Negative-Accentuated Powerlifting

by Dr. Joel Seedman, PhD

Key Points

Point #1: Research demonstrates the effectiveness of eccentric (negative) accentuated training.  Properly applying these concepts to the “Big 3” powerlifts can provide great gains in strength, hypertrophy, and power.

Point #2: Its one thing to lower a supramaximal load in a free-falling fashion but it’s another thing to control it.

Point #3: Using the PREP (Power Rack Eccentric Potentiation) protocol for squats and bench press provides a safe and effective negative-accentuated training strategy.

Point #4: Combining trap bar deadlifts or squat stance deadlifts with controlled eccentrics offers an incredible training stimulus for full body growth and overall strength gains.

Point # 5: Eccentric-accentuated training can be a powerful training stimulus but can also elicit overtraining symptoms if you abuse them with excessive volume and frequency.

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Research vs. Practical Application

Numerous research studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of eccentric-accentuated training protocols for eliciting strength and hypertrophy benefits [1].  However, a majority of these studies have used isokinetic instruments or customized isotonic devices for implementing eccentric training protocols rather than traditional free weight equipment [2, 3].  Findings also indicate that muscles are capable of producing roughly 20-50% greater torque during eccentric contractions when compared to isometric or concentric conditions [4].  This has led to recommendations of 120-150% of 1RM loads for eccentric training programs [5].

Application of these findings to practical training scenarios has lead to a mixed bag of results primarily due to flawed implementation.  Applying eccentric training strategies similarly to both heavy compound movements and isolation exercises would be analogous to equating squats with leg extensions.  Compound movements particularly the “Big 3” powerlifts requires special consideration as the entire body is being summoned to handle a load rather than isolating a few muscle groups. 

Considering many individuals have difficulty controlling the eccentric phase with submaximal loads particularly during compound lifts, suggesting they use 120% or more of their 1RM for eccentric training is setting them up for failure and potential disaster.   Anyone can lower a tremendously heavy load in a free-falling fashion but controlling it on the descent is entirely different. However, with slight adjustments and modifications that I’ll outline in this article, negative-accentuated training can be a safe and highly effective training technique.

 

PREP Squats

The idea of performing negative barbell back squats would probably make any competitive powerlifter or competent strength coach cringe and laugh simultaneously.   Negative-only movements are traditionally performed with the assistance of one and in many cases two or more spotters to help lift the load on the concentric phase.  Applying this methodology to squats would be almost as ludicrous as having someone spot you on deadlifts or power cleans.  In other words you wouldn’t do it.  Safety and practicality are two of many factors that would label such a training methodology as downright dangerous and reckless. 

With that said performing negative squats can have incredible value if applied in a very precise and methodical fashion.  By utilizing a protocol I refer to as Power Rack Eccentric Potentiation (PREP), eccentric-accentuated or negative squats not only become a safe and efficient training technique but also produce benefits that are difficult to replicate with other training modalities.

The setup and application is simple.  Set the safety pins in the power rack just to or slightly above your typical squat depth.  I recommend having the safety pins set a few inches above your maximal squat depth which ideally for most will be a parallel position.  After sufficient warm-up and loading progression, load the bar with 90-110% of your 1RM.  Perform the eccentric portion of the squat in a controlled (but not overly slow) fashion and gently let the weight settle on the safety pins.  

Next, immediately step out of the rack and take an additional 10-30% off the bar (one 45lb 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. Repeat this sequence for the desired number of repetitions.  I typically recommend 1-4 total reps per set.

As I previously mentioned not only is this method relatively safe (make sure you have proper squat mechanics before attempting this) it provides a stimulus difficult to re-produce with other methods.  Setting the safety bars near the bottom position completely eliminates fear of dumping the weight or relying on spotters to help assist you out of the vulnerable bottom position.  Once you try this, you’ll most likely feel liberated and enthusiastic to try heavier loads but make sure you can still properly control the eccentric phase.  Therefore starting with moderate loads (90-95% of 1RM) is recommended before attempting higher intensities (100-110% of 1RM).  Remember to set the weights down gently on the pins and don’t let it free-fall on the eccentric phase.

 

Additional Benefits of PREP Training

Besides eliminating safety concerns, the value of repeatedly handling such heavy loads through a full range of motion will undoubtedly build incredible strength and hypertrophy not to mention the confidence you’ll gain from familiarizing yourself with maximal or supramaximal loads.  Although accommodating resistance in the form of chains and bands can produce similar effects at the top of the movement it does not provide the same degree of tension in the bottom half which is where most failed squat attempts occur.

Another valuable aspect of PREP squats is the potentiation effect they produce on the subsequent concentric phase.  Most eccentric protocols often involve little or no concentric emphasis thereby eliminating reinforcement of compensatory acceleration and explosive power.  It’s one thing to lower a heavy load but practicing the actual lifting portion of the skill is paramount for promoting speed, power, and technique development.  Not only is this problem eliminated with the PREP protocol but lowering maximal loads during the eccentric contraction produces post-activation potentiation (PAP). Ultimately this allows greater than normal bar speed on the following concentric phase. This is because your nervous system will be hyper-activated from the prior supramaximal eccentric movement making the concentric load feel unusually light. 

With this in mind performing PREP squats without any assistance from lifting partners is ideal as the time it takes to self-adjust the weights between each phase of the lift is ample time to allow fatigue to dissipate and to maximize the potentiation response.    Because all muscular contractions produce both fatigue and potentiation, research regarding PAP suggests that balancing these two components is key to eliciting a PAP response [6].  

Although there has not been a study conducted specifically on the effects of PREP training and post-activation potentiation, from my own research and pilot investigation as well as hands on experience, I can confidently say that its better to have too much recovery than too little when it comes to PAP.  In summary this protocol is very conducive to performing eccentric-accentuated training particularly when you don’t have trainer partners to assist you.

 

PREP Bench Press

If you grasped the logistics and philosophy of PREP squats described above then you’re probably already one step ahead and mentally understand how to apply this approach to the bench press.  In essence the fundamental concepts remain almost identical.   The key is to adjust the safety pins to as close to chest height as possible while still remaining above the chest.  The last thing you want is to be performing this training strategy with the safety pins below chest height.  When in doubt set the pins slightly higher.

One of the notable differences I’ve found when using this approach as opposed to standard negative bench press training (relying on a spotter to keep the weight from crushing your chest) is technique enhancement.    Because there’s always a fear that you and your spotter will be unable to handle the weight, inevitable deviations in form and compensation patterns occur as you instinctively use any and all means necessary to avoid catastrophe.  With the PREP protocol I’ve often witnessed improvements in form as the trainee can focus on tightness, technique, and body positioning and worry less about completing the lift or the possible consequences that might ensue from handling an unmanageable load.

I recommend performing the eccentric phase with 100-110% of your 1RM and the concentric phase with 80-90% of your 1RM.   One key note that many lifters may have difficulty with is maneuvering themselves out of the rack in order to adjust the weights.  Once the bar reaches the safety pins on the eccentric phase make sure you roll the barbell behind you (behind your head).  Once you slip back under the bar for the concentric phase re-adjust the bar to the proper position (above the lower chest) before driving the weight up.   If it still doesn’t make sense watch this video of my client and national figure competitor Leslie Lee performing 2 rounds of this and notice how she adjusts the bar position as mentioned.   

If you have access to training partners and are looking for a quicker turnaround time between the eccentric and concentric portions of the movement you can employ the assistance of your spotters just as one of my NFL athletes Jake Banta is shown doing here in this incline bench PREP protocol. 

If you’re really looking to maximize the effectiveness of eccentric overload you can also combine the PREP protocol with accommodating resistance such as bands and chains.  This combination is quite intense and should only be use periodically to avoid local and systemic overtraining.  However occasional implementation induces incredibly high levels of muscle damage and mechanical tension that are sure to produce unprecedented gains in functional strength and size.  Here’s another one of my NFL athletes Jarius Wynn demonstrating the PREP protocol with chains, a technique we used  periodically throughout the offseason to build his strength, power, and size. 

 

Negative-Accentuated Deadlifts

If you’re still reading this article and have not written me off as lunatic for recommending negative barbell squats, this next recommendation will surely peak your interest.  That’s right, eccentric-accentuated deadlifts.  Now, before you start casting aspersions and calling me an iron game heretic worthy of stoning (with weight plates rather than stones of course) allow me to explain my rationale and method of application. 

First, the type of eccentric phase I recommend is more of a controlled negative rather than an arduously slow one.   Focus on making as little noise as possible when placing the weight back gently on the floor.   In essence you’re simply performing a normal deadlift with a controlled eccentric phase.

Second, and perhaps most important are the loading parameters.  Unlike the PREP method described for squats and bench press for which 90-110% of your 1RM is suggested, I recommend using 70-90% of your 1RM for eccentric accentuated deadlifts.  In reality, the goal is to use as heavy a load as possible with proper form (neutral spine, and good hip hinge mechanics).  For some individuals you may have to drop down to 60% or less of your 1RM initially but with practice you should eventually be capable of performing these with 90% or more of your 1RM.

Performing a controlled negative on deadlifts with heavy but submaximal loads produces levels of irradiation (full-body tension), concurrent activation potentiation, and co-contraction that are difficult to match.  Furthermore the combination of intense loading with significant time under tension makes it a highly effective hypertrophy stimulus.  I can just about guarantee, that after several weeks of performing these on a consistent basis your deadlift strength as well as every other lift will significantly improve.

Finally I recommend performing these using either a trap bar or squat stance deadlift (with a traditional barbell). If you’re unaccustomed to negative-accentuated deadlifts I recommend starting with the trap bar.  Because of the load being closer to your center of gravity (at your sides rather than in front of you) it tends to be easier on the spine than a barbell.  In addition most individuals can handle significantly more weight with the trap bar.  Because eccentric-accentuated training is predicated on increased motor unit recruitment as well mechanical tension and micro-trauma (muscle damage), the ability to maximally overload the body with the trap bar makes it an ideal choice.

If you don’t have access to a trap bar or simply want greater carryover to competitive powerlifting I recommend performing this with a squat stance or semi sumo deadlift technique rather than conventional or traditional sumo deadlifts (Read More HERE).

Squat stance deadlifts (similar to what Ed Coan used) allow the lifter to feel as if the weight is being loaded in between their legs rather than in front of them.

Similar to the trap bar, the loading mechanics make this much more conducive to performing a controlled eccentric phase in comparison to conventional deadlifts.  Standard sumo deadlifts on the other hand tend to place too much strain on the hips as the extreme stance width can problematic when combined with heavy eccentric loads.
 

7 Training Tips

TIP #1: Be sure technique and lifting mechanics are proper before implementing these protocols.  If you apply these methods correctly you’ll produce incredible results.  If you have sloppy form you’ll set yourself up for stagnation and injuries.

TIP #2: Research demonstrates that eccentric training can be a powerful stimulus but it can also produce overtraining symptoms if abused [7].

TIP #3: In terms of frequency, start off conservatively and gradually progress.  I recommend beginning by applying these concepts to one lift per week (squat, bench or deadlift) then switching weekly (i.e. week 1=squat, week 2=bench, week 3=deadlift, week 4=repeat).

TIP #4: Little if any fatigue will be apparent when performing these protocols so don’t fall prey to performing too many sets just because you feel like Superman.  A total of 2-3 sets will be more than sufficient when combined with your normal training routine.

TIP #5: Soreness should not be excessive and should last 1-2 days.  If you’re sore for longer than this then reduce the volume and intensity.  You’re technique may also need some adjusting.

TIP #6:  When performing the PREP protocol (squats and bench press) be careful when tweaking the equipment selection even slightly as each rack and bench tend to have their own unique height adjustments and settings. Spend several minutes finding the perfect setting before loading up the weight.  Trust me, I found this out the hard way.

TIP #7: If you’re unaccustomed to performing controlled eccentrics then spend several weeks adapting to this by using 50-65% of your 1RM applied to eccentric isometrics (Read About Eccentric Isometrics HERE).
 

Closing Thoughts

Whether you’re a powerlifter who’s looking to improve one or more lifts or whether your an iron game enthusiast hoping to gain strength and size, applying eccentric accentuated training to the “Big 3” is a surefire way to achieve your goals.  Be sure to use a bit of common sense when applying these principles and remember moderation is key when trying to turn negative training into positive results. 


References

1. Roig, M., et al., The effects of eccentric versus concentric resistance training on muscle strength and mass in healthy adults: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med, 2009. 43(8): p. 556-68.

2. Guilhem, G., C. Cornu, and A. Guevel, Neuromuscular and muscle-tendon system adaptations to isotonic and isokinetic eccentric exercise. Ann Phys Rehabil Med, 2010. 53(5): p. 319-41.

3. Prasartwuth, O., J.L. Taylor, and S.C. Gandevia, Maximal force, voluntary activation and muscle soreness after eccentric damage to human elbow flexor muscles. J Physiol, 2005. 567(Pt 1): p. 337-48.

4. Griffin, J.W., Differences in elbow flexion torque measured concentrically, eccentrically, and isometrically. Phys Ther, 1987. 67(8): p. 1205-8.

5. Moir, G., et al., The Development of a Repetition-Load Scheme for the Eccentric-Only Bench Press Exercise. Journal of Human Kinetics, 2013. Sep 30, 2013; 38: 23–31.

6. Tillin, N.A. and D. Bishop, Factors modulating post-activation potentiation and its effect on performance of subsequent explosive activities. Sports Med, 2009. 39(2): p. 147-66.

7. Clarkson, P.M., et al., Serum creatine kinase levels and renal function measures in exertional muscle damage. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2006. 38(4): p. 623-7.