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5 workout hacks that may just surprise you

*Or 5 things you stopped doing in favour of gimmicky nonsense.

Image: Shutterstock/Uber Images

THE INTERNET THESE days is awash with articles which tell you all the secret ways to get more from your time in the gym.

The advice in these articles ranges from new ways to target a particular muscle with a novel band/wobbly ball/pogo stick workout, to ways to ‘hack’ your diet and somehow trick your body into losing fat by smearing coconut oil on your armpits and extracting your adipose tissue by osmosis.

While these articles offer great entertainment value and allow websites to charge advertisers a few bob because of the amount of clicks they generate, they may not offer you — the reader — the kind of information you need in order to make progress towards your goals.

Below I’ve outlined 5 ways you can ‘hack’ your current workout regime in order to jumpstart some stalled progress. These are not hacks in the commonly used sense, more like things we often lose sight of doing in favour of the sexier stuff we see on the internet.

However if I entitled this article ’5 things you stopped doing in favour of gimmicky nonsense,’ who would read it?

So, if it makes things seem sexier, here’s 5 ways to ‘hack’ your workout regime to look better naked:

1. Up the intensity!

Our first ‘hack’ is one of the most basic things you can do to progress a training program, and after all the basis of a good training ‘hack’ is that it leads to training progress towards a goal. How do we progress training in the most basic and general sense? We apply progressive overload! Now while that term may seem a little bit scientific and fancy for the general gym goer I assure you it isn’t.

Put in the simplest terms the way our bodies change and adapt to stressors (such as training) is via recovery from the application of a stimulus which disrupts our homeostasis. Again that may sound a little bit wordy so I like to say to most people: ‘What doesn’t challenge you doesn’t change you.’

shutterstock_164304971 Source: Shutterstock/Jasminko Ibrakovic

It’s pretty easy to control this, a simple method of linear progression of intensity (load, speed, etc) can be applied over the course of 4-6 weeks before deloading and starting again.

Stop me here if this all sounds too basic but after working in a commercial gym for a number of years I feel as though many people just don’t know this as they would be doing the same exercises with the same weights week after week for years on end.

For an example of how to apply progressive overload to your training program see the example below:


Note: This is a simple example of a linear intensity progression for a novice/intermediate lifter, the weights are simply hypothetical. This may apply to a lifter who has exhibited the capabilities to squat around 45kg for an all out max set of 8-10 reps. The idea is to condition the lifter to the rep ranges and exercise over a period of time while building stress, and therefore adaptation via the accumulation of intensity before deloading in week 5 and beginning the journey over again, this time to a higher intensity before a similar 12.5kg (ish) deload.

Increasing intensity can only work for so long however, so our second workout hack will be:

2. Do More!

While there are times that the expression ‘less is more’ applies in a gym or fitness scenario it’s usually when someone makes a hames of their programming by adding too much sizzle and not enough steak. As an anecdotal observation I often see many people in public gym woefully under dosing the training stimulus they give a lagging or weak muscle group in a given week. This is often the result of following a ‘Bro-gram’ i.e. just copying whatever the big guy in the corner is doing, but the pitfall of this is that you need to program for you and no one else. Some people can grow big and strong with six sets per week on a given movement or body part… we hate those people. Other folks like myself, and probably you, need to do a couple more sets here and there to make some gainz.

Also believe me when I say that nothing kicks your body into busting through a plateau better than upping the amount of volume on a given exercise.

Again if you’re new to periodising your training programs, a simple method of linear increases will do. Make sure to deload after a couple weeks as upwardly increasing volume can really mangle your body after a while.

Here’s a very hypothetical example below:


Again, we look to gradually increase the challenge over time until such a point that the body needs to rest and reset, at which point we deload to start the journey again with a greater intensity and/or a greater load.

Wanna know more about how many sets per week you need to do to grow? Check out this link for some free info from yours truly.

Progressive overload and correct volume are only as effective as the relative intensity of the work being done however, which brings us to:

3. Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable!

Remember what I said a couple of paragraphs ago about ‘what doesn’t challenge you doesn’t change you’? Well pretty much all the research on how to build new muscle or change your body composition in any way points to there being two main mechanisms of doing so:

  • Lift a weight heavy enough to almost achieve muscular failure.
  • Do enough reps to get close to muscular failure.

What do both of these have in common? You need to get close to muscular failure in both instances to get any sort of lasting adaptation which will stimulate your body to grow and adapt.

There are a few methods of measuring this; I may have written before about the idea of RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) where you rate your last completed set on a scale of 1-10, 1 being you could do it all day and 10 meaning you would need to have a lie down following the completion of all reps. You ideally want most working sets to be about an 8 or a 9 to get you close to muscular failure; a set at 10 RPE would probably end your work on any given exercise for the day.

shutterstock_484783264 Source: Shutterstock/Denis Kornilov

There is also the idea of RIR; Reps in Reserve, which rates the relative intensity of the work you do based on how many additional reps you could have done with that weight. In this instance you want to keep 1-2 reps in reserve on all but your last set of a given exercise. Going to the gym to squat? Pick a weight you could do an all out effort of 10 reps with (10RPE) and bust out 3 sets of 8 with it. Now that’s gonna be pretty intense.

The downside to both RPE and RIR is that they’re subjective measures, and will require a few years of diligent training before you are completely tuned in to what a true 8/9RPE is for you.

Until you figure those out you can always just work on your training density:

4. Do More In Less Time!

My next hack is pretty simple, putting yourself to task to perform the same amount of work in less time in the gym, or more work in the same amount of time, both will have the desired effect of increasing your training density (not to be confused with your training intensity as so many often do).

While many consider this a popular and new approach for HIIT, the likes of bodybuilders have been doing this since the 1970s when things like super sets, tri sets, and giant sets became popular.

In the modern era Crossfit has popularised the use of WODs for time to get the most out of their clients and members, and it works.

If you’re not a Crossfit athlete and just want to look and feel good, my advice to you is simple; challenge yourself every couple of weeks to get the same number of sets and reps at a given load done in a shorter amount of time. After 3-4 weeks of this change the parameters, retest your time, and go again.

I personally employ this with clients who return from periods of absence in order to increase their work capacity over a period of a few weeks before plunging them back into the happy world of all out strength and hypertrophy training. One of my favoured approaches it to lay out a circuit of roughly the following exercises:

  • Goblet Squat — 8-10
  • TRX Row — 10-12
  • Pushup — 10-12
  • Prowler March — 20-40m
  • Kettlbell Swing — 20-30

I will approach this in one of two ways, give the client a number of sets to complete for time, for example 4-5, or give the client a time (usually 20-30min) and ask them to complete as many sets as possible.

If the client is lagging and not getting an appreciable level of work done in the circuit in the given time, I may switch this to an EMOM style circuit where the client must start and finish each exercise within an allotted 60 seconds before moving on to the next one, for this approach I may ask the client to perform 5 rounds of the above circuit resulting in a non-stop 25-minute work block.

If you have tried all of the above hacks and just aren’t seeing results, have you considered:

5. Train more days in a week, like literally do anything!

Ok so I wrote a pretty big article about training frequency a couple of weeks back, you can check that out here.

If you haven’t read that go have a look now, however if you have and you’re still not convinced allow me to phrase it to you like this:

If you are active two days per week and unhappy with your results, you can try to use all the hacks in the world to bust through your plateau, but the simplest hack will probably be just getting off your arse an extra 1-2 days per week to move around. You cannot expect 5 day a week results on a 2 day per week training regime unfortunately, no matter how smart your training approach may be.

Wrapping up

I can see the comments now — ‘those weren’t hacks at all Dean, you just told us stuff we should already be doing to see results.’

Yep, exactly, so go do them.

If you have any hate mail for getting your hopes up and dashing them by telling you the only shortcut is hard work and smart programming please direct them to info@livebetter.ie.

If you have any questions of how to apply any of these principles to your training program the same email address applies. I hope you enjoyed this article and my extreme levels of sass don’t stop you from sharing it with a friend.

Dean Merton is a Dublin-based strength coach and personal trainer. For more information you can follow him on Facebook and Instagram, or you can send him a direct message here.

You can also see some of his previous articles here. 

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