One thing you might not realise about strength training is that the lowering phase of your workouts is crucial. Here’s how to use eccentric training to build muscle.
Strength training is key when it comes to building muscle. But if you want to maximise your strength gains, there’s more to it than just lifting and lowering the weights. For example, the number of sets and reps and the speed at which you lift will influence how your body adapts to the training.
One other way of building more strength is to focus on eccentric training. In fact, it’s scientifically proven to induce more muscle damage which in turn leads to them growing back bigger and stronger.
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What is eccentric training?
“There are three phases in all dynamic exercises,” explains Lianna Swan, personal trainer at fitness app Shreddy. These are the eccentric, isometric and concentric phases, she explains. “Let’s imagine the movements in a squat. From standing, you start to lower down by bending at your knees and hinging at the hips slightly – this is the eccentric phase. As you hit parallel, the small pause at the bottom of your squat as you change direction is an isometric hold. The big drive up is your concentric movement.
During the eccentric phase, the muscle is lengthened while under load. Typically, this happens on the downward motion in an exercise: thinking back to the squat, the more your knees bend, the more your glutes and quads stretch while also being put under resistance of your bodyweight or the dumbbell you’re holding. In a bicep curl, your biceps lengthen as your arms lower to your hips. In a Romanian deadlift, your hamstrings stretch as you take the weight down to the floor.
What are the benefits of eccentric training?
“In training, we are used to measuring the weight of the load that we can move through the concentric phase of the movement,” notes Swan. Think about how often we see people deadlifting big numbers but dropping it at the top of the movement, or rushing through the lowering phase as they want to get the weight back off the floor as quickly as possible. “However, it has been found that focusing on the eccentric portion of your lifts can significantly improve both muscular strength and size.”
One of the simple reasons for this is because it “increases the time that your muscles are under tension for. Imagine performing a pull-up and holding your weight at the top of the bar before slowly lowering down – you are working your muscles for a prolonged period of time [compared to moving up and down quickly],” explains Swan.
Swan also notes that slowing a movement down to increase eccentric load can “build a better mind-to-muscle connection”. In a study published in the Journal Of Applied Physiology, researchers found that five weeks of eccentric training of the trapezius muscle (the upper shoulder) increased “muscle excitability” – that is how easy it is for a muscle to be ‘activated’. That suggests that eccentric training can actually improve neural pathways to the muscles.
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All of this leads to more muscle damage. While that might sound scary, it’s actually a good thing. Based on the science that the more tears you create, the stronger your muscles will grow back, eccentric training has been shown to greater increase strength and size compared to other forms of training.
A 2017 review of the literature around eccentric training, from the Sports Medicine journal, found a greater increase in type two fibre – those responsible for power and strength – when comparing eccentric with concentric training. “Eccentric training may stimulate anabolic signalling to a greater extent than concentric or traditional resistance training,” researchers concluded.
Be warned: because eccentric training damages the muscle fibres to a greater extent, it has been shown to increase DOMS. “After a series of unaccustomed eccentric contractions we not only become fatigued, but our muscles remain weak for days, and they become stiff and sore the day after the exercise,” write researchers in an American College of Sports Medicine review. “However, such damage may well be the necessary precursor for triggering the adaptation process that follows.” Essentially, no pain, no gain.
How to do eccentric training
Control the weight
“Think of eccentric training as all about controlling the weight on the way back down,” says Swan. “This is a great way of progressively overloading your training as an alternative to adding extra weight.” The next time you’re tempted to fly through your hip thrusts, overhead presses or seated rows, slow down. Work against gravity to keep the weight lowering down slowly.
Do it in every session
“I would recommend adding eccentric training methods to one or two exercises per session,” says Swan. “Choose a compound and an accessory lift each session, and work on slowing the movement down.” For example, in a lower body workout you might focus on eccentric squats and eccentric hamstring curls. It’s tough, hence why you shouldn’t focus on extending the eccentric movement in every single exercise. That doesn’t mean forget about your downward motion in the other reps – technique is still crucial.
All of that extra muscle damage won’t build you any strength or size if you don’t rebuild them properly. That means eating enough protein and carbs to refuel post-workout, getting enough sleep and leaving enough time between sessions (rest days are crucial).
Looking to build more muscle? Try one of our at-home video classes which use a range of techniques to help you get stronger.
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