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Study shows how the ‘negative’ leads to positive weightlifting

“Mun-A? What is mun-A?

When the articulation of the “A” includes a lengthy stress, it was the intentionally incorrect way a high school teacher of mine said the synonym for cash.

But only when he introduced a nine-week course he taught four times a year, year after year: An Introduction to Money. The mispronunciation became legendary.

Not to mention a great example of teaching genius.

Kids mimicked the mispronunciation; they actually practiced to see who could do the best Mr. Warren Seip impersonation. An impersonation that invariably included the answer to the question.

An answer Seip wanted his students to remember. An answer I first heard as part of an impersonation after a pick-up basketball game three years before I ever took the course and can still repeat verbatim 48 years later.

What is money? A way to exchange goods and services.

There are many things about health and fitness I’d like you to remember for just as long, so let me ask and answer the following question. “Weightlift-ING? What is weightlift-ING?”

The most versatile way to engage in exercise.

That holds true whether you’re 18 or 80. Whether you want to build muscle, maintain it, or not lose it; drop body fat; gain endurance or cardiovascular fitness; improve your mood or lessen depression.

A well-concocted weightlifting program can produce any single one of those and usually a few concurrently.

Testament to that versatility comes from a study in the Sept. 15, 2022 issue of the European Journal of Applied Physiology.

Japanese researchers recruited 42 young adults who had never lifted weights and had them do hardly any at all.

Two times a week for five weeks, 14 did just 3 sets of 10 repetitions of just one exercise, the dumbbell biceps curl - and only with only their dominant arm. Two other groups of 14 did even less and with only their dominant arm: 3 sets of 10 half-reps.

One half-rep group only did what’s called the positive phase of the lift, the lifting of the weight from the start point to the most upwards point, about a 50-degree angle between a raised forearm and a straight upper arm. (Researchers would then take the dumbbell from the subjects and return it to them once their arm returned to the start position.)

The other half-rep group did what’s called the negative phase of the lift, receiving the dumbbell at the most upwards point of the biceps curl motion and lowering it. (Researchers would then take the dumbbell and return it to the subjects as soon as their arm reached the top position.)

Three to nine days after the last weightlifting session, the researchers measured the subjects’ trained biceps muscles and had them repeat the initial baseline strength test.

They found the subjects who only performed the negative half-reps had gained nearly as much strength as those who did full reps - and the size of their biceps muscles actually grew more. While those performing the full reps increased biceps muscle size by 5.4%, the negative-only group averaged 1.8% more.

While in the world of statistics, the difference in these two averages is not considered significant, don’t forget the researchers’ help meant the negative-only group expended only half the effort.

Moreover, the average size increase in the biceps of the positive-only group was 33% less than the negative-only group - meaning it’s the lowering of the weight that’s of greater benefit.

Which is why one of the study’s researchers, Ken Nosaka, told Sarah Berry of the Sydney Morning Herald “Many people are wasting their opportunity to get stronger and get fitter by removing the [negative] phase.”

While Nosaka’s observation is spot-on, his use of “removing” requires clarification.

He’s not really suggesting, I believe, for you to go to the gym with a partner and do entire workouts of only lowering weight. Not only would that be impractical, but also more likely to lead to injury and the sort of down-to-the-bone muscle soreness that could cause you to skip your next session.

What he’s really calling for is a change of lifting style to increase its effectiveness.

Too many lifters, especially young ones, beginners, and ego-driven muscleheads do the negative phase of a lift, the lowering, almost like a skydiver’s free-fall - with little tension on the targeted muscle. That creates momentum for the lifting of the weight, thereby allowing you to perform more repetitions or more weight.

But this study suggests lifting in this manner doesn’t create what all lifters should be seeking: maximum activation of the targeted muscles.

Yet even if you never set foot in a weight room to lift weights, focusing on the negative phase of common movements has benefits, Nosaka explains.

“Just a sitting on the couch very slowly is good exercise. Then if you need more challenge you can sit down with one leg.”