Well Being: The power of negative training

Ellington Darden, 70, is an exercise scientist who has written nearly 50 books about bodybuilding.
Ellington Darden, 70, is an exercise scientist who has written nearly 50 books about bodybuilding.
Posted: May 18, 2014

Not many authors are brave enough to invite an audience to assess the validity of their claims. But that's exactly what Ellington Darden did one night recently at Main Line Health & Fitness in Bryn Mawr.

Darden was there as the guest of Main Line H&F owner Roger Schwab. The two men enjoy a friendship that stretches back to the days when Darden worked for the late Arthur Jones, helping develop Nautilus exercise machines, which Schwab was one of the first to adopt.

Darden, 70, is an exercise scientist with a doctorate who has written nearly 50 books about bodybuilding, nutrition, and the science of physioculture. He lives in Florida, but speaks with a folksy Texas drawl that makes listening to him fun.

His latest book, The Body Fat Breakthrough, invites readers to "tap the muscle-building power of negative training and lose up to 30 pounds in 30 days."

That's the claim Darden put before the audience: Was it legit, he asked, to that people could lose a pound of fat a day?

Before the audience could respond, he showed before-and-after photos of people who had done just that, as well as citing the results of studies he conducted at Gainesville Health & Fitness in Florida.

Fat loss and muscle gain can be achieved simultaneously, Darden writes.

For example, Darden's first and second Gainesville research groups involved 44 subjects (20 men and 24 women), and lasted for 12 weeks. His most successful subject lost 80 pounds of fat in 80 days; two lost 60 pounds in 60 days; four lost 50 pounds in 50 days; six lost 40 pounds in 40 days; and seven lost 30 pounds in 30 days. In addition, over 50 days, the three top losers of fat trimmed an average of more than nine inches from their waists.

As for muscle-building, each member of that initial 44-person test panel added, on average, nearly 10 pounds of muscle in 12 weeks, or nearly a pound of muscle a week.

The key to success? Negative training.

In this type of training, the focus of exertion is on the negative phase of an exercise, mostly when you are lowering the weight. For instance, when you curl a barbell, the positive phase is when you lift the weight from below your waist to the top of your chest. The negative phase is when you lower the weight from the top of your chest to below your waist.

The anabolic cognoscenti have long known that negative resistance is a superior route to rapid results. That's because when a contracted muscle is lengthened or stretched, as happens during the negative phase, the bonds of muscle fiber are more readily broken, resulting in more of the micro-tears that trigger a cascade of growth- and strength-building hormones.

When Darden and I spoke later, he offered a homespun illustration that was eminently understandable to me, a runner.

"If a donkey carried you to the top of a hill and you ran down a couple of times, you'd be unbelievably sore 48 hours later. Why? Because, for your legs, running downhill is negative exertion. Now, if you ran up the hill as fast as you could, and the donkey carried you down, you'd work your heart and lungs hard, and you'd feel a burn, but you wouldn't be sore afterward."

Darden's test subjects achieved the results trumpeted in his book with the help of X-Force machines from Sweden that automatically increase the negative load. There are only two places in the nation where such machines are available: Gainesville and Main Line Health & Fitness.

But what to do if you don't live nearby? Darden recommends a do-it-yourself alternative that's almost as effective. He calls it 30-30-30.

Example: Instead of doing a set of 10 relatively rapid curls, he advised me to cut the weight by about 20 percent and do only one and a half reps - negative, positive, negative. The catch: Each phase must be done slowly, ideally for 30 seconds. In other words, I should lower the weight over 30 seconds, then lift it over 30 seconds, then lower it again for 30 seconds. "It's very hard," Darden said, "and I promise you'll be sore."

Craig Stevens, a professor of exercise physiology at West Chester University, knows of Darden's work. He agrees that during the eccentric or negative phase of an exercise, one can handle more weight, which will have "a greater training effect."

Stevens believes Darden's conclusions are "logical," but says the evidence he cites is mainly anecdotal, and needs more study. He's also curious about how test subjects are faring after reaching their goals. Were they able to stick with the arduous training and maintain their fat loss and muscle gain, he wonders, without the close supervision and motivation provided during the trial period? If not, the regimen may not be practical for average folks.

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Read Art Carey's recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing. art.carey@gmail.com

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