Negatives Build Muscle and Strength
Several studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of eccentric training for strength and size gains. "Eccentric" just means the lowering part of the lift, usually called the negative.
Findings also indicate that muscles are capable of producing roughly 20-50% greater torque during eccentric contractions when compared to isometric or concentric (lifting) conditions. This has led to recommendations of 120-150% of 1RM loads for eccentric training programs.
Applying these findings to real-world training has lead to a mixed bag of results, mostly because people use it incorrectly. Trouble is, applying conventional eccentric training strategies similarly to both heavy compound movements and isolation exercises would be like equating squats with leg extensions.
Compound movements, particularly the "Big 3" powerlifts, require special consideration as the entire body is being summoned to handle a load rather than just isolating a few muscle groups.
Considering that many lifters have difficulty controlling the negative phase with submaximal loads, especially during compound lifts, it'd be crazy to suggest they use 120% or more of their 1RM for eccentric training. That would set them up for failure and potential disaster. Anyone can lower a tremendously heavy load in a free-falling, haphazard fashion, but controlling it on the descent is entirely different.
However, with slight adjustments, negative-accentuated powerlifting training can be a safe and highly effective training technique. Here's how to do it.
The idea of performing negative squats would probably make any competitive powerlifter cringe and laugh simultaneously. They wouldn't do it. Safety and practicality are two of many factors that would label such a training methodology as downright reckless.
That being said, performing negative squats can be incredibly valuable and effective if applied in a very precise fashion. By utilizing a protocol I refer to as Power Rack Eccentric Potentiation (PREP), eccentric-accentuated or negative squats not only become a safe training technique, but also produce benefits that are difficult to replicate with other types of training.
The setup and application is simple:
- Just set the safety pins in the power rack to or slightly above your typical squat depth.
- After a sufficient warm-up and loading progression, load the bar with 95-110% of your 1RM.
- Perform the lowering portion of the squat in a controlled (but not overly slow) fashion and gently let the weight settle to the safety pins.
- Immediately step out of the rack and take an additional 10-30% off the bar (one 45-pound plate off each side will generally suffice).
- Position yourself back under the bar and powerfully squat the weight back to the top before re-racking it.
- Repeat this sequence for the desired number of reps. I recommend 1-4 total reps per set.
Not only is this method relatively safe, it provides a stimulus difficult to reproduce with other methods. Setting the safety bars near the bottom position completely eliminates fear of dumping the weight or relying on spotters to help assist you out of the vulnerable bottom position.
Once you try this, you'll most likely want to try heavier loads, but make sure you can still properly control the eccentric phase. Start with moderate loads (90-95% of 1RM) before attempting higher intensities (100-110% of 1RM). Remember to set the weights down gently on the pins and don't let it free-fall during the eccentric phase.
Besides eliminating safety concerns, the value of repeatedly handling such heavy loads through a full range of motion will build incredible strength and hypertrophy, not to mention building confidence from familiarizing yourself with maximal or supramaximal loads.
Although accommodating resistance in the form of chains and bands can produce similar effects at the top of the movement, they don't provide the same degree of tension in the bottom half, which is where most failed squat attempts occur.
Another valuable aspect of PREP squats is the potentiation effect they produce on the subsequent concentric or lifting phase. Most eccentric protocols often involve little or no concentric emphasis, thereby eliminating re-enforcement of compensatory acceleration and explosive power. It's one thing to lower a heavy load, but practicing the actual lifting portion of the skill is paramount for promoting speed, power, and technique development.
Not only is this problem eliminated with the PREP protocol, but lowering maximal loads during the eccentric contraction produces post-activation potentiation (PAP), ultimately allowing greater than normal bar speed on the following concentric phase.
With this in mind, performing PREP squats without any assistance from lifting partners is ideal as the time it takes to self-adjust the weights between each phase of the lift will allow ample rest and thus maximize the potentiation response.
Although there hasn't been a study conducted specifically on the effects of PREP training and post-activation potentiation, my research and hands-on experience tells me that it's better to have too much recovery than too little when it comes to PAP.
The fundamental concepts remain almost identical for the bench press. The key is to adjust the safety pins to as close to chest height as possible. The last thing you want is safety pins below chest height. When in doubt, set the pins slightly higher. Perform the eccentric phase with 100-110% of your 1RM and the concentric phase with 80-90% of your 1RM.
One of the notable differences when using this approach as opposed to standard negative bench press training (relying on a spotter to keep the weight from crushing your chest) is technique enhancement. Because there's always a fear that you and your spotter will be unable to handle the weight, inevitable deviations in form occur as you're instinctively using any and all means necessary to avoid catastrophe. With the PREP protocol, I see improvements in form as the trainee can focus on tightness, technique, and body positioning and worry less about distracted spotters.
One thing you may have difficulty with is maneuvering out of the rack in order to adjust the weights. There's a simple way to do it, though. Once the bar reaches the safety pins on the eccentric phase, roll the barbell behind your head. Get up and remove the predetermined number of plates. Then lie on the bench again and re-adjust to the proper position (above the lower chest).
Wait, negatives on the deadlift? Before you start calling me a heretic worthy of stoning, let me explain.
First, the type of eccentric phase I'm recommending is more of a controlled negative rather than an arduously slow one. Focus on making as little noise as possible with the weights when placing them back gently to the floor. In essence, you're simply performing a normal deadlift with a controlled lowering phase.
Second, and perhaps most important, are the loading parameters. Unlike the PREP method described for squats and bench press, use 70-90% of your 1RM for negative-accentuated deadlifts.
In reality, the goal is to use as heavy a load as possible with proper form (neutral spine, and good hip-hinge mechanics). Some may have to initially drop down to 60% of 1RM or less, but with practice you should eventually be capable of performing these with 90% of 1RM or more.
Performing a controlled negative on deadlifts with heavy but submaximal loads produces levels of irradiation (full-body tension), concurrent activation potentiation, and co-contraction that are difficult to match. Furthermore, the combination of intense loading with significant time under tension makes it a highly effective hypertrophy stimulus. After several weeks of performing these, your deadlift strength as well as every other lift will significantly improve.
Perform these using either a trap bar or sumo style. The trap bar is my first choice, mainly because the load is closer to your center of gravity (at your sides rather than in front of you) than it is with conventional deadlifts. It's much more natural, comfortable, and safe than the same movement performed with a barbell.
Most lifters can handle significantly more weight with the trap bar. Because negative-accentuated training is predicated on increased motor unit recruitment as well mechanical tension and micro-trauma (muscle damage), the ability to maximally overload the body with the trap bar makes it an ideal choice.
If you don't have access to a trap bar or simply want greater carryover to competitive powerlifting, I recommend performing these with sumo deadlifts rather than conventional deadlifts. Sumo deadlifts allow the lifter to feel as if the weight is being loaded in between their legs rather than in front of them. Similar to the trap bar, the loading mechanics make this much more conducive for performing the eccentric phase in comparison to conventional deadlifts.
- Master proper technique and lifting mechanics before using these protocols. If you apply these methods correctly you'll get incredible results. If you have sloppy form you'll set yourself up for stagnation and injuries.
- Research demonstrates that eccentric training can be a powerful stimulus but it can also produce overtraining symptoms if abused.
- In terms of frequency, start off conservatively and gradually progress. Begin by applying these concepts to one lift per week (squat, bench, or deadlift) and then switching weekly: week 1 do squats, week 2 bench, week 3 deadlift, week 4 repeat.
- Little if any fatigue will be apparent when performing these protocols so don't fall prey to performing too many sets just because you feel like Superman. A total of 2-3 sets will be more than sufficient when combined with your normal training routine.
- Soreness shouldn't be excessive. If you're sore for longer than a couple of days, reduce the volume and intensity. Your technique may also need some adjusting.
- When performing the PREP protocol (squats and bench press), be careful with equipment selection as each rack and bench tend to have their own unique height adjustments and settings. Spend several minutes finding the perfect setting before loading up the weight.
- If you're unaccustomed to performing controlled eccentrics, then spend several weeks adapting to this by using 50-65% of your 1RM for standard repetitions while incorporating a 2-4 second eccentric phase.