You may recall that skeletal muscles possess three types of strength:
Positive strength, or the ability to raise a weight.
Static, or holding strength.
Negative strength, or the ability to lower a weight.
We are weakest in positive strength and strongest in negative strength. Obviously, we can’t really say we’ve trained to failure until we’ve also exhausted our ability to lower the weight. Only by continuing to lower a weight after completing six positive reps and two forced reps’which will exhaust your positive and static strength levels’can you reach a point of true and absolute momentary muscular failure.
Once you’ve completed your six positives and two forced reps, have your partner, or partners, lift the weight to the top, or peak contracted, position so that you can lower it. You’ll probably be surprised at your ability to continue lowering a weight even after you’ve reached positive failure. The first few negatives will seem very easy, and you’ll be able to lower the weight slowly. The next couple of reps will become difficult, however. The downward movement will pick up speed, and you won’t have as much control. End the set when you can no longer control the descent of the weight, or stop a rep prior to that, as a heavy weight yanking a bodypart out of the contracted position can be dangerous.
On certain exercises involving large and powerful muscles, like the thighs, be very careful. I would advise against doing squats in this manner for obvious safety reasons, and even leg extensions can be dangerous. You may find that the weight you used for six positive reps will be too light for continued negatives. If that’s the case, your partner will have to apply manual resistance as you lower the weight. Do not’I repeat, do not’attempt to halt the downward motion of the weight when you’re doing negatives. The knees tend to be delicate. If you fight against a maximum negative resistance, you could cause severe injury to the knees.
Beginners don’t require negatives, as it is a high-intensity method reserved for ambitious intermediates and advanced bodybuilders. Negatives also can be done in a ‘pure’ style; i.e., they don’t have to be preceded by positive and forced reps. Take a weight that’s at least 40 percent heavier than you would normally use for positive reps, have spotters raise it for you, and lower the weight slowly until you begin to lose control. Make sure your spotters remain alert to what you’re doing so they can grab the weight as soon as you signal for them to do so.
Entire workouts can be done in this fashion or you can combine negatives with positive and forced reps. Be innovative and improvise. For example, you can do the isolation portion of a preexhaust superset in positive/forced/negative fashion and the compound exercise of the same superset in negative style only.
There are endless combinations and ways of employing all these methods so that no two workouts are the same. I would advise against using negatives in every workout. Since the intensity is so high, it could lead to overtraining.
Rest/Pause As we climb steadily up the ladder of intensity, the demand for more brutal workouts increases. The problem for the advanced bodybuilder is compounded by physiological changes that accompany great growth and strength increases. A large, strong muscle contracting intensely and consecutively creates a profound oxygen debt and waste-buildup. As a matter of fact, total oxygen uptake in a muscle working at maximum capacity may increase 30 times. Muscle contractions can, however, become so intense that blood flow’and hence oxygen delivery’is decreased. In effect, then, more time has to be allowed between contractions, or reps, for the vascular system to fill before the next contraction. Thus, the principle of rest/pause training.
Further scientific evidence backing up the basis for rest/pause training can be found in the fine exercise physiology textbook by Edington and Edgerton, The Biology of Physical Exercise:
Blood flow to working muscles does not increase at high work intensities when the duration of contractions is short enough and the duration of relaxation is long enough.
The bodybuilder can overcome the diminished capacity for continued high-intensity contraction by resting up to 10 seconds between reps. This rest/pause will allow blood to bring fuel to the working muscle, as well as rid the muscle of the metabolic by-products. My use of this method involved the selection of a weight that allowed for one maximum rep in a particular exercise. After performing that one rep, I’d put the weight down, rest for 10 seconds and then do another rep. Usually, by the second or third rep I’d have to reduce the weight by 10 percent or have my partner provide just enough assistance to allow another maximum effort.
I would do one set of four reps for each exercise. Never did I do more than three total sets per bodypart. At first I experimented by resting 15 seconds between reps. Other times I rested for seven seconds. Fifteen turned out to be too long and seven seconds too short. I also tried six reps per set, but I found it too taxing, and it immediately led to overtraining. Doing four reps with the 10-second rest/pause, I increased every single exercise by at least 20 pounds per workout until I had improved 66 percent on each one. My size, of course, increased also.
Beginners and intermediates should save this training method for later in their bodybuilding careers, when they need it. Advanced bodybuilders might want to experiment a bit with rest times and number of reps, as I did. Keep in mind, however, that this is one of the most intense and brutal methods of training ever devised. Keep your sets low, and if progress is not immediately and dramatically forthcoming, you have exceeded your body’s ability to cope with this intense form of stress’i.e., you’re overtraining. You must realize that unlike the other methods of training, in which you perform one maximum effort per set, in rest/pause training every rep is maximum. While such effort is highly productive, it is also very, very taxing. Beware!
For upcoming competitive bodybuilders whose continuation in the lifestyle relies heavily on consistent feedback that their efforts are returning increased size and strength, a routine revolving around heavy full and partial reps on basic exercises in the power rack is indicated.
Advanced bodybuilders who have enough ‘critical mass’ to consider entering competition are not as obsessed with making quantum increases in overall muscular size. Their primary concern is to perfect their hard-earned muscular foundation by filling in the gaps and bringing weak parts up to parity with the whole. For them the use of partial-range exercises must be more specific. By the time bodybuilders reach the competitive level, they’re only too painfully aware of weak points. In a well-intended but misguided effort to correct the weak parts, most bodybuilders merely add exercises and sets to their existing regimens. Since most bodybuilders are already overtraining, such an increase in the volume of training will necessitate a decrease in intensity, a further depletion of their recuperative reserves, decreased results, more frustration and the increased likelihood that they will cease training altogether.
The proper approach to overcoming weak points, of course, is not an increase in the amount of work performed but an increase in the intensity of effort. Increased intensity must be attended by a decrease in the duration of the workout or the growth that was stimulated won’t occur. I have found that an extremely effective method of quickly upping intensity output is the principle of partial repetitions performed with a weight that is much heavier than what I would typically utilize with a full-range movement on the same exercise. With this method the lifter performs partial reps only from the midrange, or halfway point, in the exercise.
On all of your exercises the amount of resistance you handle is limited by the weakest point in the range of motion. For example, on barbell curls, because of leverage changes through the range of motion, the effective resistance of the weight on the bar being curled increases to its maximum at the midpoint, whereupon it immediately decreases. So the midpoint of a curl is the weakest range, and the amount of weight used is limited by your midrange strength.
The limitations on how much resistance can be used on an exercise can be overcome by performing certain exercises that extend only to the midpoint. The poundage and the effective overload will rise dramatically. When training for the Mr. Universe contest with my brother Ray as my training partner, I started performing half reps on the incline press with a relatively close grip to fill in a weak point I had in the upper pecs. While my usual full-range presses were performed with 315 to 365 pounds at the most, midrange incline presses allowed me to handle 405 to 455 pounds. Such an overload caused my upper pecs to fill out quickly because of the increased intensity. These midrange reps were only an adjunct to my usual full-range performance on all exercises. The midrange exercises for each bodypart were performed for two sets each. Don’t make the mistake of not using full-range exercises; both are absolute requirements for complete development.
Other areas where we used midrange exercises were biceps and thighs. Once we finished our usual three maximum-intensity full-range sets for biceps, Ray and I would overload the bar for Scott (preacher) curls from our usual 150 pounds for full-range reps to 220 pounds for midrange reps. Using a Scott bench that’s perpendicular to the ground so the resistance didn’t fall off in the top of the movement, one of us would lower the 220-pound bar to the halfway position, where the other’s hands would stop the bar and possibly even give a slight boost to get the mammoth weight started back upward. Once the weight began its ascent, no assistance was given. About five reps performed in this all-out fashion were all we could take. After a set performed in said manner, we’d immediately sit down to avoid falling down! When working our thighs, we’d do our typical maxi- mum preexhaustion cycle of leg extensions followed immediately by leg presses. Then after a few minutes’ rest and a gradual warmup for the lower back with lighter squats, Ray and I would perform one or two sets of midrange squats for up to 800 pounds in the power rack.
The principle of partial repetitions can be used on any bodypart that might be lagging. Ray and I used it for our pecs, thighs and biceps, as we thought those areas needed a little touch-up work at the time. I strongly advise once again that partials serve merely as an adjunct to your usual full-range work. Because of the added overload it imposes on the lagging muscle, it can produce immediate results but only if not overdone. Restrict partial repetitions to those bodyparts that might be lagging, and perform only one exercise for no more than one set per bodypart. Used properly, the principle of partial repetitions will prove a spark that rekindles your progress and enthusiasm. Give it your all, and the rewards will be commensurate.
Technically, a bodybuilder is a bodybuilder, not a weightlifter. As a bodybuilder your primary goal is not to lift heavy weights per se but to achieve high-intensity muscular contractions as a means of inducing optimal growth stimulation. While it is true that to grow larger muscles, one must increase his strength, such is not a bodybuilder’s main purpose. A bodybuilder lifts progressively heavier weights in order to progressively increase the stress/intensity of his workouts’a prerequisite for growing progressively larger muscles. For the bodybuilder, in other words, lifting weights is the means, not the end.
The science of productive bodybuilding exercise starts with a study and understanding of the nature of full, or high-intensity, muscular contractions (the principle of identity). And when we study the nature of muscle tissue, we learn that muscles perform work by contracting’i.e., reducing their length’and that muscles contract in an ‘all or nothing’ fashion, which means that only the number of muscle fibers required to move a resistance are recruited, and they contract with 100 percent of their contractile ability. It’s not that all of the fibers of a given muscle contract a little bit. No, only that percentage of the muscle’s total fibers that are required contract, and they do so with 100 percent of their momentary ability; i.e., all or none.
Since muscles perform work by contracting, the only position in which a muscle could be fully contracted would be in the fully contracted position, but only if sufficient resistance is imposed in the fully contracted position. In order to achieve optimal growth stimulation, a muscle would have to undergo a maximum high-intensity contraction. This could only be achieved as a result of providing a muscle with a resistance sufficient to cause a full contraction of the muscle in the fully contracted position, such as at the top of a curl, the straight-leg, lock-knee position of a leg extension, the contracted positions of the pulldown or pec deck, etc.
It is not cast in stone that a bodybuilder must limit himself merely to lifting weights. Remember, the skeletal muscles all have three levels of ability, the second level of which is the static, or holding of the weight at any point in the range of motion, such as the top, fully contracted position; static strength is considerably greater than positive strength.
The degree of growth stimulation is related to the degree of inroad into functional ability. When you train to positive failure, it might be said that you make only one-third of an inroad into functional ability; therefore, you stimulate one-third of possible growth. If you hold a weight in the fully contracted position to static failure and then finish with a single negative, the degree of inroad into functional ability would be greater, with greater growth stimulation. However, the greater the degree of inroad into functional ability, the greater the inroad into recovery ability; therefore, a decrease in the number of sets may be required to compensate for that greater inroad.
I have many of my in-the-gym clients shift the focus of their efforts from ‘lifting the weights to failure’ to ‘holding the weights to failure’ in the fully contracted position, then lowering under strict negative control. I reasoned that since the fully contracted position is the only position where a full contraction could be achieved and the weight that one can handle there is limited by how much his weaker positive strength can get into that position, let’s eliminate the lifting of the weight entirely. I’ll help my client into the contracted position with a weight heavier than he would handle for positive reps, and he’ll hold that weight until he reaches a point of failure; i.e., until his static strength is exhausted. Then, as he notes his static strength is about to go, he starts a slow, controlled negative; i.e., lowering of the weight.
One of my regular gym clients improved his ability on the leg extension such that in a very short period of time he went from 190 pounds for seven positive reps to 250 pounds (the entire weight stack) for 14 positive reps. He then remained stuck for three workouts at 250 pounds for 14 reps, whereupon I had him do three leg workouts in a row while only holding the weight stack of 250 pounds in the straight-leg, lock-knee position to failure and then lowering slowly. At his first ‘static’ workout he held the stack for about 15 seconds in the lock-knee position, at the second workout he held it for 22 seconds, and at the third workout he held for about 30 seconds. At the next leg workout I had him do conventional positive reps to see if there was a carryover, and he performed 20 full-range positive reps! Quite an improvement, indeed.
Now I have most of my clients perform fully contracted holds to failure followed immediately by a negative on those exercises that permit it’and the results are stunning, to say the least. I attribute my clients’ greater progress recently, in part, to the holds’ making a greater inroad into existing strength than do positives. With conventional high-intensity training, where a set is carried to positive failure, the inroad made into existing ability is nominal compared to a set carried with a heavier weight to ‘holding failure’including a negative. Why? Because, as stated earlier, the positive (or raising) strength is your weakest level. Training to positive failure leaves considerable static and negative strength intact.
As with the peak-contraction principle, the exercises where this technique may be employed most successfully are isolation exercises; i.e., those involving rotary movement around a one-joint axis and that provide resistance in the fully contracted position. For example, the pec deck, machine lateral raises, the leg extension, the leg curl and the calf raise. The one compound exercise on which I’ve used static holds is the close-grip, palms-up pulldown. The best machines to use are Nautilus, since they were designed to provide full-range variable resistance, with close to perfect resistance in the fully contracted position. On most exercises where I have my training clients do fully contracted holds, I select a weight that is sufficiently heavy so they can hold it in the fully contracted position for a maximum of approximately eight to 12 seconds on upper-body exercises and 15 to 30 seconds on lower-body exercises; then they have to lower it under strict control.
In the beginning I had my clients perform two holds with two negatives, but now I have found they do better with one hold and negative, and at times, rather than have them perform the holds without the positives, I vary their workouts and have them perform a set to positive failure followed immediately by a hold to failure. And this works very well.
The proper progressive application of these training principles to your high-intensity training program will allow you to grow stronger from every single workout, without any breach in such progress, until you have reached the upper limits of your genetic potential.
Editor’s note: For more information on the teachings of Mike Mentzer, visit www.mike mentzer.com or see the new Heavy Duty ad elsewhere in this issue. IM