A new study shows that it’s possible to gain muscle simply by putting down weights, without having to lift them in the first place. While this may seem like a startling revelation, it just restates something we’ve known for a long time: the negative (lowering) part of an exercise also works your muscles.
You might recognize this as the same concept of negative pull-ups. If you are not yet able to do a full pull-up, you can jump up to the bar, or step on a box or bench to get to the bar with your arms bent. Instead of pulling you at the topyou start at the top and work your way down down.
Doing this works the same muscles involved in pulling, and the stronger you get, the more control you can have over the movement. On the first day, you might hang on as hard as you can, but you’ll find that your body weight is dragging you down to the ground quickly. Once you get good, you can lower yourself slowly, taking maybe 10 seconds to complete the negative. Keep going long enough, and soon you’ll be able to do a full pull-up.
What did the study find?
The study currently circulating is this one, which involved young adults who had not done strength training in the previous 6 months. There were 14 people in each group, and they either trained with the concentric (up) part of the lift, the eccentric (down) part, or both, or neither.
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People who only lowered the weights saw their strength increase in the same way as people who both lifted and lowered the weights. The researchers noted that technically you can consider them to have gained the same strength by doing only half the job. This gave rise to titles like “Less gym time, same results” even though that’s not how time works. Ten reps up and down will take about the same time as 10 reps straight down.
How to lower the weight without lifting it?
Before we get into whether eccentric reps are helpful and what caveats you need to know before trying them, I’d like to answer one of the common questions that arose during discussions of this study. To know: how does one only lower a weight? Doesn’t it have to be raised somehow for you to lower it?
Yes. There are many ways around this apparent impossibility. Look around the gym and you’ll notice a variety of ways people isolate or accentuate eccentric contractions:
- pull-ups: Use a bench to rise to the top of the movement, then lower yourself.
- Loops: “Cheat” the curl by swinging your hips to raise the bar. Then take it back down.
- Shoes: Get on your hands and knees, then straighten your legs into a high plank position. Then bend your arms to come down and repeat.
- Simple Dumbbell Exercises: Use two hands to set the weight up, then lower it with one hand.
- Machines like the leg press: Straighten both legs against resistance, then bring one leg out of contact with the machine and return the machine to its starting position using only the other leg.
In these examples, you generally reduce the weight slowly. (Dropping it straight down doesn’t require your muscles to do much work.)
You can also emphasize the eccentric with a weight that is not too heavy to lift. For example, the Romanian deadlifts. You start at the top (after lifting the bar off the ground or picking it up on a rack), then slowly lower it until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Then you get up quickly and slowly lower it back down. These are usually performed with a lighter weight than your regular deadlifts.
Why Quirky Reps Isn’t a Cheat Code
The eccentric representatives are usefulbut they are not a magic key to a more effective workout.
Remember that a normal lifting session makes you lift weight and down. You already benefit from the eccentric, even if you also lift the weight. Regular up-and-down reps are generally easier to do, as you may have realized from reading the “how to” list above. Climbing to the top of a pull-up, then lowering slowly, takes After time and is honestly more boring than just going up-down-up-down for the required number of reps.
So we use eccentric reps for specific reasons at specific times. Cheat loops are a great example: you can do regular loops and then cheat the last reps (cheat, strictly lower) to get a few more reps. Or we do negative pull-ups when we can’t do the top down. nice again.
There are also different schools of thought on the importance of emphasizing the eccentric in regular top-down training. When doing deadlifts, for example, some people drop (or drop very quickly) the weight once they get to the top, while some slowly lower the weight for the added benefit of the eccentric. Both have their advantages: lowering can give you a bit more gains, while lowering the weight can lead to less fatigue, allowing you to do more sets or train with heavier weights.
And now that we’ve touched on fatigue, there’s another important thing to know: eccentric reps cause more muscle damage than concentric reps. This is both an upside (more damage means more healing and potentially more growth) and a downside (more damage means you’re more likely to get hurt, and in some cases may be more likely to contributing to injury).
So should you cut the weights? This is definitely a training strategy worth considering! But you don’t have to choose either. For example, it’s quite common to do normal squats one day and squats with a slow-down phase on another day of the week. When there are pros and cons to an exercise, the best way to split the difference is to do both.
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