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From Tony Robbins to Oprah Winfrey, the need to focus on the positive has been instilled deep into our consciousness as a direct, one-way ticket to success. However, when lifting weights in the gym, the opposite is true—to achieve optimal results, one must concentrate on the negative and strive for failure. Of course, I’m speaking of the negative (eccentric) part of a repetition, the stretching phase and the point of the movement where your muscle is strongest.
Far too many gym-goers forgo the negative and treat it as filler, like bread you eat at a restaurant before your steak arrives. Instead, think of the negative part of the exercise as the steak and the positive (concentric) portion as the bread. Like the main course, take at least twice as much time to complete the negative when compared to the positive. For instance, on barbell curls, take one second on the way up and two to three seconds on the way down. Not only does this style of training tax your muscles to the maximum but it lowers the risk of injury that fast, sloppy repetitions incite.
While the focus for each repetition should be on the negative, the goal for the entire set is failure—not failure where you drop the weight and say, “Screw it!” True muscular failure during which your muscles cannot complete another repetition no matter what. More often than not, we deceive ourselves into believing that we reached failure when in reality, we left one or two crucial reps on the table. In an interview with London Real, six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates instructs a client to imagine that someone will harm his child if he doesn’t squeeze out another rep.
Though dark and ghastly, this mental imagery worked as the client forced out more reps than he had ever done previously. If you have a training partner or someone trustworthy to spot you, you can benefit further by doing forced negatives in which the other person assists you on the positive part of the motion after you have reached muscular failure, but still have enough left to pump out a few negatives.
Obviously, if you are working out alone, training past failure is not possible and even failure can be very dangerous with exercises such as the squat and bench press. For this reason, make sure that someone is around to spot you when attempting these lifts.
To incorporate slow negatives and training to failure in your workout, I recommend performing three sets of each exercise but only taking the last set to failure. For the first set, choose a weight that is approximately 50% of what you will be lifting on the last set of the exercise and perform 12 easy, controlled reps. On the second set, increase the weight to 80% of what the final set weight will be and knock out another 10 reps.
Finally, on the third set, the main event, choose the heaviest weight that allows for 6-8, controlled reps and take it to failure and if possible, past failure. Remember, in the gym, you can never fail enough.