This is part four of my series on Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct. If you’re interested in starting from the beginning, head back to part one.

Last Week:
The previous chapter was all about fatigue and for a reason that I can’t quite determine, it feels like a complete blur. The experiments for the week were to eat in ways that moderate blood sugar levels (low glycemic), to monitor the ups and downs of willpower, and to set a specific willpower challenge. I was consistent on the first two experiments, but the willpower challenge was a pretty big flop.

My regular diet is something of a paleo approximation. I generally don’t eat grains, beans, or dairy, but I’m not 100% rigid. I’ll eat rice about once per week, and I’ll eat some dessert and have a drink or two every so often. In general, however, my diet is full of meat and vegetables and it’s a diet that is effective as moderating blood sugar levels. Because of this I did not make any significant changes to my diet. Despite the lack of significant change, I was able to observe that when I got particularly hungry my willpower was noticeably lower. In particular, I found myself driving to lunch after a long morning, and it was extremely difficult to contain my frustration with other drivers or red lights, when I am typically pretty calm. My day hadn’t been particularly difficult up to that point so it stands to reason that the lower willpower was linked to a lack of food and dropping blood sugar. I also noticed that when I make a choice to indulge in food it easily snowballs into many indulgences, but I think this is more of an example of the “What the Hell Effect” Coming in Chapter 6.

When it came to monitoring my willpower levels throughout the week I chose an ad hoc approach as opposed to writing down every willpower swing up or down. The first thing I noticed is that on mornings when I meditated to start my day I had a substantial increase in willpower throughout the morning. This made the whole day easier as I didn’t have to fight all morning, and it left me with a greater reserve of willpower right before lunch and into the afternoon, when my willpower was typically at its lowest. Additionally I found an enormous boost to my willpower in the hours directly after exercise, as long as the workout did not completely exhaust me. Throughout the week I had strong training workouts, and came home feeling refreshed, whereas on Saturday I competed in Crossfit Open workout 14.3 and I was well and truly fatigued for the remainder of the day.

In addition to specific times of day, or after certain activities, I noticed that physical location, and the presence of others impacted my willpower and my ability to make choices aligned with my long-term goals. Calm public places, coffee shops for instance, gave me a boost to my willpower, while being at home made me more inclined to act impulsively. I hypothesize that this is due to an increased presence of temptation at home. The presence of a television is particularly distracting to me, and it’s even hard for me to carry a one on one conversation when a TV is playing at a restaurant. The presence of others that are actively engaged in similar activities definitely helped my willpower as I am able to feed off their positive energy. During the open workout the presence of many other people helped me complete substantially more lifts than if I had completed the workout on my own. Additionally the presence of other people in the act of writing encourages me to stay focused on my own writing. When others are engaged in impulsive behavior I feel their actions pull at my willpower and each second of focused work in their presence becomes a willpower challenge.

My willpower challenge to maintain improved spine position while sitting was a complete flop. There were so many other things that were on my mind that I just didn’t keep track of my posture. Every now and then I caught myself, but I was much more mindful of monitoring my willpower levels throughout the day and this fell to the side.

Chapter 4: License to Sin: Why Being Good Gives Us Permission to Be Bad

In this chapter McGonigal introduces the reader to the concept of moral licensing. In short this is when people use their good behavior in order to grant themselves permission for bad behavior. The entire chapter made me think about papal indulgences, when one could buy forgiveness for sins from the church, even before sinning. It’s probably the history nerd in me, but I was shocked that McGonigal did not make the connection explicit.

The entire issue of moral licensing hinges on the idea that our willpower decisions are moral decisions. This immediately connected with me and I saw myself in many of the examples. The concept is also predicated on the idea that we see ourselves as somehow flawed in our impulsive state and that we want to be “good enough” as opposed to morally impeccable. Essentially, by using self-control (good) I get the reward of returning to my natural, impulsive state (bad). The concept plays out as follows: My long term goal is to be more healthy, therefore I engage my willpower and hit the gym. (I don’t want to do this, but it’s good for me, so this self-control makes me a good person. I earn some good points.) Because I earned enough good points, I can now spend them on something indulgent. This could be linked to my challenge (I get to eat some junk food), but does not need to be (I buy myself a present). The most classic example that by forcing myself to eat my vegetables I earn the right to indulge in dessert. I trade a good action for a bad action.

There are many problems with this, as McGonigal illustrates extensively throughout the chapter, but the one that really hit home for me was the distinction that these choices are made using emotion as a way of knowing, as opposed to reason. The distinction does not reduce the validity of the decision (she does not dismiss emotion,) but it properly situates the decision as an emotional, or impulsive decision that occurs in the midbrain, as opposed to a willpower based decision that takes place in the prefrontal cortex. Choices made through moral licensing act against our long-term goals and actively hinder us from becoming the self we want to be. These choices act most directly against our “I want” power. Knowledge of this distinction allows use to take control and the easiest way to take control is to revoke our moral license.

The most effective way to revoke one’s moral license is not to engage in guilt or shaming for impulsive decisions, but to simply remove the morality of willpower choices. My choice to eat or not eat a sugary treat does not make me a good or bad person. It is simply a conflict of willpower and impulse, of short-term and long-term priorities. When we remove the morality we do not gain virtue by making choices that align with our long-term goals, and therefore we’ve earned no indulgences. (I am also predicting that McGonigal will use moral licensing later on in the book as leverage for self-compassion.) Our emotions are activated as a way of knowing because we assign a value to our actions. Revoking the moral license and making my choices devoid of any sense of moral worth is the first experiment for the week.

The second experiment is to view actions as habitual, or leading to habit. In other words, to reduce the variability of each day. The rationale behind this is that if we see our actions as something that we engage in every day we are more likely to make choices that align with our long-term goals. If the choice is between saving money every day, or buying a pair of shoes every day, I am much more likely to save my money than if I can self-justify that I’ll buy the shoes “just this one time.” By viewing our choices as commitment to choosing that action habitually we remove the “cognitive crutch that tomorrow will be different.” This second experiment has made an immediate impact on me. Even on the first day, when choosing to pack or buy a lunch, I thought that I would rather be a person who brings a lunch each day, than a person who buys a lunch each day, and as such I made the choice to bring some unappealing (yet perfectly edible) leftovers because the choice aligns more closely with my long-term health goals.

With these experiments in mind, I am choosing to write because I want to be the kind of person who writes habitually. This is aligned to my long-term goals. At the same time, however, I gain no moral currency by do the writing, therefore I have no license to choose actions that work against my long-term goals.

This is part 2 of my Willpower Project, tracking my thoughts and processing through Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct. Head to part 1 in order to start at the beginning.

Week 1 Reflection: Observation First

It’s been a week of meditation and monitoring my willpower-based decisions and I’ve definitely seen some change. I find myself more aware of the conflict between my long-term goals and my impulses. This includes my desire to blaze through the entire book instead of taking the one chapter at a time approach McGonigal suggests. (Willpower challenges come in all shapes and sizes.)

I suspect that a certain amount of the change I’m experiencing is due to an observer effect in which the act of observation influences the behavior of the observed subject. In this case I am both subject and observer, so it is, to a certain extent, impossible to avoid. Unlike a scientific study though, I am not concerned about this impact. My results are not invalidated by an observer effect. The goal of this project is to change my behavior improve my awareness of how I use my willpower. If observation alone acts to positively influence my use of willpower, that is a promising finding: an extremely low cost intervention can create positive change. The observer effect helps me achieve my intended outcome.

Throughout this week I’ve been much more aware of the conflict between my long-term want to write more consistently and my immediate impulses to play video games or watch TV. I also noticed an additional conflict: the conflict between activities I want to do and activities that I need to do. The primary conflict for my willpower challenge is how to use my unscheduled time, should it be used for writing, or some other activity? This is impacted by other “need to do” activities like making dinner, work, or running errands, and by more carefully observing the situations in which I choose some activity other than writing, I’ve been able to be mindful of how much of the conflict is about myself as a person, about my choices, versus a somewhat more external time limit. This observation is important because it allows me to remove judgement with regards to choosing to write. I can be more objective. If I didn’t write because I chose to idly browse Facebook, that is importantly different from not writing because I spent more time than usual making a nice dinner. They may have the same end result of less writing, but means are extremely different and important to consider.

The meditation was easier than I expected. The section in chapter one that encourages objective reflection, as opposed to a commitment to perfect meditation, was extremely helpful for this. Mindful objectivity allowed me to notice my meditation without being evaluative. I had the permission to be bad at meditation which helped me do it more often.

I’ve gradually increased the time from five minutes on the first day to eight minutes at the end of week one and I plan to keep increasing through the second week. I can’t say for certain if it’s due to meditation specifically, or a more general mindfulness, but I have definitely seen an increase in my self-awareness in this first week, but as I wrote above, I don’t need a scientifically verifiable and replicable study. If I’m doing something that helps, that’s good enough.

This week has already helped me with my willpower challenge (a few times I’ve made the choice to write instead of another acidity) and this mindfulness has extended into other areas and I’ve noticed myself being more mindful of food choices, my driving habits, and how I’m spending money. The progress I’ve made during the first week is definitely encouraging me to maintain these behaviors and try the experiments in chapter 2.

Chapter 2: The Willpower Instinct: Your Body Was Born to Resist Cheesecake

This chapter covers the physiology of our response to perceived threat and draws the distinction between the impulsive fight or flight response, and the willpower-leveraged pause and plan response. Most of the chapter aligned strongly with what I heard in McGonigal’s workshop, and it was helpful to see it reiterated with a bit more explanation and strong scientific citations. Through the chapter McGonigal continues her empowering message that as human beings, we are in control of how we respond to situations. The size and power of our prefrontal cortex makes us uniquely equipped to distinguish between external threats (like a raging bear) and internal threats (like the desire to buy a flashy new pair of shoes).

This distinction resonated powerfully with me. It’s very easy to externalize threats and respond with fight or flight, and this is very important when the threat is truly external, like a bear. The whole point of fight or flight is actually our body’s ability to repurpose our energy system before we think at all. This response, however, is completely ineffective on internal threats.

It turns out that the flashy pair of new shoes are not the threat. My desire to purchase the shoes are the threat. (In this case a threat to my long term goal of reducing impulsive purchases as opposed to a threat to my life.) By seeing the threat as internal as opposed to external, I can much more effectively activate my willpower to resist that threat. The energy is not directed properly at my desire as opposed to the shoes themselves. This need to distinguish internal and external threats requires the kind of self awareness that I activated during the first week, and I’ve already seen improved ability to determine the locus of a threat and respond accordingly. I’m definitely not perfect, but I’m noticing a lot more than I had previously.

The other extremely important component of chapter 2 is the link between willpower and our physical health, and this is evident in the willpower experiments. In week two McGonigal tasks her reader to activate intentional breathing, spend time outside, get more exercise, sleep more, and intentionally engage in relaxation. I’m pretty good about some of these already. Thanks to my wife’s insistence I usually get seven or more hours of sleep every night, which is on the good side of McGonigal’s scientifically-backed six hour minimum for proper willpower function. I also exercise regularly and I don’t plan in making changes to that regimen any time soon. The other willpower experiments are less present in my life currently.

The other components: intentional breathing, getting outside, and active relaxation are going to be my focus for week two. The intentional breathing is intended to be used in acute situations as a way to actively shift from fight or flight into the pause and plan response. I’m going to try be mindful of my physiological response to perceived threat in order to activate an intentional pause and plan response through controlled breathing. This week I’m going to be away at the South by Southwest Edu conference in Austin, so I will have to walk more than I usually do at home, this should help facilitate including five minutes of outdoor physical activity. I will need to be more intentional about this time when I return home. Lastly I am excited to spend time in active relaxation. McGonigal’s process for this is very straightforward, somewhere in the grey area between meditation and sleep.

Even only one week into the project I am feeling much more in control and aware. Additionally, by understanding willpower as a physiological and growable component of my life, I’ve been able to remove some of the guilt associated with losing a willpower challenge. Reconfiguring my understanding of willpower is making me more willing to attempt activities that challenge my willpower. I look forward to reflecting on a second week.

I’ve been going nonstop from meeting to meeting all day. Watch a class, debrief with the teacher, head to the next school. Repeat. Meet with administrators. Next school. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It’s been a long day, and I need to take my mind off work.

[Cut to the gym.]

I look down and set my feet straight under my shoulders keeping my weight balanced between my heel and the ball of my foot. I bend at the hip and knee, extending my arms to grip the bar just outside my legs, keeping my arms straight, and wrapping my thumb and fingers into a tight hook grip. Squeezing my quads, glutes, abs, lats, and grip I smoothly raise the bar, removing all other thoughts, and initiating the first pull.

As the bar comes past the top of my knee I initiate the second pull by explosively extending my hips, forcing the bar into a faster upward trajectory. This movement immediately merges into the third pull where with all deliberate speed I pull myself under the bar and extend my arms upward, whipping the bar into an overhead position. I then stand up through an overhead squat to finish the movement. With the snatch completed I let the bar fall to the floor, and along with the bar falls the stress and anxiety from the long day of work. Repeat, repeat, repeat to exhaustion. Decompression begins.

I love my work. I believe passionately in the power of education to transform lives, end cycles of poverty, and improve the world we live in. This work, however, is also extremely stressful. There is much at stake in education. Whether as a classroom teacher or now as an instructional coach, the work of education applies a very personal sort of stress on the educator. We are in the business of growing people, and as such we have to take people where they are with all of their own stresses, difficulties, and barriers and help them do the immensely challenging work of self-improvement. By uncovering, naming, and overcoming these barriers we, as educators, are constantly exposed to the stresses of others. Additionally, many educators, myself included, have high standards for our students and ourselves. We are continually looking at how to improve our work and achieve better results. It is natural that some of this stress rubs off on us and follows us home. We need ways to decompress.

For me, proper decompression comes through intense physical activity. I am continually thinking about education. I wake up thinking. I go to sleep thinking. I think through dinner and housework. I process, analyze, reflect, and evaluate my work constantly. For me to fully decompress I need to engage in activity that is so demanding of my focus that it becomes impossible for me to think of anything else. Crossfit fills this need.

The combination of volume, weight and intensity from Crossfit creates an ideal decompression environment in which I have no choice but to focus completely on the workout and put aside all other concerns. As with the snatch example above, I need to fully concentrate on moving my body in order to execute the proper lift. If I am not completely focused it could lead to poor results and possibly injury. This leaves no room for the business of the day, forcing me to shut those concerns out of my conscious brain. Once the workout is in progress all my energy is spent on breathing, movement, and persevering. The work is all encompassing and I enter a meditative state in which the rest of the world ceases to exist. When finished I can go back to my thoughts with new perspective and while I will be physically exhausted, I will be mentally revitalized.

Anyone living or working in a stressful environment needs a method of decompression. For myself intense physical activity is the right choice and has become an integral part of my life. For others it may be gardening, painting, a nap, or a leisurely walk through the neighborhood. It is important to keep in mind that the method of decompression should act as a net benefit to your system. A drink and a cigarette after a long day can be momentarily calming, however, the negative side effects incurred far outstrip the temporary relaxation. Likewise over training (in the case of exercise) can be very detrimental, leaving one more exhausted and unproductive. The activity should leave you with a feeling that you are capable of coming back to your challenges and attacking them with newfound vigor.

Being effective in your work requires balance in your life outside of work. In education we see the impacts of an unbalanced life every day in students. These students come to class hungry, tired, and under great amounts of stress, all of which prevents them from learning at the height of their abilities, and stunts their growth. Teachers have the same responsibilities to balance their lives in order to deliver the education that is at the height of their abilities as teachers and allows them to grow their practice. The grading will wait. Trust that the lesson is adequately planned. Go decompress and be mentally and physically prepared for a full day of teaching ahead.

In need of a medicine ball for your workouts?  Don’t feel like dropping 70 bucks on a Dynamax ball?  I’ve got your solution.

When I work out I more or less lift heavy and do solo Crossfit.  My (seriously awesome) gym has all kinds of medicine balls, but the big, heavy, non-reactive, Dynamax balls are reserved for during classes and quite expensive, so being fed up with substituting exercises I took the advice of the Crossfit main site and made my own.

Old basketball (other balls would work too I’m sure)
Bucket of sand
Funnel (optional)
Some old rags
A bunch of duct tape
Cutting Tool (Knife was better than scissors)


Step 1:  Cut a hole in the ball.  The smaller the better.
(Try to go smaller than the image below.  This will be the weakest spot on your medicine ball.)


Step 2:  Tuck a few rags into the ball.  This helps fill space so the sand doesn’t slosh around.  Particularly useful if you’re making a lighter ball.

Step 3:  Fill with stand to a bit under the desired weight.  I was going for 20# so I pretty much filled it up all the way.



Step 4:  Pack in some more rags to fill any remaining space.  The more you fill the ball with rags, the more stable it will be.  If you want an intentionally unstable ball, leave out the rags.

Step 5:  Wrap it with tons of duct tape.  Create patterns with colored duct tape.  Differentiate different weights with different styles/colors.  The key here is that the hole will be a weak point in the medicine ball so you really need to pile on the duct tape.  Two slams split my initial tape job so I went back with a vengeance and used a serious amount of tape on the ball.


I misjudged a bit and my medicine ball is 20.8# after taping, but that just means I’ll get a better workout.  I’d recommend filling your ball about half a pound under your target weight.

A few bucks in duct tape and you’ve got a completely viable medicine ball.  Enjoy!

I signed up for a Toughmudder.  11 miles, 28 obstacles, and a predicted finishing time of 3 hours.  This will also be my first organized run longer than a 5k.  I can currently run about 5 miles.  I’ve got nine weeks to double my mileage.  I’m confident that I can do it, but talk about stepping out of my comfort zone.  Oh, and my team is full of personal trainers from my gym so I’m definitely feeling pressure to be highly prepared.  (Read: strong and fast.)

I haven’t done anything like this in a very long time – challenged myself to this extent.  I generally think I do a respectable job pushing myself to be my best whether it’s as a teacher, an athlete, or a human being.  Rarely, however, do I really give myself a big target that is multiple steps away from my current ability level.

My feelings about the Toughmudder made me think about my students because I immediately filled my head with doubts: “Can I run that far? Will I keep up? What did I get myself into?”

These questions and doubts are similar to what students face in school.  “Can I read that whole book?  Can I write a whole essay?  Will I pass the test?”  I get to choose my challenges while our students have to respond to the tasks we set for them.

When we stay within our comfort zones we get complacent, and I’ve been relatively complacent lately.  I can’t just wait nine weeks and then go complete this event.  I will need to use what I’ve learned about strength training for the obstacles and find new training methods for the distance running component.  This is the nature of true challenge.  What I’ve done in the past will not be sufficient so I have to learn new skills.

The educational concept of scaffolding is not new.  Nearly every training, meeting, or discussion I’ve had about struggling students at some points comes back to scaffolding.  (For the non-educators scaffolding is the idea that with proper support students can reach to things they would be otherwise unable to do.  Like how a scaffold lets you scale the side of a building.)  Scaffolding is everywhere in education, but students are still failing.  How does this relate to the Toughmudder?

For scaffolding to be meaningful students need to be challenged, and at some point the scaffold needs to be removed.  One of the common discussions around scaffolding that is all too common is the idea that “if this scaffold helps some students, then give it to everyone and help all students.”  This is problematic.  If we scaffold something that is not truly challenging we’ve done nothing but lower the standard.  The best measure of my success as a teacher would be whether my students are able to succeed at the skills I taught, once they leave my classroom, when there are no scaffolds in place.  Instead of scaffolding, we need training.

I fully acknowledge that students start in different places.  They have different reading levels, different writing ability, and unequal reasoning skills.  What is challenging for one student may be exceptionally easy for another.  However if we want our students to improve we need to provide challenge.  We need to take all of our students outside their comfort zones.

When students have a difficult task to complete (reading, writing, presentation, exam) they have to add new skills to their repertoire in order to be successful.  It is then our responsibility as teachers to teach the skills and content necessary to complete that task.  Before we put a scaffold in place we should identify whether a student has really put in their best effort.  Just because my first try to get over an obstacle isn’t successful, that doesn’t mean I need a ladder.  Perhaps I just need to take a different approach.  If we always provide a scaffold we are never really holding students to the standard we set out to achieve.

If we have standards for excellence and criteria for mastery that are based on what students need to know or be able to do, we should stick to our standards.  Those criteria were (hopefully) created with intentionality and hold some value beyond the classroom.  It is unreasonable to lower those criteria just because some students are unsuccessful.

I will do my absolute best to prepare myself for the Toughmudder in 9 weeks.  I signed up for a challenge and I will do what is necessary in order to be successful.  This attitude is precisely what is needed for students who want to be academically successful.  It takes just as much mental effort to log out of Facebook to go for a run as it does to log out of Facebook and write an essay.  Challenges are only overcome through hard work.  If it didn’t take hard work it wasn’t a challenge.

I encourage all teachers to try something difficult.  Step out of your comfort zones.  Learn new teaching methods.  Teach new classes.  Take risks in your personal life.  Whatever it is challenge yourself.  We are constantly asking our students to learn new ideas, try things they don’t like, and take on tasks that seem impossible.  How can we claim to understand our students if we never challenge ourselves and feel the difficulty, and satisfaction, of doing what you previously through to be impossible?

PS:  I started a second blog where I’m doing reviews of pop culture from the perspective of teachability.  Check it out.

There was ninety-five pounds on the ground in front of me and I was supposed to lift it over my head in one movement.  My previous max was seventy-five pounds.  I was not thrilled, and a little nervous, at the prospect of moving straight from a naked bar (45#) to ninety-five.

Then he said “you’ve got this.  Just pick it up.”

And I did.  And I PRed my snatch by twenty pounds.  Just like that.  Then I did eight more snatches at ninety-five pounds.  Then I did twelve snatches at one hundred and fifteen pounds.  At the end of about fifteen minutes I’d hit a PR on the snatch by forty pounds.  Not because I was any stronger than when I’d walked into the gym.  Because of coaching.  My trainer was right in front of me giving me useful feedback on my form, consistent encouragement, and the unwavering belief that I was fully capable of the task he’d set in front of me.

This is why coaching is so powerful.  Before that day I’d been scared to even power clean more than ninety-five pounds, let alone snatch it.  After that workout I feel much more comfortable with the movement and increasing my weight.

Ten minutes of feedback and coaching and I’m feeling empowered.

This success through coaching is possible in education as well as physical exercise.

There is an article in The New Yorker (Oct. 2011) where a surgeon made the connection that athletes like Raphael Nadal and LeBron James continue to employ coaches despite their incredible ability (often many coaches).  He then posited that it would be logical then to have a coach for his surgery to act as an additional set of eyes and provide feedback so he could improve his practice, thus drawing to attention how our best athletes are continually coached throughout their careers, yet other professions receive no coaching after their introductory education.

Teaching fits directly into this no-coaching category.  As a teacher with four years of experience, I receive direct feedback from my evaluator only twice a year.  In my first year I was observed three times, though the third was more of a formality of the hiring process and I was given zero feedback from that last observation.

I’ve had the benefit of helpful administrators and as such have found the observation process valuable.  I’m provided with strong feedback that allows me to improve my practice.  Additionally my administrators have been anything but punitive and we’re able to have an open discussion about what went on in the classroom.  Every time I’m observed I learn something I can improve and I’ve incorporated much of that feedback into regular practice.

I appear to be something of an anomaly though.  Many of my co-workers (and I’ve worked at four schools) have anxiety related to the observation process.  There is a general fear that their practice will be criticized, punitive measures will be taken, and the idea that they might fail in some respect.  The solution is clear to me: more coaching.

We need to move the current high stakes observation model into a coaching model.  Every time a professional sports team practices they have a coach running the practice.  When the athletes train individually the invariably have personal trainers to help them improve.  This is what we need for teachers as well.

I understand that it is unreasonable for a teacher to have a one to one ratio with a coach at all times.  As valuable as that might be, there are more efficient options.  I particularly reasonable option would be to open up funding for strong teachers to become coaches.  This could be a progressive system where teachers who show individual leadership can move from teaching five classes, to teaching four, but having a coaching responsibility within their department.  As they improve as coaches they could move to increasing their coaching responsibility.  This would allow successful teachers to pass on institutional knowledge about pedagogy and curriculum to new teachers, and it would allow for career path options for older teachers.  This would serve to help new teachers and prevent burnout among veterans.

Additionally moving to a coaching model would allow teachers to be observed more frequently.  By increasing the frequency of observations two main things will be achieved.  First with more observations the relative stakes of a single observations are significantly lower.  You know there will be more chances to show your ability and “one bad day” will not be as detrimental.  Secondly this will give administrators a substantially better sample of what a given teacher’s classroom looks like.  The coaching teacher need only write up a brief report of their observations to work in conjunction with the current administrator-centered evaluation system.

In the current model many teachers gear up for an observation, pull out their “great lesson”, and plan the day down to the detail.  I know teachers who report using the same lesson (or style of lesson) when they are observed for multiple years in a row.  For unscheduled observations teachers will go into hyperdrive for a week or two once they hear a colleague has been observed and then relax back into their normal routine once their observation is passed.  I am personally guilty of both of these practices and while they have helped me get excellent evaluations, they do not necessarily push me to improve my practice in the way that regular coaching has in my athletic endeavors.

If we want to improve instruction on a broad level coaching and mentorship are necessary.  Administrators are already overextend and coaching is something that peer teachers and department heads could do if it were properly built into a school’s schedule and budget.  Continuing to ask more of our education system without providing the appropriate support structures will not create change.

One of the main positive aspects of standards based grading is the students’ ability to show mastery of a learning target multiple times.  This process can work with training teachers as well.  The country continually points out failing schools, inadequate teachers, and a general decline in the quality of public education.  We are accused of having a broken public education system.  In my experience, most teachers want to provide high quality education to their students.  These teachers have the heart.  They have the desire to be great.  What they need is guidance and education on how to achieve greatness.  We tell students that they have support and that even the best of the best only succeed with strong support structures.  It is time to add that support structure to our teachers.

Today marked the end of my first Wendler 5/3/1 cycle.  4 weeks working on 4 different lifts: back squats, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press.

The main idea is that (following the programming) you perform each lift at a specific percentage of your max for a specified number of reps.  One cycle lasts for 16 workouts and takes about a month to complete.  The entire goal here is pure strength without worrying about anything else.  (Other work you do is on your own, and is not covered by the 5/3/1 system.  I do a lot of other fitness work.)

There’s no magic here.  Jim Wendler isn’t saying that you’ll add 100lbs to your squat in five months.  He’s saying you can do that in about a year.  As long as you stick with it and continue to put in the hard work you should see results.  In an interview with T-Nation Wendler had the following to say about the program: ” the reason I came up with 5/3/1 was that I wanted a program that eliminated stupid thoughts from my head and just let me go into the weight room and get shit done.”

I will pause here to say that I already had a solid lifting and strength base before starting.  Until January of this year I’d worked with a trainer  doing strength and conditioning work so my form is pretty good, I have strong body awareness, and I’ve had solid experience observing how to properly program workouts around a strength session.  If you are less familiar with things working with a coach is invaluable (even if it’s just a more experienced friend) and Wendler’s book has recommendations for assistance work and how to do the lifts properly.

So far it’s been doing just that for me.  I don’t get excited about programming strength work.  I’m far more interested in putting my energy into circuit training, skills work, and metabolic conditioning workouts.  I like getting strength results and I have strength goals, but the process doesn’t interest me.  5/3/1 has been perfect for that so far because it allows me to just get some heavy lifting in without agonizing over which lifts, for how many reps, at what percentage.

Beyond the simplicity I really like that at the end of each workout the last set is essentially listed as max reps.  So in the first week the workout would be:

5 reps at 65%
5 reps at 75%
5+ reps at 85%

That little + at the end of the third set is the real winner.  That’s when you push yourself to go beyond what’s comfortable and find out what you can really lift.  In the third week the last set is 1+ reps at 95%.  That’s 95% of your single rep max lift.  I was seriously excited when I busted out 9 bench press reps at 160lbs a couple weeks ago.  The last set of the workout is where you hit your goals and where you find your new max.  It’s not about increasing your single rep max, though that will happen, but it’s about increasing your overall strength which includes reps and weight.

Tomorrow marks the first day of the second round.  I’m adding 10 pounds to the training weight for squats and deadlifts, and 5 pounds to bench and overhead press.  That’s the standard.  (Wendler has a big focus on keeping ego in check when it comes to adding weight.)  So, in theory I should hit my deadlift goal of 340lbs (~2x bodyweight) somewhere in July as long as I stick with the system.

For now I’m sticking to the four main lifts, but the theory can be easily applied to any lifts.  The Olympic lifts come to mind first since I want to improve my snatch, clean, and overhead squat.  I can definitely see a cycle in the future where I sub out the overhead press for a clean and jerk for example.  Weighted dips or weighted pull-ups could make an appearance as well.  The four main lifts are primary because they have significant carryover benefit to other lifts, but they are not exhaustive.

There are lifting programs that advertise faster results, but I really appreciate the ability to just turn my brain off and just lift.  Strength is a goal, but not my primary goal so I’m very satisfied with steady progress.


I didn’t do a workout yesterday.  I was up late Saturday, I was annoyed at life, and it was Sunday so I told myself I would be fine.  And I was.

Today though I tried to do the same.  I had a late meeting (4:30 is late in teacher land) and the gym would be crowded with the regular after work folks and the post-work classes by the time I got there.  I’d also get home later than usual and so it would make dinner late.  I had all kinds of excuses.

My wife encouraged me to go anyway.  She probably figured I was still a bit annoyed at life from yesterday and taxing myself physically would be good for me.  She was right.

Photo Credit: Flickr User Danka, Used under CCL.

The gym was crowded.  There was equipment being set up for circuit training classes, and I only had fifteen minutes on a squat

rack to get in a strength session before I would be relegated to a far corner of the gym so I had to work without wasting time.  I also told myself that I would be in and out of the gym in an hour or less including time to change.

5:05 I was out of the locker room and changed.  I had until about 5:20 to warm up and knock out 3 sets of 5 overhead presses for strength.

By 5:25 it was metcon time.  I gave myself a 15min AMRAP workout to make sure that
I hit my target time.

I was out by 5:45 and essentially home by 6:00.  I put in a good, dedicated 40 minutes of work and it felt good.  My mood turned around and I’m excited to go back tomorrow and put in a more intense workout.


Overhead Press:
5 @ 80lbs
5 @ 90lbs
5+ @ 105lbs (I got 8)

Metcon:  15min AMRAP

10 tire flips
4 Turkish Getups (2 each side @ 16kg)
10 pushups (hand release)
10 situps (strict)
10 sumo deadlift high pulls (16kg)

4 rounds even.  Not fancy, but it worked.  For the future:  Turkish Getups are too slow for a good metcon.

I was trying to write a review of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and I was getting frustrated just going around in circles, feeling like I was rehashing things that had already been written in other reviews.  I wasn’t offering any new insight, and I may as well have just posted a link to an appropriate review and called it a day.

This is because the book itself is a rehash of Grahame-Smith’s previous work Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  Take a topic, mash some undead into it, publish, … , profit.  Sounds good right?  Well it worked the first time.  P&P&Z worked because it was a new idea.  Additionally a major theme of Jane Austen’s classic (that I hated in high school English) is about how as a society we ignore and obfuscate a lot of what makes us tick like sex and money.  We still ignore and obfuscate these things so the reinterpretation of the classic works.  Score one for appropriately contextualizing your themes so that your readership can relate!

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Spoiler Alert from this point forward: But seriously some of it is so obvious that high school U.S. history is a spoiler.)  doesn’t have this same contemporary link.  More books have been written about Lincoln than any other historical figure save Jesus.  There is a gigantic pile of very serious work on Lincoln’s life and a lot of history nerds (like myself) come well equipped to a book like this.

For the beginning of the book Grahame-Smith gets it very right.  Take the beloved figure of Lincoln, equip him with an axe and some serious 19th Century cross-training, then pit him against an insidious vampire menace.  Honest Abe stands on the side of good and works to eradicate the vampire threat from face of the earth.  The nerd in me screamed “HELL YES!” when Lincoln ices his first bloodsucker.

The book takes a pretty precipitous dip once Lincoln grows up and begins his political career.  We get a strong link between slavery and vampires that is all too obvious.  It’s almost like Grahame-Smith started the book with all the intent of creating a gory, action filled, nerdtacular guilty pleasure, but then felt obligated to add some social commentary on the slavery debate and the Civil War.  Why?  Who knows.

OK.  We get it.  Slave owners are like vampires because they make their living off the destruction of others.  And…?  The last third or so is simply bland and predictable.  The method is clear, the novelty of the concept has over-stayed it’s welcome, and a reader with even the most basic understanding of 19th Century U.S. history will know where it’s going.  Most vampires side with the South in the Civil War, there are a few good ones, and Lincoln gets shot by a Vampire John Wilkes Booth.  Shocking, right?

The first third is really fun.  Grahame-Smith brings energy and indulgent action, then it just dies and feels formulaic.  I’m glad I read it since if I hadn’t I would just keep wondering, however, the upcoming film may be a better way to get your guilty Abe-with-an-axe pleasure fix.


Today’s WOD:

6 Descending Sets by two (20, 18, 16, etc.. Reps) Versa Climber sets do not descend.
Box Jumps (24″)
Kettlebell Swings (20kg)
100ft Versa Climber (Drago is using it right at the beginning of the clip)
20;48 and a smoked posterior chain.


We took a few days off.  A few days off from eating healthy, a few days off from teaching, and a few days off from training.  It was good.  My wife and I both needed the time to unwind, sleep until we woke up naturally, and catch up on being relaxed human beings.

Our favorite, repeatable, vacation spot is the Napa Valley.  We’ve been there a few times and all you really need is a long weekend to make it worthwhile.  Fantastic wine, great people, and some of the best food in the world.  Top that off with mid-seventies and sun (in February) and it was a fantastic way to spend my birthday weekend.

The exercise side of things pretty much consisted of a couple walks and a good amount of lacrosse ball mobility work.  One day we made a small attempt at a bodyweight workout, but it didn’t really amount to much.  Our goal was relaxation and that was very successful.  All in all we had some great new wine, some great old wine, and ate at some brilliant new restaurants thanks to Dave Cruz of Ad Hoc.  Richard Reddington is my new culinary hero for his tasting menu at Redd while Oenotri and the Fatted Calf are locked in a fight to the death for the trophy of best cured meat.

The break was good.  It was great to actually read a whole book, (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Review coming soon.) and I can’t say enough positive things about being out in the sun in shorts and a t-shirt in February.  I was ready to come home though.  We were feeling the side-affects of some non-paleo options (bread and wine) and my energy level was clearly indicating the need for a return to the gym.

Sunday morning:  gym and groceries. 

I opted for a “Deck of Cards” workout.  Easy to plan, doesn’t require a whole lot of thought during the workout.  I figured that with the couple days off I could up the intensity from my last “Deck of Cards” by swapping push-ups for burpees, and changing the jokers to be a few muscle ups.  I didn’t count on drawing nothing but hearts and spades for the first fifteen cards or so.  That meant by the time I started drawing diamonds it was pretty much all pull-ups all the time.  When I hit the jokers (within five cards of each other) my arms were simply too shot for the muscle ups.   Definitely harder than my last one, and longer as well.  I always seem to forget that pull-ups get a heck of a lot harder when your core is fatigued from sit-ups.

Grocery store was piles of protein and veggies for a Sunday cookup.  Getting the week on track food-wise makes everything that much easier.  All the planning and thinking of eating gets sorted in a single day, and I feel good dedicating some time to just cooking.  Continued thanks to Melissa Joulwan for changing how I think about cooking at home.

Here’s to a good week of teaching nineteenth century economic theory, eating healthy food, and lifting heavy things.

WOD:  (Harder than expected.)
Diamonds:  Pull-ups
Hearts: Burpees
Spades: Full ROM Sit-ups
Clubs: Goblet Squats (24kg)
Jokers: 5 muscle ups (fail)

Cookup:  (Tastier than expected.)
2# grilled chicken (garlic, salt, pepper)
2# browned ground beef (onion, garlic, salt, pepper)
3# Czech Meatballs (subbed the pork for beef)
Mashed Cauliflower
Faux ratatouille (stewed tomato, zucchini,  eggplant, onions, and garlic)
Piles of prepped veggies.  (Cucumber, carrots, celery, bell peppers, cabbage, salad greens)

 The Torn ACLs:  Can’t Say No To Friday