“Cheating” with your exercise form is something that’s generally frowned upon by many weight training enthusiasts and purists. There are two main arguments they make against it.
The first is that it’s dangerous, since it involves breaking from perfect form. They feel that cheating either means reducing the amount of control you have over the weight or introducing momentum into the movement, so you therefore risk hurting yourself.
And the second is that it reduces the effectiveness of the exercise by removing some or most of the focus from the muscle group being targeted.
There’s actually some element of truth to these beliefs. However, the fact of the matter is that you can, and in fact should, cheat with your form in certain situations, provided that you do so safely of course.
Before going any further though, let’s first of all establish exactly what cheating constitutes.
Cheating is basically using momentum or a minor shift in posture and/or exercise form to assist in overcoming the resistance being moved.
Notice I said minor.
We’ve all seen egomaniacs in the gym performing bent-over rows with way more weight on the bar than they can handle. As a result, they perform the exercise very upright, so that there’s not much of a “bent-over” element involved.
That’s not a minor shift in form. That’s changing the exercise in a major way, to the point where its focus has significantly changed.
So what about the danger aspect?
Well, again, it’s a matter of degrees. There’s nothing that’s inherently dangerous or inherently safe. A so-called “safe” movement can cause injury if performed recklessly, and a so-called “dangerous” movement can be perfectly fine if performed with appropriate care.
Using momentum, or “body English”, during a movement doesn’t necessarily make it more dangerous. For example, rocking your body to assist in performing bicep curls is hardly likely to cause injury.
Have you ever seen anyone get hurt this way?
Neither have I.
Bouncing at the bottom of a squat, on the other hand, for the purposes of creating a little “kick” to assist the concentric (upward) part of the movement, is in fact dangerous. This can easily lead to cumulative damage in your knees and ultimately, injury.
So one can’t say that cheating on form is or isn’t inherently dangerous. Like everything, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it.
So then, on the condition that you do keep it safe, here are 3 cases where you actually should be cheating with your exercise form:
1. To complete a set
If you’re ever in a situation where you’re not able to get out the number of reps that you intended for a set, because you’ve overestimated the amount of weight you can cope with, for example, then you have a choice to make.
You can either finish the set there at your point of failure, or you can “cheat” a little (safely) to finish out the final few reps.
Which is the better option? Well, both are perfectly acceptable, but consider this.
When it comes to building muscle, volume is king. That means the more work you do, the better – within certain limits of course. So even though by cheating you’re taking some of the work or emphasis off your target muscle group, you’re doing so for a specific purpose in this case – to complete the set.
While you may consider those final few reps less optimal, the fact is that by completing the set you’re increasing your volume. Therefore you’re getting more benefit from the set.
The bottom line is, doing sub-optimal reps is far superior to no reps at all. So if you can use a cheat to enable yourself to do more work, you should do so.
2. To emphasize the eccentric
Any weight-bearing exercise you perform has two components, or phases, to it, the concentric and the eccentric.
The concentric component is sometimes referred to as the “lifting phase”, and is that component where your muscles are contracting (getting shorter). It’s the phase where you’re working against gravity and is the more difficult of the two components.
The eccentric component is often called the “lowering phase”, and involves extension (lengthening) of your muscles.
The irony is that although the concentric phase is the more difficult of the two and generally where a set will encounter failure, studies have shown that the eccentric phase is actually more responsible for muscle growth. For this reason, exercisers will often focus on emphasizing the eccentric.
How can you do that? Well, in a couple of ways.
The first is simply to slow down the movement of the load through the eccentric phase, increasing its difficulty.
The second is to decrease the load for the concentric phase (since this is the more difficult and therefore the limiting phase), so that more weight can be used for the exercise, making the eccentric phase more challenging.
You can achieve this in a number of ways.
Firstly, you can have a spotter assist you through the concentric phase. It’s not uncommon, for example, to see someone in the gym assisting their training partner when performing bicep curls or leg curls.
Secondly, for a unilateral exercise you can use the non-working limb to assist the working limb through the concentric. For example, when performing a leg press, push with two legs (concentric) and release with just one leg (eccentric).
And thirdly, you can simply use a cheat to make the concentric movement easier. For example, you can use body motion to create momentum to assist in the raising of a barbell through a bicep curl, allowing you to use a heavier weight than you would otherwise be capable of.
Despite the fact that cheating makes an exercise easier to perform therefore, when used in this way it can actually lead to a more effective set.
3. To add variety
There are individuals who believe in always performing exercises with perfectly strict form and a sharp focus on activating only the target muscle group. This is sometimes referred to as the mind-muscle connection.
This focus causes the target muscle group to be activated maximally, and all assisting muscle groups to be disengaged as much as possible, making the exercise as effective as possible. It typically also means that a lighter weight is able to be used.
While this is certainly a great way to perform exercises, there are advantages to breaking from this purely focused strict form from time to time by simply focusing on moving the weight rather than on the working muscles themselves. This will essentially allow minor “cheats” into your workouts.
Some of these advantages include:
- Conditioning your body to moving greater weight (greater overall strength).
- Increased development of assisting and smaller, stabilizer muscles.
- Improved coordination of neighboring muscle groups.
- Muscle-developing benefits of dynamic exercise loading (when using momentum). For example, studies have found that in certain situations, simply allowing the exercise weight to drop almost freely during the eccentric phase rather than controlling the movement can actually lead to better muscle development. This is believed to be due to the muscle stress caused when suddenly catching the falling weight at the end of the eccentric movement.
By adhering to strict form all the time, you forgo these valuable benefits. Similarly, however, constantly cheating in your workouts deprives you of the benefits of using strict form.
As is the case with so many areas of training, there are always benefits to changing things up and adding variety. This allows your body to develop in the most well-rounded and effective way. As far as form goes therefore, it’s preferable to mix up your approach and utilize both strict form and sensible cheating.
It’s unfortunate that breaking from strict exercise form is referred to as cheating, because this term tends to dissuade people from seeing it as a viable option in training and using it.
The fact is however that there are other areas of training that intentionally use exercise techniques that some may see as cheating. For example, Crossfit’s kipping pull-ups draw a lot of criticism from some areas as being dangerous and horrible form.
It’s important to understand, however, that kipping pull-ups are not intended to be at all similar to regular pull-ups, and therefore the two shouldn’t be compared. Kipping pull-ups are a dynamic, plyometric exercise aimed at developing a totally different set of muscle attributes.
At the end of the day, there is more to the world of training than simply training for muscle growth. And even within the field of muscle growth, there are a variety of approaches and variables that all bring unique benefits.
As a clever exerciser, you should always keep an open mind to all possibilities and do your best to make use of all the available tools to maximize the effectiveness of your workouts.