Building Muscle with Eccentrics

By: Tony Schwartz

If you have any strength training experience at all in an effort to gain muscle or strength, you know that the goal is usually to lift very heavy weights. While this goal is certainly good for those looking to add strength and mass, it should be noted that the actual lifting of heavy weights is not the main stimulus for muscle building. Instead, building muscle seems to be induced primarily by the lowering of weights.

You see, most exercises include three distinct phases:

1. Concentric
This is the actual lifting portion of the exercise. This is when you curl the bar up during a biceps curl or push yourself up during a push-up.

2. Eccentric (Negative)
This is the lowering portion of the exercise. When you lower yourself after completing a pull-up or lower the bar to the chest in a bench press you are performing an eccentric, or negative, muscle action.

3. Isometric
This is the portion of the lift where the weight is not moving at all. For most traditional weight training exercises this portion of the movement only lasts for a very short time.

The interesting thing is that exercise scientists have determined that most muscle damage occurs during the lowering (eccentric) portion of the movement. Since we know that muscle damage is what stimulates muscle gain, this has led many to focus on the eccentric phase in their muscle building efforts.

Whether or not this is a good strategy is still open to debate, but the vast majority of scientific evidence and personal trial and error has led most to believe that emphasizing the eccentric portion of an exercise, while still performing the other two phases, may lead to better muscle gains.

There are several strategies for doing this. The most popular and easiest (no coincidence there) is to simply slow down the eccentric portion of a movement. It is usually recommended that the eccentric phase take anywhere from 2-8 seconds. The exact duration will depend on your specific goals and the movement you are using.

Another option for prioritizing the eccentric portion of the lift is to use eccentric-only reps. For instance, in the bench press you would simply lower the weight to your chest and then have a partner assist in lifting the weight (concentric phase). Another useful fact is that you are stronger eccentrically than you are concentrically. What this means is that you can use more weight for an eccentric-only lift than you can for a traditional lift which includes all phases. The upsides to this method are huge, but so are the downsides. Eccentric-only lifts can lead to rapid strength and size gains, but the potential for injury is huge since you are using such heavy weights. For this reason I seldom recommend eccentric-only lifts with more than you can safely lift on your own, unless it is included in a properly designed training program under the guidance of a professional strength coach.

There are many other ways to incorporate eccentrics into your training program, but I think you get the idea. Just remember, if you are struggling with how to gain muscle its not just how much you lift, its also how much you lower.

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