As a personal trainer of 21+ years, I’m often asked for advice and best practices about navigating the gym and what exercises work best to flatten one’s tummy or the best ways to get in shape. Based upon this experience, it’s clear to me that people want efficiency in the gym; that is to get the best results for their efforts. We all want to be stronger or in better shape and feel our best without having to spend hours a day in the gym. With that in mind, I’m often then surprised by the most common mistake I see made across all gyms and across all levels of fitness, which, if rectified, can yield greater results with greater efficiency. What’s that you say? Ignoring the negative I say! Peek into any gym, and it’s easy to observe far too many people “throwing” weights around and feeling they have done their work. What they don’t know is that they are missing the most important half of the movement – the eccentric phase. What is the eccentric phase? Mostly it’s the lowering phase of the movement, or the part of the movement where the muscle lengthens, also called the negative phase.
Let’s take the most common exercise performed with free weights in the gym: the ubiquitous bicep curl. People mostly work the weight up to the shoulder (concentric/positive phase) without focusing on controlling the downward motion (eccentric/negative phase). We subconsciously forget to control the weight on the way down, as our minds and muscles are programmed to find the path of least resistance. This means our body’s default pattern is to ignore the negative and instinctively allow gravity or the weight itself to pull our arm down, rather than controlling it. But, to really make the most of the exercise and get the full benefit, you need to work both the up and the down, meaning both the positive and negative. Each phase represents half the movement and not working the negative is like needing twice the work to achieve the same result! In fact, it’s thought that most of the soreness we experience comes from the eccentric/negative phase. What’s most noteworthy, is that our bodies are in fact stronger in the eccentric phase than the concentric. That said, if we cannot control the weight in the negative part of the movement, then we might want to question whether that weight is appropriate or not!
The importance of both parts of the movement cannot be overstated; being eccentrically strong means having the ability to decelerate our joints which helps to prevent injury. Knee pain going downhill, or downstairs is a common problem often corrected by incorporating more eccentric leg training.
An easy way to think of incorporating the negative into your training is simply to go slow on the “easy” part, mostly on the way down or back. Think 1 count on the way up and 3 counts on the way down, as a rule of thumb.
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