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Nobody proudly declares, “I’m a cheater.” Whatever the context, cheating is something people sheepishly confess to when confronted. In bodybuilding, too, there’s so much emphasis on proper form that few trainers admit to using momentum to hoist heavier metal. But you should feel no shame for swinging barbells. Doing so can extend sets and help you conquer strength plateaus. In fact, if you’re not cheating, you may be cheating yourself out of big gains.
Cheating an exercise merely means your form is loose. You involve more momentum and secondary muscles and therefore reduce stress on the targeted muscles. Generally speaking, there are two reasons to loosen your exercise form—to make a set easier (incorrect) or to make a set harder (correct). Unfortunately, the former reason is the most common. Bodybuilders loosen their form too soon in a set, robbing tension from the targeted muscles, or they bounce or sway a weight when bad form merely increases their odds of injury. Under most circumstances, cheating should be done only after nearing or reaching full-rep failure with strict form. Then you can loosen up to eke out a few more reps. In this way, cheat reps function like forced reps, with the key difference being that you can extend the set yourself without helping hands.
The safest way to cheat is to add some sway to a movement by enlisting 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. As for chest, abs, and legs, every exercise for these body parts should be performed strictly. There’s just no safe way to cheat them. 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. That said, you can alter some exercises to make them easier. For example, you can turn dumbbell flyes into presses after reaching failure on the flyes. This isn’t precisely cheating, however, because both the flyes and presses should be performed strictly.
So far, we’ve laid out the cheat-sheet rules. Now, in true cheating fashion, we’re going to break the one about loosening your form only to extend a set. You can stimulate growth by going heavier than usual with loose form from the first rep to the last. Arnold Schwarzenegger built two of the best guns of all time, in part, by doing cheat curls. He’d load up a barbell with a pair of 45s on each side, much more than what he normally used in strict form, and he’d swing up a few reps.
This accomplishes two things. First, it overloads the muscle by essentially turning an isolation exercise into a compound exercise. The bench press targets your pecs even though it also involves your anterior deltoids and triceps. Likewise, you can stress your biceps hard while also involving your legs and back for more of a swinging motion. Secondly, it conditions your muscles and nervous system to use a heavier weight and lets you psychologically become accustomed to handling that weight. If you’re stuck on 100 pounds for 10 strict reps and suddenly use 140 for eight loose reps, it can help you move up to 110 for 10 strict reps.
The best way to incorporate sets of all cheat reps is to first pre-exhaust the targeted muscle. This follows the same logic as loosening your form only after doing strict reps. For example, you could follow three sets of strict side laterals with three sets of heavier, cheat side laterals.
Our sample biceps routine includes sets of dumbbell curls done strictly and then extended with cheat reps. This is followed by strict preacher curls—and these would be hard to cheat because the bench locks your arms in place. Then, having worked your biceps with mostly strict reps, the routine concludes with three sets of cheat barbell curls. Most of the stress from these “momentum reps” will also be directed to your biceps, especially because you just pre-exhausted your bi’s with preacher curls. You can reverse the order of this routine on occasion to really pack some weight on.