If there’s one magic rule you’re not allowed to violate and still maintain your gym-guy credibility, it’s the “form rule.” It’s imperative that you use excellent form in each of your lifts to maximize results, prevent injury, and keep the folks around you from looking at you with a silent side eye glance that is the gym equivalent of an all CAPS LOCK rant on a body building forum… if your form is lacking, you must not be taking the game seriously enough.
Worse still, if you’re using improper form, and are a woman, you’ll immediately be inundated with well-intentioned bros that are remarkably eager to give you personal lessons.
“Let’s see that squat one more time. Get as deep into as you can,” Chad tells you through a fine mist of hair gel and self-tanner. “I’ll get behind you to be your spotter.”
Here’s the thing, good form IS integral. Doing an exercise the way it was intended really does help to maximize the benefits you get from doing them, but more importantly to the aging athlete, it goes a long way to prevent the types of nagging injuries most of us struggle to avoid. I slipped two discs in my back in my late twenties, and for the most part I can avoid aggravating them, but if I slip up on my deadlifts ONE TIME, I’m going to be walking like a zombie for two days. It’s just inevitable. So, I’m not here to tell you to stop using good form… but I am here to tell you that it’s okay to cheat, here and there.
What do I mean by cheating? Well, as I’ve said before, it’s my experience that nothing develops strength quite like failure, which means you should be aiming to just about (if not completely) fail near the end of your last set. I’ll use pushups as an example. If you can only do ten pushups, plan to do four sets of six or seven reps. By the fourth set, your body should be trembling to get you back up off the floor for reps five through seven. Bench, squat, curl, you can employ this methodology for any lift, including in high rep workouts intended to increase endurance (just plan to fail closer to 20, rather than under 10).
At that failure point, though, you’ll often find yourself in a bit of a predicament. If you’re like me, you’re working out alone and don’t have a spotter to pick the bar back up off of you when you fail… but you know you have enough left in the tank for a LITTLE more… just maybe not one more full repetition.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is when I cheat.
If I’m left with the choice between stopping now, or doing one more (slightly sloppy) rep, where I may not go quite as deep as I should… I’m going for that cheater rep. Why? Because Arnold Schwarzenegger.
That’s him in the classic documentary (I’m reluctant to call it that), “Pumping Iron,” talking about what makes the difference between a normal guy and a champion. In it (if you don’t feel like watching) he explains that it’s that last few reps, after you cross what he calls “the pain barrier,” that really develops muscle and makes all the difference. I may not have the same fitness goals as Arnie had back then, but even as a kid, those words rang true to me. Everything worth earning, you earn through pain, be it physical, mental, or emotional.
So when I’m on the fence about being able to do even ONE more rep, I give it a try. If I can’t make it all the way down to me chest on my last rep on the bench, I trust myself to push it as far as I can before throwing the weight back up on the rack, because, in my opinion, that half of a burning, pain filled, rep is victory. I earned that pain, and I relish in it because I know that little bit extra I did just put me that much closer to my overall goal of being able to crush the skulls of my daughter’s future suitors in my bare hands.
So no, I don’t want you to walk away from reading this thinking I told you to throw form out the window… but just like writing, once you know how to follow the rules, it’s okay to break them every now and then in the interest of the greater good. Here on SOFREP, I might add a superfluous comma in something for added dramatic effect. In my gym, I might throw a superfluous rocking motion into my hips to finish this set of curls, because I would have had to stop at rep number seven otherwise.
Working out is a fight against your comfort. The human body wants to be at rest, which is why the hardest part of any workout is getting yourself to start it. The further I can push my physical form away from that comfort setting during my hour of masochism a day, the better off I know I’ll be in the long run.
And for me, that means cheating.