In the iron game, technique is always critical, whether it’s a high school kid on his first day in a weight-training class or an elite weightlifer preparing to assault a world record. This makes sense. For muscles to work in the specific way to achieve a specific response and to do so safely, technique must be optimal. However, if administered properly with certain exercises, there is a place for cheating.

The “technical limit principle” states that to get a specific train- ing effect from a specific exercise, the first and last rep of any set should be identical in terms of the bar pathway. Certainly, the speed of movement will not be identical due to the lifter’s fatigue, but the movement pattern needs to be the same. It follows that a set should be terminated if it’s necessary to change the technique of an exercise to complete a repetition, such as rounding the back during a deadlift. In this case, your motto should be, “Lift to fight another day!”

For beginners, the technical limit principle is essential for several reasons. Using sloppy technique invites serious problems. Let’s say during a bench press you were to touch the bar on a different position on your chest every rep, thus not having a consistent “groove” during the lift. Or let’s say you were to lift your hips on the last few reps to improve your leverage during the exercise. Besides possibly placing excessive strain on your shoulders (if the bar is lowered too close to your neck), you would, in effect, be performing several different exercises in the same set, and such a protocol would compromise the gains you could’ve made by using proper form. Likewise, if you were to jump your feet out excessively wide during a power clean to catch the bar, you wouldn’t do your knees any favors.

Another problem with cheating is that it gives you a false sense of muscle balance. If you perform a cheat curl or jerk the weights during rotator cuff exercises, you may get the impression that these muscles are stronger than they are, and such a muscle imbalance may make your shoulders more susceptible to injury. 

Is it important to master proper technique from the beginning? Certainly. In Olympic lifting, one concept used by lifters from countries that excel at the world level is to train technique when you’re weak. It’s reported that the greatest pound-for-pound weightlifter in the history of the sport, three-time Olympic champion Naim Süleymanoglu, spent much of his first year of training primarily with the empty bar. Russian weightlifting coaches have found that if a lifter’s technique is good, improvements in strength exercises such as squats have a much better carryover to the lifts. Thus, adding 50 pounds to a back squat might represent a 30-pound improvement in the snatch to an athlete with good technique, but maybe only half that much to an athlete with poor technique.

It’s important to have someone knowledgeable teach you a wide variety of the basic lifts, even if you have no interest in Olympic lifting. Sure, you can plop yourself on a bench-press station and do what resembles a bench press, but to per- form it in the manner that will achieve the results you want fastest and with the least risk of injury, you probably need coaching. If you still have flaws despite good coaching, you may have an imbalance or flexibility issue that needs to be addressed medically, such as with soft-tissue work, mobility training, or specific isolation-type exercises.

Having discussed how not to cheat, let’s talk about why you should cheat and how you should cheat. In this context, it means using methods that enable you to complete, in good form, one or more repetitions of an exercise that you could not manage otherwise.

One positive application of cheating is to incorporate several types of training protocols in a single set. For example, you could bypass the concentric (positive) range of many exercises completely and focus on an eccentric (negative) contraction. Specifically, you would use a bit of a leg kick after the last strict reps of an upright row, then lower the weight slowly to emphasize the eccentric contraction. Eccentric overload is a valuable training method, as this type of contraction is associated with greater gains in strength and muscle mass. 

Cheating movements can be used to prolong the time under ten- sion of an exercise. For example, you could perform strict military presses for as many reps as possible, then help yourself through the sticking point with a slight knee kick, turning the exercise into a push press. When you reach a limit weight with that exercise, perform a push jerk in which you kick the weight up, then rebend your knees slightly to catch the bar lower; then straighten your knees, and lower the bar slowly to emphasize the eccentric contraction. This combination offers you concentric failure, two types of forced reps, and then negative emphasis—much more bang for your buck!

As you can see, the question of whether or not to use cheating methods cannot be answered simply Yes or No. The best answer is that cheating methods, properly performed, can have a place in
an experienced trainee’s workout to achieve even higher levels of physical superiority.