The University of Pennsylvania Boasts Both Brains and Brawn

Do you recommend negatives for exercise? And if so, for which ones?

First, you should take the approach that the best workout is probably the one you’re not using now. By this I mean that if you use a specific training protocol for too long, you reach a point of diminishing returns and eventually your progress will stall. One reason that those 30-minute, one-set intensity programs produced great results initially with some body-builders is that they were overtrained; in contrast, the shorter workouts enabled their bodies to recover so their muscles could rebound to a higher level of strength and size.

You can also burn out mentally from performing a single workout protocol—performing a 20-rep squat program for more than a half-dozen workouts will make you dread going to the gym. The same with German Volume Training, which entails performing 10 sets of 10 reps of several exercises in a single training session. If you were to use such a workout for more than three weeks, it’s likely you’d require heavy medication. As a general rule, I prefer to change a workout protocol after about two weeks, although beginners can make great progress using longer training cycles.

To make certain we are on the same page, let’s define an eccentric, or negative, contraction as the lengthening of a muscle while producing tension, thus braking or controlling the speed of movement. Lowering the bar to the chest during a bench press is an eccentric contraction, as is descending into the bottom position of a squat. For a high-level bodybuilder I would advise focusing on negative-training protocols for about 20–30 percent of their total work during a year—and much less for less experienced trainees. This is important for bodybuilding purposes because tissue remodeling is caused by the microtrauma done to the muscle fibers by lowering weights, not lifting them. The physiological reason being that when you lower a given load (eccentric movement), you recruit only about half of the fibers used to lift the weight (concentric movement). Hence, when you lower
 a weight, there can be about twice as much load per fiber as when you lift it!

An example of a negative-only exercise would be to lower a barbell to your chest during the bench press and have a training partner help you lift the weight to extended arms. This method will enable you to use more weight than you could otherwise, and it is also a great way for your training partner to build their traps. I’ve seen recommendations for using 175 percent of an individual’s maximum for eccentric work, but I believe it is your speed of movement that should dictate how much weight to use.
 You should have a preset time to lower the weight, such as six seconds, before doing your set. Also, consider that muscle failure in a properly performed set of eccentric workouts is characterized by the muscles involuntarily shaking as they do
their decelerating work. That being said, here are three practical ways to perform negative training:

1) Use machines without independent handles. Two such machines are leg extension and leg curl units that allow you to lift the weight with two legs in the conventional manner and lower it with just one leg. Other machines that can be used for this purpose are the vertical bench press, shoulder press, and biceps curl.

2) Use common multijoint exercises that can circumvent the concentric portion of the exercise. Two such exercises are dips and chinups. With dips, you can place a step in front of you, step up so that you can support yourself on extended arms, and then lower slowly. Follow the same procedure with chinups.

3) Cheat. Rather than performing a standing military press, either with a barbell or dumbbells, you could throw the weight to arm’s length with a powerful leg drive, and then lower slowly. Using your legs in this manner will enable you to lift considerably more weight to arm’s length than simply pressing the bar with upper-body strength. Another example would be to power clean the bar for the concentric range, and lower it strictly for the eccentric range.

The most practical way to focus on negative training is to simply vary your training tempo for each exercise, rather than follow the advice
a TV commercial bodybuilder who says simply, “I lift things up and put them down!” For example, during a bench press you could lower the bar to the chest in six seconds, pause
at the chest for one second, and then press the weight explosively to extended arms.

The takeaway here is that if you want to add variety to your program that will make you bigger and stronger, one of the best ways is to incorporate eccentric training throughout the year. What goes up may come down, but in the weight room, it’s often better to let the weights come down slowly.

What is your opinion about drinking coffee before a workout?

Unless you live in Rhode Island, where the residents provide visitors with directions based on their proximity to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts, drinking coffee is generally not practical before a workout. If you’re looking for a pre-workout buzz, it would be better to down some caffeine pills—if for no other reason than you’ll know exactly how much caffeine you’re taking.

Caffeine belongs to a class of stimulants called methylxanthines, and one way it works is by increasing the sensitivity of the body’s neurons. Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, a German chemist, is credited with discovering caffeine in 1819. It is found in several plants, where it acts as a pesticide, and it can paralyze and even kill some types of insects that try to eat these plants.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers caffeine a “safe food substance,” although some individuals experience undesirable side effects from its use. Much of the research on caffeine has been conducted on distance athletes, recent studies have looked at the effects of caffeine on weight-training performance. One such study was published in the January 2011 issue of The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The researchers found that compared to the control group, those subjects who consumed caffeine before a training session were able to lift more weight and complete more reps to failure.

Although individual results vary, I’ve found it’s best to take caffeine 45 minutes prior to training. The crash that often occurs within a few hours of taking caffeine can be avoided by supporting the adrenal glands with a supplement that contains the amino acids tyrosine and L-phenylalanine.