Cheaters never prosper—so goes the cliché.
Of course, as anyone who used a crib sheet or wandering eye to ace a test knows, it’s a lie meant to discourage. Bad cheaters don’t prosper. Good cheaters do—if they know when and how to do it, and if they do it only occasionally. This month, we offer a crib sheet to exercise cheating. By loosening your form only to expand sets beyond strict-form failure, you can up the intensity of your workouts and increase their effectiveness. Most exercises shouldn’t be cheated, and most reps shouldn’t be cheated, but if you study our lesson plan you’ll learn how to use this valuable technique to cheat your way to bodybuilding prosperity.
This should be simple. Cheating, in relation to exercise, refers to loose form. There are two reasons to loosen your exercise form: to make a set easier (the wrong reason) or to make a set harder (the right reason). Things grow complicated because the boundary between those two reasons is frequently murky.
Bodybuilders cheat too soon in a set or they cheat on an exercise where bad form merely increases the odds of injury. First, cheating is always a technique for increasing intensity. Therefore, it should be used only after reaching full-rep failure with proper form. At that point—but never before that point—you loosen your form to incorporate secondary muscles and eke out an additional few reps. In this way, cheat reps function like forced reps, with the key difference being you can cheat those extra reps by yourself without the helping hands of a spotter.
Second, cheating should never be done on most exercises. The safest way to cheat is to add some sway to the movement via your legs and lower back. Therefore, cheating is best applied to standing shoulder, biceps, and triceps exercises. You can also add some extra lower-back movement to the end of sets of rows and pulldowns but don’t overdo it. As for chest, abs, and legs, every exercise for these body parts should be performed with strict form.
Bouncing the bar off your chest during bench presses or springing your hamstrings off your calves at the bottom of hack squats are two examples of misguided cheating that merely increase the odds of tears and sprains.
Here are the pluses using looser workout form.
- SETS PUSHED BEYOND FAILURE: The principal function of cheating should be to go beyond strict, full-rep failure. Looser form allows you to do this by yourself and without pausing to decrease the weight, as with a descending set.
- PSYCHOLOGICAL BOOST: There is a useful inﬂux of conﬁdence that comes from controlling a weight for a few extra reps. If you get seven strict reps and three cheat reps, think of it as a set of 10. Then, in future workouts, strive to get increasingly more strict reps by tightening up your form on what were cheat reps and adding cheat reps after those reps. When you can get 12 strict reps, increase the weight.
There are two potential pitfalls to cheating to extend sets.
- STRESS TRANSFERRED: The essence of cheating is the removal of stress from the targeted muscle and transferal of it to other muscles. This becomes a minus if you cheat too soon in a set or cheat too vigorously and transfer too much stress. Make certain you reach failure before cheating, and keep momentum to a minimum to remove just enough stress from the targeted muscle so it can keep working.
- INCREASED INJURY RISK: Cheating will greatly increase the odds of injury if you do it incorrectly. Do not use too much momentum. Wear a belt when adding sway to exercises like standing shoulder presses, barbell curls, and upright rows.
Now that we’ve established the rule that you should cheat only to push a set beyond strict, full-rep failure, we’re going to break it. There is another way that follows the same principle but incorporates sets of only cheat reps. Pre-exhaust a muscle with sets of strict reps and then follow with sets of cheat reps. For example, for biceps you could do preacher curls and seated dumbbell curls each for four sets of 10–12 strict reps. Then ﬁnish off bi’s with barbell cheat curls for four sets of 6–8 “momentum reps.” Because you’ve already targeted your bi’s with eight strict sets before the ﬁnal four loose sets, most of the stress of the barbell curls will still be focused on your pre-exhausted bi’s. FLEX