Are You Making Progress?

Progress GraphIf you don’t accurately track changes, you’ll fail to reach your goals.

Remember the client from my popular article, Is Your Scale Deceiving You?

She didn’t track her progress accurately and would get frustrated when her weight hadn’t dropped after a week of hard work. The self-doubt would creep in when she didn’t see changes in the mirror.

She would change her diet and training thinking that she just hadn’t found the magic routine yet; the diet that would solve her entire problem and get her the lean, sexy body she envisioned every night before falling asleep.

Little did she know, her poor tracking was preventing her from achieving her goal. She took 2 steps back for every 2 steps forward.

But tracking can be cumbersome, time-consuming, and frustrating. Here’s how to do it the right way.

Strength and Performance

While it’s possible to get stronger without adding muscle, it’s impossible to get stronger and lose muscle.

Strength is an indirect indicator of what’s going on with your body.

If you’re losing strength, there’s a good chance you’re losing muscle. If you’re getting stronger, you know that you’re at least maintaining muscle – probably gaining some.

Since strength only gives us indirect information, you need to look at other factors alongside it.

The Deceptive Scale

I talked all about the scale and how it lies to you in Is Your Scale Deceiving You?

Briefly recapping, there are many factors beside fat and muscle that go into your total bodyweight. You can fluctuate up to 15 pounds without actually having changed the amount of fat and muscle you have.

This doesn’t mean the scale is useless. Much like strength, the scale is another important data point that helps tell the whole story.

The Emotional Mirror

Improving your appearance is the end goal. Wouldn’t it make sense to track it?

The mirror can be tricky. You get dressed in front of it, focusing on the pudge still hugging your belly button despite a smaller waist and an added inch to your chest.

The mirror relies on memory; Do you see a change based on what you saw yesterday? A week ago? A month ago?

Pictures are more objective.

Take them every other week under the same lighting and at the same time of day so you can objectively compare the before and after to get a good look at any changes you’ve made.

The Best Tool: The Tape Measure

The tape measure gives us solid numbers. If your arms got bigger, the tape measure won’t lie. It’s also extremely cheap and convenient.

Take measurements at multiple points to give you the most accurate idea of how your body is changing.

Here are the 12 points I like to measure:

Tape Measure– Right Arm Straight, Left Arm Straight

– Right Arm Flexed, Left Arm Flexed

– Right Leg Straight, Left Leg Straight

– Shoulders at widest point

– Chest at widest point

– Upper Stomach, just below sternum

– Middle  Stomach, at bottom of rib cage

– Lower Stomach, just above hip bones

– Hips, at widest point

If you care about the size of your calves, include them in the measurements as well.

Why Body Fat Testing is Usually a Waste of Time

Body fat testing has such a wide variability between instruments.

The cheaper, convenient methods are inaccurate or require a skilled measurement taker. The accurate ones require fancy equipment and are expensive.

Other than skin calipers, I don’t like to include body fat tests in tracking. Even then, I don’t place much stock in caliper numbers as user error can ruin the results.

If you track using the other methods provided, you won’t need a body fat test. You’ll know if you’re making progress and headed towards your goal.

The Right Tools Make All The Difference

Measure progress correctly and you’ll know whether or not you’re headed towards your goal. You’ll know what is providing results and what is simply a waste of time.

Now that my client tracks her progress accurately, she’s been improving rapidly.

She realizes whether or not she’s making progress, even when the scale doesn’t budge.

Without accurate tracking she would’ve gotten frustrated, hopped to another program or diet, and lost progress. Now she smiles whenever she sees herself in the mirror.

How do you track progress? Tell me about it below!

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Is Your Scale Deceiving You? Part 2

Scale NumbersLast time I talked about some of the contributors to odd weight changes on the scale – specifically fat, muscle, stomach content, and glycogen.

Read that article first by clicking here.

Today, I’m going to get into the one that causes the most variability and confusion.

Water

Water doesn’t contain any calories, yet it weights 2.2 pounds per liter—as a result, your weight can fluctuate without any change in fat or muscle.

When you lose fat, there’s a small amount of water that goes with it, increasing the change in scale weight (although as mentioned in the Fat section, there’s not much there). The same holds true for the reverse, where you gain fat. You gain a small amount of water with it, but not much.

Cool WaterWhen you lose muscle, you lose a lot of water since that’s primarily what it’s made of. That’s why there’s only 400-500 useable Calories in a pound of muscle.

When you gain muscle, you’re also gaining mostly water. However, building muscle is Calorically expensive. There’s energy that goes into its creation that doesn’t get stored as weight. Your diet for growth needs to supply not only the building blocks, but also enough energy to put them together.

As I mentioned in the end of part 1, a gram of glycogen is stored with 3 grams of water. Glycogen depletion or supercompensation will cause big swings in total weight.

Water gets stored or lost when you gain or lose fat, muscle, or glycogen, but there are also other factors that manipulate water balance and cause weight changes.

Creatine

Creatine is very similar to glycogen in that it stores water with it. It does this in the muscle and is a good thing.

Dymatize CreatineIt’s not uncommon for trainees to gain a few pounds when they first start supplementing with creatine because of the extra water weight. It’s not bloat – it’s muscle swelling.

Increased strength, better muscle growth, improved cognitive function – these are some of the benefits of creatine. It’s a supplement that has a lot of research to back it up which is why I have my clients take it.

Don’t be afraid of the initial weight gain. It’s only water and the benefits of creatine are worth it.

Sodium

Sodium is another nutrient that causes the body to hold water. Unlike creatine and glycogen, sodium stores water outside of the muscle cell and causes you to look softer and less defined.

Sodium stores water outside of the muscle cell and causes you to look softer and less defined.

– Share The Knowledge

Total salt intake doesn’t determine whether you hold water. It’s the change in daily intake that causes water gain or loss.

This means that if you normally eat a lot of salt, you won’t hold more water than someone who normally eats low amounts of salt (at least not because of the salt).

In fact, bodybuilders or wrestlers looking to drop water weight will actually increase salt about a week before they need to drop weight, and then cut salt on the last few days. This creates a bigger drop in relative salt intake the few days before the competition, which causes your body to lose water.

Cortisol

Cortisol is the major stress hormone, and it makes you hold onto water. Anytime you’re stressed out – for any reason – you’re going to be a few pounds heavier because of it.

The first few days of a new workout routine you’ll get sore and notice your weight jump up before dropping back down to normal levels. You’re doing something you’re not used to and your body has less of a defense prepared for it.

Markers of muscle damage are much higher after the first few sessions of a new routine than they are when the routine is in full swing – the so-called “Repeated Bout Effect”. This creates a larger cortisol response, and more water weight is gained.

Another common effect of cortisol occurs when on a hard diet. Reducing Calories and carbs is stressful and causes cortisol to remain elevated.

Once you get into the 12-15% body fat range and below, fat loss typically goes through stalls followed by “whooshes”, where you lose several pounds all at once and look noticeably leaner.

The idea thrown out by Lyle McDonald was that as fat cells empty, they temporarily fill with water until your body chills out and releases it. While there’s currently no research to support this, it does appear to be true anecdotally, and is probably mediated via cortisol.

In support of that idea, carb refeeds will trigger whooshes. When food becomes plentiful again, your body finally relaxes and you drop a few pounds. Carb refeeds cause your body to release a bunch of insulin, which has a cortisol blunting effect, making this a plausible explanation.

Cortisol is released during any life stress. If you’ve had a couple of busy days with little sleep, you can expect to be holding onto some water.

Your Scale Is Deceiving You

Taking everything I’ve talked about so far into account, how big of a shift in weight is possible without any change in fat or muscle?

Let’s use an average male who typically stores 500 grams of glycogen and weighs 175 lbs on an normal day.

© Copyright 2011 CorbisCorporationIf he goes on a low carb diet and reduces his salt intake, he can quickly lose between 5 and 7.5 pounds (4.5-5.5 from glycogen and water, and another 1-2 pounds from salt and water).

He hasn’t changed at all in the muscle or fat categories, but the scale is now 5-7.5 pounds lighter!

Now let’s say he decides to do a stressful, glycogen depleting workout (something he’s unaccustomed to), followed by a massive carb refeed to supercompensate his glycogen stores up to 750 grams (and as I said, this can be as high as 1000-1250 grams in some people).

During his carb refeed, he piles on the salt to make the food a bit tastier, and doesn’t limit his water intake. He also decides to load up on creatine.

His potential weight gain? 10-15+ pounds. 

~7.5 lbs from glycogen with water

~1.5 lbs from salt and water (which might be even higher since his salt intake was low before this)

~1-3 lbs from creatine and water

~1-3 lbs from cortisol and water (from the new workout)

These are estimates, but they’re conservative estimates. A 15+ pound change in one day is likely without any change in fat or muscle.

These estimates don’t even account for the extra food in his gut, which would certainly add some pounds.

This is a bit of an extreme example, but it illustrates the very wide range of fluctuation possible – mostly from water.

The hardest thing to overcome is the weeks of dieting without any drop in scale weight. You’re working so hard, and yet the scale isn’t budging.

If you’re sure that you’re creating a deficit, don’t lose hope. Your hard work will show itself soon enough.

Don’t Be Fooled Again

Whenever you weigh yourself, always take into account everything that might be affecting it.

Are you sore from a stressful workout? Are you carbed up or depleted? Has your sodium intake changed in the past few days? Have you been drinking a lot of water or are you dehydrated? Did you eat a lot of high volume food that could be sitting in your gut? Are you stressed out? Did you just start taking creatine? Are you potentially losing muscle?

Tracking is absolutely important – just make sure to be mindful of what the numbers mean. The scale weight can be very deceptive.

Next week I’ll give you the full rundown of how you should track your progress to get the full picture of what’s actually going on.

Do you have any stories of times when your weight did something crazy? Share them below!

Is Your Scale Deceiving You? Part 1

Checking the scale can be stressful.

It’s do or die – have you made the progress you want?

I had a client who was obsessed with her weight. Each morning, she’d brew a strong cup o’ joe and step on the scale – only to see the number stay the same. Sometimes it would even go up.

Progress shouldn’t be based on a fickle measurement that just tells part of the story.

You know you want one now.

Side tangent: How amazing are peanut butter oreos?? Imagine eating milk’s favorite cookie while having a big jar of Skippy hugging your tongue. Yeah – it taste’s like that.

It’s only useful if you don’t get hung up on it. Otherwise the inevitable day-to-day fluctuation in weight can be a motivational killer for those trying to lose weight.

“+5” pounds on the scale and you think you’ve undone weeks of hard dieting because you had a few extra peanut butter oreos yesterday.

When you first start a diet, you’ll get an initial burst of weight loss.  If you aren’t prepared, you’ll be disheartened by the slower progress that follows. Did the diet and training stop working? How can you tell?

Understanding the factors that affect these fluctuations helps you use the number on the scale for a productive measure and sheds light on what’s really going on.

Fat

The dreaded one – no one wants to get fatter. When the scale goes up, it’s hard reassuring yourself that it’s not all blubber.

In reality, the gooey stuff can only be lost or gained at moderate speeds.

A fat cell (also called an “adipocyte”) is 90% fat and 10% cellular machinery, water and other “stuff” like cholesteryl esters and adipokines. Therefore, weight gained or lost from a fat cell is almost entirely fat.*

*There’s an odd thing that happens during fat loss involving water, which I will come back to.

A pound of fat contains roughly 3,500 Calories. If you cut out 500 Calories a day, you’ll lose a pound in a week. Cut out 1000 per day and you’ll lose 2 pounds a week.

This assumes that your body is burning only fat to cover the deficit, which often isn’t the case. Some muscle loss is common during dieting. Depending on the diet, some people can put on muscle while losing fat, which skews weight change even more.

Pure fat loss can still only create a moderate weight change at most. For very overweight/obese people, a true fat loss of up to 3-4 pounds per week is possible. 1-2 pounds is the average. If you’re getting extremely lean, you’ll only lose ½-1 pound per week.

This means obese people can see a ½ pound loss everyday, which is pretty good and moderately fast. They would have to be doing everything right though, and their fat loss is still very likely to be masked by other factors that I’ll soon talk about.

For the average person, a 1/8-1/4 pound loss per day can be seen. For the very lean people, this number drops to 1/8-1/16 pounds per day.

If you’re losing weight faster than this, you’re losing something else in addition to the fat. While it’s possible to get faster fat loss than the numbers mentioned above, it’s unlikely and won’t last very long.

Muscle

The next component to weight change is the good stuff – muscle.

Muscle is composed of the actual proteins, cellular machinery, glycogen, and lots and lots of water – like, 70% water.

This is where things get a little confusing.

3500 Calories equals a pound, but only if you’re losing fat. Muscle has a different composition, and doesn’t contain as many Calories.

Fat cells are 90% fat, which has 9 Calories per gram. Muscle is 70% water and 20-25% protein, which only has 4 Calories per gram.

Scale NumbersThis means a pound of muscle only has about 100-125 grams of protein, which can be broken down and burned off for 400-500 Calories. This Calorie value is much lower than a pound of fat.

Say you drop Calories by 500 per day to lose a pound per week. If you do everything right to maintain muscle mass (not considering the potential to gain muscle and ignoring fluctuation of other components of weight), then you would lose 1 pound every week.

Now let’s say you create the same deficit but you do everything wrong. You don’t eat any protein and you stay in bed all day so as to eliminate muscle stimulus. If you only burned muscle, you could lose about 6-7 pounds per week!

While this situation is unlikely, it demonstrates that losing more weight than you expect doesn’t mean you’re losing more fat. Seeing the scale drop fast is only a good thing if you can be sure that you’re losing the right type of weight.

Stomach Content

Undigested food in your stomach and gut also contributes to weight fluctuations.

If I were to eat the exact same Calories and macros while keeping the volume of food to a minimum, I would weigh less in the short term than if I ate tons of high volume foods like fruits, veggies, and legumes.

If I chugged ~2 liters of water, then I would weigh about 5 pounds more.

Once food and water gets digested and absorbed into your bloodstream, that’s when it becomes muscle, glycogen, fat, or gets burned off or excreted. What’s in your stomach and intestinal tract adds to your weight, even if it never gets absorbed.

Glycogen

You can change your weight pretty quickly through glycogen manipulation, although a lot of this is due to water (which I’ll address next).

The typical male holds around 500 grams of glycogen on average, which is a little over 1 pound. Females and lighter males will hold less, while heavier males and those with more muscle mass will hold more. It’s also possible to supercompensate glycogen, which allows 1000+ grams to be stored.

The catch is that for every 1 gram of glycogen stored, ~3 grams of water are pulled in with it. So that 500-gram fluctuation now becomes a 2000-gram – or 4.5 pound – fluctuation. If going from a depleted state to a supercompensated one, your weight can increase by up to 10 pounds from glycogen and water alone.

In part 2, I’ll talk about the biggest contributor to odd weight fluctuations, and discuss some practical considerations. Keep an eye out for it.

Has your scale ever deceived you? Let me know what you did about it in the comments below.

The Versatility Of Complexes

Bear BarbellWhenever I used to hear or read about complexes, I immediately just grouped it in with cardio workouts. After all, that’s mainly what they’re used for, right?

But complexes have far more application than simply getting your heart rate up, even if that is a major benefit they provide.

They can also be used to shorten a workout and provide an intense heavy stimulus, or they can be used as a light day to aid in recovery while still getting your cardio on.

In my eyes, complexes are extremely versatile, depending on how you program them.

Conditioning, Work Capacity, And Cardio

We’ll start with the obvious one: If you want or need to add cardio into your program, whether to speed up fat loss or improve your conditioning, complexes are one of your best options.

In The Best Fat Loss Cardio: Fasted Sprint Training, I cited research showing that high or low intensity, full range of motion cardio was least likely to have a negative effect on strength and muscle mass.

This is one of the reasons I hardly ever prescribe moderate intensity, long distance running. It has one of the highest risks of strength and muscle loss due to the short range of motion and moderate intensity.

I went on to talk about how sprinting was a great option due to the fact that it’s high intensity and full range of motion.

Complexes take this a step further by not only working more muscles through a more complete range of motion, but doing so in even shorter and higher intensity bouts per muscle group.

Let’s say you did a complex as follows:

Cardio Complex

A complex I often use with clients.

In this complex, each major muscle group is working for about 20-30 seconds at a time. Because you switch between each movement quickly, your cardiovascular system is overloaded, trying to get enough blood and oxygen to all the different muscles that are working.

This not only provides an extraordinary cardiovascular workout, but it minimizes the stress to any individual muscle group.

As much as I love sprints, it’s all leg work. Too much sprinting can interfere with recovery from heavy leg exercises, whereas complexes are much less likely to do so.

While overall stress needs to be taken into account for recovery, you can get away with much more cardio if you use complexes, since no single muscle will get buried.

Short, Heavy Workouts

With a slight tweak of rep prescriptions and exercise order, you can turn a cardio based complex into an extremely time efficient, heavy workout.

Let’s take the complex from above and change a few exercises and the rep ranges:

Heavy Complex

Now you’re able to use a much heavier weight. The big movements, Back Squat and Straight-Leg Deadlift, can be done for higher reps since they’re typically stronger movements, and the smaller, weaker movements use lower rep ranges because they will be overloaded by a much higher weight.

If you chose a pretty heavy weight and did these exercises completely separate (5×10 on Back Squat, followed by 5×3 Overhead Press, etc.) you’d be in the gym for at least an hour, and it would be a pretty good workout.

But combine them into a complex like this and you can have the workout done in 20-25 minutes, depending on how long you rest.

I’m certainly not suggesting that complexes can replace all heavy work. Some movements don’t fit well into complexes (like the Bench Press), and the weight you use might have to be slightly lighter than if you did the exercises separate.

However, if you’re short on time and need to get a tough, heavy workout done in under half an hour, complexes are your best option to allow you to get in a decent amount of volume.

Light Days

The concept of light days is a very important one for trainees to grasp. If someone understands why and when to use light days, it means they have at least some understanding of how the stress-recovery cycle works for strength and muscle gains.

The problem I always disliked about traditional light days is that they were almost too easy and a little boring. You basically just go through the motions with a light weight.

But with complexes, you can still get light work for each lift while having more fun, getting it done faster, and getting a decent cardio workout all at once.

A light day on a program like The Texas Method might look something like this:

Front Squat 3×5

Overhead Press 3×5

Romanian Deadlift 3×10

If you rest 3 minutes between sets, you can expect a workout like this to last around 45 minutes with warm-ups.

If you combined this into a complex, however, you get the same amount of work for each lift, but you get it done quicker, and you get a cardio workout.

Light Complex

With this complex, exercises and rep prescriptions are chosen to force you to use a lighter weight. The weight you can use for Front Squats and RDLs is limited by what you can Overhead Press.

Another way to create light days is to use your conditioning to limit the amount of weight you can use.

Consider the following Dumbbell Complex:

DB Complex

In order to make it through this beast of a complex, you’re going to have to use a lighter weight. Not because your strength is limited, but because your heart is going to be thumping hard than a bass bin at a Skrillex concert.

This method provides an extraordinary stimulus for conditioning, while still keeping it light on the muscles.

Now I should note that using complexes for light days won’t always work; Sometimes you need a true and complete light day in order to recover from a stressful workload. It has been my experience, however, that if you get to that point, you might be better just taking the day completely off.

The Complexity Of Complexes

Now that I’ve given you 4 different complex workouts, each to be used for a specific purpose, you have no excuse not to use them in your workouts.

These workouts are fun and effective, and they’ll save you tons of time while simultaneously boosting your conditioning and work capacity.

Do you use complexes in your workouts? Are you going to start using them? Let’s discuss below.

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Q & A: Balancing Bulking And Cutting – Part 2

Question MarkRecap:

On Thursday last week, I started answering a Q&A about balancing bulking and cutting. It got a bit long so I decided to split it into 2 parts.

If you missed the first part, check it out here.

Question:

I would love your take on dieting.

How to balance Cut and bulk. How to loose the fat while keeping the muscle. How to bulk without gaining fat…

What are your experiences?

Answer:

In part 1 I talked about 2 of the main concepts I use regarding bulking and cutting, so in part 2 I’ll talk about the other 2 important concepts I use.

Scale Weekly Training Volume With Calories

Back in the 80’s, bodybuilders would increase their training volume and frequency while switching to higher reps and lower weight in order to “cut up” and get ripped.

Unfortunately, only the ones taking steroids were successful. The steroids allowed them to recover from the high workload, which also had them burning more Calories (thus making the cut even more effective). The steroids also maintained their muscle mass when they dropped the heavy work.

80's Bodybuilders were also known for having ridiculous mustaches.

80’s Bodybuilders were also known for having ridiculous mustaches.

For us naturals, volume needs to be scaled with Calories, and training needs to include some heavy tension oriented work. If you’re increasing training volume, you need to increase Calories (to a point)***, and if you’re cutting Calories to lose fat, you need to reduce your training volume.

***Once the surplus of Calories passes a certain point, you’ll just be adding to fat stores with little benefit to recovery. Calorie intake scales with recovery, but not indefinitely. Don’t try to out eat too high of a training volume – It just won’t work. 

The simple truth is that when Calories are reduced, your recovery is reduced.

This means that when you switch to a cutting phase, those heavy, high volume, growth stimulating workouts that you were able to recover from in 2-3 days can now only be done about once a week. Or the per workout volume needs to be decreased. Or, in some cases, both.

This is something I’ll discuss more in a future article, but reducing volume and/or frequency by 1/2-2/3 while maintaining the intensity (weight on the bar) will provide enough of a stimulus to maintain muscle mass while keeping the stress-recovery balance in check. Again, be sure to include work in the 5-8 range to best maintain muscle mass while dieting.

When bulking is the goal, volume can, and should be higher. How high depends on your goals and your recovery ability. it’s impossible to give blanket recommendations here; just recognize that whatever volume works for YOU will be higher on a bulk and lower on a cut.

If strength is a priority, stick to lower reps (1-5) and a decent number of sets. The neurological stimulus will optimize strength gain, but the total work will be too low for optimal mass gains. Total reps per muscle will probably be around 20-30 and frequency might be anywhere between 3 days a week, and just 1 true heavy workout a week (with lighter workouts throughout). You might do a few sets in the 8-12 range for accessory work, just to get a bit more volume.

If muscle mass is a priority, include 1-2 low rep sets for strength maintenance, and focus the majority of your effort in the 6-9 rep range. Include some work in the 10-12 rep range as well, and some accessory work as high as 15 reps. Strength gain will be slower, but muscle gain will be higher (assuming you have enough of a base of strength to stimulate mass gain to begin with). Here, aim for at least 40-60 reps per muscle group, 2-3 times per week.

Deload And Take A Break

You can’t go pedal to the floor forever. Everyone, and I mean everyone, needs to take a break every once in a while.

This means deloading for 1-2 weeks.

Deloading: Sit back and relax

Deloading can be done in several ways (again, something I’ll write about in a future article). Very basically, weights can be dropped to 80% or volume can be dropped by 1/2-2/3. Again, some circumstances warrant a need to drop both.

I should mention that you can also deload by dropping frequency, but I don’t like this approach as you get too much of a detraining effect and it doesn’t really give you a break from going maximally in the gym. Just recognize that it’s another option.

Anyway, deloading let’s the accumulated fatigue from training dissipate, and will ensure that the next block of training will be more productive. With fatigue gone, you’ll recover better between sessions.

Also during this time, Calories should be brought to maintenance.

If you’re in a cutting phase, this allows some hormones to reset and your metabolism to recover. It also helps prevent muscle loss while you take it easy in the gym and assuages your sanity by allowing you to eat some more food and enjoy some of the junk you’ve been craving during the deep trenches of the last cutting block.

If you’re in a bulking phase, this prevents fat gain while you’re taking it easy in the gym. I will note that some people will get some growth when they allow themselves time to recover, so eating at a slight surplus may help take advantage of that. Just realize that you also may be risking more fat gain if you do this.

In general, I’d recommend deloading every 4-16 weeks. Yes, I realize that’s a pretty wide recommendation, but this is, again, something that is variable depending on your training status, nutrition, current training, recovery ability, etc. It’s hard to be more precise when there’s so many factors that could effect the optimal timeframe.

Just recognize that you do need to deload and take a break every once in a while.

Conclusion

These concepts will accelerate your progress and prevent backsliding when you transition between goals.

You’ll notice that I didn’t give out many specifics, and that’s because each person will likely need something a little bit different. In general, I can say that protein should always be high, around 1-1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight (less if you have a lot of fat, though), you should eat lots of veggies, and drink a fair bit of water. I think it’s also obvious that you should go the gym consistently and always try to get stronger, regardless of your goals.

Feel free to leave questions and comments below. If you have a good question for another Q&A, head over here and send it over.

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