Fitness Tips 2

5 Smart Strength-Training Shortcuts

In this 5-week series, we'll show you five classic exercises, perfect form, and how to safely "cheat" the movements and continue to build muscle. Performing an exercise the way it's designed guarantees that you're moving the weight with the intended target muscles. But you can cheat your way to more muscle by using momentum, shorter ranges of motion, and slight physical adjustments. If you do it right, you're still using the intended target muscels, but you're giving them a little help.
 
Be warned that, if done without caution, cheating can be dangerous. For example, trying to lift too much weight can put your spine and joints at risk. That increases the chance of tearing muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Or you can lose control of the weight and create a whole host of problems.
 
However, you can cheat smart to avoid danger. First you must master perfect form to develop the muscle control needed to cheat safely and effectively. Over the course of the next five weeks, we'll present five exercises in both their standard and safe "cheat" forms.
 
Week 1:

The Bench Press

 
The Typical Cheat: Bouncing a heavy barbell off your chest to help lift it back to the starting position.
 
Why It's a Problem: Because it could kill you. "This may be the riskiest thing men do in the gym," says Craig Ballantyne, C.S.C.S., author of Turbulence Training. Bouncing the bar can lead to a loss of control, putting you at risk of a crushed neck and asphyxiation.
 
How to Perfect Your Form: Before you bench, put a rolled-up towel down the middle of your upper body so that one end is at the center of your chest. Aim for the end of the towel on each repetition. Concentrating on accuracy ensures that you'll have control of the weight, says Ballantyne.
 
How To Cheat Smart: Try this touch-and-go "towel press." Use 50 percent of the weight that you usually use for 6 to 8 repetitions. Do 8 sets of 3 repetitions with a 30 second rest after each set. Place the towel on your chest and lower the bar as quickly as you can; as soon as the bar touches the towel, push it up as fast as possible.  Imagine that if the bar touches the towel for too long, it'll burn your chest.
 
The Benefit: You'll learn to lift quickly while under control, which will translate into greater strength when you do a normal bench-press workout.

 
Week 3:

The Squat

The Typical Cheat: Doing the "lazy man's squat." That is, reversing the movement before your thighs are parallel to the floor.
 
Why It's a Problem: It increases your risk of knee injury. Researchers found that the most unstable knee angle is 90 degrees -- when your upper thighs are about 2 inches above parallel to the floor.
 
How To Perfect Your Form: Lower yourself until the backs of your thighs touch your calves, says Alwyn Cosgrove, C.S.C.S., owner of Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, California.
 
How To Cheat Smart: Use the "quarter squat" to supersize lagging quadriceps. Choose a weight that's about 20 percent more than you'd normally use for a full squat, and lower your body about 6 inches -- until your knees are bent 60 degrees -- pause, then return to the starting position.
 
The Benefit: The quarter squat allows you to use heavier weights on your quadriceps while limiting the involvment of your hamstrings and calves. And it's safe because you reverse the movement well before your knees reach the 90-degree point.
 
Week 2:

The Biceps Curl

The Typical Cheat: Leaning back to curl a heavy weight.
 
Why It's a Problem: It transfers the load unevenly from the front of your body to the back, and that can damage the muscles, ligaments and joints of your back.
 
How to Perfect Your Form: Stand against a wall when you curl, or hold a Swiss ball against the wall with your back, says Cosgrove. To practice even stricter form, keep your elbows in contact with the wall or ball for the entire lift.
 
How to Cheat Smart: Try this version of the "cheat curl." Hold a pair of heavy dumbbells at arm's length at your sides, palms facing each other. Keeping your back naturally arched, lean forward at your hips and bend your legs until the dumbbells are next to your knees. Curl the dumbbells, push your hips forward, and straighten your legs all at the same time, until you're standing upright and the dumbbells are almost resting on your shoulders.
 
The Benefit: You'll curl heavy weights without hurting your back. For an even greater muscle-building effect, lower the dumbbells as slowly as you can.
 
Week 4:

The Lat Pulldown

The Typical Cheat: Leaning back while pulling the bar down, using body weight and momentum to move the weight.
 
Why It's a Problem: It reduces the focus on the target muscle - the latissimus dorsi - and increases the risk of injury to your lower and upper back, says strength coach Scott Rankin, C.S.C.S.
 
How to Perfect Your Form: Think pullup, not pulldown. Keep your body upright throughout the move. Imagine you're pulling your chest to the bar, instead of the bar to your chest. Or try this move: Sit upright on a Swiss ball and pull the bar straight down to your chest as you squeeze your shoulder blades together. If you try to use momentum to pull the bar down, you'll fall off the ball, says Rankin.
 
How To Cheat Smart: Do the "incline pulldown." Grab the lat-pulldown bar with a shoulder-width, overhand grip and lean back at your hips (keeping your back naturally arched) until your torso is at a 45-degree angle from the floor. Without moving your upper body, pull the bar down to the tops of your shoulders.
 
The Benefit: You'll challenge the often neglected upper-back and rear-deltoid muscles.

Week 5:

The Hanging Knee Raise

The Typical Cheat: Raising your knees to your chest without curling your torso, which is the key to working  your abdominal muscles, says John Williams, C.S.C.S., co-owner of Spectrum Conditioning in New York.
 
Why It's a Problem: It makes the focus of the exercise your hip flexors, not your abs.
 
How to Perfect Your Form: Grab a pullup bar with a shoulder-width, overhand grip and hang from the bar with your knees slightly bent and feet together. Imagine that you have no legs and tilt your pelvis as high as you can, by pulling your hips up and in. Aim for you knees to touch your shoulders.
 
How to Cheat Smart: Perform an "incline reverse crunch." Lie on a slant board with your hips lower than your head and your knees slightly bent. Grab the board's handles and pull your hips upward and inward, keeping your knees at the same angle throughout the move. Once you can do 3 sets of 15 repetitions while holding a 10-pound dumbbell between you feet, go back to the hanging version.
 
The Benefit: For those who aren't strong enough to do the hanging knee raise with perfect form, the slant-board variation is the best way to cheat without cheating your abs.