There was a time, back when I first started lifting, that I was a complete idiot. I mean, in terms of training knowledge and sophistication, I was about as dumb as you can be and still breathe through your nostrils.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but you probably were, too. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, if you’re reading Testosterone, you’ve probably acknowledged that what you were doing wasn’t working, and you came here looking for something better.
You know that it makes little sense to build an entire workout around curls and extensions. You know there are close to a million ways to work your abs that are better than the basic crunch. You know that the classic workout configuration, three sets of 10 reps, only works for a few weeks at a time, and if you’re like me, it only took you 17 years to figure it out.
But tell the truth: Wasn’t training, in certain ways, more fun when you didn’t know what you were doing? I don’t want to say that training isn’t fun now – I’ve been doing it 36 years, and still look forward to my next workout as soon as I’m finished with my last one.
Still, there’s a price you pay when you know what you’re doing in a weight room. You stop lifting for the sheer goofy pleasure of getting your favorite muscles all pumped up, and start focusing on exercises and techniques that actually make a difference in the way your body looks and performs.
I may be the biggest advocate there is of training with a purpose – I have to be, since I make my living writing and editing books that show people how to do just that – but lately I’ve wondered if it makes sense to do smart things every single time you lift.
I mean, if we have cheat meals, why can’t we occasionally have cheat workouts?
Your cheatin’ parts
Here’s what got me thinking about this:
Every summer, I get an uptick in emails from readers asking me how to follow the workouts in my books while they’re on business trips or vacations. My advice is pretty simple and, if I’m allowed to say so myself, sensible:
“If you don’t think you’ll have a chance to work out, don’t obsess over it. Travel is stressful enough without worrying about whether you can find a gym to do your carefully calibrated, wave-loaded, undulating-periodized, Alwyn Cosgrove-designed workouts. A week off in the middle of a program won’t hurt anything. Chances are, you’ll come back stronger, thanks to the increased recovery time you’ve given your muscles, joints, and nervous system.
“If you do find a gym, but it’s not fully equipped for whatever part of the program you’re on, just do whatever you can that comes closest to what you’re trying to do.”
But then I wondered why I didn’t follow my own advice – or, more to the point, why I don’t have the ‘nads to advise readers to do what I do. When I travel, I usually go out of my way to work out, but my workouts are never close to whatever I’m doing in my regular programs.
In fact, I look forward to my travel workouts because they fall into one of two categories:
• If I know I’m going to use a commercial gym, a place big enough to double as a hangar at Area 51, I’ll treat that gym like Disneyland for meatheads. I’ll walk in without a plan, and do whatever the hell I feel like doing. If I feel like knocking out set after set of arm exercises, I’ll do it. If I feel like getting all pumped up for no reason other than getting all pumped up, I’ll do it.
If I feel like doing exercises in the wrong order, or mixing high and low reps with no logic, or playing around with machines I’ve never used before, I’ll do it. I’ll shut off the part of my brain that knows I shouldn’t do any of these things, and unleash the idiot within me.
• If I know I’m going to be working out in a hotel gym where the chrome-plated dumbbells stop at 40 pounds, I’ll indulge my inner kinesiologist and make up a workout that kicks my ass before I even get to the end of the dumbbell rack. After all, you can’t do a Chad Waterbury routine in a gym set up for Richard Simmons.
I’ll do body-weight exercises, unilateral exercises, exercises that challenge my balance and coordination and core stability. Since the chances are good I’ll have the place to myself, I’ll pull out every odd-looking exercise I can remember from every strength and conditioning conference I’ve attended, and keep going until I’m either completely exhausted, or I’ve fallen and gotten blood all over the chrome.
Strategy #1: Ferris Meathead’s day off
Remember this line in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?
“Rules? In a knife fight? No rules!”
This was followed by what screenwriter William Goldman called “the most aesthetically exquisite kick in the balls in the history of modern American cinema.”
So let that be a lesson: If someone says we should have “rules” for a “cheat workout,” he’s getting ready to kick you in the balls. Except I’m not.
I just want to throw out a couple of general guidelines, the most important of which is pretty simple:
• Have fun, but don’t do anything that will fuck up your progress in your real workouts.
• Don’t go to failure on leg extensions if you’re going to be doing squats in your next real workout.
• Don’t test your 1RM on anything – save that for a serious, planned workout. If you try it on a screw-around day you run too big a risk of injury.
• Don’t do exercises that beat up your joints or require a lot of recovery time. Squats and deadlifts are the best exercises we have for strength and mass development, but squats are tough on your knees and deadlifts burn out your posterior-chain muscles. That could have an effect on your next workout.
Similarly, barbell shoulder presses, wide-grip barbell bench presses and parallel-bar dips can grind your shoulder joints. Finally, although it’s a smaller concern, dips and chin-ups can be tough on your palms. So if you’ve got a big audition for your next hand-modeling gig, skip the dips.
When in doubt – and believe me, this is the only context in which I’d offer this advice – pick the easier exercise over the harder one. You wouldn’t pick broccoli over a baked potato in a cheat meal, so don’t choose pull-ups over lat pulldowns in a cheat workout.
Strategy #2: Burning chrome
If the point of Strategy #1 is to have fun by doing silly shit in a gym filled with serious iron, the goal here is to challenge yourself by doing serious work in a room set up for anything but that. You aren’t going to build mass with these dinky dumbbells, so get that thought out of your head before you even walk in the room.
Instead, try some or all of these:
“Look, Ma, One Hand!” Push-up Hold
Get into push-up position, your hands shoulder-width apart. Now, without changing anything else in your posture, lift one hand to your chest. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds, lower it to the floor, then repeat with the other hand.
If you struggle at first, spread your feet farther apart to give yourself a wider base. You should feel this in your core muscles. In fact, if you’ve been vague on what the whole “core” thing is all about, this single exercise will make it perfectly clear.
If your little gym has round dumbbells – the kind that roll across the floor – try a few sets of push-ups with your hands gripping a pair of them. There’s nothing fancy to this one; it’s just a simple and mildly challenging change-up for your core and shoulder-joint muscles.
If it’s too easy, experiment with wider and narrower hand positions, or try a three-point push-up: Lift one leg in the air for half your reps, the other leg for the other half.
Really Silly-Looking Lateral Raise
Grab a pair of light dumbbells. Sit on the floor, lean back, and raise your feet off the floor. When you feel tension in your midsection – and none in your lower back – knock out a set of lateral raises.
What I like about this exercise (which, as far as I know, I made up; I just thought of it one day during a hotel-gym workout) is that it makes you feel the connection between your shoulder-girdle muscles and the abdominal muscles that attach to your ribs and pelvis.
Traditional bodybuilding theology has you believe there’s no link between the top and the middle, but exercises like this one remind you that all your “body parts” belong to the same musculoskeletal system. Kumbaya, motherfucker!
The trainers in my gym have all their clients do a version of this exercise, but as soon as the trainers turn their backs, the trainees cheat by shortening the range of motion and using their support arm to make it even easier. You, however, will make it cheat-proof. For one thing, you won’t use a support arm. Stand free or die trying!
What I meant to say is, if you can’t do this without holding onto a support, then you have balance issues that you should address… before you slip and kill yourself.
Grab a pair of light dumbbells and stand on one foot. Lift your arms straight out to your sides. This is your starting position. Pivot forward at the hips until your upper body is parallel to the floor. Straighten up and repeat for as many reps as you can do, then switch legs and repeat the set. On a good day, I’m lucky to get five reps per leg per set before my balance gives out.
If you can get away with it, take off your shoes and do it barefoot; that should improve your balance and allow more reps per set.
Slant-Board T Sit-up
If your little hotel spa has a slant board, try the opposite of this exercise: Do sit-ups while holding dumbbells straight out to your sides. I love doing these, since they force your shoulder-girdle muscles into cooperating with all the muscles supporting your spine and flexing your hips.
That said, this exercise isn’t for everyone. If you try it and don’t feel as if you’re giving your lower back full support, stop the set and move on to your next exercise.
End-of-the-Rack Hang Clean and Front Squat
Grab the heaviest weights and stand holding them at arm’s length at your sides. Dip your hips and knees as if you’re going to jump, and then… jump.
As you extend your hips, knees, and ankles, shrug your shoulders. This should propel the dumbbells upward. Let the ends of the weights – the sides that are facing forward at the start of the movement – land on the caps of your deltoids. Your upper arms should be parallel to the floor and straight out from your shoulders.
As soon as the weights land on your shoulders, dip your hips again and do a front squat, lowering yourself until the tops of your thighs are parallel to the floor. Push yourself up, lower the weights to your sides, and repeat.
Flying Shoulder Raise
If you truly have the place to yourself, and it has a high ceiling, and there’s plenty of room to your sides, and there’s a padded floor to minimize damage if you drop the weight, try this full-body lateral raise that only a weight-room sociopath could love.
Grab a medium-weight dumbbell with your non-dominant hand (your left if you’re right-handed) and stand as if you’re about to jump: feet shoulder-width-apart, knees bent, torso bent forward slightly at the hips. Hold the weight with one hand between your legs. Now pull the weight to your side and toss the weight straight up over your shoulder. Put your entire body into it, as if you were throwing a bale of straw up onto a truck.
Catch the dumbbell on the way down, and immediately drop down for your next rep. Do three to five reps, then switch arms.
You don’t have to wait until you travel to do a cheat workout. I don’t recommend doing them often – that would just slow down your progress toward your real goals – but they’re a viable alternative for those days when you’re feeling burned out or stale. Like cheat meals, they have no lasting physiological value.
Still, they provide entertainment and perhaps even stress relief, and there’s nothing wrong with that.