At some point in my life, I began to feel concerns for self-preservation and I eventually had a rare moment of awareness where I realized I should start taking care of my health. I must have gotten half-way decent at addressing the health issue because I've had friends, acquaintances, and even students ask me what it is I do to get in shape.
I always dodge the question and promise to follow-up with some helpful knowledge resources. After years of making this promise, I’ve finally delivered. Here are the top 5 resources I’ve used to get in shape and stay in shape.
To anyone who wants to know what it is I do specifically, I'll have to pass on commenting for now. I’ve been working on my health since my younger sister was diagnosed with diabetes in our youth, so I have a long time of tweaking my habits. It would be difficult for me to list them all.
Also, health habits are and should be idiosyncratic to every individual. We each have a unique physiology, differing priorities, varying environments, and our own daily routines. What you do to be healthy should be chosen by you based on how effective it is in your life. If you’re sticking 100% to someone else’s plan, you’re probably missing out on better results.
Additionally, there’s no single model for being in “good shape.” You can be large and bulky or lean and wiry; neither is necessarily better than the other. At a basic level, achieving any shape requires the basic formula of "eat well and exercise.” But once you get past the basics, gaining weight is a much different objective from getting lean.
Some of the resources below relate to improving health as a whole, not just to improving how good you look shirtless. We’re just lucky that looking good without a shirt accompanies good health.
1. Start Here: The 4-Hour Body
A few words of endorsement: This book totally changed the way I think about my body. Start here if you’re looking to take control of any aspect of your health, whether its your shape or your sleep or energy levels. I can’t recommend this book enough.
The 4-Hour Body, by Tim Ferriss, teaches the principles for experimenting with your health. Using these principles, Ferriss provides a few methods to achieve specific results. Relevant for people looking to get in shape, the book covers such topics as fat loss, muscle gain, and improving strength and speed. Ferriss includes a fat-loss diet, called the "Slow-Carb Diet," that is relatively easy to follow and which has a popular following online.
The real value from this book, however, and the reason I think everyone should read it, is that the book teaches you how to take the incredibly abstract goal of “better health” and turn it into an objective that can be achieved through a process-oriented approach. Ferriss teaches principles and processes for smartly and effectively conducting experiments on your own health, including the importance of measuring and quantifying progress, the value in doing the absolute minimum necessary to achieve a goal, and the importance of testing. In short, The 4-Hour Body teaches you how to be a scientist (or a mad scientist) about your body.
This is incredibly valuable because rather than treat health as something to be controlled and changed, many people treat health as if it were the result of luck and mystic forces totally out of the realm of control. If you don’t think you’re in control of your health, you won’t try to control it, and if you don’t try to control it, you’re not going to be in good health. Our world just isn’t built for us to be healthy. Having an understanding that health can be reduced to a science is an important first step in feeling like you have the agency to make changes, whether you’re trying to sleep better or get abs.
If you think that "experiment” and “health” are words that only belong together in a lab, then this book would be all that much more valuable to you. If you’re not in health that you’re happy with, then limiting health experiments to doctors and labs isn’t a system that’s working for you.
If you pick this book up, try not to be intimidated by some of the terminology or by experiments Ferriss runs on himself. He can get into some obscure material, but the general concept is pretty basic.
Also, don't treat the book like an encyclopedia. Instead, think of The 4-Hour Body as an introductory textbook into taking control of your body. Ferriss does a great job of listing who he’s learned from, so if you find certain tips you like, you can go online to find more helpful content by that person. For example, I liked the stretching and mobility methods given by Kelly Starrett, and with a little Google action, I discovered his work, which I discuss below.
Bonus: The 4-Hour Chef
After publishing The 4-Hour Body, Ferriss published The 4-Hour Chef. If you’re trying to get in shape, cooking is almost a necessary skill. If you don’t know how to cook, this is a good entry point. As an extra bonus, all the introductory recipes in the book are low-carb friendly.
The 4-Hour Chef a book about learning disguised as a cook book. I think he does a good job of teaching both learning and cooking, but the cooking part is especially good. The book assumes that the reader has absolutely no knowledge of cooking and owns no cooking equipment. Ferriss walks you through buying all the cooking gear you need for each recipe without necessarily asking you to spend a ton of money. By the time you finish, you’ll have a repertoire of cooking skills and a kitchen full of the requisite gear. Like The 4-Hour Body, you should approach The 4-Hour Chef like an introductory book and not a comprehensive treatise.
2. Biohack: Bulletproof
Bulletproof (formerly, The Bulletproof Exec) is a site run by Dave Asprey. Controlling your health requires a bit of self-experimentation, but Asprey takes that self-experimentation to the extreme to attempt to achieve optimal performance.
The key word here is “optimal” — Bulletproof provides prescriptions to help people push their results to the limit using a comprehensive system for improving overall health and performance. Asprey lays out a thorough program to help readers achieve that optimal state, including a special diet, resources on sleep, and a store full of performance-enhancing products.
Asprey pulls from all sorts of resources, ranging from well-established scientific principles to newer and less-tested research results. The result is a mix of highly-effective techniques with some speculatory hacks. The Bulletproof Diet prescribed by Asprey, for example, draws on some well established science on insulin resistance and it's easy for anyone to adopt and test. I’ve stuck to what is essentially the Bulletproof diet for a couple of years and it’s been great for my energy levels and physique (I followed The 4-Hour Body's Slow-Carb Diet for about a year, and while it was easy for keeping abs, I feel I have more energy on the Bulletproof Diet).
Unfortunately, it’s a little harder to draw the connections for some of Asprey's other biohacks, such as his claims about lasers and mitochondria. But if you’re into experimenting on the edge of what’s recognized as science, there are some interesting concepts on his site to explore.
Asprey provides solutions for many of the same things Ferriss discusses in The 4-Hour Body, including fat-loss. The main difference between Asprey’s approach and Ferriss’s approach is in the trade-off between “optimal” and “efficient.” Asprey is focused on finding the limits of what we can do to our bodies. Ferriss focuses more on getting results with the least amount effort. Both approaches work great for different goals and situations and I wouldn’t call one better than the other, but Asprey’s approach is definitely less accessible than Ferriss’s. When you have to do weird things like wear sunglasses at night (which I do) and drink Bulletproof brand coffee (which I don’t), to be in the state for optimal human performance, the target of becoming optimal becomes expensive and challenging.
As a result, I feel compelled to include a caveat about Bulletproof: while Asprey has provided immense amounts of value on his site and in his podcasts, he has become increasingly focused on marketing his Bulletproof brand, so much so that he will interrupt interviewees on his podcast with non-sequiturs about his newest Bulletproof product. Asprey does a hell of a job making it seem like optimal performance is just one more Bulletproof product away, but tune those parts of his content aside and you’ll find a site full of incredibly helpful information.
Dave Asprey recently collected some of his insights into a diet book, called The Bulletproof Diet. I have yet to read it, but it's got solid reviews.
Bonus: Buttered Coffee/Bulletproof Coffee
Most famously, Asprey is the progenitor of buttered coffee or, if you want to use the brand name, “Bulletproof Coffee.” Buttered coffee is essentially what it sounds like: coffee with butter blended into it, along with coconut oil for extra fat. The buttered coffee is a great breakfast for people on a ketogenic diet, but if you’re looking for a healthier way to start your day than a basic-bitch bagel, I can’t recommend the buttered coffee enough. I’ve drank it every day since 2012, and I would hate to start a day without it.
The recipe to Bulletproof Coffee is on the Bulletproof site, but if you want to save on the premium brand and just get better tasting coffee, you can sub in non-branded coffee and non-branded MCT oil for the Bulletproof stuff. Don’t be cheap with the butter. Get the unsalted Kerrygold. Grass-fed butter makes all the difference.
3. Eat Well: Practical Paleo
If you’re going to get in shape, you have to eat well. It’s cheesy, but yes, you are what you eat. Unfortunately, finding appropriate eats isn’t incredibly easy, so if you really care about getting in shape, you’ll probably have to resort to some amount of cooking on your own, and for that, I recommend Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfillippo.
Practical Paleo is like two books in one. The first half is an accessible introduction to why food is important for your health and why paleo-like foods are particularly healthy. The second half is a cookbook full of recipes that are stupidly easy to follow. Most call for only a handful of ingredients and can be cooked with minimal amounts of cooking skill.
An aside: learning Sanfillippo’s technique to perfectly cook bacon was worth the $20 price of the book. I thought it was revelatory and I am dumbfounded as to why anyone cooks bacon any differently.
While you don’t have to buy a book to get healthy recipes, Sanfilippo aggregates recipes that are easy to follow and that can strung together into a meal plan. This eliminates much of the thinking you might otherwise have to do for yourself. And while you can learn the basics around what to eat from Ferriss or Asprey, you’re going to have to branch out to other resources if you want a comprehensive diet and don’t want to eat the same handful of meals.
If you don’t eat “paleo" foods or are turned off by the paleo cult, I would still recommend you give the book a try. The culture around paleo can be obnoxious, but this book isn't. It's simply about eating unprocessed foods that were created in healthy conditions.
If you don’t know how to cook, Sanfilippo covers some really basic techniques in the book. However, if you don’t know how to cook and want to get started on building your cooking skills and assembling a proper kitchen, check out The 4-Hour Chef.
Bonus: Fat-Burning Man
If you’re interested in eating well to look great, check out Fat-Burning Man, a site run by Abel James. He focuses on nutrition, but also covers general health stuff like training and finding supplements. His podcast is particularly good, and he gets access to some interesting guests. Also, the guy has a voice like silk and gold.
4. Move Properly: Becoming a Supple Leopard
Becoming a Supple Leopard is a book on how to move properly and how to fix movement-based injuries. It was written by Kelly Starrett, a doctor who started one of the first Crossfit gyms in the country and who now trains with Olympic athletes and military special forces. If you’re looking to train to get in shape, you want to make sure you understand the principles for moving properly, which is the core topic of this book.
Starrett begins with the basic movements like standing and walking (there is a correct way to stand), going all the way to handstand pushups. The focus on principles gives the book wide application. Bracing your spine and keeping your legs straight is not only good for standing, it’s good for running and lifting heavy things efficiently and without injury.
If you’re just looking to gain a little bit of muscle tone, then a tome on proper movement might seem esoteric. It’s true that most exercises look simple, but if you’ve ever seen that one guy at the gym who arches his back, shrugs his shoulders, and stands on his toes in order to achieve a curl, you know there’s much more to proper form than will come naturally to you or any other human. Also, if you want to spend the rest of your life in good shape, you’re going to be moving quite a lot. You may as well learn how to do it right. And, more important than getting massive pecs, the principles taught by Starrett have universal application for moving your human body through physical space.
The book also serves as a great resource for learning how to take care of your tissue. If you have muscle pain or you feel tightness when moving into certain positions, you can flip to the back of the book, find the color-coded section for the part of your body that needs work, and find a load of stretches and exercises that will help with your range of motion and recovery. Warning: some of the tissue work can be painful, but it’s well worth the improvements to your movement and health. Even if you’re not interested in doing a proper squat, the exercises for tissue treatment are worth checking out. Learning how to alleviate the basic pain that comes with being a modern human, such as the shoulder tension that comes from sitting at a computer all day, is worth the price of the book and a lacrosse ball.
My one critique of this book is that it can be a wordy. The title may hint as much. Don’t let Starrett’s writing style dissuade you from learning though. It’s worth the investment.
Bonus: Ready to Run
Kelly Starrett later wrote a book that draws the movement principles from Becoming a Supple Leopard and applies them to running. Ready to Run provides 12 guidelines for reducing running injuries and improving running performance. It also provides a set of stretches and exercises to help with any tissue problems you may face when running.
If you’re new to any form of exercise, and places full of metal and bros intimidate you, running is a more accessible place to start training, so this book might be worth reading. Even if you’re a running pro, you should check this out as it seems to be far from conventional. The book was co-written by TJ Murphy, a journalist and editor of a bunch of running publications, so the book is well tailored to runners and doesn’t have the same technical wordiness found in Becoming a Supple Leopard.
5. Train Different: Onnit Academy
If you’re looking to get strong or muscular without getting too exotic, The 4-Hour Body has some great introductory material to increasing your strength and gaining muscle mass; all stuff that you can do at 24 Hour Fitness or your local equivalent. If you want to try something new, I recommend checking out the training resources available at Onnit and at their knowledge base, Onnit Academy.
While conventional gym training (think dumbbells and pulleys) can be effective, it's a bit limiting, and I personally got bored of it. I also dislike big-box gyms. They’re crowded and there’s always someone taking up the squat rack. Over the last couple of years, I’ve sought ways train outside of the gym with tools that aren’t exclusively plates and dumbbells. Many of the resources I’ve enjoyed have come from Onnit.
Onnit sells equipment and provides educational material for what they call “unconventional training.” In simple terms, unconventional is simply that which is not conventional, and I think that literal interpretation gives a pretty solid definition of what Onnit provides. Rather than limit exercise to the limited movements done with a barbell, the equipment provided at Onnit is geared more towards compound and functional movement. They sell kettlebells, weighted ropes, sandbags, steel clubs, maces, and other badass-looking tools that get you moving in more complex and challenging ways than squats and curls do. In the past year, I’ve trained primarily with kettlebells and steel clubs, and I feel I’m in the best shape I’ve been my entire life.
Of course, Onnit isn’t the only provider of kettlebells or clubs. They do, however, happen to be the one single provider of such a wide range of cool gear. Additionally, their training products are competitively priced, especially the kettlebells (although you’ll have to pay a premium if you want to buy anything with a face on it).
To supplement their equipment offerings, Onnit provides a host of training videos at their Onnit Academy page. All of the Academy content is free. Even if you buy your tools elsewhere, they'll keep you coming back to their page. Nefarious.
Onnit also sells a line of foods and supplements. I’m not big on taking supplements myself, mostly because I hate having to remember to take them, but, from what I hear, Onnit's vitamins are pretty good and Alpha Brain is popular among my over-worked desk-jockey friends. I buy their MCT oil for my daily buttered coffee and I think it’s reasonably priced, but most of their supplements are in the premium price range.
If you’re looking for an efficient way to train, I highly recommend kettlebells. I’ve gotten great results with them, so I kept recommending them to friends. I couldn’t find a solid resource for complete beginners, so I made one myself. Check it out.