Very Slow Versus Normal Negative-Emphasized Repetitions

Last week I wrote about Ellington Darden’s 30/30/30 negative-emphasized protocol and my initial impressions of it. Since then, I’ve done one other workout using the protocol, which was equally intense, but highlighted some of the problems with both very slow repetitions and starting with the negative on some exercises.

Ellington came up with the 30/30/30 protocol as a way for trainees following his Body Fat Breakthrough program who didn’t have regular access to the X-Force machines to emphasize the negative. Unlike the X-Force machines which provided forty percent more resistance during the negative, a 30/30/30 repetition increases the time spent performing the negative relative to the time spent performing the positive. Both the X-Force machines and 30/30/30 protocol are effective, however I have concerns about the safety of X-Force due to the abrupt resistance changes and other problems we found when testing them out in Gainesville, and there are a few problems with very slow repetitions and starting with the negative that must be considered.

The first problem with moving very slowly is that when a person moves too slowly the movement is no longer smooth but segmented into a series of very short starts and stops. While the increase in force due to acceleration during the multiple stops and starts during segmentation is unlikely to be high enough to cause injury, it should still be avoided. How slowly you have to move before this occurs depends on your motor control. Some people can move very slowly without segmentation, some people have difficulty moving smoothly even at a moderate speed, and most of us are somewhere in between. For most people, segmentation becomes a problem with cadences slower than fifteen seconds over typical exercise range of motion, only half the speed of 30/30/30 reps.

The second problem with moving very slowly is the tendency to spend a disproportionate amount of time in portions of the range of motion where the resistance is lower to make the exercise easier. For example, when instructing someone in the performance of a slow leg press or squat, unless you remind them not to and correct them every time they do it most people tend to slow down more in the easier upper portion of the range of motion, and speed up in the harder lower portion. Instead you should do the opposite, avoiding or moving through easier portions of the range of motion only slowly enough to be able to reverse direction smoothly, and moving more slowly through the harder portions of the range of motion.

Very slow repetitions

While starting with the negative may be advantageous for improving muscular strength and size when using very slow repetitions since it allows for additional negative work, it is not practical with many exercises. While some exercises like the barbell squat and barbell bench press normally start at the end point, and exercises like chin-ups and dips can be started at the end point by using the legs to assist, for many exercises you would need one or more strong assistants to lift the weight for you (start point and end point refer to the start and end of the positive movement, not where the exercise begins). This can be worked around on some barbell exercises like standing presses and bent-over rows the same way it is done with squats and bench presses, by starting with the bar on hooks set at the top of the range of motion, but not on most dumbbell or machine exercises.

I have no doubt such an approach can be highly effective, and the workouts I have tried it out on have been brutally intense, but I am also not convinced it provides any advantage over regular negative emphasized repetitions, and will probably be very difficult for many people to do with good form. One advantage, however, if you are capable of performing such slow movement without segmentation and have a metronome or other device for keeping time for you, is without having to count reps or record TUL you can focus entirely on performing the exercise instead of measuring performance.

Negative-emphasized repetitions – with a negative twice the duration of the positive or longer – done at moderate speeds are easier for people to perform correctly, don’t require assistants or specialized equipment, and are safer than negative-only and negative-hyperloaded training. I have been using a 3/10 cadence (three second positive, ten second negative) again for the past few months with a repetition range of three to five (about 45 to 75 seconds TUL) for the upper body and four to six (about 60 to 90 seconds TUL) for the lower body, trunk and neck, with good results. The three-second positive is slow enough to be able to perform smooth turnarounds and maintain proper positioning over the full range of motion, and the ten-second negative is not so slow it can not be done smoothly.

If I reach momentary muscular failure anywhere in the middle of the range of motion I continue to attempt to move positively for a few seconds, then perform the final negative as slowly as I can. On every rep I pause and attempt to hold the weight motionless at the end point (or around ten to fifteen degrees short of full extension on pushing exercises) for a few seconds. If I can not hold motionless for a second or two I attempt to perform what I assume will be the final negative as slowly as possible. I still attempt another repetition afterwards, but am rarely able to complete another positive if I am unable to hold the end point on the previous rep.

Contrary to my initial expectations, most clients have found performing negative-emphasized reps in this fashion to be more fatiguing than normal repetitions (using a three to four second positive and negative duration) despite the much lower rate of mechanical work and the greater metabolic efficiency of negative work. This may be because it allows for the use of a slightly heavier weight due to the greater negative strength, or because when moving much more slowly people tend to use better form, or both. When switching from normal to negative-emphasized repetitions you may need to increase your rest between exercises slightly at first.

Ryan Hall recently shared his thoughts on normal and very slow negative-emphasized reps;

There are very few studies examining time courses for concentric versus eccentric excursion times. Most studies, which are not many to begin with, show longer eccentric times resulting in more progress. However, I have reviewed one study recently showing the opposite. I haven’t had time to dive into the full text and digest the details, methods, etc. I started to write a review paper on this topic, but got busy with many other more important tasks.

Regarding Ell’s 30/30/30 protocol, in my opinion, it is needlessly complicated. First of all, few subjects have the motor ability or motor control to perform a 30 second concentric or eccentric with appropriate form. Secondly, you have to find a way to start with the eccentric component. I’m not convinced this is the safest route.

I’ll be interviewing Ryan soon, and discussing this topic and the studies he mentioned in more detail. In the meanwhile, if you are following The Body Fat Breakthrough program but having difficulty doing 30/30/30 reps smoothly or are unable to start with the negative with the equipment you’re using, give regular negative-emphasized reps a try, and share your results here.

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