How a Little Negative (Rep) Can Lead to a Lot of Positive (Gains)

Okay people, here’s your fitness goal for this year:

By December 31st, 2014 you will be able to do 25 push-ups, 25 ring dips, and 25 pull-ups – in that order without rest.

That’s it! Nothing too hard. 3…2…1…GO!

*crickets*

Just kidding! What if you’re someone who can’t do even ONE rep of each? Or maybe you can only do 2-3 and then you need to rest for 10 minutes before the next try? Maybe you have a solid 10 count of everything but you can’t seem to break that plateau?

What we need is a strategy for building the muscle strength you have into the muscle strength you want, even if you can’t do a single good repetition of the exercise you’re trying to build. And, on top of that, we won’t use another exercise to mimic the movement we’re trying to build up (e.g. no chest press machines to get better at push-ups).

The Phases of Movement

Every repetition of an exercise has two phases: the eccentric motion and the concentric motion. These phases are determined by what’s happening to your muscles as they work. In the eccentric phase, the muscle is lengthening; in the concentric phase, the muscle is shortening (contracting, flexing). Here are the phases in the movements we want to train:

Push-up

Eccentric: Lowering the body from top plank (arms straight) to chest on the floor (arms bent 90 degrees)

A good top position in the push-up should have the elbows locked out

Concentric: Raising the body from floor (arms bent 90 degrees) to top plank (arms straight)  A good bottom position in the push-up should have the elbows at 90 degrees

Pull-up

Eccentric: Lowering from chin above bar (arms bent at 90 degrees or less) to dead-hang (arms straight)  A good pull-up ends with the chin over the bar, and arms at less than 90 degrees.
Concentric: Pulling from dead-hang (arms straight) to chin above bar (arms bent at 90 degrees or less)  The dead-hang in a pull-up should have the elbows straight.

Dip

Eccentric: Lowering the body down from top position (arms straight) to arms bent at 90 degrees.  Dips are difficult because of the amount of stabilization required. Mid way through, your body must remain as tight as in the beginning and end positions.
Concentric: Pressing the body up from arms bent at 90 degrees to top position (arms straight).  The bottom of the dip is reached once the arms have gotten to at least a 90 degree bend

Now let’s look at how we use them to better train a movement.

Enter the “Negative Rep”

We stated above that normally, an exercise moves through both phases of the movement for every repetition. Something interesting is that the eccentric phase is actually stronger in how much weight it can control, as compared to the concentric phase.

Lets use the push-up as an example. You have the eccentric lowering motion and the concentric raising/pushing motion as the full range of the movement. You will naturally be able to Lower more weight than you can Raise, because the eccentric motion is a naturally stronger muscular movement. This means that even if you can’t do the Pushing part of the movement right now, you can likely do the Lowering portion of the movement.

“Yay, Science,” I hear you cry. “But how does that help me?”

In order to build the strength to move your body through the entire movement, you can start by only working in the eccentric phase of the exercise for an extended period of time. Both motions are really just different ways of doing the same thing: fighting gravity to a greater or lesser extent. Since the eccentric and concentric motions are, at their root, the same thing, we can use the stronger one to build up the weaker one!

In the example of the push-up, a typical lowering phase lasts 1 second or less; the pushing/raising phase lasts 1-3 seconds (depending on the athlete). With a Negative Rep, we extend the eccentric lower to 5 seconds total, and remove the concentric raise completely. Based on the quick math, you can see that your muscles work for 2-4 seconds in a typical push-up, but 5 seconds in a Negative push-up.

Here’s a beginner’s routine for Push-up, Pull-up, or Dip training:

  • Frequency: Monday/Wednesday/Friday
    • Don’t work the same muscles this way two days in a row
    • This is an example “every other day” schedule. Use whatever fits your schedule, but try not to go more than two days between workouts
  • Length: 4 weeks
  • Routine: Every working day, perform 3 sets of 10 negatives of the exercise being worked. The lowering motion should take 5 full seconds to complete.Use the instructions below for each exercise.

Negative Rep Instructions

Push-up

  • Start in a full push-up position, elevated on hands and toes (not the knees) with elbows locked.
  • Tighten your butt, stomach, and legs.
  • Slowly lower from the top position until your chest touches the floor.

Pull-up

You will need a sturdy pull-up bar (or equivalent) and a way to get above the bar without doing a pull-up (like a chair).

  • Step onto your chair, place your hands on the bar about shoulder width apart, palms facing away from you, and chin just above the bar.
  • Tighten your body and slowly step off the chair so your chin is suspended over the bar.
  • Slowly lower from the top position until your arms are completely straight.

Dip

You will need something on which to do dips. Olympic rings, a plyobox, or a chair will all work. If you use a box or chair, you will need a second object of similar height on which you can place your feet.

With Rings…

  • Grasp one ring in each hand and jump/step above them so you can support your weight with straight arms.
  • Slowly lower your body, keeping the rings in tight to your sides, until the rings touch your shoulders.
  • Step off the rings and reset

With two boxes (or chairs)…

  • Place your hands on the edge of one box, palms down/fingers wrapping the edge, so that you can hold yourself with arms straight and butt just off the edge.
  • Place your feet onto the other box so they are the same height as your hands. Only your heels should be on the box, so you may need to adjust the spacing.
  • Slowly lower yourself, pressing the elbows back behind you, until they are bent at 90 degrees.
  • Step your feet down and come to stand.
  • Note: If you are not sure you will be able to step off after the Negative Rep, you can place something below your butt that will “catch” you just after you finish the motion (smaller chair, stool, etc).

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