Eccentrics: Elevate Your Training by Lowering Weights
The Lowdown on Eccentrics
There are two parts to most weight-bearing movements the body can perform. There is the concentric phase, when the muscle is shortening and the weight is being lifted. Then there is the eccentric phase, which is specific to the lowering phase of an exercise when the muscle is lengthening. If you’ve heard of performing “negative” repetitions of an exercise, that is referring to an exercise where the eccentric phase of the movement is being focused on. An example of this would be performing pull-up “negatives,” where you get into the “up” position of the pull-up with assistance, then you lower yourself without assistance, slow and controlled.
Several decades’ worth of research has shown eccentric training protocols to yield greater increases in strength when compared to concentric training protocols 1. There is greater muscular tension under load during eccentric contractions, when fast-twitch fibers are selectively recruited while the lifter is resisting the pull of gravity to sustain their muscular tension. There is also evidence that previously inactive motor units are recruited during the eccentric contraction2. In fact, our muscles are actually stronger during eccentric muscle actions! This phenomenon is referred to as muscle elasticity, triggered by the muscle spindle – also known as a “stretch reflex”3.
Benefits of Eccentric Training
When performed correctly and safely, eccentric exercise may have several benefits including:
- Improved muscle coordination and balance
- Increased strength in the entire range of motion of each joint
- Increased muscle power and sport performance
- Increase in the cross-sectional area of type II muscle fibers
- Recovery from tendon injuries
The greatest difference in strength-favoring eccentric contractions is seen when both eccentric and concentric contractions are performed at a high velocity. In a study4, two eight-week strength-training phases were conducted on 26 untrained individuals (male and female) split evenly into a fast-velocity and a slow-velocity intervention groups. The first eight-week phase was the eccentric training phase on one arm, and the second eight weeks was concentric on the opposite arm. The study findings were consistent with previous research, confirming that eccentric training was superior to concentric training for strength increases.
The study also showed that fast velocity eccentric training resulted in the greatest increases in eccentric torque. Fast and slow eccentric sessions were most beneficial for producing increases in concentric torque.
Eccentric training has been shown to cause greater neuromuscular adaptations than concentric training, even if force levels are equated during training. Research showed that exclusively eccentric submaximal training improved eccentric and isometric strength significantly (more than concentric training) and yielded greater neural adaptations 5. This study and others have proposed that exclusive eccentric training may increase the amount of and further activate satellite cells when compared to concentric training2, 5, 6.
The optimal way to introduce exclusive eccentric training into a program has not yet been established, but the research shows this training technique can safely be introduced to a variety of populations including young and old, male and female, etc., to significantly improve muscle strength6. Tempo reps with slow lowering phases are a great way to incorporate eccentric exercise into your regimen. I have personally experienced significant strength improvements from incorporating a few eccentric exercises into my regimen, especially with the squat. I recommend starting with this technique by incorporating three-count lowering phases of a few exercises per week. Just make sure you grab a spotter if you are going to try heavy eccentric reps for something like bench press!
- Toigo et al., 2006. New fundamental resistance exercise determinants of molecular and cellular muscle adaptations. Eur J Appl Physiol. 97:643–663.
- Schoenfeld et al., B. J., 2010. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24(10):2857–2872.
- Higbie et al., 1996. Effects of concentric and eccentric training on muscle strength, cross-sectional area, and neural activation. J Appl Physiol. 81:2173–2181.
- Farthing et al., 2003. The effects of eccentric and concentric training at different velocities on muscle hypertrophy. Eur J Appl Physiol. 89:578–586.
- Hortoba´gyi et al., 1996. Greater initial adaptations to submaximal muscle lengthening than maximal shortening. J Appl Physiol. 81:1677–1682.
- Isner-Horobeti et al., 2013. Eccentric exercise training: modalities, applications and perspectives. Sports Medicine. 43(6): 483–512.