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Most of us tend to focus on the lifting (concentric) portion of an exercise—the up phase of a biceps curl, the pulldown of a lat move. But slowing down the eccentric, or negative, portion of a movement can yield even bigger benefits. Eccentric exercises place muscles under tension for a longer time, which creates greater gains in strength and hypertrophy, notes Len Kravitz, Ph.D., an exercise scientist at the University of New Mexico and co-author of The Essentials of Eccentric Training.
You’ll even get a bigger metabolic afterburn by adding eccentric exercises into your training compared with traditional resistance training methods, says Kravitz—which means you’ll burn more calories after the workout is done. That’s because eccentric training creates more muscle microtrauma, which in turn needs additional oxygen to repair.
Not only does eccentric training add to overall strength improvements, it’s also been shown to boost power in the lifting phase. In one study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research male participants boosted their strength in the concentric portion of a bench press by 5-15lbs after incorporating negatives into their routines. The reason? Neural pathways are additionally stimulated during the eccentric training, leading to a greater muscle response.
This in turn improves contraction force, allowing the subjects to lift more weight, according to study authors. And the benefits can even last beyond the gym: Studies show that eccentric training may lower systolic blood pressure and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease while lowering levels of blood glucose and insulin that could help you manage type-2 diabetes, says Kravitz.
Keep in mind that you’re actually stronger in the negative phase of a repetition than the positive one due to the activation of an additional protein that is not stimulated during the concentric phase, according to the latest research in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
As such, negative training allows you to more fully stress the targeted muscle. But that also means you’ll typically feel more sore the day after the workout, since there’s a greater amount of microdamage and momentary muscular fatigue, so plan to allow more recovery time between workouts (at least two to three days, says Kravitz).
No matter what your level of fitness, it’s important to progress gradually when training with negatives to avoid injury. Start out with 40-50% of your one-rep max, advises Kravitz, then add load gradually as your muscles, ligaments, and tendons adapt to the new training stresses. To max out the benefits of negatives, focus on contracting your muscle during the eccentric phase. “My philosophy is you are training your muscles, not just lifting weights,” says Kravitz.
How to go negative: There are a few ways to incorporate negatives into your routine. The most conventional approach using free weights calls for 1 count up (concentric) and 3 to 4 counts to lower (eccentric phase), a technique you can use in any workout. A training partner or spotter can help you raise the weight as you begin to fatigue.
For a greater challenge, you can incorporate the “two-limbs-up/ one-limb-down” strategy: Lift the weight through the concentric phase using both arms or legs in one count, then lower the weight, slowly, using just one arm (or leg) for 3 to 4 counts. Repeat the concentric lift with both arms (or legs), but then lower the weight with the opposite arm or leg.
This completes one full repetition of the exercise. Continue alternating in this fashion until you complete all required reps or reach momentary muscular failure. “Use this ‘2-up/1-down’ eccentric training for any exercise that uses some type of fixed weight machine,” says Kravitz.