Tim Ferriss is a Renaissance guy: entrepreneur, best-selling author, linguist, tango world-record holder, martial arts champion and, mainly, it seems, especially when the product is himself, marketing genius. He literally got his start as a snake-oil salesman starting, running, and selling a sports supplement company. Now he's done it all (at age 33). (*)
But, even if you decide to hate him, that doesn't mean you shouldn't (at least sometimes) listen to him. I briefly noted his first book The 4-Hour Work Week two years ago. Since then, I've re-read the book once, and reviewed my (gratuitous) highlighting of it maybe 3-4 times. And I'm convinced that even if many of his specific prescriptions are impossible, or inadvisable, for a lot of people still, as an exercise in opening your mind to the possibility of really dramatic possibilities, it is incomparable. You should probably read it.
Ferriss' new project is to hack not life, but the human body. Well, really, his goal was to hit #1 on the bestseller lists again, which he's handily done. This book trailer didn't hurt a bit.
You're probably not going to read this book. And that's probably okay. Much of it is pretty far-out there though also fairly meticulously evidence-based. (Ferriss understands, for example, the critical distinction between an observational study and a randomised, double-blind, controlled trial. And he's a measurement and data-crunching fiend.) And other bits of it are just, you know, not stuff one even wants to mess with . . . but, nonetheless, I think there are some true gems in here for health, nutrition, and fitness.
So, after a lot of adieu, in about four minutes, here's what I got out of this book that I'm actually using. (Fuches Take-Aways reading long books so you don't have to!®)
- The courage to do less (in the gym). I've been lifting weights for 25 years. Ferriss prompts me to ask why I've hardly grown any muscles in that time. Fair point. I've read at least one other book on proper weightlifting technique; but there are a lot of opinions and some controversy. Ferriss is focused like a laser beam on the smallest changes that have the biggest results. The success of his first book evidently got him access to top trainers, doctors, and researchers in these fields. And he claims (and can support those claims) to have gained 34 pounds of muscle mass, in four weeks with four hours total gym time. His secret? Aside from the rafts of (non-steroid) supplements (which I'm skipping and you should too), he advocates lifting this way:
• One set to failure, with a 5/5 cadence, at 70% of your five-rep maximum.
That is, you do a single set of each exercise, with quite a lot of weight. You should be able to grind out maybe 8-10 reps. You should count five beats while you lift; and five beats while you lower. Do not pause at either the top or the bottom. By the end of the set, you should be destroyed. You should fight for every last inch; then when you can't go any higher, hold for five; then lower for five. Then you're done. Rest for at least three minutes, then do your next station. That's it. The whole point is to get to the failure, when the magic of growth stimulation happens.
He also advocates a few simple compound exercises bench press, shoulder press, lat pull-down, dips, squat, row rather than a bunch of targeted ones. (*) Then you take two or three days off totally and wait for your muscles to grow. You get in, you flip the growth switch, you go home.
- I've ditched all my ab exercises (and I had about a dozen) for myotatic crunches. (Ferris, like me, did years of regular crunches and whatnot with zero effect. Time to stop the insanity of doing the same thing and expecting different results. He gives his reasons why these work.)
- (So-called-by-Ferriss) Pre-hab: I've started doing chop and lifts and torture twists for core stability and to aid in injury prevention during sports.
- I've gotten keener on sprinting during segments of my runs. There's tons of evidence that high-intensity/short-duration (i.e. bursty) training increases our strength, speed, and endurance much better than lower-intensity/longer-duration.
- I've started paying close attention to ambient temperature for sleeping. Ferris found this to be a major factor in his extensive sleep quality experiments, and personally did best at 19C (67F) - 21C (70F).
- Ice is nice. Ferriss read that Michael Phelps consumes 12,000 calories a day. This didn't seem right. Ferriss did the math and concluded that Phelps would have to be butterfly-stroking continuously 10 hours/day to burn that much, and not even he could do that. Something else must be at work. Then it hit him: he's in water which is 24 times more thermally conductive than air for 3-4 hours/day. That was it. If you're a chemist, you'll be aware of the pretty much identicalness of energy and heat. If you suck heat out of the system, the body will have to burn mass to create heat to replace it to keep body temperature in a survivable range.
The Ferriss prescription? Thirty-minute ice baths. Not doin' it, personally. But I've always finished showering with a cold rinse and I've started extending it out to basically as long as I can tolerate it, 2-3 minutes. (Dr Oz, if you trust him, as my mother does, actually endorses this). I've also gotten more enthusiastic about running in very cold weather. (*) There's also evidence the cold treatment accelerates lean muscle gain, improves immunity and ameliorates depression! Rock.
- I've switched from soy protein powder to hemp protein powder in my creamy fruit frappes. I think for the vast majority of people, the health benefits of soy are significant, particularly if you're switching from cow's milk. But I consume a ton of soy, and Ferriss made me at least question whether I should be putting that many phytoestrogens in my body. It turns out that hemp protein is an amino-complete protein, and has a lot of other reputed health benefits including omega-3s, which (as I noted elsewhere) a non-fish-eater can stand more of. (Note that, unless you're trying to gain muscle mass by lifting weights, you're very unlikely to need this much protein, or any kind of supplement see The Protein Myth from PCRM.)
- You have to get freaking tested. This is a major take-away from both this and the next book I'm going to do (Kurzweil and Grossman's TRANSCEND). Taking supplements, modifying your diet, tweaking your workouts, trying to do preventative medicine all of it's fumbling around in the dark unless you get some basic things tested. And the tests are getting more powerful everyday, including genetic profiling.
No, I haven't done this yet. But I'm putting together a list now stuff like full lipid panel, nutrient profile, free testosterone, PSA, etc. This will vary based on your gender, age, family history, etc. In any case, since it's a huge take-away from both books, I'll post a full list next time.
- White Foods == Evil. When Atkins, Kurzweil & Grossman, and Ferriss are all in total agreement, there's probably something there. The single most powerful thing you can do to manage your weight (and via that, many aspects of health) is cut out these white things: white bread, white pasta, white rice, potatoes and most especially cane sugar. And most especially, the combination of them, in the form of donuts, pastries, muffins, and other sugary/starchy treats. (*)
Ferriss actually advocates pretty much no grains of any sort. (I'm sticking with whole-grain rice.) He also advocates some lean meat, so obviously I'm not following his whole deal. But he does advocate a ton of veggies (especially cruciferous ones like broccoli and cauliflower, plus heaps of spinach which increases muscle tissue growth, glucose metabolism, and protein synthesis) plus a lot of legumes, lentils and black beans his favourite (to get your good calories, once white carbs are gone).
He also has some helpful tips like • eat the same simple meals over and over (no problem); • eat within 30 minutes of waking up (big problem for me); and • don't drink calories.
- I've switched to green tea (well, after an initial couple of cups of coffee each morning). There's evidence it inhibits storage of excess carbs as fat; and increases programmed cell death in mature fat cells. This feels right so far, fat-loss-wise. This is also another overlap with the other book, green tea evidently being a free-radical scavenging powerhouse . . .
- Don't necessarily trust "the experts". This is probably the most important meta-lesson from the book, and it's not from Ferriss at all, but an essay by Dr. Seth Roberts in an appendix. I've excerpted the best bits here, and I'd say it's worth reading. To my mind, it goes a long way toward explaining the otherwise very troubling issue of why we don't have definitive answers on a lot of health things yet, and (perforce) why one still needs to explore a lot to get it all right. (*) You also need to be sceptical of media trend stories about health findings many of them are based on observational (rather than controlled) studies which can show nothing more than correlation (not causation). Take-away: there's no magic bullet, there isn't yet received wisdom in some areas and you have to use your head and take ownership of your own health, nutrition, and fitness (at least for now).
Although I've neglected to do the obsessive measuring before, during, and after, that Ferriss demands, nonetheless my early results from all this are very positive. (Details on request.)
Hope you got something useful to you here. Comments, questions, feedback, pushback, and corrections very welcome.
He also suggests and my experimentation bears out that it's a lot easier (though easy isn't precisely the right word) to lift to the point of failure with universal machines, rather than free weights. I'm also pretty sure it's a lot safer, i.e. less injury-prone.
For instance, it goes a huge way toward explaining why the finest minds in gastroenterological science were completely clueless about the causes of my ulcerative colitis 12 years ago; and why, and how, I was able to fix it myself. A whole dispatch on that one of these days, believe you me.
I should probably also confess my personal feeling that his heart is basically in the right place and that he's even got a number of spiritual things just right. (He swears by Seneca, for instance; and supports a number of charities; plus keeps his life fairly pared-down and seems to have his priorities straight.)
There's also evidence out there that heat is a major factor in fatigue. Test athletes given a lot of ice water work harder, longer, faster. My anecdotal personal evidence backs this up strong runs on cold days.
Though of course with me this varies spectacularly, on an intra-day basis…
Then again, you do have manage your priorities. As my dad famously said, "Life is hardly worth living without chocolate chip cookies."