Friday, July 9, 2010

Negative Training, A Critique - George Elder

John Kuc

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Negative Training – A Critique
by George H. Elder, University of NH Strength Coach (1985)

Through the years lifters have tried many tools to enhance progress. We’ve seen everything from dynamic tension to forced reps. All these systems have produced some results for some people but none has been all its proponents claimed them to be. There is no single universal method of training that is automatically going to enhance all people’s gains. The people who blindly advocate “negatives” should take this into account for a variety of reasons that we will go over in some depth here.

Negatives (eccentric contractions) are basically contractions of a muscle belly while it is being lengthened. In other words, the positive phase (isotonic contraction) of a bench press would be the extending of one’s arms from the chest to arms’ length. The negative phase of the bench would be the process of lowering the weight from the extended arms’ position down to chest level. Eccentric contractions are the opposite of their corresponding isotonic phase contractions.

In the 2-1-4 method of rep speed negatives form the essential part of the system. They are supposed to be among the most beneficial type of movements possible for strength and size gains. This is according to the “literature” produced by some companies who use negatives as a novel sales method. Of course, one would wonder about the objectivity of “studies” that are sponsored by any concern with a vested interest in the results coming out the way they want.

I’m not going to say all these studies are false . . . it’s just that my experience has led me to doubt many claims by a number of concerns. It appears to this writer that the truth has little value to those who have a high esteem for money . . . as long as they get their bucks all is okay.

Let us get back to the subject at hand and discuss some of the various methods of doing negatives. The first method of doing negatives is the sub-maximal mode. This is a style wherein a weight is used that is well below one’s max. The weight used is most often 80%M for between 8 and 12 reps. The critical factor in sub-maximal mode negatives is the descent of the bar. The descent must be controlled and slow, usually between 4 and 8 seconds. The positive phase takes place rather quickly (2 to 4 seconds) and is subordinated to the negative phase.

Sub-maximal mode negatives are very fatiguing so it’s necessary to have a spotter on hand to ensure that you work to total fatigue. In other words, if you are failing to extend the bar on the eighth rep, your spotter will help you out and then you are to lower the bar slowly again for another rep. The spotter will help you through the remaining reps of the set. This is supposed to ensure maximal output and thus maximal progress. This is stated to be the case if only one set is done in this fashion but most persons I know who used this system do two sets.

In this writer’s view, negatives done as above have very limited application if one is to train for maximal strength and size gains. At first the sub-maximal mode negatives will cause some pain and gain, but the results will be limited in most cases. The results will be limited for a variety of reasons. Perhaps we should look at some of these in depth before moving on.

Sub-maximal mode negatives are done with stress loads of 80% max. This limited load does little to help the system adjust to high 88%M+) output isotonic demands. In other words, if we spend ALL our time at stress loads of 80%M that is exactly what our body will adapt to. When our body is not periodically exposed to high stress loads its adaptive potential is not fully realized. This is especially true for competitive weightlifters and people involved in the strength sports.

Not only is the load insufficient, but also we are only asked to do one or two sets. Granted, you can work a person hard by doing one or two sets with 80% max if you emphasize the negative . . . but are we maximally conditioning an individual for strength output in the positive phase by doing so? Let us see in workload how a Nautilus or similar style bench routine might compare to a conventional workout . . . assuming a max of 300 pounds:

Conventional Workout:

Nautilus Style Workout:

In the conventional system we do about 6,200 lbs. of lifting throughout the routine. The Nautilus style system comes out to about 5,300 lbs. of lifting. We can see that both systems entail similar workloads but that MOST of the work with the Nautilus style system is done with only 80%M. The QUANTITY of work is high but the QUALITY of work is in no way comparable.

In the conventional case we direct our efforts towards the positive phase by increasing the stress loads in our later sets. This allows us to work at greater stress loads than in the Nautilus style system and thus our bodies are asked to adapt to ever-increasing stress loads. Over time this constant adaptation leads to ever increased isotonic strength and size.

We should all realize a basic principle here called the S.A.I.D. principle – Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. The specificity of the response is quite direct and this is fundamentally why we should question the use of sub-maximal mode negatives at all. In weightlifting or sports in general, we need to develop the positive phase of any movement. Some people think this can be done via the mechanism of accentuating the negative phase in hopes of a “transfer” of increased potentials toward the positive phase.

To this writer this seems like a very indirect route and one that won’t work for maximal gains. I’ve received many letters from disillusioned people who can’t understand why, despite how many negatives they do and how hard they work at it, they don’t get stronger. The answer all boils down to the S.A.I.D. principle. Doing lots of negatives will make you good at negatives with maybe slight benefit for the positive phase. Doing lots of isotonic work will make you better at pushing around heavy weights with a slightly better ability to handle negatives. I’d rather be good at getting a weight to arms’ length than at letting the weight down to my chest very slowly. The choice is yours.

The other major type of negative training is called the maximal mode. In this fashion a lifter takes a weight of between 100-140% max and does from 1-6 reps of 4-8 seconds duration in the negative phase of each rep. Spotters are definitely required for this type of training as the stress loads are extremely high. If one were a 300 pound bencher he may handle loads of up to 360 pounds. Many powerlifters have been into this type of training on a periodic basis.

Maximal negatives DO get an individual used to handling huge weights and the proprioceptive senses are adapted. Anyone who goes for a max and then takes a light set is familiar with the proprioceptive adaptation. This adaptation is often just what a powerlifter is seeking as it gets him used to “walking out” and supporting heavy weights.

Whether this proprioceptive adaptation is beneficial for the positive phase of the movement is a hotly debated point. Some studies say they do . . . some say just the opposite. It has been my observation that heavy negatives DO have a slight benefit in that maximal loads are more under control due to the proprioceptive adaptations we’ve discussed. After all, lowering 360 pounds to your chest slowly will get you more than used to lowering 300 pounds on a maximal isotonic attempt.

Unfortunately, this greater control of the bar is sometimes betrayed by various weaknesses in the isotonic phase. In other words, we may once again have an increased ability in the negative phase but the transfer to the positive phase is limited. Hell, if we have problems in locking out 300 pounds it is best to concentrate on the shoulders and triceps rather than heavy negatives that may or may not enhance your ability to lock out 300 pounds.

There is also an increased likelihood of injury with maximal mode negatives. Some studies have cited joint and tendon problems. Others cite small micro-tears in the muscle fibers themselves. It has been my observation that heavy negatives of over 115% maximum are dangerous. The more often you do them the greater the risk. One has to make a judgment for himself as to whether or not heavy negatives are worth the risk. I can only see taking that risk occasionally. Perhaps once every two or three weeks if you are having a problem with supporting heavy weights.

The main problem with negatives is that the “proof” of their increasing abilities in the isotonic (positive) phase is highly debated and open to question. East Europeans and Russians find it ludicrous to spend the majority of their workouts in the eccentric phase. Here again, they cite the S.A.I.D. principle as have I. Some of you may realize gains from using negatives . . . on occasion. Don’t depend on them for a maximal output in the positive phase. The two phases are related but it is a relationship that is ill-defined. Be extremely cautious when using maximal mode negatives . . . the risk can be crushing.

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