Ultimate Guide to Cheat Reps
Some people say that you should never do cheated reps, while other people swear by them. Perhaps these are both sources of fitness information that you trust.
What to do?
Well, first it’s important that context and details matter. Hopefully by the end of reading this article, you’ll have a deeper understanding of why cheated reps can be both good and bad, as well as how to use them in your training — if at all.
What is a cheat rep?
Like a bodybuilding show, it’s important to have definitions. A cheated rep is a rep that uses muscles other than the primarily targeted ones. So in a biceps curl, instead of only using the biceps, you might lean forward at the start of the rep, and use a bit of hip extension to generate momentum in order to get the bar moving.
You might do the same in a lateral raise, using a bit of hip involvement to get the weight up.
The best usage of cheat reps is that they allow you to go beyond technical failure. For a lateral raise, for example, the hardest part of the range of motion is at the top.
After all, the dumbells are providing no resistance at all in the bottom position, at least for the side delts.
Gravity is pulling the weight straight down, so the tension just rests happily on the shoulder joint and traps. You can probably hold your bodyweight or more in this position, with the aid of lifting straps. As you raise your arm to the side, however, the side delt starts working.
The bottom half of the range of motion is still relatively easy, though. Most people can do heavy partials with far more weight than full range of motion.
The hardest part is at the top, where the dumbbell is effectively furthest away from the shoulder — at least in horizontal terms:
So, if you are doing a rep, that means the start is very easy, and it gets harder as you go, until the top is the hardest. If you did a set till “technical failure”, using just strict reps, you’d exhaust the deltoid at the very top of the range of motion first, in a tiny fraction of the range of motion.
Cheat reps, to the rescue — by using a small amount of momentum, you can continue the set. Make sure to use the hips to assist the shoulders, not replace the shoulders — the momentum should be as small as possible to get the job done. Also make sure that you are controlling the lowering part of the range of motion.
This “eccentric” part is massively important for building muscle, and is a large part of the reason that cheat reps are even a thing in the first place. Because you can lower a weight under control even when you might not be able to lift it, you can still benefit from these reps even if they are beyond technical failure.
You can also use cheat reps to lift a weight heavier than you otherwise could at all, but this is more of an advanced technique. I really just suggest using it to get a few extra reps at the end of a set with a weight you can lift normally.
You should cheat as little as possible. Even in the above example, where you are using hip drive to get a few extra juicy, muscle-growth-causing full range of motion reps, the focus is still on the biceps. You are still using primarily the biceps, with the hips merely assisting. If it starts looking like the other way around — mostly hips with a bit of biceps halfheartedly finishing the movement — you won’t be getting much out of the exercise.
Additionally, don’t cheat as a way to avoid failure, but to enhance it. If you fail with strict reps, then start cheating slightly, that’s OK. It’s great, actually. But if it starts getting hard with strict reps and you just start cheating to make it easier or to use more weight than you should…not as great.
Cheat reps can also make tracking your progress more complicated. If you do twelve normal reps, three slightly cheated reps, and three VERY cheated reps…what do you write in your training log? Twelve, fifteen or eighteen? Progressive overload is crucial, and going beyond technical failure can make this tracking process tricky.
Of course, as with most anything in life, it’s certainly not all good or bad. There’s some danger, too. If you cheat excessively, especially on some movements, the risk of injury likely does go up. For example, if you cheat your curls by leaning forward and using a small amount of momentum, probably not the end of the world. But if you are looking like THIS…
…perhaps not wise. Arnold might be able to get away with it, you probably can’t. Same thing with a bent over row. If you use a bit of hip drive to get a few extra reps, minimal risk.
If you have to round your lower back to keep getting reps, nope. No, no, no. You are done, son. Put the bar down. Known mechanism of injury.
Squats, deadlifts, bench presses, good mornings shouldn’t be cheated. They are already very stimulatory anyway and the risks are too high. Stick with things like lighter curls, lateral raises and rows, and only if you can maintain safe positions. Know thyself.
If you can’t control the eccentric anymore, the risk to reward ratio is far too high. The set is done, and probably should have been a few reps ago.
You are using cheat reps to put slightly greater stress on the area you want to target, remember that. If you end up putting less stress, or excessive stress on the area, you are probably lifting more with your ego than your brain.