The Positive of Negatives

Slow down on the eccentric halves of reps to speed up gains.


Every up has a down. Every ascent has a descent. Every extension has a contraction. There are two sides to every rep, and if you slow it down enough, the negative half can stimulate growth just as the positive half does. Going negative can win not just elections but also workouts.


The positive (or concentric) halves of reps are when the muscle contracts; the muscle lengthens during the negative (or eccentric) halves. The former occurs when raising the weight, and the latter occurs when lowering it, but during all that time—assuming you don’t simply drop the weight—your muscles remain under tension. Furthermore, you’re about 25% stronger during the negative halves of reps than during the positive halves. In other words, if you can bench-press 240, you can lie on a bench and slowly lower a bar weighing 300.

On many lifts you should focus more on the negative. Spend three to six seconds lowering each rep. This is especially effective for isolation exercises like biceps curls and leg extensions. Still, that extra strength you have on the eccentric explains why, even if you go slow, you don’t usually feel your muscles working as hard on the descent as the ascent. To truly go negative, you need to erase the strength imbalance and make the eccentric halves harder. There are three ways to do this.


Do 6–10 reps, and stop only when you can’t grind out another rep on your own. Then have a training partner help you raise the weight. It’s OK if he does more work than you, because you’re no longer focused on the positive. You’re all about the negative. Maintaining strict form, lower the weight slowly, taking three to six seconds for the descent. Do two to five of these negative reps. In effect, you use 100% of your strength on the 6–10 positive reps and burn through that extra 25% on the two to five negatives.


You can also do entirely negative sets. Select a weight that’s about 25% greater than what you’d use for a regular set of 6–10 reps. Have a partner do much of the lifting so that you don’t tax yourself on the concentric halves of reps. Your focus will be on the eccentric. Lower the weight slowly and controlled over three to six seconds. Do 6–10 such negative reps. On some machine exercises, you can do this without any assistance by lifting the weight bilaterally and lowering it unilaterally. For example, on the leg extension, raise both legs but then lower one leg. You can either alternate legs or do 6-10 reps with one leg and 6–10 with the other. In a few free-weight exercises, you can accomplish this by loosening your form on the positive. For example, you do a regular deadlift on the positive but a stiff-leg deadlift on the negative, or you do a standing clean on the positive and a barbell curl on the negative. 


So far we’ve focused on reducing stress on the positive halves of reps so you can ramp it up on the negative halves. Alternatively, you can increase stress on the negative. The spotter pushes or pulls down on the weight while you resist. For example, on pulldowns, you’ll bring the bar down on your own (or the spotter can help you). Then, as the weight stack lowers and the bar rises, the spotter pushes down on the bar, increasing resistance. The key is for him to add just enough to make the negative harder but not so much that you can’t smoothly yet slowly lower the weight over at least three seconds.


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