Eccentric Training For Muscle Gains
Eccentric training is strengthening a muscle in the direction of lowering the weight. In our last blog If You’re Not Seeing Muscle Gains, Do This 1 Thing we discussed the importance of lower loads with control. Many people focus only on the concentric contraction, the action of shortening the muscle. Then they let the weight drop. It should be almost exactly the opposite.
To review, the concentric phase is when the muscle moves a load in the direction of the muscle shortening. The eccentric phase is when the muscle lengthens under load, effectively braking to control the speed of movement. Think of your muscles as giant brake systems that decelerate the resistance.
The real secret to strength and size gains lies in lowering loads with control.
In strength training, we add a load so that the muscle has to contract with more tension. Increasing tension in the muscle is what is going to make it bigger and stronger. Time under tension is key for seeing hypertrophy results. Aim to accelerate through the concentric phase with power, and then put the brakes on to move through the eccentric phase slowly, in the range of 4 seconds every rep.
The eccentric phase is also called the “negative” phase. When we focus solely on this phase, we refer to this as “doing negatives”.
Out of the three types of contractions (concentric, isometric, and eccentric), the eccentric contraction will produce the most muscle soreness and the most muscle mass.
Advanced Eccentric Training Techniques
Note that these are advanced techniques. If your training experience is less than two years, the only eccentric training you need to do is to lower the weight with control as we have discussed. If you have been training for more than two years, here are some additional tips to break strength plateaus and see additional strength gains.
The Two-Up, One-Down technique is useful for many unilateral exercises because you can use your free limb to spot yourself. The idea is that two limbs can perform the concentric contraction. Then let go with the spotting limb and perform the negative with the working limb. Here are some examples of Two-Up, One-Down.
Hamstring Leg Curl: Two legs curl the load to full knee flexion, one leg slowly lowers the load back to knee extension.
Leg extension: Two legs push the load into knee extension, one leg lowers the load slowly back to knee flexion.
Pistol (1-leg) Squat to box: Sit on the box. Use two legs to stand up. Stand on one leg. Lower yourself slowly with one leg to sit on the box.
Shoulder Press: Face sideways in a Smith machine with the bar primarily over one shoulder (the working side). Use both arms to push the bar up, hold the bar up with the working arm, let go with the spotting arm, then lower the bar slowly with the working arm.
Lying Dumbbell Triceps Extension: Use the free arm to help push the dumbbell up into elbow extension. Use one arm to slowly lower the dumbbell into elbow flexion.
Biceps Concentration Curl: Use the free arm to help the working arm curl the dumbbell up. Use only the working arm to slowly lower the dumbbell.
External Rotator Cuff Rotation: Use the free arm to help spot the working arm to pull the cable across into external rotation. Use the working arm only to slowly resist the pull of the cable back to neutral.
One-arm push-ups: Lower yourself with one arm, use both arms to push yourself back up. This is a very helpful way to learn a 1-arm push-up!
Other variations of negatives
Toes-to-Knees Push Ups: If you are unable to do full body push-ups from your toes (in a plank position), you can practice just lowering in the full body position, then place your knees on the floor to push yourself back up. Lower from the toes, push-up from the knees. This is effective for either chest push-ups or triceps push-ups.
Pull-Ups: At Vital Active Living, we simply refer to these as “negatives”. Stand on the bench in front of the pull up bar. Starting at the top of the pull up position, tightly squeeze your muscles isometrically to hold yourself at the top while gently stepping off the bench, transferring your body weight from the bench to your back muscles, then lower yourself slowly for a count of 5 – 6 seconds. Step back up on the bench and repeat. If body weight (unassisted) negatives are too difficult, hang a resistance band from the bar, and stand with one leg in the band. The band will counterbalance some of your body weight for assistance.
Nordic Hamstring Curls: This is essentially an eccentric exercise. In a tall kneeling position with your ankles anchored, keeping hips in extension, contract your hamstrings to slowly lower your body to the floor. Use your arms to push off the floor to return to the kneeling position. This is very difficult!
Jumping off a box: Learning to absorb a landing is an eccentric exercise. It is a very important skill in sports such as gymnastics, figure skating and downhill skiing.
Preset lowering time
Determine your preset lowering time, for example 6 seconds. The number of repetitions you can complete per set will depend upon your ability to maintain your preset lowering time. If you start lowering the weight (or your body) faster than the preset lowering time, you have finished your set.
If your muscles are shaking involuntarily as they do their decelerating work, you are doing it properly! This will lead to the kind of muscle failure that will result in strength and size gains.
How heavy of a load?
Eccentric training is effective for loads anywhere from 70% to 140% of your 1 rep maximum (RM). Start with loads with which you can perform at least 6 concentric contractions.
On the last rep
Typically when strength training, we choose a weight or load according to our desired rep range, whether it is 12 – 15 reps, 10 – 12 reps, or 6 – 8 reps. The weight should be heavy enough that you are reaching concentric failure at the end of the desired range.
A good way to practice an eccentric contraction is after you have performed the last concentric contraction and you have just reached failure, perform the last lowering of the weight very slowly, at least 4 seconds. This takes discipline and concentration. The tendency is to want to finish as quickly as possible because you know you just reached concentric failure. However, train your muscles to hold the contraction, and lengthen slowly. This will extend your time under tension after reaching concentric failure.
After the end of a set
After reaching concentric failure at the end of a set, have a workout partner or coach assist you in completing 2 -3 more reps, allowing you to perform the lowering unassisted. For example, if I can perform 6 dumbbell shoulder presses, my spotter can help me get the dumbbells up and then I can lower them down, for 2 – 3 additional reps.
If you do not have a spotter, another technique is called doing forced reps. For example, in a barbell bicep curl when you can no longer lift the barbell with good form, a forced rep is using momentum to swing the bar up for the express purpose of performing a slow, controlled, eccentric lowering of the bar. Normally, swinging the bar up is considered cheating. But in this case, you have to “cheat” to get the bar up since by definition of concentric failure you can no longer use good form. However you can still lower the bar slowly with good form. You can do 2 – 3 forced reps at the end of a set.
These approaches allow you to exhaust eccentric strength levels after achieving concentric muscular failure.
Work up to doing eccentric-only exercises. These exercises would involve loads greater than 100% of your 1 RM. In other words, you cannot perform a single concentric contraction, like for example, a pull up. But you may be able to lower yourself down from the top.
Allow yourself adequate recovery days from eccentric training. You may need 7 – 10 days before repeating a similar workout. You can mix in lighter workouts of the same muscle group. If you are a competitive athlete training for a race or playing a sport, eccentric training may be best done in the off-season. Eccentric training will increase your strength, but it may temporarily slow down your speed. During the competitive season, you may want to stick with more explosive work to keep your speed up (i.e. plyometrics).
Eccentric training can involve some risk of injury due to the increased loads on the connective tissues. Use loads that are within your control. It is best to have a well-trainer spotter to assist.
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