Q&A: Negative-Emphasized Versus Negative-Only Training

Question: Hey Drew, I started testing this negative emphasized type of training. I found myself using too heavy weights, which ended up being 1-3 positive reps + negative-only reps (I didn’t want to leave the sets too short). I noticed that the negative-only reps were really exhausting and now – after the workout – I have a feeling that I really pushed myself ’til the end. This got me thinking:

Is negative only “better” than negative emphasized?

It seems that a training partner would be really good thing with this negative-only training. I had to use my imagination to get the weight into starting position (of the negative) safely, or at least safely as I could. What do you think about negative-only approach and can you point out anything specific about it – to keep in mind?

Answer: Negative-only training may be more effective than negative-emphasized training for muscular strength and size gains due to the ability to create more tension and microtrauma for the same amount of time, but the ability to handle much heavier weights also means more stress on your joints and greater risk of injury if you’re not careful with the hand-off and gradually slowing the weight to a stop as you approach the bottom of your range of motion.

Unlike negative-emphasized repetitions, which can be done with any exercise and equipment that can be used for normal dynamic repetitions, negative-only training requires you to have either two or more strong spotters to lift the weight for you, equipment that lifts the weight for you like Dr. Michael MacMillan’s MaxOut, or motorized machines like those made by ARX Fit. If you don’t have someone or something to lift the weight for you it is possible to perform negative-only reps with many upper body exercises if you have equipment which allows you to perform the positive with your lower body. A stool, step ladder, or bench can be used to perform negative-only chin-ups and parallel bar dips, and a squat or power rack with adjustable safety bars can be used to perform negative-only with a few barbell exercises.

Hyper deadlifts on an early ARX prototype

Hyper deadlifts on an early ARX prototype

The biggest risks of injury from negative-only training come from missed or sloppy hand-offs, not bringing the weight to a stop gradually, and not being conservative with your range of motion in exercises where the start point or bottom of your range of motion puts the target muscles in a stretch at the position of maximum moment arm, like dumbbell pullovers and dumbbell chest flys.

Because you can use twenty to forty percent more weight for negative-only repetitions than for normal repetitions you’ll need two people to assist you in lifting the weight. One very strong person might be able to do it, but it is much easier with two, especially if you are using a barbell or a machine with independent movement arms where balance is a concern. It is necessary for both assistants to hand off the weight to you gradually and at the same time, when you signal you are in position and ready to receive the weight. The weight should be held motionless during this transfer, and you should not start lowering it until after the hand off is complete. This way, if during the transfer you find you are unable to hold the weight motionless, in which case you will probably not be able to lower it under strict control, you can signal them to take the weight from you or assist you while lowering it.

If using a selectorized machine the assistants should always help you by lifting the movement arm, and never attempt to directly lift the weight stack to avoid losing fingers. Plate-loaded machines work much better for this, since the assistants can use the weight horns as handles.

The same rules apply when transferring the weight from your legs to your arms during exercises like negative-only chin-ups and dips. You should hold your body motionless while performing the transfer, and if you are unable to do so stop the exercise. Also, keep your legs in a position where you can use them to catch yourself and assist if you are unable to lower yourself slowly enough.

Mike Mentzer frequently used advanced HIT techniques like negative-only, forced-negatives, and forced reps.

Mike Mentzer frequently used advanced HIT techniques like negative-only, forced-negatives, and forced reps

It is important to perform negative-only repetitions very slowly so that you are able to gradually bring the weight to a stop as you approach the bottom. The faster it is moving, or the longer you wait to start slowing the weight down, the greater the acceleration required to bring it to a stop and the greater the force your body will be exposed to. I recommend taking at least ten seconds to lower the weight, even on exercises with a very short range of motion. This makes it easier for you to bring the weight to a stop under strict control rather than dropping and slamming into the starting position, and easier for your assistants to spot you if necessary.

The positive, however, should be performed as quickly as can be done safely, to minimize the rest between repetitions. Negative-only reps can also be done in combination with rest-pause, and I plan to write more about that in the following weeks.

On exercises like dumbbell pullovers where the weight can not be set down and the target muscles are in a stretch at the start point you need to be very cautious not to exceed your safe range of motion. I recommend avoiding these altogether, or using different equipment which prevents you from exceeding your safe range of motion. For example, the weight stack of a pullover machine can be pinned up to reduce the degree of shoulder flexion at the start point, and you can perform dumbbell pullovers from the floor or with a barbell in a squat or power rack with the safety spotter bars set to the bottom of your range of motion.

The safety spotter bars of a squat rack or power rack can be used to hold the weight at the start point or bottom of exercises performed in a standing position like arm curls and shoulder presses so you can squat down and position your arms at the end point or top, then stand back up holding it in this position to perform the negative. This is one of the few exceptions to the rule of not curling in a rack.

It's only OK to curl in a rack if you're doing negative-only

It’s only OK to curl in a rack if you’re doing negative-only

If you don’t have two people to assist you, or access to equipment equipped with MaxOut weight stacks or motorized machines like the ones made by ARX Fit, the following are the best exercises that can be done practically negative-only when training alone:

Chin-ups and Pull-ups using a stool, step ladder or bench

Parallel Bar Dips using a stool, step ladder, or bench

Barbell Presses inside a rack

Barbell Curls inside a rack

Barbell Standing Triceps Presses inside a rack

Barbell Shrugs inside a rack

Barbell Rows inside a rack

Unfortunately, without strong assistants or specialized equipment there is no practical way to perform exercises for the lower body negative-only. The closest thing would be negative-accentuated repetitions; lifting the weight smoothly but quickly with both legs and alternating between slowly lowering with only the right or left leg. This can only be done safely with exercises that do not require you to balance entirely on one leg, and involve complimentary movement (movement in the same direction), like leg presses, leg extensions, leg curls, heel raises on a leg press, and barbell hip raises. Standing heel-raises with a dipping belt or holding a dumbbell and bodyweight squats are an exception, since your hands are free to hold something for balance and to assist when you are too fatigued to lower yourself slowly enough.

When performing negative-accentuated repetitions you should use only sixty to seventy percent of the weight you would use for normal repetitions, since this would be about twenty to forty percent heavier for the individual limbs during the negatives. I recommend erring on the lower side since it can be more difficult to maintain correct body position when performing negative-accentuated on some exercises. Perform double the repetitions you normally would, since each limb only performs half of the negatives and the positives are relatively easy with the lower weight.

The following is an example of a full-body workout that could be performed with negative-only (NO) and negative-accentuated (NA) repetitions without the need for assistants or specialized equipment:

  1. NA Leg Curl or NA Leg Extension or  NA Barbel Hip Raise
  2. NA Leg Press or NA Bodyweight Squat
  3. NA Heel Raise
  4. NO Chin-up or NO Barbell Row
  5. NO Dip or NO Standing Barbell Press
  6. NO Standing Barbell Triceps Extension
  7. NO Standing Barbell Curl

Any additional trunk and neck work should be performed with normal, or negative-emphasized repetitions.

Because negative-only and negative-accentuated training are extremely demanding, you have to be even more careful than with other high intensity training methods not to overdo it. This is why several exercises are listed as alternatives rather than including them all in the workout. When performing negative-only and/or negative-accentuated workouts either only use it for a few exercises for muscle groups you want to prioritize, or reduce your overall volume and frequency, or only do it a few weeks at a time or once every third or fourth workout. Individuals will vary in how much of a reduction in volume and frequency they require or how long or frequently they can perform these kinds of workouts without overtraining, so be sure to keep accurate records of your workouts and adjust as necessary.

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