A new study shows that it’s possible to gain muscle from just putting weights down, without having to lift them in the first place. While this may seem like a surprising revelation, it’s just restating something we’ve known for a long time: the negative (lowering-down) part of an exercise works your muscles, too.
You might recognise this as the same concept of negative pullups. If you’re not able to do a full pullup yet, 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 yourself up, you start at the top and lower yourself down.
Doing this works the same muscles involved in pulling up, and the stronger you get, the more you can control the movement. On your first day, you might hold on as hard as you can but find your body weight quickly dragging you toward the floor. Once you get good at them, you’ll be able to lower yourself slowly, taking maybe 10 seconds to complete the negative. Keep at it long enough, and soon you’ll be able to do a full pullup.
What did the study find?
The study that’s currently being passed around is this one, which involved young adults who hadn’t done any weight training in the previous 6 months. There were 14 people in each group, and they either trained with both the concentric (up) portion of the lift, the eccentric (down) portion, or both, or neither.
The people who only lowered the weights saw similar strength increases as the people who both lifted and lowered the weights. The researchers noted that technically you can consider them as having gained the same strength from only doing half the work. This resulted in headlines like “Less gym time, same results” even though that’s not how time works. Ten reps of up-and-down is going to take roughly the same amount of time as 10 reps of just down.
How do you lower the weight down without lifting it?
Before we get into whether eccentric reps are useful, and what caveats you should know before you try them, I’d like to answer one of the common questions that has come up in discussions of this study. Namely: how do you only lower a weight? Doesn’t it have to get lifted somehow for you to be able to lower it down?
Yes, it does. There are many, many ways to get around this seeming impossibility. Look around the gym and you’ll notice a variety of ways people isolate or emphasise eccentric contractions:
- Pullups: Use a bench to step up to the top of the movement, then lower yourself down.
- Curls: “Cheat” the curl by swinging your hips to get the bar up. Then lower it back down.
- Pushups: Get on your hands and knees, then straighten your legs so you’re in a high plank position. Then bend your arms to lower down, and repeat.
- Single dumbbell exercises: Use two hands to move the weight into place, and then lower the weight with just one.
- Machines like leg press: Straighten both legs against the resistance, then take one leg out of contact with the machine and return the machine to its starting position using just the other leg.
In these examples, you’ll typically lower the weight slowly. (Dropping it straight down doesn’t require your muscles to do very much work.)
You can also emphasise the eccentric with a weight that isn’t too heavy to lift. For example, Romanian deadlifts. You start at the top (having either deadlifted the bar from the floor, or picked it up from a rack) and then you lower it down slowly until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Then you stand up quickly, and lower it down slowly once again. These are usually done with a weight that is lighter than your usual, normal deadlifts.
Why eccentric reps aren’t a cheat code
Eccentric reps are useful, but they aren’t some magical key to more efficient training.
Remember that a normal lifting session has you lifting the weight up and down. You’re already getting the benefit of the eccentric, even if you are also lifting the weight up. Regular up-and-down reps are usually simpler to do, as you may have realised when you read the “how to” list above. Stepping to the top of a pullup, then slowly lowering yourself down, takes more time and is honestly more annoying than simply going up-down-up-down for the required number of reps.
So we use eccentric reps for specific reasons at specific times. Cheat curls are a great example: you might do regular curls and then cheat the last few reps (cheat up, strictly lower down) to get a few more reps in. Or we do negative pullups when we can’t do the up-down kind yet.
There are also different schools of thought on how much to emphasise the eccentric in regular up-down training. When doing deadlifts, for example, some people drop (or very quickly lower) the weight once they get to the top, while some lower the weight slowly down for the extra benefit of the eccentric. Both have their advantages: lowering down may give you slightly more gains, while dropping the weight may result in less fatigue, allowing you to do more sets or train with heavier weights.
And now that we’ve brought up fatigue, there’s another important thing to know: eccentric reps cause more muscle damage than the concentric. This is both a plus (more damage means more healing and potentially more growth) and a minus (more damage means you’re more likely to be sore, and in some cases may be more likely to contribute to injuries).
So should you lower the weights down? It’s definitely a training strategy worth considering! But you also don’t need to choose. For example, it’s pretty common to do normal squats on one day, and squats with a slow lowering phase on a different 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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