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Being positive is one of the keys to a healthy, happy productive life. But in the weight room if you never get negative, you will not reach your muscular potential. That’s because negatives, or eccentrics, are an invaluable tool in your training repertoire. Ignore them (as many lifters do) and you run the risk of subpar development. Get yourself more familiar with the tents of concentric training’s better half.
Lifting weights is associated with a concentric or muscle shortening contraction — the positive portion of the lift. Isometric contractions take place when a muscle develops tension but its length does not change. This could range from attempting to lift an immovable object to statically holding a weight in place. An eccentric contraction is a muscle-lengthening contraction; in the gym world it is known as a negative. During the bench press, for example, the eccentric is the lowering phase of the movement. Eccentrics in Russian literature are called the “yielding phase,” because the idea is to yield to the weight while remaining in control of it.
Bodybuilding legend and guru, Dorian Yates, has stated that the biggest mistake most beginners make is not controlling the negative portion of a lift. Muscle hypertrophy is induced from strength training via mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress. Greater muscle damage will result from heavier weights but it is a bit more complex than that. People have fast-twitch muscle fibers and slow-twitch muscle fibers. The size principle in exercise physiology states that motor units are recruited from smallest to largest. In other words, slow-twitch are recruited before fast-twitch muscle fibers.
As intensity increases so does the recruitment of large, fast-twitch muscle fibers. Eccentric exercise produces more muscle damage because heavy eccentrics favorably recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers over slow-twitch ones. Fast-twitch fibers are more powerful and have a lot more potential for growth. Muscles don’t know the weight on the bar, so recklessly heaving barbells about is not the one-way ticket to hypertrophy heaven. Muscles know tension, which is the heaviest weights possible with perfect form – a key ingredient to growth. As much as 160 percent more weight can be handled eccentrically than concentrically, making properly programmed eccentric training a catalyst to getting big.
Eccentric training takes much longer to recover from than concentric training, so it shouldn’t be used on a deload or lower-intensity phase. Because of the high amount of muscle damage caused by eccentrics, you should consider supplementing with BCAAs (if you’re not already) and eating an adequate amount of protein.
One effective method is tempo training. This means drawing out the eccentric for a specified amount of time. Try starting out with a 4-5 second negative, then forcefully completing the concentric. With muscle hypertrophy as the objective, the set should take between 30-60 seconds. So, if on a dumbbell bench press you take four seconds to lower the weight and one second to push it back up, you are looking at performing 6-12 repetitions total. Slowly evolve to heavy eccentrics, forced reps and different set-ups on tempo training.
Regardless of whether or not you decide to incorporate dedicated eccentric training in your program, you can still get many of the size-and-strength benefits by simply slowing your reps down. Also, if heavy negatives sound too dangerous, consider using self-spot on exercises that allow for it (dumbbell curls, for example), or machines that have self-spot mechanisms built-in.
Josh Bryant, MFS, CSCS, PES, is the owner of JoshStrength.com and co-author (with Adam benShea) of the Amazon No. 1 seller Jailhouse Strong. He is a strength coach at Metroflex Gym in Arlington, Texas, and holds 12 world records in powerlifting. You can connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or visit his website at www.joshstrength.com