You’ve heard it all before, how much can you lift? Just about everyone goes to the gym to “lift” weights, never putting much thought into lowering them. You’ve seen it before: the person doing barbell curls, allowing the barbell to drop rapidly from the top of the lift back to the bottom with no control during the lowering portion. The lowering part of the repetition is just as important if not more than just lifting it, by allowing the weight to drop you are cheating yourself out of half of the lift. Unless you’re training specifically just to “lift” weights, you should be concerned with lowering it as well. The lowering portion contributes to size and strength gains.
In order to understand how Negative Training or Eccentric Training can benefit your current program, we must first classify the various types of muscle contractions. We must also have a fundamental understanding of the anatomy of a repetition. The human body is capable of three types of muscle actions concentric, isometric, and eccentric muscle actions. Lifting a weight is termed the positive portion, or concentric action, of the lift. This is the part of the movement that everyone in the gym seems to put their focus on. Holding a weight at a given point in the range of motion is an isometric action, meaning that no movement is occurring in the body part being trained. This type of muscle action is not typically seen during your usual work out but can become important in some sports training programs. The major muscle action we will be looking at is the lowering of a weight. It is also known as the negative portion or eccentric action.
A Closer Look
Let’s take a closer look at what’s happening during an eccentric muscle action. As you lower the weight, you are typically much stronger than during the lifting phase. There are two main reasons for the increase in strength; first, you are no longer attempting to overcome the force of gravity by lifting upwards and second, eccentric contractions result in greater force developed in the working muscles because the actin and myosin cross bridges that allow a muscle to contract are stretched apart. What this means is that regardless of how much weight you can lift, you will be able to lower much more. In fact, you are 20-40% stronger in the eccentric phase. Therefore, the weight you use to train is too light to tax your eccentric strength. This does not mean you should simply ignore your eccentric strength and continue to drop the weight. Instead, you should lower the weight with control to eliminate momentum and focus on the muscle being trained, by moving slower the tension is increased in the working muscles. By incorporating eccentric training schemes, you can get greater increase in size and strength from your workouts.
As with every training method, eccentric emphasized training has advantages and disadvantages. The major advantage of eccentric training is that it allows you to pick up more weight, causing the body to adapt to the increases in weight, which over time will cause increased size and strength. The disadvantage is that the extra weight increases the risk of injury, and depending on the type of eccentric training utilized will require a spotter. There are several types of eccentric emphasized training, using different modalities including free-weights, machines, manual resistance and body weight.
Eccentric Safety and Effectiveness
Before getting into the specifics of eccentrics, safety guidelines must be addressed. The rep speed is of utmost importance when performing eccentric work and will vary depending on the type of method being used. For eccentric training to be effective and maintain safety, you should follow a 3-10 second count per repetition. Any faster and you won’t have control of the weight. Always apply maximal effort throughout the entire eccentric portion of the lift. Proper weight selection must be determined. You are 20-40% stronger on the lowering portion of an exercise than the lifting. However, this does not mean that you add 40% to your max the first time you undertake an eccentric training session, build to this over time by following the eccentric methods below that don’t require added weight.
The most common methods of eccentric training are eccentric only, eccentric finishes, emphasized eccentric, accentuated eccentrics and manual eccentrics.
This method requires the use of attentive spotters. They allow for the maximum amount of weight to be used safely. The weight used will be approximately 130-140% of the lifters 3RM, the maximum amount of weight you can lift three times. If the load is too heavy risk of injury is increased and the weight will descend too quickly to get a benefit from the movement. You should not push the weight during the concentric portion of the lift; the spotters lift the weight to the starting position and then when you are ready they release the weight. You then push against the weight as it slowly lowers on its own. If the weight selected is correct, you will push be pushing as hard as possible even when the weight continues to descend. If the weight is too heavy, you will not be able to push up against it long enough to provide an effective eccentric overload, an eccentric should take at least two seconds to complete. If you are able to stop the movement at any point during the lowering portion, then the weight is too light.
These require the use of spotters at the end of your set. After you complete the set by taking it to the point of momentary muscular failure, the spotter will then lift the weight back to the top. Then you will lower the weight under control. This will be repeated until you are not able to control the weight. This method will allow you to reach momentary muscular failure not just concentrically but eccentrically as well.
This method allows eccentric to be done without the aid of spotters. These are the safest form of eccentrics as they use the lightest weight and are completely controlled by the lifter. The goal of emphasized eccentrics is to increase the length of time it takes to lower the weight. Initially the weight will be lowered to a three second count and gradually increased to a ten second count when the resistance is increased and the weight is again lowered for a three second count. This type of training eliminates momentum from the movement, which keeps tension thru ought the range of motion constant and increases the total time under tension for the muscle.
These are typically done on a machine but can be performed with dumbbells as well and without the use of spotters. The machine should have a movement arm that allows you to use one or both limbs. The weight will typically be decreased from your regular concentric-eccentric loads. The concentric portion is performed with both limbs while the eccentric phase is executed with one limb at a slow speed. You perform all eccentric reps on the same limb for a set or alternate between reps. If using dumbbells, use both arms to get the weight into the top position then remove one arm and lower slowly.
Manual eccentrics are my personal favorite to perform. They allow the lifter to perform maximally both concentrically and eccentrically without waiting until the end of a set, or just doing eccentric only sets to tax the eccentric strength. Manual eccentrics require a spotter who applies resistance to the bar or weight stack while you are performing the eccentric portion. The major advantage is that the muscle will fatigue both concentrically and eccentrically at about the same time.
These eccentric methods all provide a different challenge and add variety to your current training program. Keep in mind they will all result in some serious soreness if applied properly. The delayed on set muscle soreness (DOMS) produced by eccentric training is much greater than in traditional training. The severity of muscle damage that they induce means that they can only be performed for a week or two at a time and only 3-4 times during the year. You may choose to include a few eccentric sets at the end of your regular sets or for the highly motivated an eccentric emphasized work out session. Regardless of which method you decide to use, the result will be greater development in size and strength.
Guidelines for incorporating Eccentric Training into your program:
An eccentric training program is not advisable for the beginner that has less than 6 months of proper progressive training under their belt.
v Use a spotter for all exercises; the exceptions would be with accentuated eccentrics. Remember you will be using more weight than you can lift therefore proper spotting is required. Not all exercises allow for eccentric training such as squats, leg presses and few others. Make safety paramount!
v Do not go beyond failure during your eccentric sets. An eccentric set should be terminated when you can no longer resist the lowering of the weight for at least a two second lowering phase. If you go beyond this point you are now allowing the bar to free fall due to gravity and not focusing on the muscles being worked.
v Progression is key. Determined the appropriate weight for each eccentric exercise then strive for increases as you would with any other training technique. Whenever you find that you’re able to resist a weight load for more than five to six seconds on the first of rep then it would be time to increase weight.
v Recovery is paramount. Since, eccentric training causes more muscle breakdown than other types of lifting, it often requires more recovery time. So when you begin doing eccentric workouts, you may well need to alter your weekly schedule consequently. For example, instead of working the biceps muscle group three a week, you’ll probably only work it only once every seven to ten days, depending on the level of muscle soreness.
v Muscle soreness is a good sign that you may require more recovery. However do not train a muscle group if too much soreness is still present, a little soreness is ok but use common sense and stay injury free.
v Eccentric training should be performed after a base level of strength has been established; proper progression working up to eccentrics is important.