hand: explain something in a way that allows you to function in the universe. They aren’t for explaining things down to exact scientific detail.

They’re kind of like myths. Mythology uses stories to create models. Don’t fly too close to the sun, Icarus. You might melt your wings. Of course, no one has wax wings. But that’s not the point. The point is the moral. The lesson. The model.

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For a different, yet practical example…

Most people have a model of fat loss that goes like this: restrict your calories. But say Joe adopts a model that tells him to put something colorful on every plate.

Joe follows through and starts eating more vegetables and berries. In turn, he eats less starch. Lo and behold, Joe loses fat.

Joe’s model and conclusion may not be 100% scientific (eating the rainbow helps you lose fat), but it works for him because with that particular lens his behaviors and habits changed exactly how they needed to change.

…which is to say, the best mental models are probably going to change. And the best mental models will be a little personal.

  • To some, my mental models may be “intellectual wankery.”
  • To some, my mental model may be exactly what they’ve been looking for.

I’ll let you be the judge.

Now it’s time for me to decide which model to start with.



P.S. In the meantime, think about your own mental models. One of the biggest mental model flubs I see: motivation. Most people think motivation exists in the heavens and strikes a lucky few. And, in turn, they are left forever waiting for the lighting bolt.

P.P.S. The lightning bolt doesn’t strike you. Fly into the sky and jump into the electricity yourself.

Common mistakes made with stimulation, supply, and soul (and the monster in the closet)

The rabbit hole of environment is a lot juicier than people first realize. It’s 24/7. Your body is not compartmentalizing its hours into domains.

You’re on. All the time. Hence the tangent last letter.

Now we can move onto common mistakes and screw ups.

Your body is a wizard. It’ll do what it’s triggered to do (via information from the environment) without your conscious awareness if serves biological fitness interests.

  • Environment -> Information -> Trigger

Good information pulls the trigger. Bad information doesn’t. And bad information comes from the environment, which is to say: stimulation, supply, or soul.

Stimulation, supply, and soul change your signaling.

Mistakes are manifold, but I’ll compartmentalize as best as possible.

1. You send the wrong information.

People stop at red lights. Something in the environment (red light) relays information (red means stop) and pulls a trigger (stop).

Sending the wrong information is like putting a green light where there should be a red light. You change stimulation, soul, or supply…but the signal doesn’t do what’s intended.

Extreme examples:

  • Eating a lot of high energy food in order to lose fat.
  • Being sedentary in order to become more mobile.
  • Distance running in order to build muscle.

These are doofus examples, for the most part. But that’s only because I peeled the flesh from how they appear in the real world.

Jim wants to lose fat. He hears about the paleo diet and decides to scavenge on nuts and seeds. All day. Little does Jim know, nuts and seeds are high in energy per their volume. IE: Jim wants to lose fat, but he’s eating a lot of high energy food.

It’s not about what System 2 (you) THINKS is happening. Jim thinks he’s sending a certain message (lose fat!) by going paleo and shoving ten pounds of nuts and seeds down his face.

It’s about the information System 1 is ACTUALLY getting. Jim is actually shoving mounds of energy (gain weight!) down his throat.

majin buu eating

2. You send noise.

If you see a flare in the air, someone wants their position known. Signals are clear. Or, I should say, signals should be clear.

But maybe you’re stranded in a field of cows. Lost. You have no flare. Instead, you decide to moo like a cow in an attempt to have your position known. You’re trying real hard to send information, but, in the end, it’s just noise.

Noise is tricky because something is happening. You’re still making a sound when you moo like a cow. You’re working hard. Trying.

Noise is similar to sending the WRONG information, but here’s the difference: misinformation accomplishes SOMETHING (just not what was intended), where as noise does just about nothing.

Distance running to build muscle is misinformation. But distance running can improve your cardiorespiratory system, lymphatic system, help with mood, help with recovery, help with fat loss, etc…


But the Shake Weight is noise. Lifting a five pound dumbbells for 1000 reps with an intent to build muscle is noise.

Noise is perhaps better described as junk. There is junk food. There is junk movement.

Junk is better avoided.

3. You send conflicting information

You can do everything right and still end up with a little wrong.

You build a red stop light when you want to stop…but you only flick the red light on for two seconds every day. At all other hours, the light is green.

Call this conflicting information. It’s what makes the rabbit hole of environment so important—you have to appreciate your body being receptive 24/7.

So let’s say you want to do the splits.

You work on your flexibility and mobility almost every day. You do (hopefully) active mobility exercises to compliment any passive stretching you’re doing.

You’re doing everything right…

…but you’re only stretching for a grand total of thirty seconds every day. And at all other hours, you’re sitting in a chair.

So what this means, info:

  • For thirty seconds, you’re telling your body the split position is important and having mobility in that position is a good idea.
  • For one-thousand four-hundred and ten seconds, you’re telling your body the split position isn’t important. And you’re telling your body the opposite of the split position is important.


I could go on here. I could make up some other situations and rattle off a bunch of other mistakes. Like, for instance, expecting your body to deliver top quality information on first attempt(s).

Enter: comedian. You can’t just get up on stage and talk. Well, I guess, you COULD…but you’d fail at producing any sort of meaningful response.

You have to craft jokes. You have to master timing. You have to arrange everything so the information is perfectly timed, perfectly delivered.


But focusing on these individual (and loosely defined) hiccups flies us over the real monster in the closet:

In this letter, I wrote:

I mean, just tell me the sets, reps, exercises, blah, blah blah…my body is a wizard, right? I don’t need to know the why, my body has my own why. Why are you still typing? You’re wasting my time. JUST TELL ME HOW TO SEND MY BODY INFORMATION THAT’LL PULL MY TRIGGERS. 

Which makes 100% total sense if you read the entire letter. (You don’t need to know how it all works because System 1 takes care of business without System 2 having to talk your body through the process.) It also makes you hate me because I’ve done nothing but dance around the simple information sending trigger pulling prescription to this point.

Unfortunately, being trigger happy backfires. In other words, I’m not dancing around the prescription to upset you, I’m dancing because, in the long run, it’s going to help you. Immensely. Here’s why…

Your name is Anthony and you decide to put your hand atop a scolding hot stove burner. (Note: this was young Anthony. Three or four year old Anthony. Anthony doesn’t remember this. His parents, however, do. Very much so.)

Blah blah blah, environment (hot stove), information (thishurtsmyfleshisfallingoffomg), trigger (move).

After your System 1 takes care of business, System 2 does a little association. I touched the fire stuff and it hurt real bad…don’t do that again.

The feedback from the environment-information was instantaneous.

Now think of training and eating. Anthony wants to get jacked, so he starts lifting weights. He starts eating more vegetables and nutrient plentiful foods. More lean proteins.

But it’s not like the moment Anthony swallows vegetables his throat starts to singe. Anthony doesn’t wake up the day after his first training session and look like a professional bodybuilder.

And this changes everything.

I want you to think about why.

Until next time.

Domain dependence and the 4 S’s of environment


I’m going to dissect the two biggest reasons people screw up the recipe mentioned last letter:


Things we dream of having as an aerohead, like a low body fat percentage, the perfect amount of muscle, relative strength, athleticism, power, the ability to crochet afghans, kittens, and slippers…

…come from convincing our bodies that having them, building them, <whatevering> them are in their best biological interest.

Let’s mosey on.

Where do most people screw up?

Not exactly Mr. Secret here, as there are only, like, two ingredients to the recipe.

Environment. Uhh. Information. Uhhh. That’s it.

Environment sends the information, so let’s talk about the environment.

What the heck does “environment” even mean? When I think of the word “environment,” I think of dusty polluted cities. But environment is SO MUCH more.

I used to fiend on Higher Faster Sports. Kelly Baggett once wrote about the 3 S’s of muscle building: stimulate, supply, and signal.

The idea most people have of “environment” as it relates to training is similar to the 3 S’s.

Stimulation is your training. This is hitting the gym and lifting weights, which sends a love note to your body.

Dear System 1,

These muscles? These bones? Tendons? The rest of the connective tissue? Nervous system? Et cetera…

I’m sure you get the point. I need those things to be better. See? I’m using them! They’re important!

By golly, I mean, this iron stuff can kill me! Maybe, just maybe, it’s in your best biological interest to do some upgrading.

Who knows? Next time, these fancy iron discs might crush my soul.


System 2

Supply is your eating. Another love note.

Dear System I,

Remember all that training? Remember the weight almost crushing us? Man. That was intense.

It’s probably a good idea to make yourself a little better, ‘yaknow, make it easier to handle those iron things next time around.

I know one of the ways you can do this is by building more muscle. Bigger engine, right? Like swapping out a V4 for a V8.

If this is something you’re thinking about, here are some things you’re gonna’ need for the building process.

They’ll be floating around for you. Often. Don’t be afraid to use them. I got lots in reserve. Don’t be shy. Build.

Signaling, according to Kelly, is more of an epi/genetic issue. Boys during puberty gain muscle all the while eating Pop-Tarts and sleeping two hours every night. Because, hormones.

Of the three, signaling is most powerful. If your body doesn’t signal, then neither stimulation nor supply matter. If your body DOES signal, then stimulation and supply are less crucial to nail down.

Don’t get me wrong. Almost no one scouring the Internet for fitness advice is working with on point signaling. The whole purpose of stimulation and supply is to CHANGE signaling, albeit a roundabout way.

(The more direct route to change signaling = steroids. But I have zero experience with steroids, so you’re listening to the wrong guy if this is something you’re interested in.)

So assume a sedentary goober. His signaling = store extra calories and nutrients as fat. But then you start stimulating and supplying a certain way. Then you do it more. And more. And more. You reinforce new stimulation and supply. And then signaling changes to = store extra calories and nutrients as muscle.

I mention the 3 S’s because stimulation and supply is about as deep into “environment” as we think at first. And even beyond “at first.” More like: until you read up on evolutionary biology.

Ask an obese person how to lose fat and you’ll probably get an answer along the line of, “Uhh. I have to exercise and move more. I have to eat less.”

AKA: I have to stimulate (differently) and I have to supply (differently).

Digging deeper than stimulation and supply is rarely done. But, oh, we’re digging. DIGLETT, I CHOOSE YOU!


Stimulation and supply are important. Very important. Perhaps MOST important…in spirit. But there are more pieces to the environment-information puzzle.

Your body is digesting information from the world 24/7, not just when you’re training or when you’re eating.

So, to Kelly’s 3 S’s, I add a 4th S: soul.

Soul is the bulk of your life BEYOND training and eating, all of which silently influences signaling. How well and how much do you sleep? How often are you stressed (distress)?

(It’s SssssSsssSsssizzlin’ in here.)

Soul, perhaps said more abruptly, is the smack across the head you need in order to see yourself as, uhh, a human. Like. A complete human. Thing. Creature.

Because I’m willing to bet on something, something that’s a sign of NOT understanding what it means to be human.

I’m betting you’re suffering from domain dependence.

My favorite example of domain dependence comes from Nassim Taleb. Here’s the gist of something he said, wrapped up in my own little story.

Fred is trying to lose some fat. Fred works in an office. Fred buys a gym membership.

Fred is good about going to the gym and walking on the treadmill. Every day at 5PM he starts his one hour walk.

Good for Fred.

Errr, for now.

Because when you dig deeper into Fred’s story, you uncover something…

Fred ignores every chance in his REAL life to be active.

Fred parks close to his office, so he doesn’t have to walk. Fred takes the elevator, not the stairs. Fred even takes the escalator to the front doors of his gym.

Fred does all of these things because he sees the gym as a different domain than “real life.” He doesn’t connect the dots and think:

If I walked to and from work, that’d be twenty minutes of activity. Then if I walked to lunch, that’d be another ten. If I took the stairs both times, that’d be another ten…

He only sees himself as an “exercising” person in the gym. At all other hours, he’s dead flesh.

This is domain dependence—the idea of this and that only mattering, happening, or counting within a certain domain.

I’m in the gym. The gym is where I exercise. The gym is where I burn fat. The gym is where I build muscle. I’m THIS person in the gym…

…but I’m THAT person when I’m not in the gym. I don’t exercise when I’m not in the gym. My body doesn’t burn fat when I’m not in the gym. My body shuts off, physically, when I’m not in the gym.

Unfortunately, System 1 cares zero about your artificial domains. Zero. 


To System 1, there’s no difference between taking the stairs at 9AM in your suit and tie on your way up to your office and taking the stairs at 5PM in your athletic, cut off shirt, and sneakers on the StairMaster inside the gym you pay $47 a month to be a member of, even though there are stairs (like, actual ones that you can walk on), ohh, I don’t know…EVERYWHERE. Easy to access. For free.


Compartmentalizing into domains affords us the freedom of ignorance to the vastness of environment.

Story time, part deux.

Sitting in front of the TV in Pittsburgh is a boy named Anthony. Anthony is brother to Antonio. Antonio lives in Mexico. They were separated at birth. Never met one another.

Anthony, being American raised, fears death. A lot. To the point of him having trouble sleeping every night when he’s a kid.

Sounds harmless. But the wonky thing about human physiology: the stress response Anthony’ll go through during these stressful times is the same stress response he’d go through as if he were being chased by a dinosaur.

This is Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers 101. Extreme psychological distress…for reasons only a stinky System 2 human can foreshadow. No zebra contemplates its own death or worries about the interest rate on a thirty year mortgage.

So Anthony is a teeming ball of distress hormones throughout his young life. Probably has anxiety. Probably takes everything (including his writing, later in life) way too seriously. Probably has trouble making decisions. Probably is a pesimmist. Probably like Dragon Ball Z. Probably’ll grow his hair long…

Antonio is a little different than Anthony. He’s not afraid of death. Mexican culture celebrates death.

Long live Día de Muertos!

(Do you realize what just happened?)

So those hundreds of stressful impressions Anthony experiences? Antonio doesn’t experience them.

So the physiology of Anthony and Antonio can spat out completely different because of cultural belief.

We’re shaped by our environment in ways we don’t even think about.

  • Why do you eat at the times you eat?
  • Why do you eat certain foods for breakfast, but not for dinner?
  • Why do you go to sleep when you go to sleep?
  • Why is some food comforting and others not?
  • Why is the sky blue?
  • Would you eat the moon if it were made of ribs?

These things aren’t written into humanity. They are learned from your environment.

Now, let’s bring it down to a smooth jazz vibe.

This all sounds pretty voodoo. I’m not saying you have to map out all 24 hours of your day or that undergoing through some distress is going to set you up the bomb.




These sticky matters of culture seep into the ooey gooey cream filled center of BEHAVIOR modification.

“Uhh. I have to exercise and move more. I have to eat less.”

Yes, you know what you have to do. A lot of people do. But do they ACTUALLY  DO what they know they should do?

The tough part is, of course, changing your BEHAVIORS, doing things you know you should do with consistency. Without feeling like White Goodman.


And then, of course, there is the absolutely weird world of psychological quirks that make it seem like the universe is conspiring against you.

  • If you watch the news (see depressing stuff), you’re more likely to stray from the path.
  • If you try remembering a bunch of stuff (like, say, a long telephone number), you’re more likely to eat junk food.
  • If you exercise (do something you perceive as positive), you’re more likely morally license (in other words: eat) junk food later.

And now you know why I say screwing my head on tight was just as important (if not more) than any fancy training technique I’ve come to learn. Behavior hijacking is a topic in and of itself, and I have to pull the guillotine on it for now.

Point being: your body is constantly searching for information is 24/7 and your environment plays a big role in what ends up happening. Environment isn’t just the physical space around you.

Ever see The Matrix? The falling neon green letters? It’s like that. You’re reading those neon letters around you every second of every day.

…but it’s also reflective. When you look in the mirror, you are those letters, too.

And I just realized how off topic I’ve stayed. I didn’t talk about what I was supposed to talk about.

But I’ve had enough for now.

Perhaps we’ll just label this as the first screw up: ignoring the rabbit hole of environment.

And I don’t want to leave you completely empty handed. I’ll talk about some behavioral psychology later (it’s inevitable). But if this is something you struggle with or are interested in, here’s something to chew on until I finish the next letter.

We’re all tricked by our environment. Even if we “know it” in our head, most of the time we have way too much on our mind to remember it and act on it. That’s why it’s easier to change our environment than our mind.

Dr. Brian Wansink, Mindless Eating

The one and only recipe to hijack your body’s biological fitness

I call it the fugue.

When I was playing Zelda, watching DBZ, eating Andy Capp’s Hot Fries, and chugging Mountain Dew Code Red as a teenager, I wasn’t thinking about my future body composition and performance prospects.

When your parents crammed your feet into shoes when you were two years old, they didn’t know they were setting you up for all sorts of physical dysfunction in the future.

Your mom didn’t know about third trimester metabolic imprinting.

(If you couldn’t tell, I’m not a hardcore motivational speaker. My generally low self confidence, pessimistic attitude, and severe introversion fight the rah! rah! stuff.)

Humans are finite creatures. You won’t become a bird if you start flapping your wings as fast as you can. You won’t become a rabbit if you start eating carrots.

…and now I’m depressing even myself with all of this.


Remember how I said humans are misers?

Worrying about things beyond your control zaps cognitive and physical reserves better used elsewhere. In this article I wrote for T-Nation many moons ago, I wrote about a similar behavior I called idling.

Don’t be an idler. Turn the car on only when it needs turned on.

“In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.”


In other words…

The fugue? It’s done with. Gone. Can’t change the past. Worrying about it takes away your finite reserves that could otherwise be spent elsewhere, a direction forward, an escape from the fugue…

Now for the big question:

What CAN be controlled in order to escape the fugue?

Let’s go through a strange loop and return where we started. Remember the secret? Remember this psychedelic moment from the secret –

Changes. Under the hood. Without your conscious thought.

Sometimes, in an existential funk, you can forget something…

The things we often wrap ourselves with don’t matter to our body…only to our mind. Your body doesn’t need to know WHY gravity exists in order to walk, jump, and throw things. Your body doesn’t need to know WHY six reps builds muscle in order to build muscle with six reps.

This is the difference between the phenomenon and the phenomenology.

When a meathead lifts barbells and chews on iron like its his job, he knows 1% about how muscle is actually physiologically built. The kicker? Not even the best scientists in the world know 100% how muscle is built.

Yet people all around the world (including the meathead) build muscle. And I’d venture to guess there are a lot of misinformed meatheads, just as there are a lot of incredibly informed couch potatoes.

Your body is operating on a different level than your mind (the consciousness thingy) is operating.

The labels of System 1 and System 2 are widely used in psychology, but I go further than most in this book, which you can read as a psychodrama with two characters.

When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book. I describe System 1 as effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps. I also describe circumstances in which System 2 takes over, overruling the freewheeling impulses and associations of System 1. You will be invited to think of the two systems as agents with their individual abilities, limitations, and functions.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

System 2 is the thinking and rationalizing part, the YOU that’s reading this, the YOU that’s thinking about everything we talked about so far.

But an important note for this YOU, System 2:

System 1 most often calls the shots. You, System 2, are just trying to make sense of it all.

System 1’s information triggers and points of lust are different than System 2’s. System 2’s reasons and triggers have been polluted your entire life. You see this and that on the news — chewing on wood bark helps you lose weight! X, y, and z in a magazine — try this brand new agave butt cream!

You feel like the world will crash in on itself create a black hole if you do five reps instead of six…or if you break your fast at 11:59 AM instead of 12:00 PM.


System 1 doesn’t care about what’s pushed by the Don Drapers of the world. System 1 cares about something a little more real.

A little something called…

biological fitness.

Everyone—no matter background, genetics, steroids, other drugs, macaroni and cheese, senzu beans, no matter WHAT—uses the same recipe to hijack the body’s perception of what it means to be biologically fit in order to get leaner, build muscle, jump higher, learn skills, do backflips, et cetera…

In the end, the recipe is pretty simple: adjust the environment so that it sends information to your body, so that it triggers a physiological response, so that it then changes how (this) and (that) works.

It’s like being a stand up comedian. A comedian’s job is to produce a response (laughter) that changes how this and that works (mood, feelings), and they do it by sending information (talking, acting) through the environment.

Sure, some people have it easier. Some people have some epi/genetic wind at their sails. Just like sometimes a comedian has an easy crowd, sometimes bad jokes are funny. Life is unfair. Asymmetrical. Whatever.

But the recipe doesn’t change.

Now it’s time for an incredibly non-suble transition…

This whole business sounds a little too easy.

I mean, just tell me the sets, reps, exercises, blah, blah blah…my body is a wizard, right? I don’t need to know the why, my body has my own why. Why are you still typing? You’re wasting my time. JUST TELL ME HOW TO SEND MY BODY INFORMATION THAT’LL PULL MY TRIGGERS. 

And if you were REALLY thinkin’ that, then touche.

You’re correct.

It’s a great transition to my next point(s): common reasons for failure.

  • The first, which is public enemy number one: sending misinformation.
  • The second, which is going to sound crazy: even though System 1 does the legwork, sometimes System 2 can sabotage you. (This is a little something I call Nerd Brain Syndrome.)

Let’s start with the first…

…next letter.

How eating less made these people fat (and other lessons gleaned from starving a fetus)

Goku Baby Space Pod

This is a story about the “environment” hunk of epigenetics. It changes everything. Food becomes more than a number of calories. Training becomes more than sets and reps.

Everything becomes <more>.

It’s the beginning of sight beyond sight.

This story starts with people eating tulip bulbs to survive.

The year is 1945. The Nazi’s blockaded food delivery to the Netherlands. Combined with the brutal winter, food was scarce for the Dutch.

Some people walked ten kilometer to trade their valuables for food…

…that is, if you want to call tulip bulbs “food.”

Oh, what’s that? You’re complaining about eating freshly cooked vegetables? Loaded with spices and seasoning? Hot sauce? Mustard? Cheese?

Go outside, pick some flowers, and then plate them. Put it next to whatever else you’re trying to eat that “doesn’t taste good.” Compare.


…I say as I complain about my Internet connection being shady in my hotel.


…I say to remind myself I’m a steaming pile of human flesh equipped with all sorts of cognitive biases.

A lot of people of the Netherlands died of during what’s now known as the Hongerwinter (Hunger Winter). If I were a betting man, and if I had the chance to bet on such a terrible thing, I would have bet pregnant women to be among those on the survival chopping block. Not only do they have to support themselves nutritionally, but they also have to support a second life inside of them.

But some pregnant women survived.

The babies of said pregnant women were studied years down the line by scientists. They found some interesting links between the Hongerwinter and health.

If you were a third trimester fetus during the heart of the Hongerwinter, you had increased odds of suffering from type II diabetes and other dysfunctions associated with metabolic syndrome.

Wait, wait…what? Something happening to you AS A FETUS increases the likelihood of obesity later in life?

That’s gotta’ be something mom or pop gave you, right? Something…genetic…right?

Ho, ho ho!

Let’s move away from genetic determinism for a second, mmmkkkkay?

Mr. Mackey

Turns out, as a fetus, you’re asking questions about the world you’re about to pop into. (Such an inquisitive little fetus, you were.) During the third trimester, one of the questions you’re asking is: “What’s the deal with nutrients and energy out there?”

If Mom is starving, then you’re starving. And the INFORMATION packed within a starvation ENVIRONMENT = there’s not a lot of nutrients and energy out there.

The smart ‘lil fetus version of yourself takes this information to heart. Not a lot of nutrients and energy out there? Then I have to get reallllllyyy efficient with what comes my way. And you develop what’s known as a thrifty metabolism: you extract and store as much energy replenishing goodness as you possibly can from food.

At least, that’s the conclusion the scientists came to.

It’s like growing up poor. Don’t have a lot of money coming your way? You learn to be frugal. You learn how to get the job done by spending less. You learn to save as much as possible.

When you adopt this behavior and live the poor life, all is well. You don’t have a lot of money, you don’t spend a lot of money.

The unique part of the Hongerwinter, and what allowed for the conclusion: babies grew up poor, but didn’t stay poor.

Let’s take the conclusion and, uhhh, conclude some more things…


The Hongerwinter story is epigenetics 101. Information from the environment changes how genes expresses themselves. Turns out, you can make mice change, too. Below are two genetically identical agouti mice.

Agouti Mice Epigenetics

Change something or other with an augoti mother mouse’s feeding when she is carrying a baby and you can end up with two completely different looking mice…even though they are genetically identical. A gene that makes the mice yellow and plump gets shut off pending how the mother eats.


When I told you about the secret, I mentioned INFORMATION. I put INFORMATION in all caps because, apparently, people are more prone to read things in all caps. (Although, I should let people know, there’s a good chance the things in caps won’t make sense unless you also read the things in lowercase.)

I harp on INFORMATION to get away from the robotic and mechanistic thinking most of us (including myself) have about the human body.


From a mechanical standpoint, a numbers standpoint, a math standpoint, it makes sense. You need 2000 calories, you give yourself 1000 calories, things shake out and all ends well.

But food is more than a number. Don’t get me wrong — food has thermodynamic implications.  But it also has informational implications. Most of the constructs we use to understand what’s going on inside of our body or to represent the load we place on our body (sets, reps, calories) often overlook what our body will do with the information it extracts.

When you have $1,000,000 in your bank account, it’s more than a number. You’ll go about life differently than if you had $10 in your bank account, even though, in both situations, you’re in a surplus.

There’s information attached to each.

With $1,000,000…I’m doing great! I have a lot of money! I’m stress free! I can spend money and not worry! 

With $10…Things are dicey. Be careful with spending. Tighten the budget. Turn down the heating and air conditioning. 

(This is probably a good time to talk nonlinearity, but I never do things right the first time around. I have this bundle of joy saved for later.)


If you’re used to having $100,000 in your bank account and you’re used to making $2000 every week, what happens when you lose your job, make $0 every week, and then only have $10 left in your bank account?

Will you go on living the same lifestyle?

You want to survive, don’t you? 

Sell the house. Liquidate stuff. Stop spending. Become frugal.

Likewise, your body makes changes because it’s motivated by biological fitness, not whatever slop Jane Fonda or whatever crap Jillian Michaels or whatever sludge the P90X folks are alien transmuting into your brain as you watch their awful TV products.

If you suddenly lose your income you’re left with a daunting reality: if I continue to live the same way I used to live, then I’ll be absolutely broke…and quick. So, uhh, let’s make some adjustments. Let’s cancel the premium cable package. Let’s think about eating in more often…

The Hongerwinter babies weren’t thinking about their prospects of being ripped and muscular because neither represent biological fitness…unless, of course, your environment demands those things from you.

(P.S. The Hongerwinter babies WERE incredibly lean. Before you read the next sentence, know this is a little disturbing. Here is a picture of a baby from the Hongerwinter.)


The Hongerwinter is epigenetics 101. Said that already. There are three types of lettuce in the epigenetic salad. Said that already, too.

But I say there’s actually FOUR pieces. (Haven’t said this yet though.) In the middle of the triforce, where there is usually a void, put time inside. The triforce becomes a tetraforce. Nature, nurture, randomness, time.

Epigenetic Tetraforce


Yes, you can get a sun tan. No, you probably won’t become your maximal sun tan self after spending one hour in the sun. Just like you probably won’t become hardcore Rain Forest Man or Desert Man by spending only an hour in each environment.


According to the Hongerwinter, you’ve been trying to learn how to best live in the world before you even knew what time was. With every passing day, you’re digesting information.

The longer you’ve fed yourself information, the further convinced you are that the information is serious business. And the more serious business it becomes, the more serious it becomes to undo.

  • Sit with bad posture for a day? You’ll be alright.
  • Sit with bad posture for ten years? Then you have a harder road ahead to undo the adaptations that have been done.

Struggling with a handstand? Think about how long your body has adapted to a lifestyle where the hands AREN’T weight bearing structures. Think about all of the small muscles in your wrist and hand that aren’t used to balancing the entirety of your bodyweight. Think about a babies first steps. How wobbly are they? Do they ever fall? How OFTEN do they try to walk?


The tetraforce has the potential to depress a man. Like me. I’m depressed. I didn’t start training the handstand until I was 26 years old, which is probably earlier than some even. I didn’t start caring about what I put in my body until I was 18. Again, probably early compared to some.

I want off the hook. I can’t compete with those that entered into gymnastics when they were two seconds old.

But I’m not letting you (or myself) off the hook.

There are people that let news like this thwomp them into the ground. They hang their head. They walk into the shadows. Never seen again.

But there are other people that are able to keep their head high. People that are able to see the GOOD in all of this. People that are able to digest everything I’ve talked about thus far and use it to propel themselves forward.

Want to be one of those people?

Then make sure you check out the next letter.

Why your body is making you weak, immobile, and fat…on purpose

I have a story about the “environment” slice of epigenetic triforce. This story changes everything. Food becomes more than calories. Training becomes more than sets and reps.

It actually makes the triforce a tetraforce. (Hint: there’s something else beyond nature, nurture, and randomness to think about.)

But before I tell you this story, let’s put a layer of chocolate on top of epigenetics.

Last letter, I wrote about how environment is the change catalyst. You don’t reach down your throat and flick a switch to get a sun tan. You get a sun tan by sitting in the sun.

A switch inside of you gets flicked, yes, but the ENVIRONMENT does the flicking. Not you.

In a sense, environment is everything.

Environment is the ONLY thing. It’s the only piece of epigenetics you control.

Now, for some extra clarity, we’ll start with a little Gedankenexperiment (thought experiment). Einstein was famous for his Gedankenexperiments. If something was good enough for Einstein, it’s good enough for us.

Android 17 and Android 18

You have two robots in front of you. We’ll call them, oh, I don’t know, Android 17 and Android 18 respectively. Android 17 and Android 18 are identical. They were built to replicate human function as best as mechanically possible. They’ve been tested for power output, movement capabilities, and intelligence.

You strap Android 17 to a bottom of a helicopter and drop it into a desert. You strap Android 18 to the bottom of a helicopter and drop it into a rain forest. You Leave Android 17 and Android 18 alone for one year.

After one year, you rescue them. You take them back into the lab. You retest them for power output, movement capabilities, and intelligence.

Unfortunately, nothing changes. They test for the same power output they were built with. The same movement capabilities. The same intelligence, intelligence that was loaded into them by some software.

They are robots. They are mechanical. They are static. They don’t change. They have what they were built with. No more, no less. (Unless they break.) The only way to change a robot is to take out the old and replace it with the new.

Now think of you. Think of who you are at this exact moment in time. Clone this version of you into identical humans, V1 and V2. (You are V0.) Test V0, V1, and V2 for power output, movement capabilities, and intelligence.

Let V0, you, live your normal life. Drop V1 into the rain forest, just like you did Android 17. Drop V2 into the desert, just like you did Android 18.

In one year, you rescue V1 and V2. Retest them for power output, movement capabilities, and intelligence.

Unlike robots and machines, humans WILL change. Humans are organic biological creatures that communicate with the environment. Humans are always in flux. Like a Saiyan. You upgrade organically, not via replacement.

If you want a bigger muscle, you don’t dissect your old one and stitch in a new one. You upgrading by feeding yourself information. Specific information.

Although V0, V1, and V2 started out as the same person, the environment changes each of them both physically and mentally. V1 would have all sorts of skills and knowledge about the rain forest that would be foreign to V2. Same goes with V2 and the desert compared to V1.

V1 becomes Rain Forest Man. He changes to better survive the rainforest. He knows the growl of a jaguar. He knows when to run away from a certain rustling in the bushes. He knows how to climb trees. His body handles humidity better than V0.

The story is similar for V2. He becomes Desert Man. He knows sounds specific to the desert, like the sound of a rattlesnake tail. V2 has skills that the desert required him to build if he were to survive, skills that V0 doesn’t have.

And these changes aren’t haphazard. Each environment carries specific information. V0, V1, and V2 become the best possible versions of themselves given their environment.

Megaman 1 and Megaman 2 Robot Masters

It’s like Mega Man becoming the ____ Man of whatever Robot Master he kills. Kill Ring Man, become Ring Man. Kill Drill Man, become Drill Man. Killing Crash Man won’t make you Cut Man.

Humans assemble themselves (selfishly) around behavior and adaptations that increases their odds of survival and their odds of reproduction.

So Rain Forest Man betters his odds of surviving and reproducing. Desert Man does the same. But each adapts to a different end because each environment carries different information. Each environment has different dangers and challenges. V1 and V2 adapt specifically to the subset of information they digest.

Just like Rainforest Man and Desert Man become the best possible versions of themselves, you, too, are the best possible version of yourself given the environment you’ve been exposed to.

Sounds a little strange though, doesn’t it?

What do you mean I’m the best version of myself? What about my body fat? Or the fact that I don’t have a lot of muscle? This isn’t the best version of myself. My body isn’t working in my favor. My body is SABOTAGING me…right?


Only seems that way because you’re looking through a mainstream fitness lens. But mainstream fitness isn’t real life.

You need to instead look through a biological fitness lens.

Your body rarely sabotages it’s biological fitness. The beacons of biological fitness, as mentioned: survive, reproduce.

And here enters the perils of being human: we need resources in order to survive, and said resources are finite. Humans seem to know this. (Somehow?) So we’re pretty careful with resources. We don’t waste them. We are misers. Cognitive misers. Physical misers.

We don’t waste. We use shortcuts when we think. We don’t spend money we don’t have. We don’t spend the money we do have unless we need whatever is on sale. We don’t keep things around we don’t need, especially if those things cost money.


  1. From a mainstream fitness lens, body fat is a burden. It’s a puffy sack of globular skin. Eugh.
  2. From a biological fitness lens, body fat is a miracle. It’s a stockpile of resources in case you ever experience a shortage of resources in the future.
  1. From a mainstream fitness lens, being immobile is a bummer. You can’t do the splits, you can’t kick people in the head. Why in the world would your body get rid of these abilities?
  2. From a biological fitness lens, keeping unused ranges of motion around is dumb. Would you spend money on a heating bill if you lived in Florida?
  1. From a mainstream fitness lens, being weak and lanky is a shame.
  2. From a biological fitness lens, having giant muscles increases your monthly mortgage. You you need the resources around to support the extra $$$ over the long haul.


There’s one huge takeaway from all of this, one big conclusion that won’t leave you absolutely empty handed. But I find the true nugget nectar — the part that is over overlooked, the part that makes you feel somewhat warm and fuzzy inside, the part that may turn off some of the self-hatred you have, the part that plucks the psychedelic strings of what it means to be human — to be this:

See your body as a smart creature and try to understand that most of what it does (and will do) has honest to goodness biological purpose.

You are not being sabotaged.

As for that takeaway…

Your body makes magic happen on account of HONEST biological motive (not mainstream fitness motive), which has inherent ties to the information within the environment.

So the question becomes:

What kind of world, what kind of environment, what kind of atmosphere is going to push for the adaptations I want to have?

Perhaps better said in the negative…

In what kind of atmosphere would it be nearly IMPOSSIBLE to NOT have x, y, and z adaptations?

  • If you want a sun tan, what kind of world would make it IMPOSSIBLE for you to be pasty white?
  • If you want to be leaner, what kind of world would make it IMPOSSIBLE for you to be fat?
  • If you want to be more muscular, what kind of world would make it IMPOSSIBLE for you to be a thin mint?

Just questions to end this one. Next time, I’ll tell you all about that story I mentioned. It opened my eyes. Maybe it’ll do the same for you.


Your genetics are junk

You’ve probably been thinking (ever since last letter)…

You started out good, man. You were talking about fat loss, muscle building, and being aerodynamic. You were talking about psychology and being a backyarder.

I was in.

But then you threw a psychedelic curveball. The secret? I don’t care about secrets. I just want to look seriously well built and do insanely cool shit with my body.

Just take me to the warp zone. Please.

Super Mario Warp Tunnel

I know what you want. But you have to bear with me. You’ll be happy with the road we’ve taken when we cross the finish line because there’s a commonality across all physical transformations.

  • You want to know how to build muscle? Then you have to know how your body adapts.
  • You want to know why you’re immobile? Then you have to know how your body adapts.
  • You want to know how many licks it takes to get to the tootsie roll center of a tootsie pop? Then you have to know how your body adapts.

Stress, recovery, adaptation — these things are the glue. Information doesn’t stick without glue. Enter: program hopping, confusion, hysteria, plague, oil spills, and weapons of mass destruction.

And, besides, you don’t hit a warp zone when you turn on Mario. You have to play SOME of the game first. It’s not like being able to delay gratification is an important characteristic or anything. Oh. Wait. It is. That’s right. My bad.

So, first, what is essentially a primer on evolutionary biology…

Unfortunately, I took the easy route in school. Settled for a degree in health and physical activity and a degree in health and physical education. (This.) So I’m no expert. Not even close.

I’m instead going to use a proven strategy to help me not only pass down information, but also help me sound a lot smarter than I really am.

This strategy? A little something called plagiarism.

And my victim, for the most part = Dr. Robert Sapolsky and his Stanford lectures.

I told you about the secret because it uproots a system of thought that dominated the world not long ago.

DNA’s structure was discovered by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953. The dominant thought at the time was that DNA coded for every process, adaptation, and output inside of your body. Your quirks, your strengths, your weaknesses . All of it tied back to your DNA.

All Super Saiyans have gold hair and green eyes, after all. If something is coding for eye color and hair color, why not everything be coded for?

DNA Saiyan Coding

Mozart and his piano. Da Vinci and his artwork. They were born — coded — with a talent for those arts.

It was in their DNA. 

If your DNA didn’t code for something? You lose. You either play the piano like Mozart, or you play the piano like you have pickle fingers.

And if you’re in the latter group? Give up. Don’t try. You can’t get better. Your DNA won’t let you. You don’t have the midi-chlorians, man. Get over it.

This philosophy of DNA ruling creation is known as genetic determinism: who you are and whatever you become is a product of your DNA and only your DNA. Everything comes from whatever momma DNA and poppa DNA spat out as your DNA.

But science did what science (sometimes) does. It searched for the Good and the True. And the Good and the True has since revealed something about this quagmire, something best said by Dr.  Robert Sapolsky:

Genetic determinism? My tuchus.

We’ve hopped on the pendulum and swung far, far away from genetic determinism. We’re at the point where people (smarter than I can ever imagine being) say most of the DNA inside of you is junk.

Junk DNA.

Not like garbage junk though. It’s junk because it’s not programming for anything. It’s just floating around. It’s WAITING for directions.

And it gets directions from…

 (Ready for this?)

…your environment.

This shouldn’t be much of a surprise after reading about the secret. If you were genetics and nothing but genetics, nothing in your environment would be able to change you. But, as I wrote before…

You are forever changed because of <the secret>. Your body went through one more stress cycle than it otherwise wouldn’t have. Your brain is imprinted with information it otherwise wouldn’t have.

You digested information from the environment and your body changed.

Turns out, your body is GOBBLING UP information from the environment. All the time.

The creature you are is only said creature because of your environment.

It’s well known: when a boy hits puberty, he grows. He builds muscle. Hormones. Whatever. In other words, a man’s body typically has some genetic programming that lights fire inside upon hitting puberty.

But what would happen if this boy lived in space? What if there were no gravity? Would he still go through puberty the same? (Assuming the boy isn’t Goku in a Capsule Corp. shuttle equipped with artificial gravity.)


(Hint: gravity is big. I’ve thought a lot about gravity. It’s THE link joining my mental models performance and physique. You’ll learn all about this…eventually. Delay gratification.)

And this is why Sapolsky, in his lectures, mentions something along the lines of…

You can’t even say that “x” gene does “y” without also classifying the environment in which “y” happened.

This mash up between your genes and environment is known as epigenetics, and there are three slices to the epigenetic pie: nature (genetics), nurture (environment), and randomness.

The wildcard of this triforce…?


You can’t tame randomness. You can’t modify your genetics. The only thing you can grab by the cojones is your environment.

Unfortunately, most people under appreciate the complex web of “environment.” When I think of environment, I think of dusty polluted cities. But environment is SO MUCH more.

This is what I’m going to write about next letter.

Might not sound all that exciting, but think about it…

Any sort of change, any sort of upgrade or transformation, depends on one thing: your ability to control your environment. It’s about you and the world you expose yourself to.

So, yeah. Kind of a big deal.

You’ll know all about it soon.

I have a secret

I have a secret.

It’s about you and your ability to physically transform.

Some of the questions people ask me are about HOW to make the magic happen. How do I build muscle? Lose fat? Do a backflip? 

But there’s also a different kind of question. One that I’m asked (or so it seems) more often.

Some people want to know IF it’s possible to make the magic happen…usually included with such question: a scapegoat footnote.

I want to look better, but I’m skinny-fat…but I’m an ectomorph…but I’m Frog from Chrono Trigger…but I’m <insert something negative and self-defeating here>. Can I even build muscle? Can I even lose fat? Or am I doomed? Do I have bad genetics? Should I even try? 

I want to trick, but I have no experience…but I never did gymnastics…but I clipped my fingernails yesterday…but I <insert something negative and self-defeating here>. Can I learn anything? Is it too late? Did I miss my window? Should I even try?

I can poo poo on questions like these all day. Look at the negative scripts! The excuses! Pssssshhhhh! How can you even talk like this! How can you even THINK of yourself in this way!

Bbbbbuuuutttttt, the truth…? You want the truth? You sure?


(Last chance to back out. No? Fine.)

I asked these same questions not long ago. Sometimes I still ask myself these questions.

I get it.

You want to know if the juice worth the squeeze. If there’s no hope, why waste your time? Or you want to know if you can blame something else for a lack of progress, something beyond your effort, something like your eating, something like your training program (a la Master Roshi).

Master Roshi Training Program

To these matters (and more): the secret is your guide.

Muscle gain? Fat loss? Jumping higher? Learning acrobatics? Being aerodyamic? (I should just wrap all of these into one unifying concept: what it means to be an aerohead.)

You’ll see all of these things, all of these aeroheadisms, from a new lens…

…in about, ohhhhh, two sentences.

You’re wondering about your potential to change, and, well, I got something to tell you.

I already made you change.

How’s that for irony?

See the title of this letter? I have a secret.

Your eyes changed when you read the word “secret.”

Yeah. The black holes of your eyeballs. They dilate (get bigger) when you see something that’s of benefit to you. (Here’s a list of more dilation triggers from PsyBlog, if you’re interested.)

There’s an old cliche about the eyes being a window to the soul. All signs point to Mr. Cliche getting an A+ on his report card.

Changes in your eyes predate decision making [sauce]. So if you’re creepy enough to stare into someone’s eyes as s/he thinks, you’ll be able to predict the decisions s/he’ll make based on how the eyes react.

I want you to think about this for a second.

Your eyes are ALWAYS changing.

But you never think to yourself: GO GO GADGET EYEBALLS!

Inspector Gadget

The changes happen without your conscious control, which is why some poker players wear sunglasses. Your eyes can sabotage your secrecy.

And guess what?

Your eyes weren’t the only thing that changed when you read I had a secret. Your body’s wizardry didn’t stop there.

A secret about physical transformation?

Back in my skinny-fat days, my body would be mailing all sorts of excitement through my marrow upon hearing such a thing.

An answer to my physical prayers, wrapped in one nifty little secret! Gone will be the days of having my moobs dictate what kind of shirts I wear! Gone will be the days of me being afraid to try flips! Gone will be the days of <insert something negative and self-defeating here>.

(Some things never change.)

A secret about physical transformation is pupil dilation worthy news. And with the dilation and anticipation comes other physiological responses.

If I was a betting man, I’d say your breathing quickened. Your heart rate sped up. You upped the concentration of cortisol in your body. The same stress response you’d go through if you were being chased by a dinosaur. (Cortisol is a hormone released during the stress response. It breaks things down and gets your body ready to mobilize.)


Changes. Under the hood. Without your conscious thought.


But there’s something even crazier to this story.

This massive physiological response is at the mercy of a select few letters of the alphabet being arranged in a specific order.



Ohhhhh! Ahhhh!

Trigger me timbers! It’s the same letter tally as SECRET. 1 S, 2 E’s, 1 C, 1 R, 1 T. Queue mass physiological response within!


Errr. No. Not quite.

Your body doesn’t respond to CREETRS because it’s not about letters.

It’s about information.

And the INFORMATION tucked inside of the specific arrangement of a select few letters of the alphabet makes all the difference.

And there’s something even crazier than the last crazy.

(I know.)

If you never found this website and you never read the word “secret,” all of the pupil, heart rate, and hormone stuff wouldn’t have happened.

Think about THAT for a second.

Something in your environment — words! — triggered mass physiological and psychological change inside of you.

And it ONLY happened because you fed your body some information.

Now, for the icing…

You are forever changed because of everything that just happened. Your body went through one more stress cycle than it otherwise wouldn’t have. Your brain is imprinted with information it otherwise wouldn’t have.

Think about THAT for a second…or two seconds…or three seconds.

The psychedelic reality of all of this is creeping into my head, so it’s time to stop.

I’ll tell you what all this means next letter.

The most important stuff I’ve learned in the past 15 years – an introduction

I’m attempting to vomit out the most important things I’ve learned over the past 15+ years (yikes) of my physical transformation.

Starting meow.

This series of letters will be about not only the physiology (bodily stuff), but also the psychology (brainy stuff). Because drowning myself in certain branch of psychology was responsible for more of my progress than ANY training method.

My life is like a big bowl of gains a la brains.

Did you know that watching the news can make you more likely to eat junk food?

If you’re foaming at the mouth with interest, know I’ll inevitably stumble back to psychology in later letters.

Back to the topic at hand…

I say “physical transformation” instead of “building muscle” or “losing fat” or “jumping higher” or “doing a backflip” or….

…because my hands are in about a million different buckets.

  • There’s the skinny-fat side of me that wants to look good naked and have an “X” shaped physique.
  • There’s the athlete side of me that wants to be strong, powerful, and explosive.
  • There’s the trickster side of me that wants to actually APPLY the strength and the power, IE: master acrobatic skills, AKA: do flips and twists, otherwise said: survive kinesthetic chaos.
  • There’s the bulletproof and movement side of me that wants to be free and doesn’t want to die (or break my foot in five places again) when trying to survive said kinesthetic chaos.
  • There’s the meathead side of me that wants to be exostrong, meaning I want to lift heavy things.
  • There’s the antimeathead side of me that wants to be endostrong, meaning I want to control my body through space and master bodyweight gymnastics skills.

It’s sort of like this…

Know when you first lay eyes on a car and you just KNOW what that car is all about? It screams I’m built to go fast. Or I’m built to run things over.

That’s what I’ve always wanted.

I wanted to be aerodynamic, and I wanted look aerodynamic. One without the other just didn’t make sense to me, so I’ve never really trained like a bodybuilder. Can’t say I ever wanted to.

I don’t have anything against bodybuilding. A good friend of mine, Jujimufu, is a huge fan of bodybuilding. But it’s just not something I’d plate at a buffet.

Speaking of Jujimufu, he’s the reason I’m here. I found his old website when I was in my early teens, which put me on the path to becoming a backyarder.

When I get to tellin’ my skinny-fat story, you’ll hear all about my body composition woes, including the time a girl told me I had girl boobs. And then my ego was like, lol.

But long before I made a push to lose fat and build muscle, I got into tricking.

There was a sect of tricksters known as backyard tricksters. Backyarders had no formal martial arts, gymnastics, or acrobatic training. They had no facilities or mats.

They just went into their backyard and started chucking tricks.

Yeah. That was me. I’m a backyarder. I wanted to trick. So I went on the computer, saw the stuff I wanted to do, and then tried to do it myself.

I never played any sports in high school, save for recreational basketball for a few months. I’m self-taught in just about every facet of life. I’m not ashamed of this.

I’ve taken this backyard mentality with me into everything I’ve done, including strength (barbell, bodyweight) training.

I’ve learned how to become my own coach.

I’m betting a lot of you reading this are backyarders. You’re your own coach. You’re going alone.

It's Dangerous to Go Alone

Most programs and resources out there are created by “experts” that work with athletes in person on a full time basis. Their online digs are a side gig. They upchuck something onto the Internet and say, “I work with professionals. In person! Trust me!”

What 99% of said experts don’t understand is that backyarders face an entirely different set of problems that few “experts” / “gurus” / “pros” cater to because they aren’t (and never have been) backyarders.

They haven’t experienced nerd brain. (Nerd brain is the reason I’m writing these letters. You’ll hear more about it later.) Or constant existential meltdown syndrome.


Once again, why matters of psychology are just as important (if not more important) than matters of physiology.

For me, at least.

Which is why my training philosophy is more or less the physical version of the position of fuck you.

Alas, I’m writing too much. What else is new? Cut me some slack. This is a big change for me. I’m allowed a few moments of personal self indulgence if the majority of what’s to come is useful to you, right?

Nowwww, whether or not the majority these letters will be useful to you is something we’ll find out in the future. And in order reach the future, I have to stop rambling and move the conversation along.

Queue the incredibly non-subtle transition…

So here we are.

At the beginning.

Talking about physical transformation. Talking about losing fat, building muscle, jumping higher, and learning acrobatics. Talking about being aerodynamic.

Talking about upgrading yourself.

Talking about change.

Ohhh. Change. This is a good place to start.

I have a secret to tell you about change. I’ve been holding in for a while.

I tell you all about it in the next letter.

David Letterman’s cup technique

David Letterman and Cups

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

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

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.


Body Composition, 14. Roadkill

Certain carbohydrates preferentially restock liver glycogen. So if you have a relatively empty liver glycogen tank and eat these carbohydrates, you fill the tank. But the tank isn’t all that big.

If you eat an excess of carbohydrates, beyond what fills the tank, your body uses its wizardry to turn glucose/glycogen into fat. And, to understand why, think about survival. Remember, Hjaarn is worried about the future. He won’t just throw money (or potential money) down the dumpster.

Your body doesn’t gain fat as punishment for you sins. Body fat is a miracle, really. You can survive longer in dire situations (no food) with more body fat. (There was actually a study done on this, by the way.) Bears fatten up before hibernating because they won’t have a lot of incoming food. 

Imagine if you didn’t have any fat inside of you. I’m not talking about being lean and having a six pack. I’m talking about no fat cells. You don’t eat for one day, so your liver glycogen runs out. No liver glycogen, no brain food. So your brain goes to the backup in body fat. But, oh, wait! That’s gone, too. MUSCLE, THEN. WHAT ABOUT THE MUSCLE? Nope. Glycogen in the muscle is locked away to be used only by the muscle. So one day without food and you’re close to becoming roadkill. Bummer.

  • Liver glycogen – more immediate need, short term
  • Muscle glycogen – locked away
  • Body fat – long term need, future

The only choice for brain food without body fat and liver glycogen is muscle tissue itself. So, say bye bye muscle tissue. But breaking down muscle tissue isn’t ideal. It’s like selling the tire of your car. It’s useful in the short term if you need the immediate cash, but in the long term it’s going to hurt you if you need to drive anywhere.

And in the evolutionary scheme of things? Famine was a real thing. If you listen to the paleolithic pushers, humans routinely went without food for hours and hours (even day[s]). Body fat is the safe, obvious play for excess because it can keep the brain alive in time of need without the drawbacks of zapping muscle tissue.