Definition of life hack
informal: a usually simple and clever tip or technique for accomplishing some familiar task more easily and efficiently. “Life hacks,” as they are known, are all about eliminating life’s manifold frustrations in simple and deliciously clever ways. The best involve tricks that are free, efficient and stunningly obvious in retrospect, deploying household items (like the humble toilet roll) for purposes beyond their wildest aspirations.
Want the Best Training Hacks?
You could spend decades learning from your own trial and error, and they do say that failure is the best teacher. But as they also say these days, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” Why not fast-track your path to success in training? That’s the intent here, with the 12 best “hacks” to save you literally years of wasted time and effort.
Work All Muscle Groups Equally Hard
“Duh, obviously,” you say to yourself, rolling your eyes. Everyone knows that! Sure, but do they all practice it? Nope! Guys have a tendency to devote far more time and effort to the “show muscles,” namely the chest, shoulders and arms, and in comparison neglect the back and legs by giving them short shrift in training with short, lackluster workouts. Back and leg training are brutally demanding, but these are the two largest muscle complexes in the human body. Hard work on back and leg days translates to a much bigger human being when it’s all said and done. A guy who is 6 feet tall and 220 pounds with a good chest, shoulders and arms but weak back and leg development would be more like 260-270 if those two areas were in proportion to the rest of him.
Another factor to consider is that even if you start out training without being overly concerned about owning a balanced physique, you may very well change your mind later on down the line, particularly if you decide you want to compete. It’s tough playing catch-up to other body parts that have a head start of years. Just train everything as hard as everything else. You won’t ever regret it, but you might regret not doing it eventually.
Don’t ‘Bulk Up’
Please learn from my mistakes, because this is a stupid one I made for the better part of two decades. Conventional training “wisdom” tells us that the best way to build more muscle mass is to have a dedicated portion of the year we call an “off-season,” in which we train as heavy as possible and stuff our gullets with as much food as we can manage at every meal before vomiting. The goal is to gain a substantial amount of bodyweight, with the understanding that some of it will be in the form of lean muscle tissue and some will be pure body fat. The typical ratio of these forms of tissue is where things typically go to shit. Most guys will gain 5 to 10 pounds of fat for every pound of muscle, and that’s due to abandoning all cardio and eating copious amounts of fast food and junk and rationalizing it as “I’m bulking, bro.”
Bulking up is a bad idea. Not only is it unhealthy to carry all that excess body fat, but you look and feel like crap. No one who even remotely considers himself an athlete should get out of breath climbing a flight of stairs or feeling like his head is going to explode when bending over to tie your shoes. Stay in decent shape. You should always be able to see the vague outline of your abs and some muscle separation in areas like your quads, shoulders and upper back. Keep some cardio in your routine year-round. This way, not only will you look in shape at all times instead of a big chunky dude, but you will also have a much easier time when it’s time to get lean for the summer, or if you decide to compete, or whatever.
Don’t Waste Your Time on Low Reps
Training for strength and training for muscle growth are two different things, and how you train will dictate whether your increases will be in either size or strength. Social media, especially Instagram, has made it trendy to post maximum-effort lifts, usually on squats or deadlifts. Stimulating muscle growth requires putting a target muscle under tension and keeping it there for 40-70 seconds. This has been proven to be superior in many studies. When we talk about optimal rep ranges for muscle gains, it’s not the actual number of reps that is significant but how long it takes to complete that many reps. With a controlled rep tempo, it will take you roughly 40-70 seconds to do 10 to 15 reps. Doing one to five reps as often seen on IG is woefully insufficient. I guess it all matters what your ultimate goal is. Do you want to impress your followers with how much weight you can lift, or impress them with a great physique with far more muscle mass than the average gym rat? If it’s the latter, stop wasting your time showing off with mega-heavy weights that are doing jack shit for the development of your physique.
Eat Your Carbs Around Your Workouts
The late John Meadows often spoke about the importance of “peri-workout nutrition,” or the nutrients you take in before, during and after training. These are the absolute best times to consume carbohydrates if you want them to be utilized rather than wind up as stored body fat. Unless you’re someone who genuinely needs tons of carbs and calories to make any gains at all, your best bet is to eat the majority of your day’s carbohydrates around your workout. Have them in the pre-workout meal, the post-workout shake and the post-workout meal. This way, they provide the fuel for the workout and then replace the spent muscle glycogen. Most people don’t need carbs with every meal, and will in fact accumulate more body fat if they eat that way.
Never Do Cardio Before Weights
You would think this one is a no-brainer, but I still see people doing all their cardio before they hit the weights. This is a terrible idea because you won’t even tap into your body fat stores doing cardio with all those carbs in your system. All you will accomplish is depleting your muscle glycogen stores before your weight training, when you need them for fuel and to achieve a good pump. You will also be at least somewhat fatigued after your cardio, which will take away from the quality and productivity of your weight-training workout. Doing weights first allows your body to more readily tap into body fat stores so that your cardio actually burns fat like it’s supposed to.
Avoid Training Overlap
Some things just seem to be such common sense that we assume everyone knows them and we fail to reach those who don’t. The skeletal muscle system of the body has many connections. Chest training will always involve the front delts and triceps, just as the biceps and rear delts are always part of your back training. That’s why you would never want to train those smaller assisting muscles the day before the larger torso muscle group. Training back the day after biceps would make them more of a weak link than they already are. You also would not want to do deadlifts and squats on consecutive days, as they both involve the quads, hams, glutes and lower back. Do your best to separate “related” muscle groups. This is one reason I love and recommend the push/pull/legs split. All the pushing and pulling muscles are done in the same workout, so there is never a risk of training overlap that could sabotage your workout performance and gains.
Rely on Real Food
There are some jobs and situations in which you might have to legitimately rely heavily on bars and shakes to meet your daily quota for protein and calories. Everyone else is just being too lazy to meal prep and take the time to eat solid meals. I often say that it’s the eating that’s the most demanding and time-consuming aspect of training.
Aim for Maximum Contraction
Anyone can lift weights, but only a few can forcefully contract the target muscle with each rep. That should be your goal on everything aside from basic power movements like squats and deadlifts. The difference between heaving up 10 reps of barbell curls and flexing the living shit out of your biceps 10 times in that set is worlds apart. Which one do you think will stimulate more growth in your biceps? You should always strive to feel the muscle working as you perform the exercise. This seems to be especially crucial in both back and chest training. Plenty of men have pushed and pulled all kinds of weight yet had little to show for their efforts. Once they learn to contract the lats and chest and make those muscle groups finally take the stress and do the work, they see growth even after many years of being mired in stagnation and seeing no gains in those areas. Flex and squeeze the target muscle!
Put the Phone Away While You Train
Are you the parent of a young child in school or day care? Are you a cardiac surgeon on call in case someone needs a transplant and a fresh organ just came in from a car crash? Some people legitimately need to be accessible at all waking hours for emergency situations. The rest of us are simply addicted to our phones, and I don’t use that word lightly. Getting the most out of workouts requires focus and concentration on the task at hand, something that’s impossible when you are distracted between every set by scrolling through your IG feed or responding to texts and DMs that are far from urgent. For those of you who are in denial and will insist that you’re able to get the same quality of workout even while checking your phone 50 times per session, I challenge you to put the phone away in your locker just once and see what a difference it makes. I strongly suspect you will realize your workouts are both more productive and efficient, and you may very well decide you can put the phone away while you train from now on.
Don’t Rest Long Between Sets
Remember what we just talked about regarding time under tension? Just as low reps don’t build as much muscle as higher reps for that reason, resting too long between sets doesn’t build muscle as well as keeping your rest periods shorter. This time it all comes down to the pump. As we train a given muscle or muscle group, blood is diverted into it, leading to that swollen appearance and tight feeling we all relish as “the pump.” Nutrients are shuttled into the muscle and waste products are cleared, and the extra blood volume serves to enlarge the muscle temporarily. It also pushes against the fascia, the tough connective tissue that encases our skeletal muscles, and many believe that breaking up the fascia with a maximum pump helps to allow for more expansion/growth. It’s one of the reasons veteran coach Hany Rambod came up with the “Sevens” aspect of FST-7, performing seven sets of an exercise with only 30 seconds rest between. Some of you might feel resting longer is better because you will recover more of your strength. Maybe so, but you will also lose heat and warmth and become more susceptible to injury if you let the muscle get “cold” over and over again in the course of a workout. For the most demanding exercises like squats and deadlifts, 90-120 seconds is OK. For just about everything else, you should try to get to your next set within 60 seconds, give or take.
Don’t Listen to Naysayers
This is wonderful advice for life in general, because people will discourage you at every turn whenever they see you going after your hopes, dreams and especially goals. When it comes to weight training and transforming your physique, you will be told your goals can’t be achieved, and they may even provide you with a whole list of reasons why. They often couch their deterrence as trying to help you or save you from wasting your time and effort. People will tell you your genetics suck, you can’t build any muscle or lose any fat without drugs, or generally do their best to convince you to quit trying. Know that they are projecting their own self-hatred and feelings of failure and inadequacy on to you. Don’t listen to the haters, even when it seems as if they have your best interests at heart. They rarely do. They were too scared or lazy to go after their own goals, so they do their best to talk you into joining them in misery. Remember, misery loves company, and very few people you know – maybe not even your friends and family – truly want to see you succeed.
There you have it, my best training “hacks” based on years of experience, input from countless experts and athletes, and most significantly, my own mistakes over the 38 years I’ve been training. You can save so much time and make markedly faster progress if you apply the suggestions laid down here. In the end, it’s always better to learn from the mistakes and successes of those who went before you.