Strict Form VS. Cheating Reps (what’s best for muscle growth?)


To Cheat Or Not To Cheat…
How Strict Should Your Exercise Form Be?


When it comes to weight training there are generally 2 schools of thought when it comes to exercise form. First you have the typical personal trainer “fitness experts” who say you should perform all lifts with light to moderate weights and use very slow and controlled movements. Then you have the power and strength athletes who like to use more explosive movements, looser training form, and lift heavier weights. Which one is right and which one should you use in your training?

Arnold Schwarzenegger Cheat Curls
Arnold Schwarzenegger Doing Some Pretty Extreme Cheat Curls!

When it comes to working out and building muscle there is really no Right or Wrong way to go about it… A lot of factors depend on the individual, their training situation, their level of training, and their fitness goals.

Obviously for beginners and people who are new to the gym, they need to learn how to perform the exercises with proper form using light weights. At this stage they just need to take baby steps, get used to the whole process of working out, and learn how it feels to exercise their muscles with weight training.

However, as you get stronger and start lifting heavier weights in your workouts with the progressive overload principle. You’ll find that your technique will have to change as well. For example, the technique needed to bench press 100 pounds is totally different than the technique needed to bench press 300 pounds. As you get stronger different muscles come into play, you need to pay a lot more attention to body positioning, your set up, how you actually contract the muscles to lift, etc… And this all requires a higher level of mental focus.

If you have the opportunity to watch advanced lifters train you’ll notice that more often then not they are NOT going to be using an exaggerated slow and controlled type of exercise form. In fact lifting slow and controlled is not really natural. It doesn’t carry over into real world strength and it is not how our muscles are meant to work.

Now I realize what I’m saying here is going to piss some people off. There are those die hard “fitness experts” out there who insist that slow and controlled is the only way and that if you use any speed or momentum in your lifting that you are cheating and that you are going to hurt yourself. But the fact is our bodies are designed for fast and explosive movements.


Real World Strength

Before we move on let’s just look at some activities from real world examples. Things such as running, jumping, throwing, etc. all require speed, momentum, and explosiveness. To prove my point, just stand up right now and try to jump as high as you can, but do it in a slow and controlled fashion… You won’t even be able to lift off the ground.

Have you ever seen a baseball player swing a bat slow and controlled? Heck NO! He’ll use momentum, speed, and explosiveness in order to swing the bat and hit the ball as far as possible. How about a boxer trying to throw a punch in a slow and controlled fashion? He certainly won’t have much knock out power.

Real World Strength

There are several activities outside of sports where using explosive strength is a must as well. Just think of trying to pull start a lawn mower or kick start a motor bike. You have to do both very fast and explosive or else the engine won’t get enough RPM’s to turn over and start. Many real world activities require strength, speed, explosiveness, and even momentum. So why are so many people dead set against training this way in the gym?

Now I know some folks (usually young ego driven guys who have too much testosterone for their own good) like to go overboard and use too much weight with absolutely crappy form. You can see examples of this when barbell curls become reverse grip power cleans (kind of like the pic of Arnold above). And bench presses become a team effort push / pull exercise as the lifter drops the bar to his chest and his trusty spotter deadlifts it back up.

But there is that gray zone in the middle of the 2 extremes whereby you are training on the edge, pushing it hard, and also keeping relatively good exercise form at the same time. To see some examples of this type of training just go to YouTube and watch some videos from some of the pro bodybuilders like Ronnie Coleman, Branch Warren, and Johnny Jackson just to name a few.

Ronnie Coleman doing HEAVY T-bar Rows!
Ronnie Coleman doing HEAVY Rows!
Branch Warren doing HEAVY Dips!
Branch Warren doing HEAVY Dips!

In these workout videos you’ll clearly see that the guys are powering up big weights and they are using a bit of “Body English” to handle such poundages, but the form is still pretty good. Even through they are not lifting “slow and controlled”, they are certainly placing maximum workload on the targeted muscle groups. This type of training will stimulate muscle growth in ways that endless slow and controlled reps with the pink dumbbells will never achieve.

In Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopaedia Of Bodybuilding he refers to this as “Power Reps”. Joe Weider calls it the “Cheating Principle”. Basically it’s just using a bit of umph in your movements in order to handle maximum workloads!

When Should YOU “Cheat” In Your Workouts ?

The use of any weight training technique will depend on the level of the trainee. So to keep it simple I’m going to cover all levels from beginners to advanced and outline how you can incorporate “Power Reps” into your own workouts.


Beginners (less then a year of training)

As I mentioned earlier, beginners should focus on simply learning proper exercise form. The easiest way to do this is to use light to moderate weights and really focus on feeling the muscles flexing and contracting with each rep. The best way to do this, especially at the beginner stage is by using slow and controlled form all the time.


Intermediates (more then a year of training)

As you progress with your training you will most certainly notice the naturally tendency to use more force and momentum to try and complete your reps as the weights get heavier. This is something you want to pay careful attention to. Used in the right way this can help you work the muscles harder. Used in the wrong way it will take stress off the targeted muscles.

My advice here is to start with a weight that allows you to maintain strict control for at least 6-8 reps. Then if you want to use a bit of “Body English” to power out a few more reps then that’s fine. This will allow you to perform a few extra reps that you normally wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do if you were “too strict” with your form.

Advanced (several years of progressive training)

Truly advanced lifters already know what works best for their body by the time they make it to this level of training. After all that’s what it means to be advanced. However for the purpose of this article I’ll outline some “Power Rep” guidelines here.

At the advanced stage you’ll have developed your own unique exercise groove from years of lifting. You’ll instinctively know if a little swing here, or a little leg drive there, will provide more muscle stimulation and deliver the maximum workload to the muscles. You’ll also know if you are over doing it and using too much momentum.

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Here is a list of some common things that advanced lifters do to handle maximum poundages with the following exercises:

Bench Press
A slight bounce off the chest at the bottom to help rebound the weight up and not fully locking out the elbows at the top. This tends to allow for more weight and / or more reps to be lifted and also provide maximum muscle stimulation.

Squats
A slight rebound out of the bottom (when doing full squats) will help you get the weight back up. Again sometimes advanced lifters will not fully lock out the knees at the top and keep going, almost like a piston type of up and down motion.

Standing Overhead Presses
A slight leg drive will help move maximum poundages while actually cushioning the impact from the exercise. This absorbs some of the stress from the spine down through your legs.

Bent Over Rows
Like with the standing press a bit of leg drive will allow for heavier weights and can help move more weight and / or more reps.

Bicep Curls
A little swing at the start and even a slight back arch at the half way mark can help get past the sticky point in the middle of the exercise.

Lateral Raises
A little leg drive at the start and a slight swing in the middle will help you get more weight up. Also holding the dumbbells in the front vs. to the sides will help you lift more weight.

Lat Pull Downs
Arching your back will help you move more weight and actually help you fully contract your lats. Trying to keep your back totally flat when doing any pull down or rowing exercise actually prevents you from getting a peak contraction in the back muscles.

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Those exercises work well for using “Power Reps”. However, your own discretion is advised. This isn’t a free for all to go out and use crappy form on all your exercises. It’s just another tool in your tool box that can help you take your muscular development to a higher level.

If you are going to incorporate “Power Reps” into your training you should save them for the final all out work sets. Start off your warm up sets using perfect controlled form. Then as you work up to your top weight for a particular exercise you can give it that extra push to maximize the weights lifted and the stimulation placed on the muscles.



Taking Your Training To The Next Level…

If you would like help in setting up an advanced muscle building program that fits your personal needs and lifestyle, than I encourage you to sign up for the Total Fitness Bodybuilding “Inner Circle” Coaching Club. As a member I’ll personally follow along with your diet and training program to help ensure that you’re on the right track to muscle building success.

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For more information about Lee Hayward’s Total Fitness Bodybuilding “Inner Circle” Coaching Club, just visit the link below at: http://www.TotalFitnessBodybuilding.com

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About The Author

leehayward

Lee Hayward is a competitive bodybuilder and muscle building coach who has been online helping people build muscle, lose bodyfat, and get in shape since 1999. Lee was selected as one of the Top Fitness Trainers Online through YouTube's Next Trainer Program and his work has been featured in several international magazines such as: FLEX, Muscle Insider, Muscle Mag International, Testosterone, Ironmag, and Forbes.

26 Comments

  • Thanks Lee!
    I was wondering if that little flex in the knees was OK when doing standing shoulder presses.

    Jason

  • Bali

    What about training in a 5×5 style? It can go either slow and controlled or quick and explosive? And is the whole concept of going extra slow to build slow twitch fibers just a mere myth?

  • Alex

    Nice post Lee 😉
    Trough esperience i’ve come to the conclusion that what makes you grow are just more plates on the bar, period !!
    It’s not the superset or negative slowdown BS wich only makes u use less weight and can severely decresa your recovery..
    I control the negative phase off course, but not for 3 or 4 seconds like i see some people advising, in that way you will have to use less weight and will burn quikly..
    I loved how you explain teh litlle cheats you can use in order to manage bigger weights, they are exactly right and very well translated to words.. i use them all and try to do my reps in a “pumping fashion”..
    In the past i have had trouble with all the aspects you pointed out when big weights come in.. i used to stretch when curling and contract from the bottom and got an inflamated forearm, now i give it a litlle bounce..
    I’ve locked the bar on top of the bench press, got an inflamated elbow..
    I’ve locked the legs on top of the squat and had problems on my knees..
    So i think this cxan either come with experience or by great teachers like u are..
    Off course i’m not saying you can cycle some endurance programs or even go with slower reps, or high reps for a while to give muscles a different kind of stress and go thru plateaus, but my main focus thru the year is lifting more weight or more reps with the same weight trying to set a new PR on every exercise, everytime i set foot on the gym, you cant allways do it but that must be your mindseet if u want to get results.. i try to keep my volume low and finish my workouts within 60 minutes tops.. and no crappy form last rep just to hit failure (it leads to injurie and slows recovery).
    The heavier the weights, the bigger and stronger you will get, no way around that !!
    I’m sorry for the long post but this subject is really important, and i see too many people just waisting time in the gym and putting the blame on supllements, eheheh
    Keep up the good work !!

  • Doc

    Those “personal trainers” advise slow and controlled, light weights to avoid injury to their clients and thus liability. So their clients get some results intially, like every newby gets and are convinced they owe it to the trainer’s expertise. Like everything in life there is no substitute for hard work, including not only the workout but also the research into the science behind exercise. Using your brain first will optimize your workout and progress.

  • Awesome post. Two years ago, after watching power lifters (not that I can include myself in that category in any way) I made the personal decision to move my reps from a goal of doing 10-12 before adding weight to reps of 6-8 as the ultimate goal. With all other life considerations (age, time I have to work out, family responsiblities) added in, this seemed the best I could do. I’ve been adding weight at a much faster pace than before, am getting much better mass and strength gains, and actually enjoy going to the gym. Each to their own, but this revolutionized my workouts. Thanks for adding the part about “cheating.” I was worried about my form when I first started doing this, but with a little time, my form is much stricter with heavier weights than many people I see using lower ones. I can’t go into the gym everyday and do a low-weight, totally strict routine. Each to his own. Thanks for this, Lee.

  • Bali,

    Bali,

    I can’t speak for Lee Hayward, of course, but do what feels right. The best advice somebody gave me is that when you’re going heavy, if it moves, it moves. It’s a rep. Don’t worry about it. Come in next time and do one or two more. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets if you’re going heavy. (A minute and half is what works for me unless I’m really going heavier than normal that day.) But I’d say if you’re doing 5X5 and pushing the weight, you can only do it slow and controlled. I don’t think Lee’s advocating doing everything fast, here. I think the pace he’s talking about is the pace to get the damn weight up rather than these guys who demand four seconds up and four seconds down. I always train heavy now (well, what’s heavy for me) and 2-3 down and 2 up is about where I’m at (until the last sat where I’m usually 3-4 seconds up because I’m nearly spent).

  • Rémi Gionet

    What about exploding while getting the weight up ( fast motion ) and slow coming down reps ?

  • Ted Harris

    this is off the subject but do you know of any leather lifting gloves that do not “bleed” on your skin as you sweat? I’ve tried Weider, Gold, and other brands but cannot find a pair that doesn’t “bleed”. On subject, I’ve been lifting since high school, I’m 59 now, and I feel that alternating ocassionally between very strict form and using a “little” body english to lift a bit heavier works very well for me.

  • sidd

    Superb article Lee… But like one person mentioned above, how about exploding while lifting and slowly bring down thus giving a good work out..what do you say

  • Bali:
    What about training in a 5×5 style? It can go either slow and controlled or quick and explosive? And is the whole concept of going extra slow to build slow twitch fibers just a mere myth?

    Generally with 5×5 workouts they are used for big power exercises like bench presses, squats, deadlifts, etc. so you can train them as forceful as you can while still maintaining full range of motion and good form. I wouldn’t purposely try to “slow them down”.

    And as for slow twitch muscle fibers, they are the muscular endurance muscle fibers which get worked with higher rep training, not necessarily from moving slower.

  • Doc:
    Those “personal trainers” advise slow and controlled, light weights to avoid injury to their clients and thus liability.So their clients get some results intially, like every newby gets and are convinced they owe it to the trainer’s expertise.Like everything in life there is no substitute for hard work, including not only the workout but also the research into the science behind exercise.Using your brain first will optimize your workout and progress.

    Well said, gyms and trainers for the most part want everyone to lift light and easy. Less risk of injury, less wear and tear on the equipment, it isn’t going to intimidate the other gym members, etc…

    But the key here is to know when different training styles are appropriate and not being so ignorant to think that there is only ONE way to train. Very often the eager beaver newly certified personal trainer (who just did a 2 day weekend certification course) thinks that he knows everything now. And then has the nerve to criticize some advanced bodybuilder or powerlifter who has been training for 10+ years and tell them they are doing things “wrong” while pulling that 500 pound deadlift and instead they should drop the weight to 135 and feel the burn LOL

  • Rémi Gionet:
    What about exploding while getting the weight up ( fast motion ) and slow coming down reps ?

    Yes, for the most part that’s how people generally use explosive lifting, especially for bodybuilding training. Powerful on the contraction and controlled on the negative.

  • Ted Harris:
    this is off the subject but do you know of any leather lifting gloves that do not “bleed” on your skin as you sweat?I’ve tried Weider, Gold, and other brands but cannot find a pair that doesn’t “bleed”.On subject, I’ve been lifting since high school, I’m 59 now, and I feel that alternating ocassionally between very strict form and using a “little” body english to lift a bit heavier works very well for me.

    I personally don’t wear gloves while working out. I prefer to use lifting chalk instead. I like the feeling of cold steel in my hands while I workout 😉

  • Jim

    leehayward,

    leehayward,

    I once got a callus on a tendon in the palm of my hand which produced a callus on the skin above the tendon from working out. It was unbearable. The doctor recommended wearing gloves.

    After a lot of searching and trying on disappointing gloves, I found and now wear a NIKE sports glove. these gloves are extraordinarily well made and designed. No choking of fingers and can be worn all day. They provide good grip too.

    They have never stained my hands. My original pair of gloves is about 4 years old and show no sign of wear. I wear them for every workout.

    I took a pair of old socks and filled them with cedar chips. (Cedar chips can be found as pet litter for hamsters) When I finish using the gloves, I slide the hand portion over the socks and store them that way. They always smell fresh.

    Hope this is of some help

    Jim

  • andy

    great blog lee, been reading your stuff for a good few years now and am currently on a mass building program and agree with what your saying here. It gets on my nerves all this new way of strict training and light weight in every work out its good to see a point of view from someone who has tried and tested both types of training ! thanks for all ya info!

  • bob g

    Lee,
    Once again you have provided a wealth of information. Guess the bottom line is that as long as you do not hurt yourself, and feel the muscle working, then it is ok to do less than ‘strick’ form.
    thanks

  • LiveDeath

    Lee
    Well written, I do hope those fitness trainers will learn something by reading this post.
    You wont believe i nearly come across trainers who advise newbies 100 reps per set in a dumbbell curl with a 2.5 or 5 kg dumbbell, that too slow, because they will get huge guns have chiseled biceps in no time. When i ask them why they say “BURN man, PUMP”. I retort you are going to have a BURN even you clench your fist and do 100 reps curl. Lactic acid formation is the reason for the burn. Hearing so they run for cover, their pious incantations have lost their effect.
    Higher reps in the range of 12-15 and sometimes 15-20 are good, they bring variety in your workout. You cannot workout whole the year round doing 3-4 reps per set. But 100 reps, why they do it the reason escapes me.

    I loved that one “team effort push / pull exercise”.

    Lee i would like to disagree with you on the bouncing part in bench press. That is not needed, people misuse it, i have seen few videos in youtube, when trying to bounce the weight they simply drop the weight on their ribcage. Very bad practice.

  • L. McK

    Ted Harris,

    If bleeding colors onto your hand is the only issue, I’ve had a $10 pair of weightlifting gloves for two years now that have lasted and never bled. (I do have to wrap my wrists, though, and some people prefer gloves with attached wrist support. My method works fine for me.)

  • L. McK

    L. McK,

    Cheap knock-offs that I bought at Target.

  • kenneth

    Lee thanks for that advice i was always wondering about fast movement. I was
    doing 3 wks high reps fast movements then 2 wks of full range lifting. My workout
    been great

  • nki

    Jim,

    Gloves what gloves,
    my hands are all callused up
    so what
    Its called grip strength

  • shane

    Hey lee im a beginner lifter and i was wondering what a “leg drive” is thanks 😀

  • shane:
    Hey lee im a beginner lifter and i was wondering what a “leg drive” is thanks :D

    Leg drive is basically using your legs to assist with the lift. It varies depending on the exercise. For example, if you were doing a standing military press it would be slightly bending and thrusting with your legs to help press the bar overhead. With barbell rows it would be bending the knees and thrusting to help row the bar up. With the bench press it would be pressing your feet into the floor and creating tension in the legs to help generate more force in the bottom of the lift.

  • Lee,
    What about weigh training one body part a day? Does concentration on one body part increase the risk of over-training?

    • Not really, most bodybuilders split up their body part workouts so they only focus on 1 or 2 body parts per day. Overtraining is more of a bigger picture thing and it’s basically doing more than your body can recover from over the long term. What constitutes overtraining will vary from person to person depending on their level of physical fitness. Obviously the better shape you are in, the higher your work capacity is, and the more volume of exercise you can do without overtraining.

  • Chris

    Bali,

    I’ve done the 5×5 routines and got great results from them. I feel that it’s way too difficult to add weight to the bar if you’re doing slow and controlled movements on power exercises like squats, bench, and deadlifts. In the beginning I went slow to learn the movements and use proper form. After I got the hang of it, everything was explosive (or as explosive as I can make it). As the weights got heavier I was forced to move slower, just because I couldn’t generate as much speed due to the heavy weight. Power exercises are not meant to be purposefuly slow. I did a 5×5 until I was able to do 315 for 5×5 with the squat and deadlift, and 225 for 5×5 on the bench. It took me less than a year. I’m 5’11”. When I started I was 165 lbs and at the end I was 205 lbs. Strength gains were greater than size gains I would say, but it definitely builds a great solid foundation for any beginner.