man holding barbell

Bet you have tried negatives. Bet they may not have done what you thought. Why? Simply taking a huge weight and trying to lower it, will not trigger the neurological pathways that you were hoping. You have probably heard that negatives reap big benefits because, arguably, they drive greater demand and produce greater inflammation and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

Ever make this rookie mistake? Intrigued by the science, you loaded up the bar and held it in the locked out positioned and started to lower it under control. And then it happened: the bar dropped so fast you’d think the effect of gravity doubled. The issue? Too much, too fast, and a lack of understanding of the purpose. As a strength training tool, negatives help when you do them right, otherwise, they simply increase the risk of (often catastrophic) injury.

If you are doing negatives with more than 20% of your max, then you are quite likely wasting your time. Although the data indicates that we may be as much as 40 percent stronger during the eccentric movement, using too much weight means that we cannot control the descent and if you can’t control the weight, the neurological carryover is considerably decreased. In fact, for very elite lifters, 5-10 percent more than their 1RM is all that is necessary.

The mental rationale behind negatives is to teach the mind to handle more weight and realize that it probably can. The neurological rationale behind negatives is to increase muscle fiber recruitment and take advantage of a deep muscle architecture. Here’s how to get the most out of both.

Negative Strategy

Most people do negatives at the very end of their workout when they are already gassed. This strategy is a good way to take your muscle past failure, create more breakdown and induce more growth. But the heart of negatives training lies in your body’s ability to handle more iron, not less.

So a better bet may be to take advantage of your “neural freshness” and do negatives at the start of your routine (after a thorough warm-up). Don’t do more than about three sets per bodypart as the overload – both to muscles and your central nervous system – can be pretty extreme. Shoot for no more than about six reps, as each rep should take at least 3-4 seconds to lower. Get a buddy to help raise the weight and rest about three full minutes between sets.

Remember, this type of training is not to get a pump but teach muscles how to fire. As a strength tool, make sure you crush the rest of your workout by pushing yourself to fatigue on the following sets and exercises and give yourself at least 2-3 days before training that same muscle group again.

If you decide to hit negatives at the end of the workout, the same rules apply. Few sets, few reps, good control and make it work for you. After a full bodypart workout, you’ll likely be less equipped to handle big weight so remember: if you can’t control it down, you should lower the weight.

In either case, be sure to have an extremely reliable spotter, lest you get pinned on the bench and become the stuff of Gym Fails legend.

Get smart about negatives and your strength should see significant improvement in just a few workouts.


David Sandler, MS, CISSN, CSCS*D, RSCC*D, HFD, HFI, FNSCA, FISSN has been a consultant, educator, researcher, and strength and conditioning coach for the past 25 years. He is the President of StrengthPro, a training and nutrition consulting group.