It's been well documented in numerous research studies that eccentric, or negative-only, training is one of the most effective protocols to increase strength, size and muscle function. Eccentric training is typically performed with heavy loads, such as 90 to 120 percent of your 1-Rep Max, and executed with slow eccentrics, or negatives (the lowering phase of lifts).
A common example of this is using a supramaximal load (heavier than your 1RM) on the Bench Press, lowering it as slowly as possible over a 3- to 5-second count, and having spotter(s) assist you when you lift the weight back to the top. This is typically performed for several repetitions for a complete set.
Problems with Traditional Eccentric Training
Although this form of training produces significant improvements in strength and hypertrophy, it has several weaknesses and limitations.
1. It Leaves Out an Important Portion of a Lift
Negative-only exercises are great for inducing structural stress on muscle tissue; however, there's little benefit in terms of teaching the lifter how to be powerful and explosive on the concentric (lifting) phase), since the emphasis is almost entirely on the eccentric, or lowering, phase. This can be problematic in that negative-only training fails to teach appropriate mechanics, technique and power under circumstances where both concentric and eccentric movements are involved. Ironically, nearly all sports performance scenarios require a combination of the two.
2. It May Reinforce Poor Exercise Form
Eccentric-only movements can reinforce dysfunctional movement patterns and faulty technique, as lifters often use any means necessary to avoid having the weight crush them at the bottom of the movement. As a result, they can resort to poor lifting habits, asymmetrical loading (one side performing more work), and various other compensation patterns.
3. It Requires a Training Partner
Eccentric workouts performed with large compound movements require the aid of a training partner. If you're going solo or lack confidence in your spotter, you should forgo negative-only training altogether. Also, because lifters rely on the ability of their training partner or spotter to properly assist them with supramaximal loads, this can often be a risky proposition in and of itself for reasons that are more than obvious.
4. It Can Be Risky
The final issue with traditional eccentric protocols is the difficulty in applying the protocols to lower-body exercises. Why? Because performing negatives with the assistance of a training partner on movements such as Squats entails far too many risks and is often impractical.
A Better Version of Eccentric Training
Having employed eccentric training for a number of years with my athletes, I've experimented with a variety of methods. One that I find particularly useful I refer to as Power Rack Eccentric Potentiation or PREP. It not only enhances the stimulus of eccentric exercise but eliminates the aforementioned issues altogether. PREP training can be applied to many compound movements in a safe and efficient manner. As the name implies, you need access to a power rack/squat cage, a sturdy barbell, and plenty of weight plates.
Here's how to incorporate PREP training into the Squat and Bench Press.
Begin by setting safety pins in the power rack at or slightly above your typical squat depth. After a sufficient warm-up, load the bar with 95 to 120 percent of your 1RM. Perform the eccentric portion of the Squat in a slow and controlled fashion, gently letting the weight settle to the safety pins.
Step out of the rack and remove 10 to 30 percent of the weight from the bar (a 45-pound plate off each side will generally suffice). Position yourself back under the bar and powerfully squat the weight back to the top before re-racking it. If you have training partners, you can skip this step and stay under the bar while your spotters reset the weight for you. Repeat this sequence for a total of 1-4 repetitions/cycles per set.
Performing the Bench Press using the PREP protocol is nearly identical to the Squat. The key is setting the safety pins as close to chest height as possible while keeping them above the chest.
As you slowly lower the weight, focus on keeping your chest out, elbows tucked, and shoulder blades retracted. This will optimize your movement mechanics. On the lowering phase, try to minimize any form of free-falling by attempting to make as little noise as possible when setting the bar down to the pins. If you're unable to produce this level of control, reduce the load until you can accomplish the movement in the desired fashion.
PREP is one of the most efficient and effective forms of eccentric training. It minimizes a majority of the issues we see with traditional eccentric or negative-only training while providing additional benefits, which include the following:
- Unlike most forms of eccentric training, which eliminate or downplay the concentric portion of movement, PREP allows the lifter to practice both the eccentric and concentric phases of the lift. This is an invaluable feature, since athletes need to be neuromuscularly efficient in both portions of lift/movement.
- The concentric, or lifting, phase of the PREP protocol might feel unusually light. The nervous system will be hyper-activated and potentiated (producing heightened levels of recruitment) due to having experienced supramaximal loads on the previous negative phase. As a result, lifters will be able to produce greater than normal levels of power and explosiveness on the concentric phase.
- PREP eliminates the risk associated with using spotters. One incompetent move by a training partner can spell disaster for the lifter.
- The PREP protocol eliminates the need for a spotter altogether, something that is often an issue in the practical application of eccentric or negative-only training.
- Unlike traditional eccentric training, PREP can be safely employed on a variety of movements, including all upper body Presses and Squat variations, because the safety bars eliminate the issue of being pinned under a heavy load.
- Because lifters eliminate the mental and physical threat of being trapped under a heavy load, they can focus all effort and attention on completing the heavy eccentric with perfect mechanics rather than resorting to compensation patterns.
- When performed without training partners, PREP training represents the ideal balance between stimulation, overload and recovery. Because lifters have to step out of the rack to adjust the load for each phase, their targeted muscles get ample recovery time, enabling them to use heavier loads for greater strength and size gains.
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