Barbell Biceps Curl Illustration (with EZ-Bar)

The Lifter’s Guide to Graceful Cheating

Being a loyal, honest, and faithful person is incredibly important. In fact, I think it might even be the most important thing in life. If you doubt that, I highly recommend the book Lying by the neuroscientist Sam Harris, PhD. In it, he outlines the many ways that lying is morally wrong and will ruin your life.

However, cheating while lifting weights has no moral implications, and it will probably help you build more muscle. There are a few different ways to cheat, too, each with their own unique benefits.

Cheating on Your Lifts

In general, you want to be someone who does their lifts properly. That’s going to help you build fuller muscles, gain more strength, and keep you safer while lifting weights. After all, you don’t want to be rounding your back while squatting, deadlifting, or overhead pressing. So unless you know how to cheat, you probably shouldn’t risk it.

But if you’re an intermediate lifter who generally knows how to lift properly, cheating can help you get more out of your lifts. Here are some examples of how to do that.

The Unfaithful Press

For the first example, let’s use the overhead press. Now, to be clear, the overhead press is a fantastic lift. I’m a fan of it. However, there’s a simple way to make it even better: cheat.

See, the problem with the overhead press is that there’s a very sticky point at right about forehead height. It’s much too difficult at that one spot. So what happens is that you easily bring it up to your forehead, it jams there, and then if you can get it past, the lift becomes easy again. That means that you’re only getting an optimal growth stimulus out of a very small part of a large range of motion. We call this a bad strength curve.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to fix that strength curve. If we add some leg drive to the lift, we can accelerate the bar off our chest, giving it some momentum to help us clear that sticking point. To make sure that we’re still getting proper stimulation at the bottom of the lift, all we need to do is explode the weight up with our shoulders and upper chest. So long as we put all of our effort into accelerating the weight off our chest, we’ll get a beautiful strength curve.

That small bit of cheating is also going to let us lift much more weight than we could press if we were using strict form, which means that we’ll also get the benefit of lowering a too-heavy weight on the way down. We’ll get more growth out of the lowering “eccentric” portion of the lift.

The problem is, when we fix the strength curve like that, we’re technically cheating. In fact, we’re not even really doing a strict overhead press anymore, we’re doing more of a push press.

Now, the problem with a strict push press is that it puts a lot of emphasis on the lower body. We’ve already got our squats and deadlifts. We aren’t trying to transform the overhead press into yet another lower-body lift. So what we want to do is merge the two lifts together. It’s not a strict overhead press, but it’s not quite a push press, either.

On the Stronger by Science Podcast, Greg Nuckols referred to this improved overhead press as a “cheaty overhead press.” And that’s exactly what it is. If we know the right way to cheat on it, we can get better shoulder and triceps growth out of the press.

This push press / overhead press hybrid is our favourite lift for developing the shoulders, and it’s great for your triceps as well.

The Unfaithful Curl

For our second example, let’s talk about the barbell curl. The curl is another great exercise—one of my favourites. However, it’s another lift with an iffy strength curve. Most people can easily curl the weight to the halfway point, at which point our lower arms are horizontal, and the moment arm of the lift is at its longest. At that midway point, we’re forced to grind it out. Then, if we succeed in getting it past that sticking point, the lift becomes easier again.

Just like with the overhead press, this is a pretty bad strength curve. Most of the growth stimulus is coming from just a small piece of a large range of motion. And again, just like with the overhead press, we can improve the strength curve simply by cheating.

Cheat curls are like a power clean with a curl grip (power curls) or that bouncing heavy bar curl you see every gym-rat in the world do when he gets tired from strict curls.

—Dan John

To improve the barbell curl, just toss a little hip drive in there, explode into it with your biceps, and give that barbell a bit of momentum. Try to accelerate that weight up, which is going to full engage your muscles right from the get-go. That momentum will also help you blast through the sticking point, allowing you to just barely finish the rep. Then, because you’re using more weight than you can strictly curl, you’ll get the benefit of lowering a too-heavy weight back down.

Sometimes unfaithful curls are called power curls or cheat curls, but there’s no clear terminology for it. We could say that a power curl is sort of like a power clean combined with a barbell curl, where you start the rep with quite a bit of bend in your hips (as in a Romanian deadlift). We could say that a cheat curl, then, is done with just a bit of hip drive to help give the barbell some momentum.

The thing to keep in mind when doing unfaithful barbell curls is that you want to keep your core braced and your spine nice and neutral. We want to cheat by giving the barbell momentum, not by arching our backs.

Other Lifts That You Should Cheat On

There are plenty of other lifts where cheating tends to help more than it hurts. Here are a few of them:

  • English Rows: putting some momentum into your rows will help you clear the bar past the sticking point, allowing you to benefit from lifting through a larger range of motion. So long as you put all of your might into the lift right from the get-go, you should get better muscle recruitment by cheating.
  • Tall-Grass Squats: if squatting to legal powerlifting depth causes your lower back to round or your femurs to jam up against your hips, then feel free to squat a little higher. (For more, here’s our article about the best squat variations and accessories.)
  • Lateral Tosses: there’s a strength curve problem with doing strict lateral raises. The lift is very easy at the bottom (due to a small moment arm) and then gets progressively heaver as you raise your arms out to the sides (due to a huge moment arm). We can even out the strength curve by “throwing” the weight up. Accelerating the weight is going to fully engage your muscles right from the beginning, and that momentum is going to let you bring heavier weights through the entire range of motion.

Lifts That You Shouldn’t Cheat On

You can benefit from cheating on some lifts some of the time. However, some lifts you don’t want to mess around on. Here are some examples of that:

  • Keep deadlifting properly. Don’t jerk the bar up, trying to give it momentum. Don’t bounce the bar off the ground while doing your reps. And don’t deadlift with a rounded back. If you cheat on the deadlift, there’s too high of a risk of getting punished for it. Besides, of all the lifts, the deadlift is the one that tends to be most loyal to us, giving us the most profound benefits. We may want to stay faithful to it just out of principle alone. However, we can still pick the deadlift variation that suits us best, and that might not be a classic conventional deadlift.
  • Keep benching properly. The barbell bench press is already a bit of a finicky lift, so the last thing you want to do is starting bouncing the barbell of your chest or playing around with too-heavy reps. In fact, you may even want to try and pause the barbell on your chest for a second between reps, doing them even more faithfully. If you need more variation in your bench press routine, I’d recommend trying weighted push-ups, resistance-band push-ups, the dumbbell bench press, the floor press, weighted dips, or the incline bench press. For more, here’s our article about choosing the best bench press variations and accessories.
  • Don’t bother with kipping pull-ups. Kipping pull-ups are that style of pull-up where you pretend to be a salmon swimming upstream. It’s popular in CrossFit routines because it allows you to eke out more reps. Thing is, to get the most out of a chin-up, we want to muscle our way through a huge range of motion. Doing short jerky reps that rely on momentum makes the lift worse.

Using Mistress Lifts

We’ve written about finding the lifts that love you and then staying loyal to them. I think that’s a good principle to lift by in a general sense, but we’ll be able to build even more muscle if we take advantage of mistress lifts.

A “mistress lift” is a lift that isn’t your main lift, but that you’ll use whenever your main lift starts to feel a little stale. For example, let’s say that you’ve chosen the front squat as your main squat variation. But then whenever you hit a plateau, or you get bored of it, you swap in a new variation. Maybe that’s a high-bar squat, a goblet squat, or even a low-bar squat. It doesn’t always need to be the same lift, either. You can mix them up to keep things fresh. These are your mistress lifts.

This extra variety is going to stimulate different muscle fibres through a different range of motion and using a different strength curve. It’s going to cause slightly different stresses that will provoke a new round of adaptations. That novelty is going to speed up muscle growth and strength gains, especially if your progress has plateaued with your main variation.

The other benefit is that your joints and connective tissues will get a break from doing the exact same movement over and over again. They’ll get to adapt to a new kind of stress. You’ll engage new synergists and stabilizer muscles. You’ll be building a more balanced and versatile physique.

However, the front squat remains your bedrock. When you want to track your longterm strength gains, you’ll return to the front squat. And after a phase or two of using a different squat variation, you might want to come back to the main variation you’ve chosen anyway. After all, you chose your main variation for a reason—because it’s the lift that suits you and your goals best. And now it will feel fresh again. You’ll be able to get a new round of progress out of it.

Following Your Workout Program Unfaithfully

Finally, we have perhaps the most important principle of all: you don’t need to follow your programs with perfect faithfulness. Yes, if you’re doing a program, you should be mostly faithful to it. You still need to show up to your workouts, put in the work, and you should probably have a smart structure in place. After all, lifting aimlessly and haphazardly sucks, it won’t get you anywhere, and there’s nothing less fun than failure.

That means that there are some general rules that you want to keep in place. For example, if your program is built on a foundation of big compound lifts, don’t go swapping out those big compound lifts for small accessory lifts. A leg press isn’t the same thing as a barbell squat, nor is a leg extension, or even a split squat. The barbell squat is a heavy lift that works hundreds of muscles, with a main emphasis on your quads, adductors, hips, and spinal erectors. Therefore, as a general rule of thumb, you want to replace a heavy squat with another heavy squat variation.

The same idea is true in reverse. If you replace curls with chin-ups because you hear that chin-ups are better for stimulating biceps growth than curls are, then you’re swapping out a fairly small lift for a massive lift. That might make your workout too fatiguing overall. Or maybe not. But the more you chip away at the foundation of a program, the more likely it is to crumble.

However, within that overall structure, feel free to have some fun. There are lots of different ways you can deviate from a program while still keeping the foundation solid, and thus still ensuring results:

  • Maybe you warm up to a heavy single before you start your working sets. I’ll do this now and then with overhead presses and deadlifts, and I’ve always found that it’s a great way to launch into an ominous workout. It gets me psyched up to lift.
  • Maybe you switch up the exercise order. If your workouts start with squats but the squat rack is taken, then why not start with another lift instead?
  • Maybe you prefer different lift variations. There’s no lift that’s best for everyone, so you should probably pick the variations that suit you best as an individual.

I generally recommend that beginners avoid this kind of thing. Better to trust the expert the you’ve sought out. After all, you chose that expert for a reason, right? Maybe it’s best to try the squat variation that they recommend.

But as you get more experienced lifting weights, you’re going to learn more about your body and what you respond best to. If you aren’t working with an experienced strength coach in person, it can really help to learn how to customize your workout programs to suit your quirks, goals, and preferences.

Let’s say that your program calls for low-bar squats, but you’ve been reading this blog, and you’ve been convinced that front squats might align with your goals a little bit better. May as well swap them out, no?

For another example, let’s say that your programs calls for underhand chin-ups, but the underhand grip makes your elbows hurt. You know that the idea is to train your biceps and upper back, so why not keep that same idea in mind, but choose a variation that doesn’t bork your elbows. Perhaps a neutral-grip chin-up is the better choice. Or maybe gymnastic rings. For more on the pros and cons of each type of chin-up, here’s our article about how to choose chin-up variations and accessories.

Speaking of which, the barbell curl is another good example of a lift that gives a lot of guys elbow pain. If that’s you, why not use a curl-bar instead? That’s probably going to feel better on your elbows, and it will still net you that same sweet biceps growth. You’re getting a benefit with no cost.

Key Takeaways

Now, I know what you’re thinking, unfaithfulness has a steep moral cost. Except that your training program isn’t your spouse, your friend, or your favourite child. There’s no harm being done to your workout program when you customize it to better suit your needs. The barbell curl doesn’t care if you don’t use strict technique, and your biceps might prefer it.

That’s the message I’m trying to communicate with this whole post, really. There’s no moral imperative to do every lift with strict form, to do the same “best” lifts forever, or to follow your workout program with perfect faithfulness. If we’re smart about it, we can make lifting much more fun than that, getting better results while we’re at it.

It’s better to choose variations that suit you better, to lift with a style that’s best for your body and your goals, to intentionally add in some variety to your training, and to feel free to explore your whims and fancies. That’s what we’re hoping to accomplish with our Big 5 Approach to Bulking, where we build a strong foundation out of compound lifts, but still leave room for individual variation.

About Shane Duquette

W. Shane Duquette, BDes, is a science communicator with a degree in design and visual communication from York University. He co-founded Bony to Beastly and Bony to Bombshell, where he specializes in helping ectomorphs, hardgainers, and skinny-fat people bulk up.

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