Negative training is among the most powerful techniques used for rapid strength gains. Learn how to do negatives effectively without a training partner.» click here for exercise illustrations page «
Want to gain strength rapidly? Negative training is by far one of the best ways to dramatically increase your strength levels as quickly as possible. But most negative training techniques require you have a partner to help you return the weight to the start position. How do you get around this if you don’t have a partner? In this article, I’ll show you exactly how you do it.
A detailed description of how and why negative training works is beyond the scope of this article but I would just like to make one important point on the subject:
The real key to effective negative training is in how you lower the weight. Don’t just lower the weight as you would in a typical rep. You must ACTIVELY FIGHT GRAVITY by pushing (or pulling, depending on the exercise) as hard as you can against the weight. If you don’t fight the weight, your results will not be optimal. If you’ve done negative training before and didn’t feel extremely sore the next day, you probably weren’t fighting the weight during the negative phase. Try it and you’ll feel the difference!
Let’s get right to the exercises…
1. Machine Bench Press – Two Up/One Down Negatives
This type of negative training is fairly straightforward. Essentially, you use both of your arms to move the weight to the starting position and use only one arm to lower it. This type of training can be used on any bench press machine, be it supine (lying down) or seated.
Start by doing a brief warm-up to get the muscles ready. Set the weight to approximately half of your one-rep max on the machine (you may want to start with less to get used to the concept first). Using both arms, press the weight to full lockout.
Now comes the tricky part. You must remove one of your hands from the handles and lower the weight with only one. The reason it’s tricky is that suddenly your body is completely unbalanced. If you don’t do something about it, the weight will twist your body around and drop down.
Here’s how you get around that: you must quickly brace your non-working arm against the bar that leads to the handle. Press your forearm/wrist against that bar and exert a strong inward force. This will help to balance the body while still placing the majority of the tension on the working side.
Now lower the weight to the bottom, fighting it all the way down, as explained previously. Use both arms to press the weight back to the top position then work the other arm.
Go back and forth between arms with each rep using this technique for 3 to 5 reps on each arm. On the last set after your last rep of negatives, do as many conventional reps as you can to really work the muscles.
This type of training also works well on the Hammer Strength style machine where you move your arms independently. You will use both arms to push up against the one handle with this version. Also, instead of bracing your forearm against the other handle during the negative, I would recommend grabbing the edge of the seat with your free hand and holding on tight.
2. Chin-Ups – Standing Up On Something
All this technique requires is a bench or a box to stand on. This method is actually the absolute best way to build yourself to doing full chin-ups if you are unable to do them with your bodyweight right now.
If you can already do chin-ups for multiple reps with your bodyweight, fear not! You can always set a dumbell between your feet for added resistance or use a hip belt to hang weight plates from your waist.
Start by setting the bench or box in front of a chin-up bar (a Smith machine bar also works well for this as you can adjust the height of it very easily). If you are using the dumbell-between-feet method for added resistance, set the dumbell on the bench now.
Stand up on the bench and grasp the bar with a close, palms-facing-you grip (also known as supinated). You should be in the top position of the chin-up.
Now step off the bench and lower yourself down as slowly as possible. You should be fighting to pull yourself up as gravity pulls you down. You will feel this one the next day!
When you hit the bottom, step back up onto the bench and do another rep.
Another trick you can use, instead of adding resistance to your body, is to do the negative rep with only one arm. Stand up on the bench, grasp the bar with one hand, grasp your forearm with the other hand and step off the bench. Lower yourself down as slowly as you can then repeat with the other arm. (Note: the higher up on your forearm you grasp, the less tension you will get on your working arm. If you grasp your wrist, the rep will be easier than if you grab closer down to your elbow.)
3. Flat Barbell Bench Press – Unilateral Power Rack Stepping
[pictures C and D]
This technique requires use of the power rack to do safely. Start by setting a flat bench in the rack. Set the safety rails to a point a few inches above the bottom point of the rep (you’re going to have to have enough room to slide yourself out from under the bar). Set the racking pins (the small hooks where the weight rests against the frame) above the safety rails. You will be unracking the weight from these pins. You will basically be setting up a bench press station inside the rack.
Load a bar with a moderate weight to practice before going up to the super-maximal weights. Lie down on the bench, unrack the bar and lower it down slowly (fighting it, of course) all the way to the safety rails. Be aware that when you reach a certain point in the rep (it coincides with your regular sticking point on the way up), your leverage will decrease and the weight will get a whole lot heavier. I call this the “dropping point” (you’ll understand why when you experience this!). That is why you MUST have the safety rails set properly.
Slide yourself out from underneath the bar, walk around to one end of the barbell and lift it back up onto the top racking pin. Be absolutely sure you have strong collars on the bar before you do this!! Walk around to the other end (the bar will now be tilted down) and lift that end up to the racking pin.
The weight is now back to the start position. Lie down and do another rep.
4. Squats – Take It Off!
[pictures E and F]
The negative squat is one of the hardest negatives you can do. Not only will you be using a whole lot of weight but you will find that there is a point, similar to the bench press above, where your leverage suddenly decreases and you may start to drop quickly. Be prepared to fight this! That’s where you’ll build some real strength out of the hole.
The height of the safety rails is critical for this exercise. Set the rails a notch or two higher than you normally would for regular squats because you’ll want to be setting the bar down on these before you hit the absolute bottom.
The method for this negative is simple: step under the bar, unrack it, step back, and lower yourself down slowly, fighting gravity all the way. Go all the way down until you set the bar on the safety rails (try not to crash down if you can help it). Now get yourself out from under the bar, walk around to one side and pull some weight off. Walk around to the other side and pull the same amount of weight off. Get back under the bar, squat it back up to the top and re-rack it. Reload the bar and do another negative rep.
As you can see, there are several reasons you want to set the safety rails a little higher than usual. You’ll not only be having to get yourself out from under the bar at the bottom of the rep but you’ll also have to squat the weight back up from a dead stop at the bottom. If the safety rails are set too low, you’re going to have a harder time doing both.
One of the tricks for this technique is to use large plates (preferably 45’s or 35’s). It makes it a lot more efficient when you are pulling weights off the bar. For example, if squatting 225 pounds from a dead stop at the bottom is no problem for you, try using 405 pounds for the negatives. That way, you’ll just have to pull 2 plates off either side before squatting it back up.
The main drawback to this technique is that is takes a fair bit of time between each negative rep you do (up to a minute or more, depending on how fast you move). Of course, each rep should be so brutally hard that you’ll need the break anyway!
5. Barbell Military Press – Get On Your Knees!
[pictures G and H]
This exercise is done just like a typical military press with one major exception: it is done from your knees!
Go to the power rack and kneel down in it (this one is going to take a little experimentation to find the best rack settings for you). Set the safety rails at a point just below your shoulder level. Set the racking pins at a point just below the lockout position of the shoulder press judged from your current kneeling position. Practice this one with just the bar to make sure you have your settings right.
Now you’re ready to do it for real. Set the bar in the racking pins, load it with weight, then kneel down in front of it. Grasp the bar and lock your arms into the top position of the shoulder press. Lift the weight off the racking pins and move it back so that you have a clear trajectory down.
Perform a negative military press rep, lowering the barbell all the way down to your shoulders. Bend your knees a little more to lower the bar all the way down to the safety rails. Now squat down under the bar, place the bar on your back, then squat the bar up and place it on the racking pins. Kneel down again and repeat the procedure.
(Note: you should be fairly secure with yourself before getting down on your knees in the squat rack…)
6. Standing Barbell Curls – Squat It Up
[pictures I and J]
You will be using the power rack for this exercise. Start by setting the racking pins just below the height of the top of the barbell curl. Set the safety rails just below the bottom point of the curl.
Set your hands on the bar with your arms locked into the top position of the barbell curl. Lift the weight off the rack with a slight partial movement, then take a step back. Do a negative barbell curl. Set the bar on the safety rails at the bottom.
Drop down into a lunge or squat position and cradle the bar like you’re doing a front squat/lunge. Stand up with the bar and place it back on the racking pins.
An alternative to this technique is to do a hang clean movement (basically this is starting with the bar at a dead hang at arms-length then flipping the bar up to your shoulders) then set the bar back on the racking pins. The only drawback is that it will require some muscular effort. If you are using extremely heavy weight for your barbell curls, it may require too much effort, causing your biceps to fatigue prematurely.
7. Barbell Bent-Over Rows – Deadlift It Up
[pictures K, L and M]
This one is done in the rack or just outside of it. All you’ll really need are the racking pins, though you may wish to set up the safety rails as well. If you set the rails so that the bar stays off the ground, you won’t have to set the bar all the way down onto the ground. This will remove any possible lower back stress you might experience from that last bit of lowering the bar.
Set the racking pins just below the top height of your rowing position. Stand a little back from the pins so that you have a clear track to lower the bar after you lift it off the racks.
Get into bent-over row position and grasp the bar. Give it a little pull off the rack into the top position of the row then lower it slowly. This is when it would be useful to have the low-set safety rails.
Set the bar down on the rails or floor and stand up. Now deadlift the bar back to the racking pins and do it again.
8. Pulldowns or Cable Rows – Let It Go
Use the “V” handle for both of these exercises. The technique is very simple. Set yourself in the machine as normally would for either of these exercises. Do a close-grip pulldown/row to the contracted position of the movement with both arms then release one hand and do the negative using only one arm.
If you are using near maximal weights, you may wish to keep both hands on the handles. Just loosen your grip without releasing it and concentrate on doing the negative phase using tension with only one arm. The other arm will serve to balance and spot yourself.
9. Tricep Pushdowns – Stand Up and Be Counted
[pictures O, P and Q]
There are two methods of doing negatives with the pushdown exercise.
The first uses the 2 and 1 method that you’re already familiar with from previous exercises. Attach a single handle to the high pulley. Grasp it with one hand. Now use the other hand to push your working hand down to the bottom position. Do it forcefully – there’s no need to put any tension on the tricep here. Now release the assisting hand and do the negative.
The second method works with any pushdown attachment that uses both arms at once, such as a cambered, straight, or “V” bar or a rope attachment. Set a bench or chair in front of the high pulley. Stand up on the bench.
The bar should be set low enough that you can have your arms locked into the bottom position of the pushdown from your standing position (this can be accomplished by either adding extra cable or chain to extend it or by pulling the cable out a little before setting the pin into the weight stack).
Now, with your hands on the barbell and keeping your elbows locked solidly, step down off the bench. You will now be standing on the ground with your arms in the bottom pushdown position. Do the negative movement then stand back up on the bench and repeat.
10. Standing Dumbell Curls – Knee-Ups
[pictures R and S]
In this version, you will need a little help from your knees to get the weight back to the start position.
Grab two dumbells and hold them as though you are doing regular dumbell curls. Now, instead of holding the dumbells at your sides, place the heads of the dumbells on your thighs.
With one arm and knee, do a powerful knee-up, kicking the dumbell with force up to the top position. Use only as much help from your biceps as you need. The idea is to throw the weight up to the top using leg power.
Do the negative then repeat this technique with the other arm.
This method is the most time-efficient way to do negative training with dumbells curls. You can also do negative dumbell curls with one dumbell at a time, using your free hand to help get the weight to the start position. This method is especially useful for preacher curls where you aren’t in a position to use your knees to kick the weight up.
11. Calf Raises
Solo calf raise negatives utilize the “2 and 1” formula where you will do the up phase with both legs and the down phase with only one.
The formula can be used for basically any calf raise exercise from standing calf raises to seated calf raises to donkey calf raises. Just push up with both feet and lower yourself down with one.
It is often helpful to press your non-working foot against your working foot to help stabilize the body. You may find you can use more weight and control the negative better this way.
12. Leg Curls / Leg Extensions
These two exercises follow the “2 and 1” protocol as well. Simply use both legs to get the weight up then remove the other leg from the pads for the negative.
With both movements, it may be helpful to keep the non-working leg in contact with the pads. You can use assistance from this leg to help control the weight when you hit the “dropping point” (the opposite of the sticking point). This will allow you to keep tension on the muscles rather than just dropping. Just be sure to help only enough to slow the weight down, not so much that you release the tension.
As you practice this “self-spotting” maneuver and get better at it, you’ll be able to put incredible tension on the target muscles.
[pictures T and U]
This is a very tough form of negative training and should only be done by advanced trainers with plenty of deadlifting experience. Be sure your back is ready for this!
The method is somewhat similar to the Bench Press Rack Stepping technique. The only difference is that you will have to use multiple steps to get the weight all the way back up due to the height of the racking pins.
Start by removing the safety rails from the rack. Set the racking pins just below the lockout position of your deadlift. This technique can be done either inside the rack or outside the rack (if your racking pins can be set to be used outside the rack, of course). Practice this technique with lighter weights before going above your one-rep max.
Set the bar on the racking pins and load it up. Stand in front of the bar but just a little bit back from it so that you have room to be able to lower the bar to the ground rather than back onto the racks.
Tighten everything in your body up then lift the bar off the racking pins and into your lockout position. Now lower the bar slowly to the ground. This will be very hard! Keep your body position absolutely perfect the whole way down. Do not let your lower back round over. Fight gravity all the way, lowering the bar as slowly as possible. Don’t let the weight slam down. Try to set it down as lightly as you can.
You’ve done the negative, now comes the fun part – getting it back up to do it again. Unfortunately, the distance from the floor back up to the racks is going to be too far to do a rack step movement in one step. To solve this, you’re going to do it in two steps. This halves the distance you’ll be lifting the bar with each step, making the stepping technique possible.
You will basically be lifting one end of the bar to a mid-point then lifting the other end to the top then going back to the first end and lifting that to the top.
There are three ways you can accomplish this double step.
I. Another racking pin.
If you are lucky enough to have an extra racking pin available, you can set it a little below your start pins (about half the distance from the bar sitting on the floow to the racking pins should do it). Lift one side of the bar to that extra pin then lift the other side to the top then lift the first side to the top.
II. Use a bench.
Have a flat bench standing by. When you’ve finished the negative phase, roll one end of the bar back a little and slide the bench end in front of the racking pin on that side. Lift the end of the bar up and set it on the bench. Go back and lift the other end to the racking pin then get the first end up to the rack pins.
III. Set something underneath one set of plates.
As before, roll one end of the bar back a little. Now move something into position that you can set one end of the barbell on (you will be setting the plates themselves on this object, not the bar end). It will function as a middle step to getting the bar all the way up.
My personal favorites are the risers used in Step platforms (the hollow in the center keeps the bar from rolling off). Serious weight lifting gyms probably won’t have Step platforms or risers so you’ll have to improvise something else if that’s the case. Whatever you use, make sure it is stable and solid enough to hold the amount of weight you’re going to be using.
These techniques are only the beginning of what is possible for negative training on your own. Use the techniques as a guideline and adapt them to other exercises that you use on a regular basis.
There is absolutely no reason a person who is training without a partner can’t make use of the incredible power available through negative training. The results you get from these techniques will truly astonish you!
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Nick Nilsson is Vice-President of the online personal training company BetterU, Inc. (http://www.fitstep.com). He has a degree in Physical Education and Psychology and has been inventing new training techniques for more than 14 years. Nick is the author of a number of bodybuilding eBooks including “The Best Exercises You’ve Never Heard Of” and “Gluteus to the Maximus: Build a Bigger Butt NOW!”, both available at (http://www.fitness-ebooks.com). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.