elitefts™ Sunday Edition

Go to any old-time Stevedore beer hall and you will witness folks on a diet of sauerkraut, Schlitz, and bratwurst that have greater bicep and forearm development than those at any trendy chain gym. How can this be? By loading crates, longshoremen do variations of cheat curls for a living.

Tradition Challenged

Next time the pencil-necked personal trainer at the “chrome palace” puts down his soy latte to makes doctrinal claims about  “the canonical facts of arm development,” call his bluff and tell him to take his “bro science” to a more gullible audience. Instead of these empty claims, when it comes to herculean bicep development, cheat curls are the preferred “call to arms” over strict isolation variations. From Ronnie Coleman to Bill Kazmaier to Ted Arcidi, cheat curls played a role in massive bicep development. However, cheat curls are most readily associated with the “Austrian Oak,” Arnold Schwarzenegger. The many benefits of cheat curls indicate that there is a place for at least some deceit in an advanced weight training regimen.

Science Speaks

A recent study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology demonstrated the effectiveness of cheating in some movements. The study examined the lateral raise, done in a strict style and aided by initial momentum to get the weight started. The results: The authors concluded, “A moderate use of external momentum increases both the per-repetition peak torque and the total hypertrophy stimulus in a set.” In layman's terms, the target muscles receive more stimulation with moderate cheating, which leads to greater muscle growth (*The authors warned excessive cheating results in lower demands on the target muscles, and decreases time under tension). Arandjelović, O. (2013). Does cheating pay: the role of externally supplied momentum on muscular force in resistance exercise. European Journal Of Applied Physiology, 113(1), 135-145.

What exactly is cheating? According to The Master Blaster Joe Weider, “Using momentum (a slight swing of the weight) to overcome a sticking point as you fatigue near the end of a set. While doing heavy barbell curls, for example, you might be able to perform only eight strict reps to failure. A subtle swing of the weight or a slightly faster rep speed may help you get 1-2 additional reps. For advanced bodybuilders only.” The key is that cheating is for injury-free, advanced lifters, with a great sense of kinesthesia or body awareness.

Pick the right exercises

When planning your cheating schedule, use common sense. Cheating on lunges, deadlifts, or leg presses invites injury! But, let’s look at a couple exercises that can benefit from cheating.

Dumbbell Lateral Raises/Dumbbell Front Raises: These movement begin at their weakest points, so using no momentum with your arms fully extended will require the use of pygmy (a.k.a., lighter weights). Slightly bending the elbows and using minimal body momentum will allow you to use heavier weights, leading to greater gains in size and strength. On the way down, control the negative.

Curls: Cheat curls were Arnold’s bread and butter for arm development. The toughest part of a curl is the start, so begin the set in a strict manner...when you can no longer complete the reps in a strict style, use a slight hip swing to get the weight moving. At the top, hold the weight in a peak contraction style, then do a 3-5 second negative. Before long, your biceps will be busting out of your sleeves.

Muscle Intention

When cheating, develop a mind-muscle connection; feel the muscle you are working (this is contrary to the movement intention we previously covered with Compensatory Acceleration Training).

Why Cheat? The average commercial gym neophyte wants something for nothing and will, therefore, opt for the path of least resistance. But, I am writing for the lifter who is serious about results. The wrong reason to cheat is to make an exercise easier. The right reason is to create more muscular tension and make the exercise harder. Remember, when it comes to the acquisition of hypertrophy, muscles do not know the weight on the bar. They know tension.  So, recklessly heaving weights will not increase tension. But cheating correctly with muscle intention will increase tension.

Photo Courtesy of SYMI Photography

Sticking Points

Every exercise has a weak point. To overcome weak portions of a movement, I am a huge proponent of safety squats for bodybuilders, because it allows them to  pull through sticking points while still handling the maximum poundages that equal maximum growth.

More on Cheating

Use cheating to push through sticking points, not for ego gratification. Cheating correctly overloads the targeted muscles without assisting the strong part of the movements.

Training Past Failure: Once you hit failure with strict form, keep on trucking! Use some momentum to continue the set. This allows you to do so without pausing or reducing the weight on the bar, while maintaining maximum intensity. The lifter with a strong mind-muscle connection and a high tolerance for pain can thrive with this method. Although similar to forced reps, with cheating movements you are not at the mercy of a spotter. This gives you greater control of your pig iron destiny.

Psychological Boost: As a kid I used to curl heavy with piss poor form. I used excessive cheating, but about a month later I would do the same weight in a strict style. Knowing that I had handled the weight in a cheating style boosted my confidence for when I approached the lift in a strict style. I am not advocating my youthful curling indiscretions. But dollars to donuts says that if you hit eight strict curls reps and four more in a cheating style, you will be hitting 12 strict curls soon.

Control the Negative: Want to grow? Let’s get negative. Numerous studies show the effectiveness of heavy negatives on muscle growth. You can handle up to 60 percent more on a negative than a positive. Control the negative portion of the rep in a strict style when cheating on the positive and you will grow bigger and become stronger.

Mechanical Tension, Metabolic Stress, and Muscle Damage: Cheating correctly creates greater tension in a muscle. By cheating, a set can be taken past traditional notions of failure to greatly increase metabolic stress. Additionally, you can use increased loads that offer greater time under tension, heavy eccentrics, and muscle damage (in this instance, a good thing).  Therefore, through cheating, you achieve the three catalysts for sparking muscle hypertrophy.

When Not To Cheat: Risk of injury aside, if you are a competitive lifter do not cheat on core lifts. Basketball players don’t get better at free throws by practicing with bad form and missing free throws. Similarly, powerlifters don’t get better at the big three lifts by practicing with bad form. Powerlifting is a skill, people get stronger without ever increasing their body weight because they become neurologically more efficient or in other words get “better” at the big three lifts.

Final Thoughts

Cheating is an advanced principle, and should not be attempted by beginners. Cheating does have some risk. but when used correctly the risk is minimized and the reward is big.