Control the Negative: your back will thank you

There’s plenty of negative out there we can’t control, but the negative I’m talking about we can. And we need to do it better. I’m talking about the eccentric phase of our daily movements. Most of us know this from the weight room as the lowering of the weight after lifting it. Or, as the extension after the flexion, controlling against the pull of gravity.

For safe and effective exercise, the negative of the movement is every bit as important as the positive. AND, where safety is concerned, it may be even more important. This is because our motor control system call on fewer muscle fibers to lower a weight than to lift it. Since the resistance is the same in both directions, that means the negative movement is actually more taxing than the positive. That’s why eccentric workouts may result in more muscle soreness than concentric ones.

In the gym, this lack of eccentric control usually sounds like a weight stack slamming down on the rack or a barbell bouncing on the mat. And this “letting go” is more than just poor form; it’s dangerous. And it may even be injurious if this habit finds its way into our everyday eccentric movements like sitting down, bending over, reaching out or tipping/twisting. If we’re not careful to control the negative, we may feel that twinge that has us reaching for the ibuprofen or taking some unexpected time off from our favorite activities. Especially if we’re not as young as we used to be.

Here’s the good news: we can control the negative.

Here are 4 typical “lifestyle movements” and the effective way to safely control the negative. Bonus: there’s a balanced mini-workout in each movement.

Sitting down vs lowering yourself to the seat: Don’t just plop yourself with a flop. Activate your core muscles. Press back with your glutes, fire up your quads in a lengthening contraction and touch your bum down gently as you would in a perfect “squat.”

Bending to tie shoes or pluck weeds: Don’t just collapse into the fold. Active your core muscles. Feel the contraction in your abs support your back muscles which are working eccentrically against gravity as you press back with your hips, keeping your head and neck neutral. Don’t let that head collapse either! Lower yourself down keeping that good position, as you soften the knees and activate the glutes. Tie those laces or pluck those weeds and then fire all those muscles in reverse order for a graceful return to standing.

Reaching for that just-beyond-the-fingertips item: This is a tricky one because, while the safest approach would be to square yourself toward your objective and bend forward (as above), this reaching requires you to rotate slightly to one side in order to extend your reach. Abs are key here, too, but it’s your obliques on the reaching side that need to activate in order to control the eccentric/lengthening contraction of the back extensors on one side as they allow you to both bend and reach. Once you’ve grasped your objective, be aware of your position. Reinforce the ab activation as you extend safely to standing.

Tipping to one side from sitting to pet the dog or retrieve the pencil you just dropped: This is my favorite because you desk-jockeys can even turn this into an exercise hack to break up prolonged sitting. Adjust the height of your chair so your feet are flat on the floor. Activate core muscles 360 degrees around the torso (abs, back, obliques plus front, back and sides of hips). Stabilize yourself with your bum cheeks touching the chair. Now lower yourself down to one side, arms extended in a T-shape, cheeks on the seat, until you can reach your objective — pat the dog, pick up the pencil you dropped, or touch the floor. Reverse activation to return to sitting and, just for fun, try it on the other side. I’ll wager you big bucks that it won’t feel the same on both sides. Now, you know what to work on.

Let’s stay healthy and active by calling on our stabilizers to positively control the negative everywhere we can.

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