Can You Cheat Your Way To More Muscle? Here's A Review Of The Science Behind Cheat Reps
Cheat reps have been part of bodybuilding for decades.
But are they merely an opportunity for Schwarzenegger-wannabes to puff their chest? Or do they have benefit for the average gym goer trying to get in shape?
In this article you'll discover the science behind cheat reps. More importantly, by the end of the article you'll know whether cheat reps should be avoided like the plague, or a staple of your training programme.
So, if you've ever wondered if perfect form is the only way to build muscle, read on.
And if you'd prefer to listen to the audio version of "Can Cheat Reps Help Build More Muscle?", click the play button below.
Are Cheat Reps Hypertrophy Kryptonite?
Look at bodybuilding footage and you're likely to see cheat reps in frequent use. And those guys are pretty big, so it stands to reason cheat reps work, right?
First, let's define what a cheat rep is. Here are two scenarios where cheat reps are typically used:
- Extended Sets - Perform a set with strict form to the point of failure (or close to), then extend the set with a few reps of imperfect form.
- Cheat Sets - Form is less-strict from the outset and load increased.
Next, let's consider the basics of how muscle is built.
Muscle grows from increased stimulus and overload. At a simplistic level, your body is responding to chemical signals generated by tension on the muscle. And it's these signals that cause the muscle to grow. So if tension is minimal, then the muscle won't adapt.
Range of motion (ROM) is also an important aspect of muscle hypertrophy. Studies have shown that full ROM out performs shorter ROM for building muscle.
"The practical implications for this body of work follow that LR should be observed in RT where increased muscle strength and size are the objective, because we demonstrate here that ROM should not be compromised for greater external loading." McMahon et al, 2014
So if tension is important. And ROM is important. Where do cheat reps fit in the equation?
In a cheat set, where form is sacrificed for load, results are likely to be compromised. This is due to an almost inevitable shortening of the ROM and loss of tension, due to the weight being under less control and subject to momentum and inertia.
Therefore, in this scenario cheat reps are your hypertrophy kryptonite and potentially working against you.
But what about extended sets? Are they equally as bad for the gains?
Are Cheat Reps A Complete No-No?
If cheat sets are the hypertrophy killer, is adding a few cheat reps to the end of a set equally as bad?
Interestingly, a study from the University Of Swansea shows a benefit in the use of cheat reps. The results highlighted increased peak-torque and hypertrophy stimulus from moderate increases in load and the use of momentum.
But before you start swinging weights around like a possessed caveman, note the study also concluded that high loads and excessive momentum decreased hypertrophy. Likely as a result of reduced repetitions and muscle stimulus.
The other point to note is that this was a computer simulation, not a "real world" test. Plus, only the Dumbbell Side Raise was analysed, which is arguably an inferior exercise for stimulating maximum hypertrophy of the side delts. But that's a topic for another day.
So what does this mean in practical terms for you and your training?
In simple terms, when cheat reps are used to extend a set, you might experience some additional stimulus that benefits hypertrophy. But the circumstances need to be right...
Who Should Use Cheat Reps?
Cheat reps and poor form should not be the foundation of your training. Decreased tension and ROM will limit your gains. And injury risk is likely heightened.
But given the right set of circumstances, cheat reps could be utilised. Here's the 5 key considerations for implementing cheat reps into your training:
- Training age. If you haven't spent several years training with perfect form, don't even contemplate this technique.
- Injury Risk. Do you have previous injuries? If so, is the benefit worth the risk? Probably not.
- Programming Options. Using drop sets, forced reps, and rest-pause techniques are arguably safer and more effective methods of increasing training stimulus. Add these to your programme first.
- Exercise Selection. Not all exercises are safe and conducive to using cheat reps. For example, squats, deadlifts, and bench press are recipes for cheating disaster. So choose wisely.
- Number Of Reps. If you're going to use cheat reps, don't over do it. 1-2 at the end of 1-2 sets per workout should suffice.
A Word On Exercise Selection
Not all exercises will be suitable for cheat reps. In fact, some will be downright horrific. So here's a list of exercises that lend themselves to a few cheat reps, as well as a few you should steer clear of.
- Suitable Cheat Rep Exercises: lateral raise, rear delt dumbbell fly, bicep curl, front raises, and tricep extensions.
- Technique-dependant Cheat Rep Exercises: one arm rows, lat pulldowns, bent over rows, shrugs, seated rows, chest supported rows, military press.
- No-Go Cheat Rep Exercises: squats, deadlifts, lunges, good mornings, back extensions, hip thrusts, dips, and bench press.
The Bottom Line On Including Cheat Reps In Your Training
Cheat reps should not be your primary consideration when it comes to building muscle. 95% (made up stat) of your training should be done with perfect form and technique. However, in certain situations, sacrificing form to extend a set, might support increased training stimulus.
Basing your training programme on that of a pro-bodybuilder is not the smartest strategy. Especially if you haven't been training as long. So don't touch cheat reps with a 10ft barbell if you don't have the right amount of training experience. You need to focus your attention on what delivers the best results. And that's PERFECT FORM.
But, if you're a more advanced lifter looking to achieve more training stimulus, cheat reps could be an option. However, don't be tempted to overuse the technique. Because there are far more effective ways to programme your training. So use cheat reps sparingly and on those exercises where it makes sense to do so.
Remember, the fundamentals of tension and ROM are the most effective ways to build muscle.
Don't get lost in the minutia and desire to simply lift more weight. Be sensible and methodical with all your training decisions.
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