By Josh Bryant, MFS, CSCS, PES ProSource
Bodybuilding legend and guru Dorian Yates has stated that the biggest mistake most beginning bodybuilders make is not controlling the negative portion of a lift.
Let's get in a negative mindset to make some positive gains!
Types of Muscle Contractions
Push the weight up! Lifting weights is associated with a concentric or muscle shortening contraction, a.k.a. the positive portion of the lift. Isometric contractions take place when a muscle develops tension but its length does not change. This could range from attempting to lift an immovable object to statically holding a weight in place. An eccentric contraction is a muscle lengthening contraction; in the gym world it is known as a negative.
In a powerlifting bench press, the lowering phase is the eccentric contraction, the bar paused on the chest is the isometric contraction and finally pushing the bar back up to arm's length is the concentric contraction. The Russians call a concentric contraction the "overcoming phase" and an eccentric contraction the "yielding phase." That's an accurate description; when you bench press you overcome the weight as you push it up, you yield to it while controlling the weight as you lower it back down.
Muscle Hypertrophy Process
Leading muscle hypertrophy researcher Brad Schoenfeld (2011) states muscle growth is induced from strength training via mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress.
Mechanical tension is a result of the intensity of the exercises, assuming form is sufficient. A 400-pound bench press will cause much more mechanical tension than a 200-pound bench press. Muscle damage, what leads to muscle soreness, is a result of intense weight training initiating an inflammatory response and activating the satellite cells' growth process. Finally, metabolic stress results from the byproducts of anaerobic metabolism and initiates a favorable hormonal response. Studies and articles advocating time under tension strategies for muscle hypertrophy are using metabolic stress as their primary growth mechanism.
All this science is fine and dandy, but a basic understanding of the process of muscle hypertrophy will help you understand the power of negative thinking.
Ample studies show that protein synthesis is highest after eccentric based training. How can this be possible when it's harder to lift a load concentrically? Let's go back to the crash course on muscle hypertrophy. Mechanical tension is increased when one can handle heavier loads eccentrically.
Greater muscle damage will result from heavier weights but it is a bit more complex. People have fast-twitch muscle fibers and slow-twitch muscle fibers. The size principle in exercise physiology states that motor units are recruited from smallest to largest; in other words, slow-twitch are recruited before fast-twitch muscle fibers. As intensity increases so does the recruitment of large fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Eccentric exercise produces more muscle damage because heavy eccentrics favorably recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers over slow-twitch ones. Fast-twitch fibers are more powerful and have a lot more potential for growth.
So what about a third muscle-building ingredient, metabolic stress? It can most certainly be activated with eccentric training. The safest, most basic eccentric emphasis technique is tempo training. Using the bench press as an example, take five seconds to lower the bar, then explode back up on the positive. This prolongs time under tension. A more intense technique, reserved for advanced bodybuilders, is forced reps after concentric failure is reached. You will still be able to handle the weight on the negative. So as long as you have a spot on the positive, it will lead to much greater metabolic stress.
Satellite Cell Proliferation
Satellite cells serve to repair damaged muscle tissue, prompting muscle growth after overload from intense weight training.
Satellite cells are sort of like your muscle's "stem cells." Overload from intense weight training causes trauma to the muscle. This disruption to the muscle cell activates satellite cells, which are located on the outside of the muscle cell, to multiply at the site trauma was induced.
After satellite cells are damaged from intense weight training, damaged muscle fibers are repaired by satellite cells fusing together and to the muscle fibers, which in turn leads to muscle growth.
After satellite cells fuse with muscle fibers, muscle fibers are able to synthesize more proteins and create a greater number of contractile proteins; in other words, the muscle gets bigger and stronger.
Intense eccentric movements force muscle fibers and surrounding satellite cells to fuse, resulting in muscle fiber growth. To maximize muscle growth, intense eccentric movements will have to be a part of your regimen.
More Work Eccentrically
ATP fuels muscle contractions; concentric muscle contractions require more ATP than eccentrics. The ability to handle more work is very beneficial in your muscle-building quest, numerous studies show the correlation between high volume training and greater muscle gains. Let's take a look at some practical strategies on implementing eccentric training to your training program.
If you are fairly new to the iron game, most forms of eccentric overload will be far too intense. One effective method is tempo training. This means drawing out the eccentric for a specified amount of time. I would suggest starting out with four to five seconds, then forcefully completing the concentric. With muscle hypertrophy as the objective, the set should take between 30-60 seconds. So, if on a dumbbell bench press you take four seconds to lower the weight and one second to push it back up, you are looking at performing 6-12 repetitions.
Mixed Method or 2 Up 1 Down
This is an intense method that is generally used with a machine, but there are certainly exceptions. You concentrically lift the weight with two limbs, and then perform the eccentric with one limb for a specified tempo. With sufficient weight this is a huge eccentric overload, if you can complete the weight on the positive with one limb, it ain't heavy enough. This is a heavy, high intensity technique. Performing seated rows in this manner was instrumental in bringing up Cory Mathews' back to win his IFBB pro card. Another way is to have a partner assist on the concentric and an example would be the one-armed eccentric barbell curl. Some great exercises for this method are leg extensions, leg curls, seated rows, triceps pushdowns and one armed eccentric barbell curls.
Priscilla Smith 2 up 1 down seated rows
This is another high intensity, muscle-building technique. Load a weight you can do for six to eight repetitions on the bar, and lift the weight to concentric failure. After concentric failure is reached, do two to three more repetitions taking five to six seconds on the eccentric, then have a partner assist you on the concentric. Remember, this is a very advanced technique.
An even more advanced variation to lift a weight to concentric failure is to rack the weight and add 10-15 percent additional weight and perform two to three eccentric reps, drawing out the eccentric for five to six seconds, and, of course, having a partner assist you on the concentric.
Some bodybuilders, in an effort to increase intensity, use supramaximal weights and have their partners stand by as they lower the weight.
If your bench press max is 250 pounds and you put 275 pounds on the bar and slowly lower the weight, you have performed a negative in the traditional sense. After the weight is lowered, your partner will assist you by helping you lift the weight back to arm's extension or the starting point. The weight is lowered once again and the muscles are engaged in an all-out fight against all-mighty gravity. Some athletes can handle an excess of 160 percent of their one-repetition maxes on negatives.
Science has shown heavy negatives will produce greater motor unit recruitment, more protein synthesis, and a greater increase in insulin-like growth factor-1 than when using lighter loads. But remember, this is a very intense technique and should be used very sparingly!
Here are some of my favorite eccentric emphasis techniques
Bench Press with Weight Releasers
How to correctly perform a bench press with weight releaser:
Attach the weight releasers to the bar
Lower the bar like a normal bench press
As the bar touches your chest, the weight releasers release; therefore, you only push up the bar weight
Return to the starting position and repeat reps without weight releasers
Important note: Anywhere from about 5-30 percent of the bar weight can be used on the releasers. These can be done for a drawn out eccentric or at a traditional tempo. If done without purposefully slowing the eccentric, the positive portion of the rep will potentially feel much more powerful because of the overload of the stretch shortening cycle.
Smith Machine Negative Overload Bench Press
Smith machine negative overloads provide another way to eccentrically overload your pecs. This movement is performed with a Smith Machine and will require two partners.
IFBB Cory Mathews Smith Machine Overload Bench Press
How to correctly perform a Smith Machine negative overload bench press:
Lie flat on a bench placed under a Smith Machine (the bar should be directly above your chest)
Load the bar with 10-25 percent extra weight on the outside of the bar sleeves
Lower the weight to your chest
At chest level, have a partner on each side pull the extra weight off the bar
Forcefully press the weight back to starting position
Then, have the partners add the weight back to the bar
Repeat for necessary reps
Important note: This exercise works best drawing out eccentrics, so take five to six seconds to lower the bar, then forcefully press it back up. A good routine is to do that tempo for as many reps as possible. Once you can no longer complete a rep, pull the additional weight off and do as many reps as possible at normal speed.
This is a very advanced technique and should be used cautiously.
One Armed Eccentric Barbell Curl
This movement can be with a partner or self-spotted.
Sit at a preacher-curl bench and grasping the center knurling of an Olympic barbell with your left hand, the back of your upper arm rests on the preacher bench in front of you with your arm supinated (palm up).
The barbell should be in the finished position of a biceps curl with your palm in front of your shoulder.
Lower the barbell for a count of eight seconds and pause for a second at the bottom. Have a spotter assist you to the top or you can use your right hand to assist you in curling the weight up.
Repeat for reps, and then switch sides.
Branch Warren Doing One Armed Eccentric Barbell Curls (Embedded)
Eccentric training is a very powerful muscle-building tool that most bodybuilders don't take advantage of. A majority of your training should consist of contractions that include both eccentric and concentric contractions. Being as much 1.6 times stronger eccentrically, it's a mistake not to add in some eccentric emphasis training if you want to maximize muscle growth. Eccentric training takes much longer to recover from than concentric training, so the high intensity techniques presented should not be used on a deload or lower intensity phase. Because of the high amount of muscle damage caused by eccentrics, I highly suggest supplementing with BCAAs and eating an adequate amount of protein.