Your body hates pain and loves convenience. It will always search for the easiest way to perform a physical task, and that method is often the least effective for your physical development.
These shortcuts the body takes are called “cheats,” and they are something everyone has to figure out and work past.
On the other side of the coin, there are exercises and practices that some enthusiasts may consider cheats. However, some of these examples are misconceived. Cheats are methods your body uses to make exercises easier and “cheat” you out of proper muscle activation. Cheats are not usually conscious decisions and only are when you recognize and deliberately don’t address them.
Cheats are things you fix. However, some of the fake cheats can greatly enhance your routine.
Here are some examples of both.
Cheat: Low intensity workouts (when your goals warrant high intensity)
How hard is it to lift your routine weights? Are you feeling any sort of strain or load on your body? If your goal is to get strong or gain muscle and the answer is “no,” then change your routine.
There’s a time and place for low intensity. Injury recovery requires all low intensity all the time. Corrective, physical therapy exercises develop otherwise overlooked muscles, increase mobility and create well-rounded physiques—and they’re low intensity by design. Low intensity exercises fix posture, correct bad form and adjust for muscle imbalances.
However, there’s a difference between low intensity exercises and low intensity workouts.
If you want to build strength or gain muscle mass, you’re going to need some kind of muscular overload. That means you’ll be pushing your muscles past their limits. Fix this cheat by recognizing your body’s desire for comfort and deciding to put in your best effort.
“No pain, no gain” may sound silly, but it’s true. Creating muscular overload isn’t pleasant. If you’re doing exercises in the right form, a lot of weight is placed on relatively small parts of your body. Moving that weight will get hard. There will come a point where you’ll need to push past a mental block and lift despite the pain.
Don’t torture yourself. Rest between sets and don’t target the same muscles two days in a row. You can create overload in other ways if the weight’s too much.
However, any routine meant to create overload will have higher intensity exercises and movements. It’s not something to be avoided.
Not a cheat: Short workouts
The idea that you need to be in the gym every day for two to three hours a pop is ill conceived.
There’s nothing wrong with “short” workouts. You won’t need more than 45 minutes if you do your research, schedule, practice good form and give your best effort. If the session goes long, an hour is more than enough.
There is a caveat, though. Your goal is to create muscular overload. If you want to do that in 45 minutes to an hour, you’ll have to be intense. This means you need better workout plans, and you need to give your best effort every time.
You similarly don’t need to exercise every day. Recovery is necessary for further exercise. More importantly, recovery is when all the muscle and strength gain we are looking for actually occurs.
Three days of training a week is more than enough if you’re doing total body. Five days is the most when you’re doing push-pull, bro splits or other similar routines.
Quality will always be more important than quantity.
Cheat: Compensating on form
Humans are masters of compensation. If there’s an easier way to lift the weight, your body will find it.
If you’re having trouble performing a bench press, you may start pushing your shoulders forward to gain more lift. If you’re struggling with your shoulder raises, you may shrug. If you struggle with a bicep curl, you may lean and swing your body forward to get more momentum.
Avoid these compensations at all costs.
Exercise targets certain muscle groups. Altering an exercise’s form shifts that focus. This makes building the desired muscles harder than necessary.
Learn your form, learn what muscles you’re supposed to hit, learn how you’re supposed to hit them, build your mind-muscle connection and start lifting. If you catch yourself compensating, pause for a moment to correct your form and refocus your mind.
Not a cheat: Lower weight
Unless you’re going for strength, you won’t always need to put more weight on the bar.
You can still gain muscle using low weights. In fact, it may be the easier way. Heavy weights are inherently harder to lift. Since it’s harder, your body wants to compensate more. Lighter weights let you focus on form and tension. You may not be lifting a lot, but you can create tension by slowing the motion down and actively contracting your muscles.
Cheat: Stopping mid-set (when you could have done more)
Have you ever been in the middle of a set and stopped once it started getting harder to lift?
It’s a common occurrence, but it still needs to be fixed. The mind compensates just as much as the body. If your exercises start to hurt and become hard to perform, you are going to naturally want to stop. This is a mental block that every fitness buff needs to overcome.
You can’t overload the muscles and stimulate growth if you stop exercise once it gets hard. Overload only happens when you can continue despite your brain telling you to stop. To fix this cheat, you need to recognize when you want to stop and decide to continue anyway.
It sounds like a lot of willpower, but that needn’t be the case. Setting a rep goal will give you something to work toward each set. They’re also an easy way to record your strength and limits.
Having an exercise buddy is beneficial here. A spotter ensures your safety during every lift, letting you worry less about injury and more about reaching your goal. They’re also great for hype.
When push comes to shove, the act of thinking about your motion will make performing that motion uninhibited easier.
Don’t perform until muscle failure every exercise. If you literally can’t lift the weight anymore, take a minute to rest before your next set. However, always keep your limitations in mind and actively attempt to work past them.
Not a cheat: Low rep exercise to failure
This one comes down to pride and bullying.
Performing an exercise to failure — i.e. doing reputations in good form until you literally can’t anymore — is an invaluable method for gaining muscle and building stamina.
Everyone has their own levels of strength and their own levels of stamina. Therefore, an exercise to failure for you may involve more reps than one for another. All too often you see people get on a beginner’s case because they can’t perform a lot of heavy repetitions to failure.
Of course they can’t, they’re beginners. Even if they weren’t, athletes perform with low weights and low rep ranges, too. There’s no reason for this stigma other than having an excuse to bully someone.
A beginner performing a set to failure with lower weight or reps is just as useful as an expert doing failure with high reps or weight. Both involve pushing your muscles to and past their limits, both involve breaking mental blocks that tell you to stop performing and both give you muscle gain and strength benefits proportional to level of experience.
Don’t bully yourself if your sets to failure are lighter than others’. Focus on pushing past your mental blocks and getting one more rep at whatever level you’re on.