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John Fawkes

Where science geeks become fitness freaks

Do you want to be one of “those people” who are in amazing shape? This blog will teach you to-

  • Sleep longer and better
  • Gain or lose 10+ pounds in a month
  • Look sexy and feel great every day

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The surprising truth about melatonin

I’ve suffered from insomnia my whole life.  Horrifying, life-ruining insomnia- it used to be that on many nights, I would go to bed at midnight, fall asleep somewhere around 3 AM- and then wake up around 6, and find myself unable to get back to sleep.  Insomnia sucks.

For a long time, I used melatonin on and off- it’s probably the most popular insomnia treatment around, but I found the results inconsistent- some nights melatonin really seemed to help me, but most nights it did nothing.  CureTogether seems to agree with me, ranking melatonin as one of the least consistently effective popular treatments for insomnia. 

So is melatonin a load of baloney?

Well, no.  Melatonin is the main hormone responsible for initiating sleep.  That much is beyond dispute.  It’s powerful enough that it’s actually a prescription drug in some countries.  And the issue isn’t that the body has trouble absorbing it either- remember, it does work sometimes.  The truth is rather counterintuitive, and it is this:

With melatonin, less is more. In other words, lower doses are actually more effective than higher doses.  In fact, this has been well-established for over a decade, but few people seem to be aware of it. 

To understand why this is, we need to look at your brain’s melatonin levels during sleep.  The brain starts to produce melatonin about an hour before you sleep.  Melatonin levels rise gradually during sleep, peaking one or two hours before waking, then falling rapidly. 

Higher doses of melatonin actually fast-forward that process, causing you to wake up earlier and have trouble getting back to sleep.  And predictably enough, they cause tolerance- after a few days, the melatonin stops working, and even your body’s own hormone production is thrown off. 

So what’s the ideal dose?  Amazingly, it’s only .3 mg. But that’s a problem- because most commercially available melatonin pills range from 3 to 10 mg.  You can break a 3 mg tablet into quarters and it’s still twice as much as you need- try to break it smaller and it crumbles.  1 mg tablets can be found sometimes, but most drug stores don’t seem to stock them.

So you’ve got two options here.  The first is liquid melatonin- it comes in a bottle and you measure it with a dropper.  The best deal I’ve found is this bottle by NOW Foods, which gives you a two year supply at just under a penny per night.  Note that the serving size is STILL 3 mg- I have never seen a liquid melatonin supplement that actually recommended the proper dose.  It’s just easy to ignore that and give yourself the proper dose, which amounts to a tenth of a dropper. 

The second option is Sprayable Sleep– a transdermal melatonin which you spray onto your skin, and which also happens to be dosed at .3 mg.  As weird as that sounds, transdermal delivery is not that uncommon for supplements.  I’ve seen great results with transdermal B vitamin patches, and you can find transdermal melatonin patches on Amazon- except again, they’re dosed way too high. 

I had the opportunity to test out Sprayable Sleep earlier this year- I found it highly effective, even a little bit more so than liquid melatonin.  It’s also easy to travel with, as it basically looks like a small tube of lipstick.  It just launched on IndieGogo and doesn’t seem to be taking orders right now, but you can get on their mailing list to be notified when they start taking orders again.  They just started taking orders, and also offer a free one-month trial.  Their company blog also has some great sleep advice. 

Bottom line: If you want to use melatonin as a sleep aid, take .3 to .5 mg (anywhere in that range would be fine, but never take more than .5 mg), about an hour before bed. 

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How to stay fit when you just want to lay in bed and cry

Not long ago, I’d been seeing someone.  We’d been dating for some time, and while the relationship was far from perfect, it was more serious than any I’d ever been in before.  I couldn’t be happy unless she was happy.  Any time she wasn’t around, I was thinking about when I would see her next. 

And then, two months ago, out of the blue, for reasons I couldn’t even understand at the time, she broke up with me. 

So, I’ve been a bit depressed.  After she broke up with me, all I wanted to do was lay in bed all day, eating junk food, drinking cheap wine, watching tv shows, and crying into a pillow.  So I did that- for one day. 

After that I got back to work.  Here’s what’s happened since she broke up with me. 

In the first five weeks, I lost half an inch off my waistline.  This equates to 3-4 pounds of fat loss, taking me from 14% to 13% body fat. 

In the three weeks since, I’ve gained two or three pounds of muscle, without regaining any of the fat I lost.

I’ve published several articles, both on this blog and other sites.

I’ve added a couple hundred more followers to my blog. 

I acquired two new clients for my online advertising consulting business.  This is how I actually make my living, FYI. 

I went on a first date.  Admittedly, I fucked this up by being a downer, but still, I did it. 

I’ve continued to meditate for 15-20 minutes with the aid of Versus, 2-3 times a week. 

I’ve substantially improved my posture, and eliminated my upper back pain. 

I’ve made it to the gym 3-5 times a week, every week, without fail. 

Given how depressed I’ve been, you might be wondering how I motivated myself to do all of those things.  The answer is simple: I didn’t. 

The whole notion of “getting motivated” assumes that your ability to take action is dependent on your mental state.  That you can’t do anything unless you’re in the mood.  But consider how you would behave if you were depressed.

Maybe you wouldn’t make it to the gym.  Maybe you would’t make the effort to dress well, or keep yourself well-groomed.  Maybe your hobbies would fall by the wayside in favor of just watching TV.  Maybe, instead of cooking healthy food, you’d just order pizza. 

On the other hand, you probably would make it to work every day.  Five days a week, you’d get out of bed despite badly wanting to sleep in, trudge off to the office, and put in your eight hours.  You’d do it because going to work isn’t even a decision- it happens automatically, independent of your feelings

I’m the same way with my work, even though I’m self-employed, don’t have anyone cracking the whip on me, and can’t really lose my job as such. 

More to the point, I treat fitness, household chores, and whatever else I’m working on- like meditation or posture exercises- the same way.  They just get done, regardless of how I feel.  So every day, I wake up, make myself some tea, meditate, work, hit the gym if it’s scheduled that day, and do whatever else I have scheduled. 

And at night, I process my feelings about my ex, and I figure out what went wrong and how I can ensure that my next relationship is better.  But I save that for the evenings- during the day, I set it aside so I can work. 

The truth is, there was a period of over a month where I never felt motivated to do anything at all.  The last few weeks have been a little better, with flashes of happiness here and there, but still not great most of the time.  I don’t feel motivated to write this article right now.  Nonetheless, the last two months have been one of the most productive periods of my whole life. 

There’s a lot that goes into that- I schedule my to-dos.  I take steps to reduce “friction,” making it easier to get started on my tasks.  I even make use of those occasions when I do feel motivated. 

But most importantly, I have a system.  A system to keep me on track with fitness, business, and everything else I’m working on.  A system that helps to motivate me, and more importantly helps me fight through a lack of motivation.  A system that makes fitness just happen, regardless of how I feel on any given day.  

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The five reason your weight loss stalls out

If you’ve been struggling to lose weight for a long time, it’s likely that at some point the following has happened: you start a new fitness plan, filled to the brim with enthusiasm.  You lose some weight, and you feel great.  Then your weight loss slows and you get worried.  Then it stalls completely, and you feel dejected.  You don’t know why it happened, so you try harder.  After a few more weeks of weight fluctuations, you give up.  Most likely you regain the weight. 

If you struggling with yo-yo dieting, frequently making initial progress only to backslide, there are five things that are likely going wrong.  If on the other hand you never even make initial progress, you’re probably just not trying hard enough.  But if you’ve repeatedly lost fat only to gain it back, you’re about to learn exactly why that happens. 

1.  You stopped sticking to the plan

What happens:  You started dieting and exercising, and you lost weight.  You followed the plan to the letter…for a while.  But lately you’ve been missing workouts, cheating on your diet more, and your progress has stalled. 

Why it happens: When you start a new program, there’s often an initial burst of motivation that makes it easy to stay on track.  After a while though, your motivation weakens, and your willpower with it.  Then when your progress stalls, you lose more motivation, and go into a motivational death spiral.    

The fix: The mistake people usually make here is in thinking that they went wrong by falling off the wagon.  In fact, their fitness plan in most cases wasn’t psychologically sound to begin with.  You need a plan that you can stick to- that means the workouts can fit into your schedule fairly easily, so no hour and a half workouts six days a week. 

It also means no starvation diets that force you to give up all the foods you like.  Having an occasional cheat day can make it easier to give up your favorite foods on other days, and cheating on a schedule is immensely preferable to cheating whenever your willpower gives out.

Which leads me to the second aspect of a psychologically sound diet- it shouldn’t rely solely on motivation or willpower.  Those always give out.  Instead, you need systems that not only help to keep you motivated, but take willpower and motivation out of the equation.  I’ll be talking a lot more about this in my next article- a good system will allow you to follow your plan regardless of how you feel on any given day.    

2.  You lost muscle mass

What happens:  You lose fat, but you lose muscle with it.  Muscle burns energy all the time just to maintain itself, so as you lose muscle, your metabolism slows until it matches your caloric intake, and you stop losing weight.  Quite likely you even regain weight. 

Why it happens: Two reasons.  First off, you eat too little protein, or even too little food in total.  Second, you don’t lift weights to stimulate your muscles to stay strong.  Maybe you don’t work out at all, or you focus on long-endurance cardio which breaks down your muscle tissue. 

The fix: Lift weights 2-4 times a week.  If you do cardio, make it shorter and more intense- think sprints, not 5ks.  Eat more protein and make sure you’re eating enough overall.  Also, make sure you’re getting enough sleep.

3.  You produce less thyroid hormone

What happens: Your thyroid gland produces thyroid hormone, which is sort of the master hormone that controls your metabolism.  Overweight people usually have low levels of T3, the most active form of thyroid hormone, to begin with.  In the course of a fat loss diet, T3 levels often drop even further, slowing your metabolism. 

Why it happens: Two reasons.  First off, simply restricting calories can cause T3 to down-regulate as your body tries to maintain its weight.  Second, your diet may actually be depriving your thyroid of the nutrients it needs to make T3. 

The fix: Make sure you’re getting enough of the nutrients your thyroid gland needs.  Iodine is by far the most important, but B vitamins, zinc, iron, copper, selenium, and sodium are all important here too.  To counter T3 down-regulation due to reduced caloric intake, you can either have an occasional cheat day, or otherwise cycle your caloric intake up and down on a regular basis.

4.  You produce less leptin

What happens: Leptin is an appetite-suppressant hormone produced by your fat cells.  It’s the reason people reach a fat set point instead of just growing forever or shrinking to nothing- lose fat and you get hungrier, gain fat and your appetite goes down.

Why it happens: Because you lose fat.  Fat loss, in and of itself, is the culprit here.  Take a moment to rage at the unfairness of that. 

The fix: When your leptin drops, you can eat more vegetables and drink more water to curb your appetite.  There’s also some evidence that eating fish and low-carb foods in general can help with leptin control, particularly if they take a long time to digest.  Weight lifting will also help shunt any extra calories you eat to your muscles rather than fat, possibly building muscle and boosting your metabolism.

To actually raise your leptin levels without gaining fat though, you need to occasionally jolt your fat cells with some extra calories.  So, calorie cycling or cheat days again. 

5.  You have nutrient deficiencies

What happens:  In the course of losing weight, you gradually develop deficiencies in various vitamins and minerals.  Maybe protein too.  Over time the effects of these deficiencies pile up, causing you to stop losing weight as well as suffering other effects depending on what exactly you’re deficient in. 

Why it happens: Because you’re not eating certain essential foods.  This is common on fat loss diets when people think “eat less of everything” rather than “eat more of this and less of that.”  It also happens when people treat multivitamins as a full substitute for real food, which they absolutely aren’t. 

The fix: While fat loss requires eating fewer calories overall, you should actually eat more meats and vegetables.  Fruit, other than non-sweet fruits like avocados and tomatoes, can be problematic since fructose will stall fat loss, so I usually save it for my designated high-calorie days. 

In fact, if your food is low in caloric density, the amount you need to eat, in terms of volume, can be surprisingly high.  Stop thinking of meat and vegetables as merely “okay,” and start thinking of them as good and required with every meal.  Vegetables in particular- eat as much as you can, with as much variety as you can.  If you have the time and money, consider getting your vitamin and mineral levels tested so you can understand which foods you need to eat more of.   

How to sustain your weight loss

When we put all of this together, it’s clear that there are just a few strategies which, when combined, tend to solve all five of these problems.  They are:

Lift weights-  This will prevent muscle loss and the accompanying slow-down, keep you looking good, and maybe even allow you to gain a little muscle.  Remember, when you gain muscle, you lose fat.  A good guideline for most people who are fairly new to weightlifting is 2-3 full body or 4-5 split body workouts per week. 

Cheat days-  Hopefully by now you can see why I love cheat days.  Physically, they solve the thyroid hormone and leptin problems, and can help with vitamin deficiencies by giving you a day to binge on fruit.  The psychological benefits are at least as important though- a cheat day means you don’t have to give up your favorite foods altogether, and having cheat day to look forward to makes every other day easier. 

Cheat days should occur anywhere from once a week to once a month, and you have to earn them.  That means you don’t cheat on your diet on any other day.  It also means your diet on other days is sufficiently restrictive to cause fat loss.

Aim for a 20-40% caloric deficit-  This is the range that I consider both effective and sustainable, both physically and psychologically.  A 20% deficit is good for slow but steady weight loss, while 40% is more appropriate for shorter fat loss cycles.  A larger deficit will cause muscle loss, deficiencies and fatigue, while a lower deficit will cause little or no weight loss as your body adjusts to it.  With a deficit of 30% or more, cheat days become an absolute necessity to keep your metabolism from slowing down. 

Focus on adding in good foods-  Too often, in dieting, people focus on cutting out food.  Then they go hungry, and they assume that learning to just deal with hunger is part of losing weight.  For the most part, it’s not.

Instead, follow the “crowding out” principle- eat more of certain foods to crowd out the foods you’re not supposed to eat, and keep yourself from going hungry.  This doesn’t mean to get hung up on magical thinking around “superfoods,” which don’t exist.  It just means, learn which foods best support your diet and can be eaten in virtually unlimited quantities.  On a fat loss diet, this would be meats and non-starchy vegetables; consider them required in some quantity, and allowed in unlimited quantities. 

I’ll be talking a lot more in the future about fat loss- how to start it, how to sustain it, and how to develop a system that makes it automatic.  If you want to learn to develop your own fat loss system, sign up below- I’ll send you a free five-day fitness course that will help you start losing fat this week, and you’ll get future articles delivered directly to your inbox.

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These are the only fitness blogs I read

Lately a lot of you have been asking me which fitness blogs I read.  Well okay, only a couple of you have asked me that, and that’s a shame- any time you get to talk to someone who you’ve learned a lot from, the best question you can ask them is who they learn from.  So in this article, I’ll be answering the question you all should have asked. 

And the answer to that question is that there are ten that I read fairly regularly, and feel totally confident in recommending to my own readers.

There are only two things all of these blogs have in common: I read them, and each of them have given me at least one piece of advice that I found highly effective.  Aside from that, they’re a mixed bag.  Some cite a lot of academic science, some focus on broscience.  Some focus on diet, some focus on exercise, and a couple focus on straight-up body wizardry.  Some of them say fuck a lot, and some are too uptight for that. 

So before we get to the list, one word of advice: ten blogs is a lot.  I read a lot of fitness blogs because I’m a fitness blogger and I have professional reasons to read them.  Reading other fitness blogs helps me think of stuff to write about, keep my pulse on the state of fitness these days, and learn how to hone my writing. 

Unless you also work in fitness in some way, you don’t need to read ten fitness blogs.  You need two to four blogs at most, including mine.  Beyond that, more information is not your friend.  So that said, look these over, check out all ten, and pick out the one or two you like best.  There’s something in here for everyone.

Tim Ferriss- The Four Hour Work Week

I had to start with Tim Ferriss, because he’s the first person who really got me questioning conventional fitness wisdom and learning about all the ways the human body can be hacked into awesomeness.  He also lead me, directly or indirectly, to discover several of the other writers listed in this article. 

Tim’s Four Hour Body is still the best fitness book I’ve ever read, particularly for beginners, and it’s what I used to get into shape five years ago.  I found his fat loss method program particularly effect, the diet portion of which can be found in this post.  I also saw strong results from the muscle-building chapters of The Four Hour Body, but I now believe the method in this article is actually more effective at producing fat-free muscle gain.  His blog got me to start using the sauna after most of my workouts, and I did indeed experience apparent boosts to testosterone and recovery speed. 

Finally, I want to provide a special mention to this article about helping your friends and loved ones get healthy by leading by example.  I suspect many of you could benefit from it. 

Robb Wolf

I first found out about Robb through a guest post he published in Tim Ferriss’s blog (told ya).  The article was an excerpt from his book, The Paleo Solution, which I promptly purchased and devoured in the space of two days.  Implementing the paleo diet, even just partially, had massive benefits for me: chronic gastrointestinal symptoms and brain fog both virtually disappeared, my waistline went down, and I had more energy.

Robb used to be a hardline carbohydrate-hater, but he’s softened on that a lot over the years.  He’s also shown a willingness to rethink his position on gluten intolerance- though he still maintains, and I agree, that eliminating gluten is a good diea even if we don’t quite understand why it works. 

Robb and his team are also among the very, very few fitness writers who give sleep the attention it deserves, instead of letting it take a backseat to diet and exercise.  In fact, they seem to prioritize sleep above exercise, which brings the list of people who do soto them and me.  I also just recently came across this article about how people naturally tend to follow a divided sleep schedule, and am working to implement that right now. 

Honorable mention: this article about how dieting shouldn’t suck, shouldn’t make eating a gruelling chore, and shouldn’t just give you another reason to feel bad about yourself.   I didn’t need this by the time I read it, but I know a lot of you do. 

John Romaniello- Roman Fitness Systems

John Romaniello makes people sexy.  He made me sexy.  If you’re into chicks, he’ll make you question your sexuality.  He also taught me how to do butt stuff (not like that you guys- he gave out some advice on it.)

Known as Roman to his army of ripped, nerdy fans, he’s known for blending explicit sex talk, comic book references, and a highly detailed and scientific (well, bro-scientific, but it works) approach to personal training that tends to focus on density- that is, doing a lot of work in a short period of time.  What I really like about him is that he understands and supports that most people work out to look sexy, and also his workouts tend to be very short and intense, making them easier to fit into your schedule.  He also produced the only shoulder workout that has ever allowed me to add size specifically to my shoulders, without bulking up across the board- like Roman, shoulders are my favorite body part. 

But at the moment, I mainly want to thank him for this article about why list articles like this usually suck.  It perfectly illustrates why I’ve limited this article to ten entries, even though I read more fitness blogs than that, and also why I’ve limited this article to blogs that have actually produced results for me. 

The description on his front page is pretty dope too. 

Steve Kamb- Nerd Fitness

Whereas Roman drops a fair amount of comic book and movie references, Steve Kamb has made it his entire schtick.  Most of his articles use comic book, movie and video game metaphors to explain fitness concepts, which makes his blog extremely entertaining and engaging if you’re a nerd who gets the references.

He does a great job of explaining fitness concepts that you may have heard of before, but had trouble understanding or were hesitant to accept.  For instance, I had heard about intermittent fasting for years, and most of the people I’m listing in this article advocate it, but this guide was what convinced me to finally try it.  I do IF on and off depending on my fitness goals, and in the past two months I’ve dropped about five pounds of fat in part thanks to fasting. 

One of Steve’s rules is to be skeptical about everything, and in that vein he recently published an excellent article about why GMO’s probably aren’t the bogeyman they’re made out to be, complete with a comparison of genetic engineering to old-fashioned selective breeding.  He’s also published the best explanation I’ve yet seen about how and how much genetics matter.   

Will Owen- TravelStrong

I found out about Will just a few months ago, when my mom told me about him.  My family travels a lot, and this entry stands out on the list because my parents have actually used Will’s advice more than I have.  Will specializes in fitness advice for people to utilize while traveling- he focuses on bodyweight exercises, keeping a healthy sleep pattern while traveling, and eating healthy even when surrounded by unfamiliar foreign cuisine.

Like intermittent fasting, carb cycling was a concept that I had heard tossed around for a while but didn’t really “get.”  Will’s explanation convinced me to give it a try, and along with fasting, it has helped me lose about five pounds of fat in the last 6-8 weeks. 

Since half the stuff Will writes about can only be used while traveling, I’m going to slightly break my rule about focusing on stuff that’s worked for me.  His advice on jet lag is genius, and based on what I know about travel, circadian rhythms and the role of anticipation in sleep/wake cycles, I have no doubt that it will work for me.  He also has a great article about not getting sick while traveling- technically in Southeast Asia, but most of what he says applies in any developing, tropical country.  I can vouch for about half of what he says there, albeit in the Americas rather than Asia, and I plan to make full use of his advice when I visit SE Asia next year. 

Finally, Will occasionally publishes some excellent travel advice that isn’t really fitness-related.  I’ve read about budget travel, backpacking and the digital nomad lifestyle for years, but this guide still taught me a couple new tricks for finding travel bargains, which I’ll be making heavy use of over the next year.    

Nagina Abdullah- Masala Body

Nagina is unique on this list, in that I’ve actually spoken with her a few times.  After years of poor eating and two babies, she was severely overweight.  She lost over 40 pounds in less than a year, all while working very long hours in one of the big management consulting firms, and taking care of those two kids. 

The name of her blog refers to masala, an Indian term for a spice mix.  Her blog is geared mainly towards working women who want to lose weight, and focuses mainly on diet.  However, most of it is useful for men, and I’ve learned a lot from her about how spices can help you lose weight or even fight off cold and flu infections.  Although I don’t really love cooking, I have learned some great recipes from her as well. 

Where Nagina really shines though, is in her understanding of the psychology of fat loss.  She understand the need to have a plan and a system, as well as the psychological barriers and body image issues that hold people back from losing weight. 

Mark Sisson- Mark’s Daily Apple

One of the first bloggers to become well-known for advocating paleo dieting (well, primal, but that’s a very fine distinction), Mark holds the distinction of being the oldest fitness writer I read- he’s well into his sixties, and still totally ripped. 

Most of what you’ll find on Mark’s site focuses on the primal diet- he’s published the most comprehensive diet guide I’ve ever seen posted for free on the internet, complete with hundreds of recipes.  Also well worth a read: this thorough explanation of why grains are bad for you, and why you should cut them out of your diet- or at least eat less of them. 

Most importantly, Mark has published two short articles that I think everyone should read as they’re putting together their fitness plan for the next few months. First off is the best guide I’ve seen to assessing your current fitness level.  He provides eleven ways to assess your fitness- I recommend doing two or three of them when putting your fitness plan together, then re-doing them every month or so.

Second, I recommend reading Mark’s carbohydrate recommendations.  He suggests 100-150 grams a day for maintenance and 50-100 for weight loss.  Obviously the amount you should eat depends on your lean body mass, carbohydrate tolerance and activity level, but I believe his guidelines are very accurate for anyone who has struggled with fat loss. 

Dave Asprey-  Bulletproof Executive

One of the world’s foremost experts on biohacking, Dave Asprey provides a wealth of advice on how to get into amazing shape, boost your IQ, and become downright superhuman.  Yet somehow he’s mainly known for selling coffee. 

Dave recommends what he calls the Bulletproof Diet, which is pretty much just the paleo diet combined with intermittent fasting, plus his coffee.  His step by step guide to getting started on the diet is genius though- if you can implement even half of the steps he lists, you’ll be in better shape than 80% of people.

I’ve been following his intermittent fasting plan almost every day for four months now- unlike other IF schedules which have you not eating at all during the fast periods, Dave’s schedule allows and encourages consumption of a small amount of saturated fat during the fast period.  I’ve found this invaluable for giving me more energy in the mornings, as well as aiding in fat loss.  His advice on fighting stress has also been a real lifesaver for me in the past month. 

Shannon Kelly- Shannon’s Kitchen

I found out about Shannon this year when one of my friends posted this hilarious article about coconut oil on Facebook.*  Shannon’s profanity-laced articles aren’t for everyone, but…ummm…they’re for people who like to cook healthy food that doesn’t taste like shit…while saying fuck a lot.

*Meaning my friend posted the article on Facebook, not that Shannon rubs coconut oil on Facebook.  She only rubs coconut oil on titties. 

Most of Shannon’s articles are recipes for food that’s, if not strict paleo, then at least close enough.  I’m not big on cooking, but I did try her salmon and broccoli recipe and it was delicious.  Like most everyone else I listen to, Shannon advocates eating mostly healthy without insisting that they be perfect, which is why she suggests eating healthy dark chocolate on occasion, rather than avoiding it altogether. 

Finally, this delicious and simple formula for flavored water is a must-read for anyone who doesn’t drink enough water because they don’t like the taste.   

Charles Poliquin- Strength Sensei

Last but definitely not least, we’ve got Charles Poliquin.  I can’t even remember how I first found about about him; I just know that I’ve been following him for years, and Strength Sensei is the site I turn to whenever I hit a plateau and don’t know what to do.  He delivers some amazing plateau-busting tips, along with the best answer I’ve yet seen to how often you should change up your workouts. 

Unlike every other blogger I read, Coach Poliquin speaks mainly to an audience of advanced trainees and fellow coaches, so a lot of what he writes won’t be relevant to you.  Still, he writes a lot of stuff that’s geared towards beginners, such as why high volume cardio is a bad idea, a few ways to stave off aging, and a full explanation of the importance of sleep for fat loss. 

My favorite article though, is a guest post by coach Wolfgang Unsoeld.  His advice- to drink a little bit of lime juice and salt water every morning- is one of the most bang for your buck fitness techniques I’ve ever seen.  If you suffer from both low energy and stubborn bellow fat that won’t go away, there’s a good chance this will be the fix you’re looking for. 

All ten of those blogs are awesome, but you don’t need to read ten fitness blogs on a regular basis.  Check them all out, then pick no more than two to follow and subscribe to.  Prioritize taking action over taking in information, and don’t collect more fitness information than you can act on, and you’ll do just fine. 

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I measured my brain waves and task performance on caffeine- here’s what I found

For the past six weeks I’ve been conducting an experiment on myself.  I’ve been taking different levels of caffeine every day, with intent of figuring out exactly how much I should take for optimal mental and physical performance. 

I was a caffeine addict for most of my life (you can read about one strategy I used to overcome that here), so it’s only recently that I’ve started to view it as a performance enhancer, rather than a problem to get rid of.  However, caffeine has some very well-established physical and mental benefits that I’ve been eager to reap for myself.  The results so far have been promising. 

I used several methods to test caffeine’s effect on me.  First off, I used Versus to measure caffeine’s effect on my brain waves and how it helps or harms my ability to enter a calm and focused mental state.  Following off of that, I measured my productivity at knowledge work tasks on varying levels of caffeine.

I also tested the physical effects of caffeine, in two different ways: by playing sports (mainly dodgeball) and by lifting weights in the gym. 

Did I find my ideal caffeine dosage?  Actually, I found several ideal dosages.  Before I go into my results, let’s start with the usual disclaimer around self-experiments: I only ran this test on myself, and so the results can’t be clearly generalized from me to you.  Your ideal dosage may be higher or lower.  I am a 30 year old man weighing in at about 152 pounds right now, so bear that in mind as you read this. 

Part 1: Effects of caffeine on my brain waves

Caffeine has been reported to increase the strength and frequency of beta brain waves, which are associated with high alertness and fast thinking.  Versus allows me to test that for myself, as it includes a feature that displays my levels of alpha, beta and theta waves in real-time.  Unfortunately, at present Versus doesn’t add up the different levels of each brain wave and show me the data; it just shows me a rolling window of about ten seconds, so I have to eyeball the data.

Since this is a fairly inaccurate method, I spent weeks repeating this experiment, consuming some caffeine, waiting, measuring my brain waves, consuming more caffeine, waiting for it to kick in, measuring my brain waves, and so on.  And while I can’t quantify my findings here, it did indeed seem that caffeine increased the level of beta waves.  The effect only became clear when I went over 200 mg.  Effects on alpha and theta waves were unclear- I occasionally thought I saw one or the other going up or down, but I eventually concluded that this was just noise. 

In addition to measuring raw brain waves, I looked at my performance in the Versus brain-training games.  I’m on the stress training program, so my goal right now is to boost my alpha waves while limiting my beta and theta waves.  You would think this would mean caffeine impairs my performance, right?

Not entirely.  Instead what I found was that my performance was ideal when I had consumed 75-150 mg of caffeine.  More caffeine produced the expected drop, but less caffeine also lead to sub-optimal performance.  Worth noting: I ran most of these tests in the late morning. 

Part 2: Effects of caffeine on mental tasks and productivity

Aside from writing this blog, I work from home, self-employed, as a marketing consultant.  It’s easy to get distracted in that situation since nothing stops me from   Using a point system I’ve been experimenting with to gamify my productivity, I measured the effect of caffeine on my work performance.

The results were pretty similar to what I found with Versus- I was most able to get work done at doses between 75 and 150 mg.  If I didn’t have at least 75, particularly in the mornings, I’d usually have low energy, making it harder to motivate myself to work or just causing me to work really slowly. 

At the other end, my productivity started to drop off somewhere between 150 and 200 mg of caffeine, as higher doses gave to so much energy it became hard to focus.  At that range and above, I become increasingly prone to distraction, as well as experience a growing urge to get up and engage in physical activity. 

Part 3: Effects of caffeine on sports and exercise performance

Caffeine has well-documented benefit to physical performance, with 200 mg being a typical dose for supporting fat loss, whereas most studies suggest a much higher dosage for enhancing strength and athletic performance.  I didn’t test caffeine for fat loss, but I did test it for strength and sports. 

First off, weight-lifting.  Studies typically recommend 500 mg of caffeine to enhance strength, and pre-workout supplements will typically provide either around that much, or more commonly a lower dose mixed with other stimulants.  I found 500 mg to be way too high- my heart raced, I felt dizzy, my body temperature skyrocketed, and I just wanted to lie down and let it pass. 

However, I did find that lower doses of caffeine give me a noticeable boost in the gym.  I start to feel an effect around 200 mg- increased energy, strength, muscular endurance, and a desire to engage in physical activity.  The effect gets stronger as I raise the dosage, but higher dosages also make me feel aggressive and irritable.  400 mg seems to be my limit before I get dizzy and kind of sick, with 300 mg being my sweet spot for weightlifting.   

I also tested caffeine while playing sports, mainly dodgeball, which I play most Tuesday nights.  The ideal dosage for that ended up being somewhere between the ideal dosage for weight training and work, which makes sense since dodgeball is both a mental and physical task.  I got my best results around 150-250 mg.  Higher doses started to be counterproductive as they made it harder to think straight- my situational awareness would suffer and I’d get hit by balls I didn’t see coming.  Over 300 mg, I would feel hot, my heart would race, and my stamina would start to suffer as well. 

The other problem: high doses of caffeine would impair my sleep, because I play dodgeball later at night- nine to eleven PM.  So I’ve backed off from higher doses and started playing on only a hundred or so milligrams to keep myself sleeping well. 

So how much should you take?

Quick recap of my results:

Mental tasks: 75-150 mg

Sports: 150-250 mg

Weight training: 250-400 mg

And again, I’m a 30 year old male, 152 pounds, around 13% body fat.  The effects of caffeine definitely scale off of body weight, probably more so for physical than mental effects. 

As guidelines to help you find your own ideal dosages, I’ve taken notes of how I felt at each level.  Aside from actually measuring your performance, I think it helps a lot to go off of how you feel.

For mental tasks, like office work, you want to take just enough caffeine that you feel fully awake and alert.  If you start to notice elevated heart rate or temperature, fidgeting, or you get scatterbrained and find it hard to focus on just one thing, you’ve probably taken too much. 

For mixed mental and physical tasks like sports, the ideal dose will be a bit more than that.  You should start to notice an elevated heart rate and maybe some temperature elevation, but not much- you want a physical boost, but you don’t want your body wasting much energy.  You also don’t want to take so much caffeine that it gets hard to focus, stay aware of your surroundings, or you feel dizzy.

For fat loss, you actually do want your body to waste energy, and don’t care too much about the mental effects.  Take enough caffeine to feel a noticeable rise in heart rate and temperature, but not so much that you start to feel bad.  Bear in mind, if you’re taking caffeine for fat loss you’ll be taking it every day for weeks or months, so it needs to not make it hard for you to function.  Caffeine also suppresses your appetite- that’s good in moderation, but you do need to eat when losing weight.  No starvation diets! 

For pure strength training, a higher dose is called for.  Take enough caffeine that you feel a definite rise in heart rate and temperature, and a very compelling urge to engage in physical activity.  In other words, you should be bouncing off the walls. It’s alright if you feel a bit aggressive, irritable or scatterbrained at this dose, but it still shouldn’t make you feel unpleasant, like your heart is going to burst, or like you want to lie down until it wears off.  Also make sure it doesn’t disrupt your sleep, particularly if you work out later in the day.

Now, the effects of caffeine on sleep vary widely between individuals, depending on your tolerance and how fast you metabolize caffeine, which is largely genetic.  I metabolize it slowly, my tolerance has gone down a lot in the past year, and I have a history of insomnia, so I need to cut out caffeine fairly early in the day.  Other people can have a Red Bull right before bed and sleep just fine. 

If you want to try this but you truly have no idea what your caffeine tolerance is, be conservative.  Start at no more than half the dosages that worked for me, and work your way up gradually, hour by hour and day by day.  Remember that caffeine can take up to a half hour to kick in. 

What works for me isn’t guaranteed to work for you, but unlike most supplements, caffeine has well-documented and fairly consistent effects.  In other words, it’s bound to do something to you.  I hope my experiments will serve to inspire some of you to start experimenting on yourselves, finding out what makes your body perform at its absolute best, and caffeine is a good place to start. 

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