Nick Cheadle is an expert you’d turn to when you’re done faffing about in the gym; when you’re sick of training without a plan or purpose besides some vague notion of ‘looking good’. He’s a guy you want in your ear when you’re ready to commit to building the body of a beast.
The owner of a thriving online business, Nick Cheadle Fitness, and co-owner (with wife Bec Chambers) of Paragon Strength and Performance on Sydney’s north shore, Cheadle, 32, has been a personal trainer and strength coach for 12 years. As a fitness pro,
he has multiple points of difference, but the standout is his own physique, which has helped him amass a social media following of more than 2.5 million.
Cheadle first picked up a barbell as a 16-year-old student at The King’s School in Sydney’s western suburbs. “Back then, to be honest, it was all about just looking a little bit better with my shirt off,” he says. Post-school, he became a qualified PT through the Australian Institute of Fitness before spending
the next 10 years training clients at two Fitness First gyms on Sydney’s northside, all the while becoming ever more passionate about his own lifting. “It’s part of who I am,” he tells Men’s Health between clients.
“I’ve done all the dumb things,” sang Paul Kelly, who might have been speaking for generations of gym goers. Cheadle has made his share of training mistakes over the years – and seen the full gamut committed by others. The point, however, is that he’s come to know precisely what it takes to keep the gains coming.
What follows are the most common and self-limiting muscle-related blunders that Cheadle keeps seeing and fixing. If any or all apply to you, make the necessary adjustments – and prepare to transform.
ERROR #1 - You’re Not Training Hard Enough
Sounds simple. But what is ‘hard enough’?
“I see a lot of guys lifting weights that don’t even cause a change in their facial expression,” says Cheadle. “If there’s absolutely no form of bar
or dumbbell slowdown as you’re lifting, then chances are you’re not operating at anywhere near close enough to failure to build muscle. These are the blokes you see at the gym three years down the track and you think, He looks exactly the same as he did three years ago.”
While it’s okay to train with lighter weights in higher rep ranges (there’s plenty of research to show you can add beef this way), you still need to push those sets towards the brink of failure. And what does that mean? It means you don’t put down the weight until you have between four and zero reps left in the tank. Stop short of that, Cheadle says, “and there’s a good chance that set was a waste of time”.
Only by grinding out extra reps when your body is imploring you to stop do you create enough mechanical tension to elicit a hypertrophic response. In other words, “no pain, no gain” does apply to building muscle. It’s why 20- and 30-rep sets, while not intrinsically useless, are inefficient. Why not add a couple of plates to the bar and get to the money reps before nightfall?
“I love the challenge of getting within that 0-4 reps of failure,” says Cheadle. “I say to myself, ‘I haven’t come this far only to come this far. And from now on, it’s go time’.”
ERROR #2 - You Go to Failure Too Often
Yes, Cheadle wants you working close to failure. But for your own sake, avoid going all the way there too frequently.
“Working to failure is super-demanding on your body, super-demanding on your muscles and super-demanding on your central nervous system,” says Cheadle. “If you go to failure time and time again, before long you’re going to see a decline in your performance. You’re going to feel like a busted arse, for want of a better term. At the end of the day, we are not robots. We are not machines.”
Here’s your way forward. Set yourself for a six-week training block with the goal of building total-body muscle. Then:
- In week one, stop your sets four reps from failure.
- In week two, stop them three reps out.
- In week three, two reps out.
- In week four, one rep out.
- In week five, take only the last set of each exercise to failure, stopping the rest with at least one rep left in reserve.
- In week six, de-load, halving your volume of sets and reps, or the amount of weight you’re lifting – or both – to boost recovery and freshen up for your next six-week block.
ERROR #3 - You’re Pursuing Conflicting Goals
When Cheadle starts with a new client and asks him what he’s wanting to achieve, he’ll often hear some version of this: “I want to put on muscle and strip body fat”.
Which is fair enough. Except the smart way to proceed is to pursue those two objectives via separate programs in separate timeframes.
“The way I like to explain it is that, nutritionally speaking, those two things – building muscle and losing body fat – are at opposite ends of the nutritional spectrum,” says Cheadle. “And you can’t do both at once.”
Unless you’re uncomfortable with your level of body fat, chase muscle growth first by intensifying your lifting while adopting a kilojoule surplus to help convert your toil into gains. “A calorie surplus is the best environment to build muscle in,” Cheadle says. “It’s not impossible to build muscle outside of it, but unless you’re brand-new to lifting, it’s very unlikely.” The size of that surplus will depend on your physiology, but it won’t need to be massive. “The idea is you’re eating enough to gain weight and support muscle growth, but you want to
do that slowly and conservatively so you can extend the amount of time you spend in surplus,” Cheadle says. “If you gain weight too quickly, a lot of it will be fat. You’ll become uncomfortable in your own skin and end up cutting short the gaining phase before you’ve made appreciable progress.”
Some fat gain is all but certain when you’re trying to gain muscle, but avoid obsessing over that, Cheadle urges [See Error #6]. Down the track, you can burn off that fat to unveil corrugated abs.
ERROR #4 - You’re Training Each Muscle Too Infrequently
While popular, a typical ‘bro’ split that involves pummelling each muscle group just once per week isn’t the best way to go, Cheadle argues. That’s because studies suggest the muscle-building effects of a heavy-resistance session peter out within 72 hours. By waiting a further four days to re-target the same muscle, “you’re leaving gains on the table,” he says.
And that’s not the only problem with this approach. If you’re training this way – devoting an entire session to chest, say – then you’re likely bombarding that muscle with a huge number of sets, the result being that the sets performed in the second half of the workout can hardly be attacked with Arnie-like ferocity.
“Imagine if you split that workout in half and did the second half later in the week when you’re fresher,” Cheadle says. “Imagine how much more weight you’d lift and how much better the workout would be.”
ERROR #5 - You’re Changing Exercises Too Often
A lot of trainers espouse the benefits of ‘shocking the body’ by constantly introducing new exercises. But when it comes to the narrow goal of hypertrophy, Cheadle advises doing the opposite. “You need to be consistently performing similar exercises over time to give yourself an opportunity to get better
at them,” he says.
Don’t dump moves just because they’re taxing. And remember the key to weight training is progression. To grow, you need to keep pulling at least one of two levers: more weight or more volume in terms of sets and reps. It’s also important that you’re able to measure your progress – and it’s very
hard to do that if you’re constantly chopping and changing moves.
“Even when I switch to a new training block, I change only about 30 per cent of the exercises,” Cheadle says. “And most of the ones I’m dropping are the fluff ones – [for] biceps, triceps and abs. My core lifts – dumbbell bench press, for example . . . I keep using until I feel I’ve squeezed out everything I can get from them at that point in time.”
ERROR #6 - You’re Beating Yourself Up Over Food
While of course nutrition’s a key factor in muscle-making, chances are you have more leeway than you think around meal choices.
As far as your body’s concerned, Cheadle says, everything you give it is simply some combination of protein, carbs and fat. Over a day, you’ll want to meet its macronutrient needs, but the matter of which foods you use to do that isn’t worth the fuss that some guys make it.
“The reason that people end up resorting to such extreme, bullshit diets – nothing but chicken and broccoli, for example – is that they just don’t know any better,” Cheadle says.
Let’s say you love cake and scoff a piece one lunchtime. Is that the end of the world? No! Instead of fixating on the cake, see it for what it is: a serving of carbs that your body will break down into glucose for energy. “Think to yourself,” says Cheadle, ‘Okay, because of that cake, I’ve now had this amount of carbs today, so maybe I’ll skip that extra serving of rice at dinner’.” It’s a little more complicated than that – some carbs are more nutritious than others – but ultimately, they’re all broken down into the same thing.
Then there’s the broader issue of motivation – the why of training; indeed, the why of living. You ask Cheadle what his body-fat percentage is.
“I wouldn’t have a clue,” he says. “But I know when it’s higher I feel better – higher sex drive, more productive, less irritable. The older I get, the easier it is for me to place my self-worth in things other than how much body fat I carry. And time spent worrying about that is time spent running away from building more muscle and strength, and having a better lifestyle. I love training and probably train harder than I ever have. But I also eat to fuel performance.”
Swap N’ Swole
Certain iconic exercises are not all they’re cracked up to be as pure muscle-builders, argues Cheadle. Make these substitutions and feel the burn.
Out: Barbell Back Squat
In: Machine Hack Squat
Why: A lot of the effort involved in the free squat is about staying balanced. The stability offered by the hack squat machine allows for maximal mechanical tension on your legs.
Out: Barbell Bench Press
In: Dumbbell Bench Press
Why: The barbell limits your ability to isolate the muscles of your chest and puts additional pressure on your delicate shoulder joints.
Out: Dumbbell Fly
In: Cable Fly
Why: At the top position of a dumbbell fly, your pecs are snoozing. This isn’t the case when you’re using cables. More constant tension equals more muscle.