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 the time they put in. We all want to be stronger or in better shape and feel our best without having to spend hours a day in the gym. Therefore, it surprises me that the #1 mistake I see across all gyms, in almost all workouts and across all levels of fitness is a simple concept that if implemented, could greatly increase the results and efficiency of ones’ workouts. 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 I see executed 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 work the positive but ignore the negative. We instinctively allow gravity and the weight 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 stronger in the eccentric, or “negative”, portion than in the concentric. That said, if we cannot control the weight in the negative part of the movement, then we should not be attempting to lift the weight in the positive part.
The importance of both parts of the movement cannot be overstated; being eccentrically strong means having the ability to decelerate our bones and joints which helps to prevent injury. Knee pain going downhill, or downstairs is a common problem often corrected by incorporating more eccentric leg muscle 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 up and 3 counts down as a general rule of thumb.
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