Monday, July 26, 2010

I didn't know about the GDR...

It's pretty difficult to practice, read, learn and talk about strength training without coming across steroids, and other performance-enhancing drugs in our little sub-culture. There hasn't been anything that's come into the strength training world that's had such a monumental impact quite like anabolic steroids. I've written about them quite a bit in the past and I'd like to think that my knowledge breaks down like this: I know quite a bit more than most non-steroid users but still not nearly as much as a steroid user would know. I wasn't much different than many people whose opinions were changed about steroid use when I watched, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" for the first time.

It's hard to walk away from that movie without feeling like the side effects of steroid use is heavily exaggerated and, more accurately, completely made up. It's like that Bodybuilding magazine editor in the movie said: "show me the bodies!" It's difficult to find someone who died a death from steroids alone. Hulk Hogan confirms that: most of the troubled, dead wrestlers he knew of were using a lot of other stuff in addition to steroids. "Steroid Expert" Dr Gary Wadler is frequently criticized by peers because he makes claims about the dangers of steroids without backing them up. According to the movie, the amount of studies done regarding medium and long term use of steroids by athletes and/or healthy individuals is pretty thin, bordering on insignificant.

Chris Bell went so far as to say, "we don't know, those studies haven't been done." I don't know if he ever heard, or saw, the data from the German Democratic Republic (GDR, Eastern Germany, during the cold war) systematic administration of steroids to its "amateur athletes" during the cold war.

A brief intelligence dump: Eastern Germany was something of a fly speck in Europe. They had a third world economy and somehow, they became a dominant force in any Olympic event that they placed an athlete in, particularly the women athletes. Of course, they did this with a systematic, government-sponsored steroid regimen aimed at creating super humans (eugenics, anyone?). As far as the ruling party of the GDR was concerned, athletics was the ideal way to show the superiority of their country and their socialist system. They carefully concealed this program and event to this day, there are a lot of documents regarding this entire project missing.

The Sports Medical Service in the GDR (the SMD) began using Oral-Turinabol heavily but they also experimented with some of the common favorites, like Dinabol, Deca-Durabolin and Androstendione (McGwire!). The list goes on and on. Almost all of the early leg work concerning anabolic steroids and androgenic hormones occurred in Germany prior to WWII so the Germans, East and West, were most likely well ahead of the rest of the world when it came to steroids. The Eastern Germans used this chemical-sports-armament aggressively, finding the naturally-strongest and best young sports talent in their country and starting them on these drugs as early as 14 years old. The SMD noted that the dramatic effects of the steroid use was much more pronounced in women than in men so their doses were noticeably higher. Their success in the Olympic Games was stunning, with Eastern Germany frequently placing high up in medal counts.

It came at a price. Many of the girls complained bitterly about the severe acne, the deepened voices (one athlete even sued the Government after the unification, claiming that the steroid use damaged her voice, making it impossible for her to work as a translator), heavily-increased libido (which was alluded to being a cause of bisexual behavior and transsexual feelings amongst female athletes) and the nearly uncontrollable hair growth. The SMD noted that the drug regimens consistently led to increased and unusual muscle size, tightness, and cramps. A cute phrase was inserted into the report too. "Unofficial Collaborators" noted problems with liver and kidney damage as well as gastrointestinal issues in many of the athletes.

I was a little surprised to hear about these documented side effects since I'd never heard of a lot of them occurring in users prior to reading a symposium on the SMD's Doping program. Unfortunately, Performance-enhancing drugs have entered this foggy realm of knowledge where the facts are twisted and turned to suit the needs of both sides of the argument. The anti-steroids crowd link everything from 'roid-rage to heart attacks to cancer to suicidal thoughts to steroids and PED use. You'd think, from listening to them, that steroids are as bad, or worse, than cocaine addiction! The pro-steroid crew say that this is all lies, admitting to the more cosmetic (acne, increased hair, etc) and reproductive issues with the drugs. Unfortunately, the truth gets lost in the middle and nobody seems interested in finding it. That truth is that steroids, and many other hormones used as PED's, have side effects that are occasionally more serious than making a woman look like a man.

Let's always remember something: there is no such thing as a safe drug. Everything has side-effects and the key is to consider the damage done by the side-effects and compare it to the state of the person's health that's taking the drug. Obviously, an AIDS patient taking 'roids probably doesn't care about some muscle cramps, acne, or shriveled balls. A normal, healthy person is a much different story.

So, what difference does this all make? If someone makes the choice to take steroids, then what do we care? We hear questions like this a lot. I couldn't have answered any of them convincingly a while ago. The answer to all of this became more cleared after this epiphany. I think of the sports that I played in and the strength training that I do as a chance to develop myself into a better overall person and not simply as a means to satisfy my carnal desires and pride. Let's face it: these aren't honest or helpful reasons to train and compete in the long run. Taking steroids only feeds into the seemingly never-ending desires to be better and better for no other reason than for the sake of itself. It certainly doesn't help the body or the mind expand and grow together in a meaningful way in the long term.

At this moment, even the most lowly backyard strength trainer showing a younger person the way to strength is an example of how to live, albeit a small but significant way. Do we want to show them how to be the best, most honest, and complete human being that they can be? Or do we show, by example, that ego-driven pride and desires are the only good reasons to pick up a weight?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Overbuilt. Overpriced, Junk. Equipment. Build your own!... and Kettlebells too!

Liberal or Conservative? I noticed that some people who are politically liberal (I'm not) perceive the need for some sort of oversight to watch over business because they believe that if they're not regulated, said business will proceed to plunder the common people for all that they're worth. I'm not here to discuss whether that perception is correct or not but I know that a lot of the people who are into strength training are a bit more liberal than they are conservative. I've always wondered why that was.

If we take a good look at the way some of the strength industry operate, it's a small wonder why some people want the oversight!

Randy Roach appropriate entitled his last book about the history of Physical Culture, "Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors" because so much of the industry operates in a manner that Mark Twain once noted about the Gilded Age Robber Barons: "Get money. Get it quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it dishonestly, if you can, honestly if you must." That attitude is alive and well in the equipment end of the strength training business.

My blog has always had a focus on minimalistic strength training. FACT: You can get very strong using almost no equipment at all. I admit that there comes a time when we need some stuff, no matter how basic or crude, to continue getting stronger. Some of it's simple. Some of it can be built. Often times, we have to buy it, and that's where things get murky. So much of the fitness equipment is overpriced, overbuilt, just flat-out junk, and frequently over-hyped into suspicion. So, I'd like to take some time to discuss buying equipment, as I eagerly await the arrival of my new Ironmaster Kettlebell...

I swear if toothpicks became strength training tools, someone would find a way to jack up the price of them by 300%. It doesn't matter how lowly and/or simple the piece of equipment is, if it's for exercise, the price goes way up. A few months ago, I thought about buying some chain for my training. Chain is popular with Powerlifting too. Many add it onto barbells so that as they lift the barbell, they lift more chain off the ground, making them stronger at the top of the lift and improving their lifting velocity (or so I'm told). This is a prime example of price gauging just because it's marketed as exercise equipment:

1/2" chain (two-5' lengths, 28 lbs) sold for powerlifting: $79.95 ($7.99/foot)
1/2" chain,36' length (88 lbs)sold for pulling & towing: $125.13 ($3.47/foot)

Amazing. When it's this simple, you're probably better off to look around, outside of the fitness box. You'll save quite a bit of money by doing so.

The gym is the blacksmith shop where human durability is forged. That's why we describe strong people with metallic adjectives, usually iron. Naturally, a body like that has to be made out of iron. So goes the love affair with stuff made out of massive amounts of iron and steel. Stuff like that lasts a long time and instills pride and confidence but how often do you need something that could survive a carbombing and still get you into shape? What you need to keep in mind is some of this stuff built for commercial gyms that see dozens of people use it, and abuse it, on a daily basis. You don't need that kind of durability if you're the only one that will use it for a couple of time every week. Sure, it may be nice to have but it might not be needed.

If it's for toning, sculpting, or firming a specific body part, then it's probably junk. Humans rose above all other animals because of our ability to make tools. Many of these items aren't a good testament to our proud, tool-making tradition. You're better off lifting a stone than buying these sad, stupid little toys.

Bodyweight guys also have the distinction of being among the last of the DIY strength training equipment guys. That makes sense since budgetary concerns drive a lot of us to BW. So, we're less inclined to buy it when we can build it at a fraction of the cost. This isn't always a bad thing, contrary to what the equipment merchants will tell you. Making your own gear is as old as strength training itself. Improvisation and building stuff was once a proud tradition amongst strong men.

That doesn't mean that it's also something that everyone should do. If you're a good and reasonably talented DIY person in all other aspects of your life, then you're probably a natural to build your own stuff. If you're not a naturally handy person, then you're probably better off buying it. Some stuff is easy enough to improvise. Some of it takes a little more insight. One, vivid example that sticks out in my mind was someone who asked me if they could improvise Push-up T-handles by driving a nail through a piece of wood dowel.

If I have to explain why this is a terrible idea, then you need to buy your gear!

I have to hand it to Pavel and nearly every other person who has peddled kettlebells. This might be the best-run promotion of a piece of fitness equipment ever! Try as I may, I can't think of anyone who has, so successfully, linked a training protocol to a piece of equipment so unnecessarily. Yes, whatever you can do with a kettlebell, you can probably do with a dumbbell. There is no KB training! There are exercises people are hypnotized into believing that can only be done with KB's. Wake up, people!

That doesn't mean that Kettlebells are worthless and over hyped (well, one out of two isn't bad). I own some KB's and I like training with them. I like that they're more awkward and imbalanced than dumbbells. My home gym space has a 6'7" ceiling and I can't put a dumbbell overhead. I can do this with a Kettlebell. Plus, a KB fits very nicely behind the seat of my pick-up truck, making it nice to travel with. It also takes up slightly less space than a similar-weighted DB.

I have practical reasons for owning them. You might have some practical reasons too. On the other hand, if you have dumbbells then you probably don't need kettlebells. Anyone who has ever looked into KB's quickly realizes that one KB (pick a weight) costs the same as two dumbbells of that same weight. Is it price-gauging? That's possible. I have another, possible reason: I remember reading somewhere (unrelated to KB's) that forging or casting a large hole in any piece of iron is kind of difficult to pull off. Whenever such an object has to have a large hole in the finished product, the foundry or blacksmith will often leave some stock metal in the hole and grind it out of the finished product to enlarge the hole. So, KB's may be more expensive because they're a bit more more complicated to make.


Buying fitness equipment is always going to be a jungle where the inhabitants of the bush are looking out more for their bottom line than your physical needs. We all need to keep this in mind less we buy things we don't need. We can actually learn from watching and following the crowd. There are many different gospels and religions in strength training, praying to different fitness Gods. Yet, if you look at the gear that they all use, you'll see certain pieces frequently popping up. That is the stuff you'll probably need. Anything beyond those usual suspects, well, be suspicious...

...and hold onto your wallet.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Little Reminder about Cheating

I've talked about this once in the past but I figured that another post, to serve as a reminder wouldn't hurt. Pretty regularly in forums the question of consuming something that isn't good for the body comes up, usually posing the question: How bad is it for me? There are the usual suspects: cheat meals, alcohol, Marijuana, and cigars. As usual, people are probably looking for a black and white answer to the question and the answer really is... depends.

What is sure, beyond question, is the above-mentioned items aren't good for you. The more of them that you consume, the more your athletic performance and health will be jeopardized. It's just that simple. The workout doesn't lie. If you consume stuff that is bad for you, you'll be slow and week midway through your workout in a way that you wouldn't be if you had just stayed strict and abstained.

That isn't beyond question. The issue is: how much of a difference does it make in the big picture? That's one part of the "depends" answer. If you're training for a big athletic event, then you're looking to squeeze every possible bit of physical advantage that you have out of your body then that cheat could be the small detail that screws everything up. These are times when small details make the difference.

That's not the only situation where the modest, small cheat could be disastrous either. If you're new to clean-living physical culture, then these lapses in good eating could be disastrous too. This is a new start and a time to reprogram. Habits are hard things to break and allowing a cheat meal could derail the whole process, much like a single cigarette causes relapse back into smoking. I still say habit but some call it addiction. Sometimes I think that's too strong of a word. Sometimes not. If you think that you have a food addiction, then avoid cheating like the plague.

On the other hand, if you've got the motivation, the work ethic, and a finely-tuned, in-shape body, then I know for a fact that it's entirely possible to let yourself go and have some junk food or smoke something from time to time. I know because I do it and I still stay pretty fit. I said it before and I'll say it again: Don't delude yourself though. Just because you can afford the set-back doesn't suddenly not make it a set-back! It's damage that you can afford because you spent the other 90% of your life eating right and working out that allow you to fix the damage without too much long-term consequence. Don't push things!

I'll repeat this again too: the workout ultimately tells you how detrimental it was and how often you can afford to do it. If you note that you're slower, feel sickly, can't put out the reps, need more time to rest, or can't work out as long overall then it's catching up to you and you need to dial bad stuff back. You pushed it too far and it's time to get serious again.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Why am I doing this?

Most of my Fridays have a common work-out that I decided to try out several months ago. It consists of three exercises:

1. A close-grip, thick towel pull-up with my CLC backpack
2. Ring dips, placing the rings a little more than shoulder-width apart

I'd do two supersets of each and then...

3. 16 kg Kettlebell snatches (I had some knee pain for a while so I substituted 2 minute wall chairs)

A while back when I was doing this workout, I finished up, looked in the mirror (admission: I'm a narcissist and I've been that way since I was three years old), expecting to be satisfied with the way my body looked with my muscles so heavily pumped up. Instead, a question appeared in my mind...

If everyone I met looked like me[muscular, powerful, attractive, etc], would I still want to do this?

The thought continued to manifest itself. If everyone on Earth could do 20-30 of these pretty difficult pull-up variations in a workout, would I still care to do them? Was I too infatuated with the desire to be different? If I wasn't different (better?) than anyone else, would I even bother doing all of this work? I'd like to say that I immediately answered with a resounding NO, as quickly as this line of self-questioning entered my mind but I didn't. I knew lying to myself in this important moment of self examination would be foolish. Those thoughts have been swirling around in my head all day today, before I braved the thick, humid air of my basement gym to start doing this workout again.

Desires. Pride. Enlightenment. Self-improvement. Insecurity. What's driving why we do what we do here? Do we allow weak emotions driven by an ego operating in a distorted sense of self dictate why we go to a gym? Our body will only be able to be able to feed these emotions for so long. Eventually, it will break down under the stress of trying to satisfy these weakening emotions. When it does, then what?

We can use our bodies as a learning tool for our minds. I'm sure we've all talked ourselves into believing that we can't do something and, not surprisingly, our bodies don't, even when we know that it was possible all along. Emotions have powerful controls over our muscles. There is research that strongly supports this. It's times like these where we realize that good strength training is a great form of meditation. It becomes an art of feeding positive forces into your life.

The body can be a powerful window into the mind, particularly in how we choose to present it. We all know of a bad picture that showed up years ago of a famous bodybuilder. He looked flaccid and weak, hardly the famously muscular body that we all practically worshiped and wanted for ourselves. That body was likely the result of an unyielding ego pushing to make the biggest, strongest and impressive body that the world had ever seen. A sculpture of narrow-minded pride and desire. Maybe the time came when that body just couldn't support what the ego thought it should be. Then, it was time to disregard the body and let time do its worst.

The body and mind are a lot like a married couple. They need each other but they bicker and have to be forced to work together even when they don't want to anymore. What they should be doing when it comes time to work out is force themselves together and find a way to make it work for the improvement of both. That's what I remembered as I stood in the middle of that room in my basement as I pushed through the pain that my body felt. That's what a good workout is really made of, not by what pleases me as I look in the mirror. That's what should be motivating me to do what I'm doing.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

I Still had a good time.

Pipe Dope shouldn't be applied to a pipe couplings over 2" thick if you ever want them to come apart easily. I learned this a long time ago and drilled it into the heads of any guy that works with me (although after trying to do it once, one doesn't really need reminding). No matter what those who make pipe dope say, it always hardens. When it hardens, the fittings might as well be welded together because, too often, they'll break apart when you try to get them apart. That's exactly what happened when i tried to put two 4" diameter fittings apart about two weeks ago. The only problem was that when they broke apart, I was violently thrusting backwards on them with a pipe wrench. When the fitting shattered, I flew backwards very awkwardly, wrenching the hell out of my lower back.

If it wasn't for that, I might have enjoyed my time at Bodytribe Fitness a lot more.

It all started when I was told to rent a car and leave my pick-up truck at my job site in Sacramento the night before I was supposed to fly home. I got in touch with fellow ex-blogger and friend Pierini. I asked if he wouldn't mind giving me a lift up to my hotel so I could get my rental car that I had picked up from the airport and left at my hotel that morning. He went one better: he offered to bring me over to Bodytribe to meet the crew. I initially hesitated since I had to work with my lower back in excruciating pain for the past day and a half and I would be next-to-worthless for any kind of meaningful training. According to him, the crew was interested in meeting me and it was simply a meet and greet sorta thing. No training necessary.

This was a little strange to me. I guess I sort of used to that line between internet and real life not being crossed very often. I was wondering what their impression of me was, so far. We all say that we don't care how people see us but that's probably not true. I certainly don't want to be seen as a typical know-nothing internet tough guy by people that I respect. Plus, I'm not the typical strength trainer.I didn't start training like most other people did. I never got into any strength sports. I haven't been seriously involved in sports since middle school. I also don't have any real instruction in any of the lifts or the protocols surrounding them. I'm largely self-taught and I started out with BW and worked my way outwards. I'm knowledgeable, just not in the ways that most strength trainers are knowledgeable.

So, I agreed to go. I still wanted to check the place out. As soon as I walked in the door, I knew I was going to like this place. Pierini told me that this place was "different." This kind of different was awesome. No machines of any kind. No mirrors. It was clean and well kept but not polished and fake like most other gyms. It was real, and serious. There's lots of kettlebells, clubs & such, Atlas stones, free weights, and a couple of climbing ropes going up past the ceiling. I met Chip and he did EXACTLY what I thought he was going to do: he showed me his new Alpha Strong Sandbag. I admitted that I was wrong. That hurt. Still, that's a first-rate sandbag! He's a super nice guy too. The whole crew is, actually.

Pierini showed me around, introducing me to some of the ladies and gentlemen that train there. I did a lot of listening and looking. I talked a little bit about my training as a "Bodyweight Guy", my job, my training etc. I'm normally a little quiet when I first meet people so I listened a lot about their training. I was hiding my excitement. I REALLY wanted to do some training. I had to remind myself that the most painful part of my back was sitting and I had to fly cross-country the next day. They even offered to recommend a good chiropractor in town.

I could have stayed for much longer and chatted with the crew. As it turns out, Pierini, Chip and I have one thing in common: we all are the kind of people who do the 30 minute goodbyes (you know, you try to say goodbye but then proceed to talk for 30 more minutes). I still had work (ugh. Ouch!) to do and we hadn't even picked up my car yet at the hotel. So, we pulled some of the artwork off the wall and snapped a few pictures before saying goodbye. Overall, I was left with a still-burning urge to return. My project that brought me out to California is two parts. The next part starts in October. Hopefully, I'll get sent out there for that one. If I do, come hell, high water, or hideous work schedules I'm going back there to train. It's an awesome place filled with even more awesome people. If you're ever in the vicinity, you've got to check this place out!


Juice. Chocolate. Moderate.

Sally said that eating right is confusing these days. To some degree, I agree with that assessment. The increased industrialization of our food supply combined with the extreme difficulty of trying to decipher various experts' opinions as to what constitutes a healthy diet only serve to confuse the hell out of anyone making an honest venture into healthy eating country. One person says that this food is healthy. The other likens it to slow poisoning to consume the same food. Milk, meat, soy, grains, peanuts, bread, fish... The list goes on and on about controversial foods.

This time around, I'm going to take a look at two foods. One has a reputation for being junk food. The other is renowned for being healthy. The truth is that they both have the potential to be complete garbage as much as they do to be a healthy addition to your diet.

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A century ago, Eugen Sandow, at the twilight of his strong man career but still very famous and popular, decided to spend some of his reputation and good name by packaging some of the super-cheap waste products from Cadbury's production line and labeling it as "Sandow's Health & Strength Cocoa." After he was forced out of the healthy chocolate business, everyone was happy to continue on with life, accepting chocolate as a sweet tooth indulgence and laughing at the notion that chocolate could somehow be good for your health.

That isn't quite right though. As we're starting to find out, chocolate actually has some health benefits. It's high in antioxidants (GOOD and USEFUL antioxidants). It's got a lot of the same phytochemicals as red wine, along with the same hearth-healthy benefits. People who consume some chocolate on a weekly basis live longer and there is even some evidence of improved brain health from chocolate.

Of course, we all know that this doesn't apply to these...
This isn't chocolate. This is a joke. For starters, you need to eat dark chocolate to get the health benefits that I'm talking about. When I say dark, I'm talking over 60% cocoa content. I much prefer 70-80%. Then, you need to watch the sugar content. Any health benefit can be quickly off-set by adding way too much sugar, the sin of the overwhelming majority of chocolate bars.

I didn't just drain all of the fun of eating chocolate though. What you have to do is get a better quality chocolate bar. Good quality cocoa doesn't need 30g of sugar per bar to taste good! Try some of the single origin bars from Lake Champlain Chocolates. Others have gotten very adept to adding other ingredients instead of the sugar to make the bar less bitter, such as Vosges does. Another addition back into the bar that I'm seeing is the Cacao nibs added back into the bar. I like it! It adds a nice crunch to the bar and it's loaded with fiber and other health benefits.

If you checked out the links then you probably noticed that such bars are really expensive compared to the Hershey bar. That's not a bad thing. It's just a way to teach moderation. Even with the health benefits of chocolate, this doesn't mean that you pound down a bar at a time. Whenever I enjoy a Vosges bar, I'll eat two or three squares at a time (maybe a quarter or a third of the bar, in other words. 3/4-1 ounce) along with some fruit and/or nuts. Moderated like this, and with the right bar in hand, chocolate can be good for you.

Chocolate had Sandow. Juice has Lalanne, and it's imposters. Juice, however, gets a much better rep than our previous food item since it comes from foods that we all know that we should be eating more of, right? If it came from a fruit or a vegetable, then it must be healthy.

Well, not so fast. The problem with many juices is that they're high in sugar. Often times, very high. That's a huge problem since many people forget that what they drink is as important as what they eat. The result of this lack of oversight is consuming far too many sugar-laden calories that end up on thier mid-section. When you extract the juice from either, you often times leave behind the fiber that moderates the effects of the sugar naturally occurring in the fruit/veggie. While some fruits and veggies aren't very high in sugar (which are usually way too thick to drink, even when juiced), the juice makers solve that "problem" by blending them with other juices (apple juice. Sometimes, white grape juice) that are high in sugar. Even worse, they'll add it in the form of corn syrup or other nasty stuff that, hopefully, you don't need me to tell you are very unhealthy.
The juice joke.

If you're going to do juice right, you have to be just as picky as you would be about chocolate. Supreme Fitness God Lalanne has the right idea with making your own, since you control the ingredients. For more convenience, you're better off buying the stuff located in the produce section of the grocery store. Yes, it's more expensive. Yes, this is another opportunity to learn to moderate. Chances are, you should only drink half of it in one sitting and save the rest for later. It would be a better idea to stick with the bottles labeled smoothies, or the stuff with pulp in it. It's got a little fiber and chances are, it won't be as high in sugar. Also, be on the lookout for added sugar and stay away from the stuff that has a lot of apple juice in it. One key ingredient that's been showing up in some juices which I love is coconut water. It's low in sugar and high in potassium. Plus, it just tastes good.

Has anyone caught the re-occurring theme of moderation yet in this entry? The western diet, particularly the American diet, suffers from a severe lack of moderation. The saying, "if a little is good then a lot is better," just doesn't apply here and never did. Food doesn't need to be consumed by the pound and liquids (other than water) need not be drunk one 20 oz serving at a time.

Another re-occurring the of the BW-Files is the role of the right exercise to determine what you should be eating. If you ever had any question about whether or not something is good for you, always remember my advice: Consume the item in question, wait 2 hours, then train. If you don't' feel right, then chances are that you shouldn't be consuming it in the first place. Healthy food should be energizing and 9 times out of 10, the exercise test will show you what you should eat.

The third and final point: watch out! Both of these items show how anyone can take a seemingly healthy item and by over-manufacturing it turn it into some kind of monster that has no business crossing your tongue. Don't be ashamed to be fussy, read labels, and do some research. It's your health and nobody else is more motivated or qualified to watch out for it than you.