Cheating occurs when you use muscles beyond those targeted to assist on an exercise. How much cheating you should allow has come under fierce debate. The name itself implies controversy. Two major schools of thought have emerged.
One side argues against it in all forms. Anything beyond using the target muscles can threaten your safety they say. It also reduces the stimulus by offloading the burden those muscles should bear. Those with this point of view usually suggest very slow reps as well. They recommend avoiding concurrent activation potentiation as this would just waste energy.
Although their intentions are in the right place, this approach has some problems.
When moving slowly, you spend too much time away for the optimal muscle length for creating tension. This reduces results and also emphasizes positions where the joints operate weakly. You also negate the pre-stretch. It can prevent you from reaching fatigue in the ideal timeframe and limit your effort.
You still continue to address the target muscles even if you add some external momentum. Muscles actually work harder when working alongside other muscles. Even if it does make a rep easier, it eventually gets tough no matter what if you strive for positive failure.
They also tend to say that you can only get away with poor form due to elite genetics. This totally disregards the real conditions that spur muscle growth. Although accounted for from their point of view, many from this school will show poor muscle strength and size. It seems they desire more to cling to their pure philosophy than to make progress.
The other school argues that cheating increases intensity. They usually perform strict reps until the end of the set then loosen their form to get some extra reps. They claim that cheating, done the right way, makes a set harder and not easier on the target muscles. They may add disclaimers that beginners should avoid it though since they may get hurt.
This approach brings their own assumptions. They imply that it once you are more advanced, you need something extraordinary to create growth. They often abandon the basic system that worked for them in favor of more complicated programs.
Past some unknown point though, you have already exhausted the fast-twitch muscle fibers enough. These are most responsible for building strength and size. Continuing the set creates more fatigue but contributes little toward the goal.
No one really knows this cutoff point precisely though. You can justify just about any amount and type of exercise as best. I suspect for most trainees that one set to true positive failure accomplishes the job. Beyond this point may create a feeling of accomplishment by generating fatigue by-products but no longer addresses the main stimulus, tension. This represents a reason I suggest against applying advanced techniques in general.
Cheating can also expose you to injury. A jerk at the hips can hyperextend and harm the lower back. These reps performed too quickly and without any control can harm the joints and reduce performance. It causes force spikes that stress the connective tissue, can tear a muscle, and that leaves you little time to react a problem. It harms the pre-stretch as well by failing to store elastic energy when you drop the weight.
Many will now expect a defense of the moderate position. Cheating, under the right circumstances or when used sparingly, gives us a compromise. Everything depends on your unique needs and abilities.
The moderate position of any argument is not necessarily correct though. Let us approach this from a new perspective entirely. Consider that the best exercises limit most cheating by nature yet involve many muscles.
Most trainees cheat without dwelling on it. They mostly aim to use more muscle. Using more muscles occurs instinctively and you should not prevent it. If this consistently places you in a harmful position though, you have to question the value of the exercise that will let this happen in the first place.
To me an unnecessary action, or shot, or casualty, was not only waste but sin.
– T. E. Lawrence
- The worst exercises so happen to allow the most cheating.
You can easily cheat when isolating muscles like the shoulders, biceps, and triceps. Isolation exercises like curls and lateral raises come to mind. A quick swing of the hips to get past the sticking point seems commonplace.
It feels easier to cheat with isolation and on some machines. These mostly work the smaller muscle groups. This allows more opportunities to recruit other muscles. Beyond the issue of cheating, both these categories bring bad effects that warrant getting rid of them anyway.
Good exercises by nature prevent much cheating. They already recruit all of the possible muscles. On the barbell bench press or dumbbell row, can you use your legs to cheat? A leg drive just creates more stability. On the barbell squat, can you use your upper body? This is impossible. Any muscles we would want to contribute to any of these exercises already do.
- If cheating can occur on an exercise, always prevent harm to the joints.
On a bench press, sometimes trainees will lift their hips off the bench. This technique, known as bridging, hyperextends the lower back which can harm you.
This only outwardly boosts performance anyway. It does not recruit more muscle and just reduces the range of motion. Once you learn how to establish a stable base, this tendency will drop naturally.
- Set consistent endpoints.
On the squat, many will perform a pseudo good morning. Their hips push out too far instead of dropping as well. This morphs the squat into a new exercise entirely, so it seems hard to classify it as cheating.
If you set endpoints though, such as the crease of the hips lining up with the top of the knee, as occurs on a parallel squat, this should prevent it when combined with other cues like keeping your chest up. This will also prevent harm to the joints too.
Once you master your form, cheating feels impossible since no additional muscles beyond those used could play a role.
- As long as you hit your standards, allow cheating.
If you hit your standards for an exercise, cheating really just means using more muscle.
On the single-armed dumbbell row, many trainees slightly twist at the waist. This action comes mostly from resisting too much twisting. This allows the row to address the core, making it a more complete exercise.
You may fear losing too much range of motion by allowing this practice. As long as your elbow lines up with or slightly exceeds your shoulder on your pull when viewed from the side, you have achieve enough range of motion. Set an endpoint, such as the weight plate of the dumbbell touching your rib cage, that allows you to keep your standard yet let all the muscles play their part.
Disregard Cheating when Lifting
If you choose the right exercises, cheating fades away as a concern.
In the small instances that it may affect you, just make sure to protect the joints and keep your standards. More importantly, stay in control and move neither too quickly nor too slowly.
Use as many muscles as occurs naturally for the best exercises and ignore cheating.