If you can't do a push-up, the key may be forgetting for a moment about pushing yourself up. Instead, lower yourself down from a push-up position -- and reap even more benefits. The same trick works for pull-ups and other challenging exercises: That's the power of "negative" reps. Illustration by Angelica Alzona.
How Negative Reps Build Strength
When you do the regular, pushing type of push-up, your muscles perform what's called a concentric contraction: The muscle cells get shorter as they contract. Same idea when your arms pull you up for a pull-up, or when you lift a weight off the floor.
But when you lower yourself (or the weight) down, your muscles perform an eccentric contraction. This means they're trying to stay contracted while they're lengthening. Even though it's the same job in reverse, this is a tougher one for muscle cells to accomplish without being damaged.
That might make eccentric contractions, also known as negative reps, sound like a bad idea. The extra damage causes more soreness, for example. But damage is a normal part of training: A damaged muscle is one that needs to heal, and the healing process is what makes muscles bigger and stronger. Weightlifting, then, is just a habit of carefully damaging your muscles a little bit at a time, and reaping the benefits.
If you have the option of training an exercise either way, it's great to do both: Lift up the weight and put it down -- slowly enough that it feels like you're controlling its descent.
Some Negative Exercises to Try
Even if you can't lift a weight (or your body weight), you can probably control it enough to slow its descent. That's how you turn an impossible exercise into a possible one.
When I first started working towards pull-ups, for example, negatives were a key part of my routine. Assisted pull-ups with a gravitron machine probably helped me build strength, but I didn't start seeing improvement until I did negatives. I would jump to grab the pull-up bar, and then slowly lower myself down. One day I was telling someone I couldn't do real pull-ups, and by way of explanation I took hold of the bar to show that I couldn't pull myself up. Except... I did.
The same technique can work for push-ups, and it's a great option for people who can't do a full push-up. Instead of doing a ton of reps from your knees, start in a plank position and lower yourself down. When your belly is on the ground, get back on all fours and reset. You never have to push yourself up, but you're still training all of the same muscles as if you did.
Another great use for negatives is downhill running. This won't specifically help you with uphill running (we have other suggestions for that) but it will help to prevent the soreness and cramping that can come with downhills in a race. Work downhill running into your routine little by little, and soon you'll be protected from those unwelcome surprises if they turn up in a race or a casual run.
As a side effect, you'll be building more strength that will help your running more generally. You can also take the principle of negative reps and use it for any exercise you find challenging, but make sure to always take precautions for safety if you're attempting something you're not sure you can handle. For example, if you want to try negative squats, make sure you're in a squat rack with the safety bars set appropriately. And no matter what the exercise, never pile on huge amounts of weight that are beyond your ability to control.
The first time you try negatives, you may be sore the next day -- so take it easy and see how it goes. Over time, though, the impossible may very well become possible.