Hit a Plateau? Try a Negative OR Negatives for Positive Strength OR Negative Training for Strength, Size, and Rehab
Every lifter goes through peaks and valleys in their training program. Ideally, we’d like more peaks than valleys. After a period of time most, if not all of us, hit a plateau. While elite level strength coaches have their bag of tricks to help their athletes break through these plateaus there is one method I believe works for most trainees: the negative.
What is the negative? It’s when a lifter performs the eccentric (lowering) phase of an exercise with a 4-6 sec. tempo (sometimes as high as 10 sec.). Once the lifter has reached the ‘bottom’ of the lift a spotter helps the lifter during the concentric (lifting) phase of the exercise. An example would be a lifter performing bench press and lowering the bar to their chest by 4-6 sec. and the spotter helping the lifter raise the bar back to the start position.
How does it work? Upon the lowering phase of the movement your body’s muscle fibers are going through a ‘stretching’ pattern. This occurs when there is less overlap of your thick (myosin) and thin (actin) filaments located in your muscle fibers. In other words, your muscle fibers are ‘lengthening’ during the exercise. Typically, when most lifters perform an eccentric (lowering) phase with a standard tempo of 1 sec. or less these muscle fibers are not contracting very well. However, when performed slowly these muscle fibers are ‘stretching’ under tension. The result is greater over lap of your thick and thin filaments. The greater the overlap the greater the muscle stimulation. Stimulation improves strength.
Another advantage of negative training is energy conservation. When performed with a spotter a negative lift allows the lifter to use only 25% of their energy during the concentric (lifting) phase. This saved energy enables the lifter to focus on the eccentric (lowering) phase of muscle contraction forcing the muscle to grow and become stronger.
Do negatives only work with weights? No, negatives are very useful for body weight movements such as pushups or pull-ups. I would argue it’s safer to perform negatives with body weight than with free weights but would strongly recommend using free weights if you are experienced and have an experienced spotter.
Can I use the negative on all exercises? No, the negative can only be used on exercises where you can safely return the weight or your body to the starting position. Examples of free weight exercises where negatives are useful with a spotter are: the bench press, barbell curls, tricep extensions, seated dumbbell presses, and lat pull-down machine.
Do NOT attempt negatives with barbell squats or deadlifts. Even elite level lifters and coaches rarely, if ever, perform negatives with these movements. Nearly all body weight exercises are perfectly safe for negative training: pull-ups, pushups, pistols, leg raises, etc.
When should I perform negatives? Negatives should be performed when you are fresh at the beginning of your workout. Pick your exercise you wish perform for negatives and give yourself the most time with that movement. You’ll need plenty of rest between each set (2-3 min. or longer).
How many sets/reps can I do with negatives? At most you should perform 5 sets with 5 reps per set. If you’re new to negative training then start with 2-3 sets of 3 rep negatives. Gradually, work your way up to 5 sets of 5 reps with each negative lasting 5 seconds or longer.
Can anyone perform negatives? With proper guidance and safety precautions, yes, negatives safe for the general population. In fact, a multitude of studies* have been linked negative training with improved muscle strength, size, and balance in elderly individuals. In addition, negative training has shown to greatly improve recovery and muscle strength in injured athletes**