Let me explain. When we do an exercise like a squat or a bicep curl, there are two phases. There’s the concentric phase, which is the lifting (or the curling/raising) portion of the move, which involves the muscle shortening. And the eccentric phase, which is all about lowering the weight down, and is when the muscle lengthens.
When we think of building strong muscles, we typically focus on the lifting portion, and often consider lowering the weight back down to be just about returning it to the starting position so we can lift it again. But multiple studies have established that eccentric-focused exercises build more strength than concentric, and also more strength than moves that contain equal parts eccentric and concentric.
“Among fitness professionals, the benefits of increasing the time spent in the eccentric portion of a lift (which will increase ‘time under tension’) are well known,” says Mark Bohannon, certified personal trainer and senior vice president of North American operations at Ultimate Performance. Eccentric training can help you break through strength plateaus, and aid in a rehabilitation program, he says. "As a result, eccentric weight training is considered to be the base of any progressive strength-training program.”
Recently, even more evidence has emerged about just how impactful eccentric training can be, especially in terms of efficiency. A February 2022 study from researchers at Edith Cowan University in Australia found that doing just three seconds of an eccentric move five times a week for four weeks increased strength by 10 percent. That’s one minute of exercise over the course of a month!
In November, those same researchers executed a different study comparing eccentric and concentric strength training, and found that study participants who did half as many eccentric exercises as participants who did concentric-eccentric moves built a similar amount of strength. What’s more, the people who just did eccentric exercises increased their muscle thickness more than the other group.
One reason for this difference is that eccentric exercise requires your muscles to fire up no matter what, while in concentric exercises you can get away with supplementing strength with momentum. Eccentric exercises also cause more micro-tears in your muscles, which is what spurs muscles to grow as they repair themselves.
So how to implement this knowledge into your workouts? Start by playing with tempo. For example, in a bicep curl, raise the weight for a count of one second, but lower it for a count of three. You can apply the same formula to squats, sit-ups, and other concentric-eccentric moves.
“By slowing down the eccentric portion of a lift to, for example, three seconds, it will challenge your muscles significantly, which will force them to get bigger and you to get stronger,” Bohannon says. That’s a pretty good reason to get low.
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