The problem is the name. The meaning may be clearer if we instead said “loosening” or “slack reps” or the “Weider Momentum Training Principle.” Tradition dictates we stick with “cheating,” despite the term’s negative connotations.
It sounds like a shortcut for circumventing workout rules, and a dangerous disregard for proper exercise form, but it should be neither. Done correctly, cheating should follow its own rules, safely, and it should enhance correct form, not dismiss it. The following cheat sheet describes the ABCs of deviating from strict exercise technique.
Cheating should be done only to push a set beyond strict full-rep failure. For example, if you get eight good reps doing standing side laterals but can’t do a ninth, you can use a little back sway to eke out two or three more. In this way, cheating makes a set harder than if you merely stopped after eight.
Unfortunately, too many bodybuilders cheat to make a set easier.
To them cheating merely means sloppy form, which focuses more on momentum and/or uses other muscles to a greater extent than the targeted bodypart. For example, if you go too heavy performing barbell curls and swing the bar up for every rep, you’re working your back, legs and front deltoids more than your biceps and increasing the odds of injuring your arm muscles, tendons and joints.
When To Cheat
Cheating is an advanced technique for boosting intensity. Don’t consider adopting it until you’ve been working out for at least one year using only strict exercise form. You need to first master proper technique before you can deviate from it. Experienced athletes who incorporate cheating into their routines should do so sparingly and only after reaching strict, full-rep failure. Don’t attempt to cheat when your energy and focus are low, for that’s when your form can become too sloppy, leaving you at risk for injury.
It’s also important to be aware that cheating isn’t for every exercise.
Squats and bench presses, to name two of the most popular lifts, should always be done in strict form; use techniques like forced reps, rest-pause reps and drop sets to push sets of these powerlifts beyond full-rep failure. Abdominals should always be worked strictly. You can alter ab exercises after reaching failure, for example, going from a leg raise to a knee raise, but it’s not truly cheating because you’re not getting assistance from other bodyparts.
In contrast, judicious loosening of form is easiest and safest for biceps and shoulders. The “Cheating Grades” chart (see below) rates bodyparts with scores from A (best) to E (worst) in regard to how effectively and safely you can cheat during the most commonly performed exercises.
How To Cheat
The key to cheating correctly is to use assistance from secondary muscles to get the weight moving, but then to make sure you’re focusing on the targeted muscle(s) at peak contraction.
For example, let’s say you reach strict, full-rep failure at seven reps performing barbell curls. By bending and straightening your knees a little and swaying your back slightly, you can help the bar come up for an eight rep. Other muscles aid you through the first half of the rep, where the biceps are weakest, but make your biceps do the work on the second half, flexing hard and holding the top position for a count of two. For your ninth rep, you’ll probably need a little more leg and back motion, and still more for number 10, but make your increasingly taxed biceps work as hard as they can. Think of it as a forced rep, where the minor assistance through the sticking point comes from other muscle groups instead of a training partner. If you’re merely swinging the barbell up and down to the extent that your bi’s become secondary workers, don’t bother.
Cheating utilizes secondary muscles to a greater extent than usual, but those muscles shouldn’t become the primary workers.
Some bodypart exercises lend themselves to safe and effective cheating; some don’t Here are the basics, rated A through E.
Although you should never cheat during seated shoulder presses, it’s easy and safe to get extra reps of standing shoulder exercises (presses, laterals, upright rows, shrugs, etc.) by bending and unbending your knees slightly when performing them. You can also use lower back movement and the resulting momentum to help during some seated shoulder exercises, such as side or bent-over laterals.
It’s easy and relatively safe to get extra reps of standing curls by bending and unbending your knees slightly, and by using a little back swaying. You can eke out more reps for seated exercises, like dumbbell curls, with minimal arm swing and for stabilized exercises, like preacher curls, by bringing your shoulders forward and your upper triceps off the bench.
As with biceps and shoulders, sets of standing triceps exercises (EZ-bar extensions, pushdowns, etc.) can be expanded with a little additional knee and back motion; the shoulders can also assist during pushdowns. Maintain strict form for lying triceps extensions, dips and close-grip or reverse bench presses.
Seated calf raises should be done strictly. You can eke out a few more reps of standing calf raises, calf presses and donkey calf raises by bending and unbending your knees during each rep.
Never cheat deadlifts, chins or machine rows. You can get a couple of extra reps of free-weight rows by rising up slightly as you near contraction, but use caution, as this is a potential spinal erector strainer. It’s safer to push sets of pulldowns and seated cable rows beyond strict-rep failure by using limited back swaying.
Upon reaching failure in the hack squat, you can push up on the shoulder yoke with your hands to help you get a couple of extra reps. Similarly, you can press on your upper quads during leg presses to assist with postfailure reps. leg extensions, squats, lunges and most other quad exercises don’t lend themselves to cheating.
Chest presses and machine exercises, such as pec-deck flyes, should not be cheated. After reaching failure doing strict dumbbell flyes, you can use your arms and delts progressively more, and keep the dumbbells from traveling outward as far to get additional reps, effectively turning the flyes into flye/presses.
The various types of wrist curls and reverse curls should always be done strictly. However, exercises that work the biceps as well as the brachialis (reverse curls, hammer curls) can be cheated.
By bringing your hips off the bench during lying leg curls, you incorporate your lower back and glutes to help with extra reps, but other ham exercises shouldn’t be cheated.
The key ab exercises do not lend themselves to cheating.
Not every pro bodybuilder is a cheater. Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler loosen their form to get an extra couple of reps during some exercises, but Dorian Yates, to name a third Mr. Olympia, relied on techniques other than cheating to push his sets beyond failure. Whether they use the principle or not, no champion bodybuilder cheats frequently. It’s an advanced means of enhancing some sets of certain exercises, but overuse it and you’ll rob yourself of maximum growth and increase your odds of injury.
On the other hand, if you follow the rules laid out here to make your sets harder, never easier, you, too, can prosper from cheating.