Testosterone Nation is without a doubt one of the premiere fitness information sources in the world. It doesn't matter if your goal is to get bigger, stronger, faster, leaner, or healthier, the top names in the field are here to help you.
But I've always thought that one person in particular could really boost T-Nation's status and training IQ. I'm referring to none other than Pavel Tsatsouline.
When it comes to novel strength training information, Pavel is one of the most sought-after and highly respected people in the world. He brought kettlebells to the forefront of the fitness industry and he knows, probably better than anyone, how to coalesce old-school Russian strength training methods with modern science. His success is virtually unparalleled in the strength and conditioning community.
That brings me to this article. I wanted to write about eccentrics and how they should and shouldn't be used, but I didn't want to simply rehash the same old information. Furthermore, I've got my own views on eccentrics that don't necessarily conform to what many other coaches advocate.
So in an effort to keep the discussion open and unbiased, I didn't want to be a lone voice in this article. I wanted to include another perspective from someone whose opinion on the subject I respect. Therefore, I asked Pavel to write this article with me and he agreed wholeheartedly. That's good for all of us because his voice needs to be heard more on T-Nation.
This article is structured a little differently. I'm going to give my perspective on eccentrics, and then Pavel will give his say.
Finally, I must mention that T-Nation pays me handsomely for my articles. After Pavel agreed to write this article with me, I told him that he'd get half of my compensation. "Donate my part to the Salvation Army," he replied. That's the kind of person Pavel Tsatsouline is.
I'm happy to have him along for the ride on this special article. Here we go!
Chad Waterbury: The Truth About "Negatives"
There are three primary types of contractions: concentric (shortening), isometric (unchanging), and eccentric (lengthening). With regard to science, research, and in-the-trenches experience, any fitness expert can tell you that eccentric contractions (essentially, lowering the weight) represent a unique animal.
In fact, one of the most revered neurophysiologists in the world, Dr. Roger Enoka, has gone so far as to say that the nervous system might regulate eccentric contractions differently than all other contractions. (1) But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's break this topic down into useful tidbits of information.
There's little doubt that eccentric contractions result in the greatest amount of muscle damage, known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). If you've ever taken a long hike on terrain that was anything but flat, you probably experienced some serious DOMS in your quads 24 to 48 hours after the downhill portion of the trek. After the hike you probably relished in your newfound soreness and figured it was only a matter of time before people would be referring to you as the next Tom Platz.
Some coaches would have you believe that the relationship between eccentric contractions and DOMS is what makes eccentric contractions so beneficial for muscle growth. Moreover, there's no doubt that very slow eccentric contractions cause substantial muscle soreness. So if you believe in the relationship between soreness and growth, it stands to reason that slow eccentric contractions lead to the greatest hypertrophy. But is this true?
Farthing and Chilibeck performed a study that compared hypertrophy between slow and fast eccentric contractions. They demonstrated that fast eccentric contractions result in more hypertrophy than slow eccentric contractions. (2) That's one big nail in the "slow eccentrics" coffin!
Speaking of contraction speed, it's been demonstrated that fast concentric contractions induce more muscle growth than slow concentric contractions. (3) Therefore, it doesn't matter if the muscle contraction is concentric or eccentric in nature, research has demonstrated that a faster tempo will lead to more hypertrophy than a slower one.
So if you're keeping score at home, the eccentric and concentric phases of a lift should be performed fast for maximum hypertrophy. Now you know why I'm such a stickler for performing each repetition as fast as possible – it leads to greater hypertrophy!
My training methods are constantly evolving. One of the most dramatic changes I've made with my clients is with their repetition speed. My postulate is that fast contractions in both phases, while avoiding failure, is what leads to the most hypertrophy.
This is certainly not the case, however, when we're talking about rehabilitation or extreme endurance training. But if you have healthy joints, and if you want to gain as much size and strength as possible, start performing your repetitions as fast as the training load allows.
With regard to loads, if you want to quickly gain size and strength you can't go wrong by limiting your reps to less than 10 per set. I like to use a myriad of rep ranges and combinations for various goals, but one of my favorites to build bigger, stronger muscles is the 3-6-9 Method that I discussed in Alwyn Cosgrove's incredible project Lift Strong.
In essence, you'll train the primary muscle groups three times per week. The first workout consists of three reps for all sets; the second workout is six reps for all sets; the third workout is nine reps for all sets.
Each rep scheme corresponds with a different load and each load corresponds with a different absolute rep speed. But the bottom line is still the same: perform each rep as fast as the load allows.
Let's get back to eccentrics.
I've spent many years experimenting with numerous variations of eccentric contractions. I've emphasized the phase by either slowing down the eccentric or by overloading the phase with weight releasers. I've also experimented extensively with negative-only training.
My conclusion? The eccentric phase does not need to be emphasized for the purpose of enhancing size and strength. Don't get me wrong, the eccentric phase is just as important – maybe even more important – as the concentric phase, but the stimulus it receives with traditional, fast contractions takes care of all your training needs.
If you do emphasize the eccentric phase, it can lead to excessive DOMS, and that's something that doesn't pair well with frequent training sessions. By emphasizing the eccentric phase with slow tempos or supramaximal loads, you're only extending your recovery period as your immune system deals with excessive muscle soreness, elevated creatine kinase activity, and limb swelling. I'm not a fan of any strategy that augments the recovery period.
My bottom line on eccentric contractions:
- Train the eccentric phase with the same speed and load as the concentric phase.
- Perform the eccentric phase as fast as possible while controlling the movement.
- There's no correlation between excessive, eccentric-induced soreness and hypertrophy.
Pavel Tsatsouline: Powerful Medicine
Research on eccentrics -- or "yielding exercises" as Russians call them -- is inconclusive, probably because of strength training specificity. A three-month experiment was conducted in the Soviet Union (Ivanov, 1966) to compare the strength gains from concentric, eccentric, and isometric training.
Three exercises were used and all three showed different results. Eccentrics trumped concentrics and isometrics in the squat. In the deadlift, eccentrics came in second, and standing vertical jumps went down from negatives! Professor Verkhoshansky concluded that "this data does not so much demonstrate the effectiveness of yielding work as quite convincingly corroborate the neuromotor specificity of strength... "
The primary benefit of negatives is preparing yourself for your future max, psychologically and neurologically. In my opinion, Rick Weil's method is the safest and most effective for most powerlifters and power bodybuilders. Weil was the first man to bench triple bodyweight: 551 pounds at 181, raw!
Following his low rep work sets he'd do only one or (at the most) two negatives with up to 110% of his max. I want to point out that this is a conservative number as one can usually lower 120-140% of 1RM.
"One or two sets (of singles) per workout is plenty," insists the great bencher. "It will strengthen your tendons and prepare you mentally for the day when you will be benching the heavier weight. Remember to stay very tight during the approach; do not relax at your chest. The negatives will help here."
Years later, Joe McAuliffe followed Weil's example: one or two singles 15-20% heavier than his work sets (not his 1RM). McAuliffe believes that these negatives helped him break the IPF world record that had stood for 25 years.
These champions coaxed their Golgi tendon organs, the governors of strength, to get used to more tension without shutting down the muscles. Contrast this coolheaded approach with typical gym idiocy. A clown loads the bar with 100 pounds over his max and collapses halfway down. Where the champs have taught themselves to succeed, the show-off teaches himself to fail.
My bottom line on negatives:
- Chase your low-rep work sets down with one or two singles with a weight slightly in excess of your max, up to 110% of 1RM.
- Don't free fall and don't go super slow. Lower the bar at the pace you always use for benching your max.
- Don't simply yield to the weight but actively pull yourself down with your lats in the bench press. In the squat, do the same with your hip flexors and hamstrings: pull yourself down. This makes you stronger through the phenomenon of "successive induction" that I've explained in my book, Beyond Bodybuilding.
- Lower the weight with the intention of pressing it back up. Don't try to press it, but be mentally ready. Stay tight throughout the range of motion and don't lose any tension near the bottom. If you do you'll defeat the purpose – learning to get tight enough for a bigger max.
- Don't do this too often; once every week or two is enough. Zatsiorsky notes that negatives made up only 1% of the training volume of the Soviet national weightlifting team.
Negatives are a powerful medicine: take in moderation.
- Enoka, R. J Appl Physiol. 81(6): 2339-2346, 1996.
- Farthing JP and Chilibeck PD. Eur J Appl Physiol. 89: 578-586, 2003.
- Coyle EF, et al. J Appl Physiol. 51: 1437-1442, 1981.