Gain strength and put on muscle by focusing on the eccentric phase of your lifts. It is well accepted that the muscle lengthening motion of an exercise triggers hypertrophy the most, and doing eccentric-enhanced training is a dependable method of gaining strength at the same time.
Eccentric-enhanced training is so effective for the following reasons:
• The eccentric phase is when the muscle is lengthening and the concentric phase is when the muscle is shortening. For example, the eccentric phase of a squat, biceps curl, or deadlift is the lowering motion. You are stronger during the eccentric phase of any lift—as much as 1.75 times as strong as during the concentric phase. Therefore, you can lift heavier weights eccentrically than you can concentrically, which allows you to train higher threshold motor units.
• The eccentric phase causes more muscle damage and leads to greater rates of protein synthesis post-workout. Training that includes a concentric phase as well as an eccentric phase, especially an eccentric-enhanced phase (such as one with a longer time under tension) will cause the most muscle damage.
• The eccentric phase uses less energy or ATP than the concentric motion. This means you can perform more work eccentrically and this has implications for body composition and muscle development.
With those basics out of the way, let’s look at a study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise that compared eccentric-enhanced training with traditional training. Training was twice a week for 16 weeks, and the traditional protocol involved two sets of 10 reps at 75 percent of the 1RM using four exercises for the major muscle groups. The eccentric-enhanced training involved a unique training scheme. Participants performed three sets of 10 using a weight of 50 percent of the 1RM. They performed the concentric portion of the lift bilaterally and the eccentric portion unilaterally, alternating between left and right limbs for each repetition and performing five eccentric contractions per limb per set.
Results showed that the eccentric-enhanced group had greater increases in strength, especially at higher movement speeds, which indicates greater fast-twitch muscle development. There was also evidence of greater muscle development in the quadriceps from the eccentric-enhanced training than traditional. Cross-sectional area of the vastus lateralis increased in the eccentric group only.
Other studies confirm that eccentric-enhanced training will produce greater hypertrophy and preferentially grow the fast-twitch fibers, which are of course best for maximal hypertrophy since these fibers can grow more than slow-twitch fibers. One well known study that compared concentric-only and eccentric-only training showed that at the end of 12 weeks, the fast-twitch type II fibers increased 10 times more in the eccentric-only group than the concentric-only group. The slow-twitch fibers didn’t increase significantly in either group. Of course, as mentioned above, training that includes both motions but is eccentric-enhanced is better for maximal strength and muscle gains.
There are various advanced methods to perform eccentric training with special equipment, but the easiest way is to program and then modify the tempo of the eccentric phase of every lift you perform. For example, instead of spending one second on the up phase of a bicep curl and then just dropping the weight with gravity, you can spend one second on the up and four or six seconds lowering the weight.
Playing with various tempos will allow you to train higher threshold motor units, trigger protein synthesis, and gain size. More advanced methods of focusing on the eccentric phase include using special hooks with added weight that will hang on the end of a barbell and drop off when the barbell reaches the lowest point. This results in a lighter load for the up phase of the lift.
Aside from producing greater gains in strength and size, eccentric-enhanced training also provides variety and novelty to workouts. For example, in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise study, participants rated the eccentric-enhanced protocol as less difficult than the traditional protocol on a rating of perceived exertion scale. They also found it more enjoyable, despite having it “feel” easier.
Take away the understanding that eccentric-enhanced training is ideal for all populations because it can trigger the most muscle building and strength gains for the work done, but it’s not prohibitively difficult. Due to the many variations available with tempo and special equipment, focusing on the eccentric phase will help athletes, body builders, the general population, and the deconditioned to get better results. Never let the weight just drop with gravity!
Raj, I., Bird, S., et al. Effects of Eccentrically Biased Versus Conventional Weight training in Older Adults. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. December 2012. 44(6), 1167-1176.