To cheat or not to cheat, that is the question! Kids, never cheat on your school work – you won’t learn anything that way. Grown-ups, don’t cheat on your taxes. Take all the deductions you can, but don’t cheat. That would be un-American. But how about cheating in the gym?
If you’ve ever received advice about weight training, no doubt you’ve been told about the importance of using strict form. Strict form helps to keep stress on the target muscles and lessens your risk of injury. A beginner should always use strict form so that he/she learns to feel the target muscles working during each exercise. A curl for example should be felt primarily in the biceps and not the shoulders or lower back.
For intermediate and advanced lifters, using loose form or “cheating” is a technique that can make training more intense and productive, but it needs to be done correctly. The wrong way to cheat is to swing or heave the weight up to make the exercise easier. The right way to cheat is to use additional muscle groups just enough to get the weight moving past your sticking point, enabling you to complete more reps than you could strictly which makes the exercise harder. Each rep is lowered under control. Done in that manner, cheating reps are very similar to forced reps, where a partner assists just enough to help you squeeze out more reps than you could on your own.
If you decide to try the cheating technique, only use it on exercises where it can be done safely. There’s no safe way to cheat on a bench press, so don’t be that guy who bounces the bar off his chest and lifts his butt off the bench to get more reps. Do not cheat on squats or deadlifts by allowing your lower back to round over to get more reps. That’s a great way to herniate a disc. Exercises that lend themselves well to cheating are curls (barbell or dumbbell), delt raises (lateral, front, or rear), standing overhead presses, and all types of rows (upright, bent over, seated cable, etc.). On those exercises, you can use your legs and back to get the bar moving just enough to get past your sticking point and complete the next rep.
Another tip is keep your ego in check and try not to get carried away with the cheating. Cheating on an exercise is in many ways like speeding in a car. A new driver should never speed. Once they gain some experience, many drivers are comfortable going 5-10 mph over the speed limit because it gets them where they’re going faster while usually keeping them out of trouble. Similarly, after gaining some lifting experience, you can loosen up your form just a bit to handle more weight or complete more reps to get you to your goals faster. Note that I said “just a bit”. Cheating excessively to lift a weight that’s way beyond your ability is like speeding 30+ mph over the speed limit… it’s a stupid thing to do, makes you look like a fool, and has a good chance of getting you hurt.
Beyond the theory and analogies, I can tell you that the lifters I see at our gym who use a little body motion to complete more reps and lift more weight are visibly working with the type of intensity and aggression that forces progress. They also tend to be some of the strongest and most developed guys and gals in the gym. If you’re looking to kick your training up a notch, consider giving cheating reps a try.