These are the days of strict training. One could almost say training strictly in the gym has become an obsession. Rarely will one find a training article that does not emphasize the use of focused,
strict movements. "Train strictly for maximum muscular gains" has become the mantra of weight trainers every-where, from the professional bodybuilder and fitness competitor attempting to triumph
onstage to the weekend warrior faithfully plugging away in a neighborhood or home gym.
Cheating in the gym - that is, regularly incorporating cheat movements into one's workout plan - is commonly regarded these days as a failure in both motivation and execution. To cheat is to fail,
to worm one's way out of the tough stuff, to avoid the real work with the weights. To step inside the gym, falsely confident, falsely motivated, and then slide quickly down the slippery slope of
half measures leads one into the field of half growth and half-realized fitness goals to finally wind up dry and empty in the desert of zero accomplishment.
Another common misconception about cheating is that it's a retro activity, properly belonging to the past with all those old guys who didn't have access to our supposedly superior training methods.
To be a cheat in the gym is typically thought of today as to be stuck in the past, ignorant of modem sophisticated advances in training techniques. This misconception has much to do with contemporary
attitudes about the bodybuilding past and all those "old guys." However, those early bodybuilders in many instances knew exactly what they were doing, and they realized that using cheat movements
can be a very effective training technique in taxing the body's muscles to new levels in strength and size.
So, in honor of all those old guys, we're going to take a new look at an old method of training and see how cheating can be a powerful, liberating, effective and, yes, fun way to spark new muscular
gains. Without further ado: How to Be a Cheat (in three easy lessons).
Lesson One: The Roots of Cheating
Cheating does take us back into the past and for our purpose, happily so. I personally have a lot of respect for all those early bodybuilders who built great-looking, very strong bodies with good,
basic weight exercises and techniques. Incorporating cheat movements was one such technique, and weight trainers today can benefit from their example.
The principle of cheating not only takes us back into the past to the early days of bodybuilding, but it also leads us out of the gym entirely and back into the world of real work. It has a
rock-solid basis in manual labor. Cheat movements have their root in the various physical labors of men working hard at tough jobs in ironworking, welding, digging and excavating, heavy construction,
and the pulling and handling of stone, metal girders, pipes and logs. Labor involving cheat movements was extremely effective in physical development.
The next time you get a chance, take a look at the physiques of loggers, welders, serious construction workers and the like. While they obviously are not bodybuilders, certain key bodyparts -
shoulders, upper back, biceps and forearms, especially - in these men (and women, more often nowadays) have grown because of repetitive movements. The basic pushing, pulling and tugging motions used
in manual labor also occur in exercise cheat movements, where bodybuilders forcefully tax a major bodypart (back, legs, shoulders, arms) in such a way as to call into play auxiliary muscles that both
stabilize the body and help in completing the work.
Cheating applies to basic, free-weight and simple machine exercises - another link with the past. Just as these are the days of strict training in terms of repetitions, they're also the days of fancy
high-tech machines that we push and pull in various directions, sometimes helpful, often excessive. Using cheat movements in our workouts helps us to reorient ourselves back to the basics, with good,
solid exercises which are most effective in building the body simply and cleaning with no muss or fuss.
Properly performed cheat movements call into play various muscle groups to perform the exercise. This additional muscle involvement can be advantageous in getting at fibers not reached even by
strict repetition training methods. Don't think so? Try manual labor and see. Any bodybuilders or other weight trainers out there who are movers or construction workers will know what I mean. Cheat
movements, like those used on the job, stimulate muscles previously untouched. If you try a hard, physical occupation, no matter how well trained you are, you'll be surprised by the new muscle
stimulation you will experience.
All right, now before I go into detail about cheating as a workout technique and about body-parts and exercises, I'd like to take a moment to dispel what in my view are the top five myths about cheating.
Cheating doesn't utilize a full range of motion.
Untrue. In actuality, properly performed cheat movements do use a full range of motion, but unlike what occurs during a standard repetition, in a cheat-movement repetition the stress on the muscle is
greatest at the beginning, rather than at the central "sticking point." At this early stage we get the "cheat heave" that begins the repetition in a cheat movement set. However, I must point out you
have to carry through to the end, to a full contraction. Moreover, you must do this with great control and mental focus. That's the only way to control the weight, and control remains an essential
component in cheating.
Cheating puts too much stress on auxiliary muscles and not enough on the target muscle.
Again untrue, but the point here is more subtle. The key phrase is "too much." Properly performed, cheat movements use the helping, auxiliary muscles to put more stress, not less, on the target muscle.
The goal, in fact, during a cheat exercise, is to overload the target muscle using the auxiliary muscles. The most important factor in successful, productive cheating, therefore, is to have a high level
of mental focus on the movement such that the target muscle gets stressed more than usual but the auxiliary muscles don't take over the exercise. For this reason (among others) cheating is an advanced
Cheating creates sloppy form.
Sloppy form always follows from a sloppy mental attitude, whatever the training style. Cheating is no exception. Proper cheating directly expresses a focused mental attitude and is therefore clearly a
safe technique. It is safe because the mind is involved intimately in the process, carefully factoring in all the moment-by-moment happenings during the exercise, paying close attention to all the details,
making sure the weight is never out of control, making sure the body can handle it.
Cheating weakens the mind/muscle link.
This myth relates to myth #3. Cheating correctly means, by definition, engaging the mind even more during the exercise and repetition than when doing a standard, strict-style repetition, as
counterintuitive as that sounds. Regular practice strengthens instead of weakens the mind/muscle link.
Cheating is a way to get around serious training.
Not if you do it properly. Anyone can train in a lazy fashion, whether the style involves cheating or standard strict repetitions, but cheating correctly actually engages the mind more than normal, rather
than less. One must be more focused than usual, more in tune with one's body, more on top of the details of a movement, and more aware of the weight and where it's going, as well as how one's body is
performing. Cheating is for the serious, advanced weight trainer, a fact that leads us into ...
Lesson Two: How To Cheat Correctly
Cheating doesn't work with every bodypart. Not every exercise can or should be turned into a cheat movement. Improper, haphazard cheating is one of the quickest ways into injury, so beware. Before we look
at specific exercises we'll deal with some precautions on how not to cheat.
Avoid cheating on exercises that involve sensitive joint/muscle areas like the lower back and shoulder/rotator cuff. The margin for error is just too narrow in these body regions.
Beginners and intermediates especially should focus on a traditional weight-training program, working out with strict movements and strict repetitions, building up mental and physical confidence and muscle
maturity. Second- and third-tier trainers cannot safely and successfully undertake these practices. Only the best, most advanced bodybuilders qualify for the cheat experience. All right now. On to the specifics.
Cheating is a very flexible way to train. It's a system that is very adaptable to varying body types, personal preferences and, within limits, varying levels of fitness. For this reason narrowing down the
list of potential bodyparts and exercises appropriate to cheating is a little difficult. Individual weight trainers will find their bodies allow them to cheat with certain exercises on some bodyparts and
not with others. I'm merely offering a few very general suggestions that sophisticated weight trainers can alter, adjust and adapt to fit their own body types and personal preferences. Happily, cheating
allows for a high amount of experimentation, always a good way to have fun in the gym while working out intensely.
Okay, so what are the most cheat-friendly bodyparts? Well, generally those bodyparts which involve relatively stable joint/muscle areas working in concert: biceps, triceps, upper back and, to a lesser
extent, traps and pectorals. For the arms this means standing barbell curls, seated or standing alternating dumbell curls, skullcrushers and standing machine triceps pressdowns. For the upper back you can try
one-arm dumbell rows, long pulley rows and seated machine rows. Avoid bent-over barbell rows and T-bar rows as cheat exercises. They put far too much stress on the lower back. The injury risk potential is too
high, and using anything other than impeccable, clean form on these exercises is an injury waiting to happen.
For the traps I suggest upright rows and hang cleans. (A hang clean is a power clean that doesn't require you to pick the weight up off the floor for each repetition. Instead you start from the "hang point"
where you're holding the barbell over your knees.)
Cheating on pectoral and deltoid exercises is risky because of the sensitive shoulder/rotator cuff area involved. Be very careful about attempting to cheat with exercises in these areas. You also need a great
deal of weight-training experience and muscle maturity. Don't even attempt to cheat while doing dumbell presses or dumbell flyes. Far too much strain will occur in the region of the rotator cuff. Restrict any
cheating in these areas to straight-bar exercises, which will have the practical result of becoming more like partial-rep movements, working the lower part of the muscle group. Use moderate weight and relatively
high reps (no fewer than 8) to keep the stress on the muscles and off the joints. Heavy cheating on this body area is a no-no.
Lesson Three: Cheating As A Way Of Life
Cheating for the Professional. For the professional bodybuilder and fitness competitor cheating can be a very effective off-season technique to smash through plateaus in both strength and muscle gains. Their greater experience and muscle
maturity will allow them to benefit more from this approach.
Cheating properly is like driving a high-performance car at its peak level. The most important, exciting benefits come into play only when the car is expertly pushed to its highest potential. Then the extras
of speed, handling and agility become front-and-center items. Only an experienced driver can push such a car properly into that zone of high-level performance. He doesn't just push down the accelerator and
hang on, waiting for the fun. The same idea applies to cheating. You can't just swing and throw an excessively heavy weight around and expect to end up with anything other than injury. You won't achieve top-level
muscular performance. The professional race driver on the track, just like the professional athlete in the gym, must work the details, tweak for the high points, maximize all the curves and twists that occur in
the process, always focusing, always concentrating, and so reap all the benefits that result.
For the experienced weight trainer who wants to incorporate cheating into his workout plan, I suggest starting with a program that includes at least one cheat exercise per bodypart, per workout. Your greater
experience will allow you to more quickly assimilate the cheat experience.
Perhaps you've already experimented but now want to delve deeper. Begin by reducing the number of exercises per bodypart per workout to three maximum. Make the second the cheat movement.
You can get creative and add your own adaptations and adjustments. You may even find cheating an excellent possibility for detail areas, to spark sometime trouble spots into new growth. Here I'm referring to rear
delts, calves, upper pecs and forearms. I think that as you become more comfortable with cheating you'll find it adaptable even to precontest training, working these detail bodyparts (and other muscle groups) with
high reps in an aerobic fashion, using moderate weights. Feel free to have fun while working hard.
The Common Man (Or Woman) And Cheating. Okay, now for all the rest of us.
For the less experienced weight trainer who feels ready to take the jump into the deep waters of the cheat experience, I recommend starting very small and slow with one cheat exercise per workout, no matter how
many bodyparts you do. Focus on one muscle group for six to eight weeks, pick one or two exercises for that area and cheat with them, alternating back and forth as you feel comfortable. The key in the beginning
is to get a good feel of the target muscle working. Again, fundamental in importance is that you're not just swinging or pushing a weight indiscriminantly. If you don't feel the target muscle working underneath
all the muscular noise of the auxiliary muscles doing their work, stop and either try again or pick another exercise. Practice with a strict-form exercise. Make sure your ability to place - and keep - your mind
inside the target muscle is developed before you begin to cheat. Otherwise, cheating will be of no help, and you'll get frustrated or, worse, injured. Better safe than sorry. Practice with a good, clean, simple,
popular exercise like the standing barbell curl.
Grab the bar assertively with strength and confidence, stand tall, back straight, and place your mind deep inside your biceps, readying yourself for the first repetition. Feel your biceps already beginning to
blow up in size, easily handling whatever weight you've given them. Experiment with your grip widths, sometimes using a close grip, other times curling Sergio Oliva-style with a wide grip, out beyond your shoulders.
Initiate a little swing through your hips and force the weight up with a combination of the cheat heave and biceps contraction, allowing, indeed inviting, the aid of the auxiliary muscles of your shoulders, back
and legs. Don't allow them to take over the movement or remove the heavy stress from your biceps, which should be working harder than normal with a heavier weight than usual. Continue pulling the weight up through
the initial swing, feeling your biceps strongly contracting under great pressure.
Keep your mind deep inside the biceps, concentrating on the fainter but still strong signal of the biceps working, beaming out from all the muscular noise of the auxiliary muscles. Continue through to a full
contraction at the top and then a controlled descent. Don't feel it has to approach the control of a negative repetition. Just manage the weight so that it doesn't simply fall.
Finish the set.
Successful cheating relies on feel. As Arnold Schwarzenegger famously wrote, there is smart cheating and dumb cheating. Become a genius in the gym. Proper cheating is a workout technique that develops over time by
feel and sense memory. Like any art, certain technical details can be taught, but the essence remains available only to individual inspiration and experience. The idea may sound corny, but you can be a poet while
training hardcore and with great intensity. Work the artistic angle. Own both the exercise and your body. Begin slowly, concentrating on the target muscle, inviting the involvement of the auxiliary muscles, like
calling into play secondary instruments in a symphony. Visualize your muscles expanding beyond the confines of the gym or the walls of your home, rock hard and powerful. Start small and you'll become big - and a
successful cheater! Have a great workout!