Rather than speeding through strength training exercises, I’ve learned it’s best to slow down and focus my movements. Whether you are pushing, pulling, lifting, or lowering, there are multiple parts to every exercise. In strength training exercises, there are three distinct parts: concentric, eccentric and isometric.
What are the parts of an exercise?
It doesn't matter whether you're doing pushups, squats, or any other activity. Julie Johnstone, NPCP, an Atlanta-based instructor for Club Pilates, says, “Every movement has a concentric and an eccentric phase.” When muscles are curled or contracted, that’s a concentric movement. But when muscles are extended, that’s an eccentric movement. In isometric movement, muscles are under tension, but do not move. (Think: wall sits or high planks.)
Imagine doing a bicep curl. When you lift the weight to your shoulder, your muscles contract in a concentric movement. But when you lower the weight back down, your muscles extend in an eccentric movement. If you were to do a static bicep hold and use both arms to hold weights at a 90 degree angle, that’d be an isometric movement.
Concentric, eccentric, and isometric training are essential for any well-rounded workout plan. But there are benefits to focusing on each part individually.
What are concentric movements?
When the muscle is shortened, it’s in the concentric stage. (Imagine sitting up in a sit-up or pushing up in a bench press.) Concentric movements work against the force of gravity, like when you’re pushing up from a lowered push up or standing up from a squat. Johnstone says, “It may seem as though the concentric part of the exercise is the hardest because it is the part of the movement where the weight is lifted, but the eccentric phase is equally as important.” These actions are also known as “positive” movements. This motion improves strength, speed, and power.
Why focus on concentric training?
Because you’re moving against gravity, it’s difficult to isolate concentric movements, but there are many benefits to doing so.
- Less damage. Concentric movements don’t damage the muscles as much as eccentric movements do. This also means you gain less strength per rep as compared to eccentric movements, because in order for the muscle to get stronger, you need to damage it.
- Decreased soreness. Because there’s less muscle damage with concentric training than eccentric training, there’s less muscle soreness—and recovery accelerates. A good time to use concentric training is right before a competition or race when you don’t want to be sore. For example, if you’re doing deadlifts, simply drop the weight instead of lowering it to the ground. Just make sure you’re on shock-absorbing floors.
- Increased power. Isolating your concentric movements can also help improve your power. Concentric movements executed with speed and good form help build fast-twitch muscles. These muscles support power for short, quick bursts of energy for activities such as sprinting or powerlifting.
What are eccentric movements?
When the muscle is lengthened, it’s in the eccentric stage. Imagine lowering your torso back to the ground in a sit-up or lowering back down in a push-up. Eccentric movements work with the force of gravity, like when you’re slowly lowering yourself from a pull-up bar or slowly bringing a barbell down from a deadlift. “During the eccentric phase, we build strength in the muscle in a more lengthened position," Johnstone says. "A muscle that is equally strong at different ranges of motion and not just in the shortened phase will be better able to protect joints and withstand injury." These motions, also known as “negative” movements, can increase muscle mass and strength.
Why focus on eccentric training?
The majority of muscle damage, which is essential for muscle growth, occurs in the eccentric stage. While it takes longer to recover from eccentric training, anyone can benefit from focusing on this part of the workout.
- Build muscle. While both movements increase muscle mass, eccentric exercises promote the growth of skeletal muscles more than concentric exercises.
- Limit injury. Strengthening your tendons and ligaments can decrease your risk of injury. Eccentrics may also help reduce the risk of muscle strains and tears.
- Increase flexibility. Eccentric contractions can also make muscle fibers grow and physically get longer. Longer muscles increase flexibility which helps limit harm.
Need a good activity? Try Pilates. “Pilates is especially good for focusing on the eccentric phase because of the feedback from the springs on the apparatus," Johnstone says. "The spring lengthens during the concentric phase of the movement and shortens during the eccentric phase. If you pay too little attention to the eccentric phase, the spring will snap shut. In order to get the spring to close as quietly as it opens and maintain control over the exercise, you must work just as hard to resist the spring as it shortens." The springs' constant feedback makes it easier to ensure you're giving equal attention to the eccentric phase of the movement—and that, in turn, builds strength evenly.
What are isometric movements?
When the muscle is contracted but without movement, it’s in the isometric stage. Imagine holding a wall sit or holding a plank. Simply put, an isometric movement is a static hold. While isometric exercises can develop strength, there’s no increase in muscle mass or power without movement.
Why focus on isometric training?
Isometrics force you to fully engage your core. These holds increase balance, core strength, and posture. When you’re doing a handstand hold or hanging from the pull-up bar, you’re using your muscles to hold completely still. While not every exercise will include an isometric portion, you can add an isometric element to most by adding a pause mid-movement. It's just that simple to make your workout even more effective.
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