Training

How to Utilize Negatives to Build Muscle

Focus on the eccentric halves of reps to speed up gains.

by
Forced-Positive-Pulldown
Jason Breeze / M+F Magazine

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.

GOING NEGATIVE

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.

BEYOND FAILURE

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.

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FORCED POSITIVE

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.

Forced-Negative-BodyBuilder-Smith-Matchine-Bench-Press

FORCED 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.

ABOUT THE ROUTINE

Our sample hamstrings routine shows you how to incorporate all three types of negatives. The lying leg curls negatives are done after reaching failure. A spotter helps on the concentric halves and you slowly lower the eccentric halves. The seated leg curls are done with forced negative reps. A spotter pushes down on your ankles or the ankle pad to make the negatives 25% harder. Finally, the stiff-leg deadlifts are forced positives. These can be done in a Smith machine with a partner helping to lift the bar from the side so you can resist the negative, or they can be done alone and free-weight by performing a conventional deadlift on the positive but a slow, stiff-leg deadlift on the negative.

NEGATIVE-REP BASICS

  • You’re about 25% stronger on the eccentric halves of reps than the concentric halves.
  • Negatives can be used to extend a set beyond full-rep failure.
  • A forced positive is when resistance is reduced on the concentric so you can focus on the eccentric.
  • A forced negative is when resistance is added to only the eccentric.

NEGATIVE-REP TIP SHEET

  • Negatives are inappropriate for compound and ballistic exercises that are difficult to spot.
  • In most cases, you need a spotter to help add or reduce resistance.
  • Some machine exercises can be done alone by raising the weight bilaterally and lowering it unilaterally. 

NEGATIVE-REP HAMSTRINGS ROUTINE

NEGATIVE-REP HAMSTRINGS ROUTINE
Exercise Reps Sets
Lying Leg Curl 6-10 + 2-4 4
Seated Leg Curl 6-10 4
Stiff-Leg Deadlift 8-12 4
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