Strict Form Vs. Cheating Reps – A Lesson in Training Dirty

When is it right to “cheat” an exercise? While talking about training the One-Armed Pull-up, a Reddit user posted this video showing his progress in nailing a One-Armed Pull-up. Here’s the video:

Another user on Reddit asked a question about technique:

“…not to be that guy that is impressive but I am curious, is this how you normally train? It looks like you start with a decent bend in your elbow, and that part is always the hardest for me.”

Now he has a point. With training, it is best to strive for good, clean form.  This ensures you are activating the proper muscles and reducing risk of injury. On most accounts, especially when weightlifting, I would agree that he should start with a full ROM (range of motion). However, I posted this:

“Just think of it as training it a little dirty. As he gets stronger/more technical on the one-armed neutral pull-up, he can increase ROM as needed. For now, he’s doing a great job!”

So, am I promoting poor training? Not at all. What I want to distinguish is finding the balance between “strict training” and “training a little dirty”.

What is Strict Form Training?

Strict form training is adhering to strict form on all exercises. For a one-armed pull-up, that means legs deadhanging, arm totally straight, slight activation in shoulders to protect the shoulder joint, and one clean motion where the body comes straight up toward the bar, then back down.

Indeed, in a situation where you can choose between a clean technique and a “cheated” technique, I would say go for the clean technique. This reduces chance of injury and allows you to continue training. All it takes is one injury to set you back weeks, if not months.

But, sometimes, you just need to train a little dirty, to flex your efforts and act strong. Otherwise, how can you ever hope to progress, if you aren’t willing to struggle and thrash a bit during workout? If you’re too scared to workout a little imperfectly, how will you ever become better?

What does it mean to train dirty? When is the right time to cheat an exercise… if that even exists? Let’s talk about it.

What does it mean to train dirty?

Training dirty is when you go into a workout, knowing that some reps will be “cheated”. Cheating an exercise means that your technique had some flaws. In a competition, some would not count a rep of it. In your friend group, they’d likely make a comment about how that wasn’t perfect. Aside from Internet trolls getting on your case, what are some of the ramifications of cheating an exercise?

  • You activate less of the muscles desired.
  • You likely use more momentum than desired
  • It didn’t look as good
  • You maybe strain your joints

And with this list of negatives, you’d imagine that there is no reason to train dirty by cheating some reps. Yet, there is a time to train dirty.

When is the right time to cheat an exercise?

When you have weight on top of you, don’t rely on cheating your exercise. There are a million ways why cheating a heavy bench press, overhead press, squat, or deadlift can go bad. But sometimes, a lifter just wants to prove his/her grit, and cheats it a little for a rep. They’ve successfully challenged the body and succeeded.

And that’s fine. Your body is your own, and we are apt to make judgment calls that could put us at slightly more risk to achieve a goal. Do you think world records in lifting were broken by always adhering to clean, strict form while training? No. Way.

Training, by nature, requires that you challenge yourself in some way. There are occasional consequences to pushing yourself. You may feel sorer than normal. Maybe you cause a slight impingement. Maybe people talk about your technique. But, push that all aside. Progression is not always clean because you’re delving into your body’s new territory. it simply doesn’t make sense that you won’t have some dirty reps. Even if you try to make your entire workout clean, you may inadvertently squeeze in 1 or 2 dirty reps at the end of a workout. You will NOT finish every time with perfect technique. It’s simply a consequence of challenge.

Recognize that we strive for strong technique, and we should not ignore technique. But also recognize that sometimes, you need to strain, thrash, and squeeze your way through an exercise.

There’s a zen in working out. Find the balance between keeping your exercise safe, yet challenging. It’s up to you to determine just how you’d like to train. Maybe you train dirtier than others (5+ reps dirty). Some days, maybe you don’t train dirty at all (though that last rep may have been a bit shaky). I leave finding your optimal training zone up to you to find.

Ending Thoughts

So when the lad in the video showed us his new One-Armed Pull-Ups, I didn’t berate him for not performing them perfectly. He had an arm on the bar and pulled his chin above it. That’s a One-Armed Pull-up, done deal.

Could it be cleaner or perfected? Of course. But he’s clearly strong, managing his body composition well, and achieving his goals a step at a time. As long as he keeps achieving his goals, I support his training style.

Strive to be strong.




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By Aaron Roam

Aaron Roam is a fitness advocate from Berkeley, California.

4 replies on “Strict Form Vs. Cheating Reps – A Lesson in Training Dirty”

Unilateral movements do increase the chance of possible damage, true. There are more directions your body can turn into if your muscular control is not fine-tuned.

And I also don’t disagree that negatives are a great way to train the OAPU – progressively training negatives is normally the first step I recommend to people who struggle on pull-ups; that’s why it’s part of the PBW for both 2-handed pullups, and while using a towel for one-armed pull-ups.

You’re not wrong – time under tension is great (and by transitive property, negatives are great). But I feel that there are two understatements to your logic. One is based on training probability. The other is based on human psychology. Let’s go over both.

1) Training Probability
Jim@BeastSkills’ has a fantastic negative one armed chin up. This is testament to his training. To a man who can already perform the move, it is natural that his negatives look so controlled and clean. And yes, I would say that people should strive for such form in their own training.

But when you’re building up to the skill – especially this one – your negatives won’t look like that. Your muscles don’t yet know what to expect, and don’t yet know the exact amount of force and angle to exert at each micromoment. You will NOT look this smooth training your negatives if you’re just beginning to train them.

Even Jim’s weighted one armed chins will have some form deviation at the end if a level of exhaustion OR novelty (e.g. 200lbs extra) is added. Even if he was training that particular movement progressively.

So, is a negative safer than a half rep, assuming both can be done? It just depends on one’s risk/reward ratio and how far along the person performing each is in their journey. If the half rep can be performed at 3121 tempo with little form deviation, I’d be comfortable with the half reps being used as training-level stimulus if desired.

Is a negative safer in that there’s less concentric momentum to concern yourself over? Maybe. Safer if you can already perform the halfrep with a high degree of control? Possibly, though I would argue unlikely or miniscule. But training is a bit of a CYOA – you choose your path and accept the risk that comes with it.

2) Human psychology
People scraping the canopy of their limits will breakdown just a little bit. This is natural and expected – part of the experience. This doesn’t mean I want people training like the second vid you posted. But it does mean that you can expect some form degrdation as you train. There’s just no way around it. Ask any powerlifter, strongman, or strength-based athlete about form. Most of the time, it’s empahsized. But sometimes, you’re on your final rep and you decide that you can take a risk to break a PR. Or, it’s your final rep and your muscles are sore as fuck. And since your can’t summon every ounce of your strength, parts of your form collapse.

The psychology factor is big. We are all human. And it is inevitable that a little degredation happens.

Whether that training is part of strain upon the muscle (enough that will force adaptation) OR because there was a little extra passion. It will happen. And to assume it will never happen, and that all training and life instances take place without deviation of form is unrealistic. It is better to expect it and to occasionally experience it.

That is not a free pass to always train wthin it. It is not a free pass to skip learning safer techniques that net similar benefit. It is just better to know that if a guy is on the last set of pullups, the last one might look a little strange.

Finally, there must be trust that a trainee will develop his/her own sense of physical self and can judge his/her own risk accordingly. Sometimes, the coach allows that very early on (aka, some Crossfit boxes). Sometimes, that means the coach will not trust it much at all (aka, FRC or some gymnastics gyms).

But all have to trust that a trainee take ownership of his/her own risk.

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