A workout that focuses on eccentric training is one of the single most productive ways to get stronger, add muscle, prevent injury, and even increase flexibility. That said, you need to know what you’re doing to get the best results from this form of training.
As a review, the eccentric phase of a lift occurs when a muscle contracts while lengthening. This is the down motion of the bench press, biceps curl, or squat. The concentric phase of a lift occurs when a muscle contracts and shortens, as in the up motion of the bench press, biceps curl, or squat. The isometric phase of a lift is when a muscle contracts but no movement occurs, such as during a bench press when supporting the bar at arm’s length or resting it on your chest.
In the 70s Nautilus founder Arthur Jones created a considerable amount of interest in eccentric training in his popular articles that appeared in bodybuilding and athletic fitness magazines. He eventually developed machines that would enable you to perform negative-only repetitions.
At first Jones recommended a training tempo that would involve lifting a weight in two seconds and lowering it in four seconds, but later he began recommending eccentric training contractions with much longer than concentric contractions. In one style of training he called “negative accentuated,” you would lower the resistance in 8 seconds that was heavier than you could lift by concentric contraction alone.
Jones got the ball rolling, and since the publication of his early writings considerable research has been conducted to determine the best ways to use eccentric training. Here are 10 things we know:
1. You are stronger eccentrically. You are stronger during the eccentric phase of any lift—as much as 1.75 times as strong as during the concentric phase! This is why you can lower more weight in the bench press or deadlift than you can raise. As such, to overload a muscle eccentrically you must use a longer eccentric contraction or use more weight than you can lift concentrically.
2. The eccentric phase of every lift should be performed under control. For strength and mass gains, you never want to ignore the eccentric motion of an exercise and let the weight fall with gravity. Lower the weight in a controlled fashion and follow a prescribed tempo (a specific number of seconds to lower the weight).
3. Eccentric-enhanced lifting creates greater hypertrophy than conventional training. By programming the eccentric motion of your exercises, you can achieve the greatest muscle growth by making certain you have the right intensity of load and the ideal time under tension to cause maximal muscle fiber damage. Studies suggest that protein synthesis is greatest after eccentric-enhanced lifting. For example, a simple way to pack on more muscle is to use a longer tempo for the eccentric motion (4 to 6 seconds) with an explosive or 1-second concentric motion.
In studies comparing eccentric-only and concentric-only training, eccentric-only is far superior for producing hypertrophy. This is because the eccentric motion damages the myofibers and it preferentially recruits fast-twitch fibers. This means there is a greater amount of stress per motor unit with eccentric exercises, producing greater muscle growth.
In contrast, concentric-only training doesn’t lead to significant hypertrophy. One study had males perform concentric-only or eccentric-only training using 4 to 6 sets of 8 to 12 reps, 3 times a week. At the end of 12 weeks, slow-twitch fibers didn’t increase in either group. But the fast-twitch type II fibers increased 10 times more in the eccentric-only group than the concentric-only group! However, research suggests that the best stimulus for hypertrophy is training that uses both the eccentric and concentric motions but favors the eccentric motion.
4. Eccentric contractions use less energy than concentric contractions. An eccentric contraction requires less energy (or ATP) to complete than a concentric contraction. This is important because it means you can perform more work eccentrically, which has implications for body composition, strength, and size gains.
Manipulating the use of energy and ATP breakdown is an important component of maximal muscle growth. Let’s say you are performing a set of squats with a heavy load and are nearing concentric-failure—for example, a load that is 85 percent of your squat 1RM and you are on the 6th rep of 8. Your muscles are running out of energy. You are close to being unable to sustain the contraction and lift the weight out of the squat. Upon reaching fatigue, the fibers physically “lock up” due to insufficient ATP, and if an eccentric action is then performed, small tears occur in the muscle, requiring muscle remodeling and growth.
These ideas are encouraging, but consider that there are additional factors at play than just the depletion of ATP for triggering high levels of protein synthesis after eccentric training. The anabolic response and the activation of gene pathways appear to play a role, and there may still be other unidentified mechanisms as well.
5. Heavy negatives and force reps increase exercise intensity. The locking up and tearing of muscle fibers is not the only reason eccentric training is superior for hypertrophy. Heavy negatives and forced reps allow you to train at a higher intensity, thus producing greater stress and adaptation. These methods also trigger an anabolic response.
For example, heavy negatives are performed with an above maximal concentric load—one that is 20 to 50 percent greater than your concentric 1RM. An ideal way to do this is with eccentric hooks that add weight, which you put on the end of a barbell. You lower the extra load using a prescribed tempo (4 seconds, for example), the hooks drop off when they hit the floor, and you raise the weight with the lighter load.
Studies show heavy negatives will produce greater motor unit recruitment, more protein synthesis, and a greater increase in insulin-like growth factor-1 than if lighter eccentric loads were used. Forced reps will also recruit more motor units and lead to more growth hormone release. To perform them, choose a load that is heavier than normal for the given number of repetitions. For example, for a program that includes 4 sets of 8, identify the maximal load you can perform for 8 reps and then increase that load by 5 or 10 percent. Perform your intended 8 reps with the heavier load and use a spotter when you reach concentric failure to eek out a few more for a better anabolic response.
6. Eccentric-enhanced training increases concentric power. A proven benefit to doing fast eccentric training is greater concentric power. One study found that eccentric-enhanced training enables you to produce more power for sports such as football, rugby, lacrosse, and boxing. It also provides variety to combat boredom for the recreational trainee.
This study used college athletes and tested the effect of using different eccentric loads with a set concentric load of 40 kg in the bench throw. Eccentric hooks were used on the barbell to test loads of 40, 60, 70, and 80 kg for the eccentric motion. The hooks dropped off at the bottom. Then the athletes explosively bench pressed or “threw” a 40 kg bar and power output was measured. Results showed that the heavier eccentric loads (60, 70, and 80 kg) allowed the athletes to produced greater concentric power than the 40 kg load. The greatest concentric acceleration was produced with the heaviest 80 kg load.
The researchers suggested the athletes were able to produce more power with the heavier eccentric load because lowering a greater weight increases muscle tension and cross-bridging of fibers. Also, as expressed relative to the athletes 1RM bench press, the eccentric load that led to the best bench throw for the 40 kg load was 66 percent of the athletes’ 1RM bench throw.
7. Fast eccentrics produce the most hypertrophy. Fast eccentric actions cause more protein synthesis and muscle damage than slower eccentrics. They also stimulate gene-signaling pathways and activate satellite cells, which participate in muscle growth.
It’s all fairly technical, but it comes down to eccentric magic—you will get bigger if you train this way. For example, one study compared an 8-week power training program using 30 to 60 percent of the 1RM with a traditional strength program using 70 to 85 percent of the 1RM. The programs weren’t eccentric-enhanced, but they did include the eccentric and concentric action.
Results showed that the power training group had a much greater increase in type II muscle fibers than the traditional program. Researchers think this is because the fast eccentric motion of the power protocol activated gene signaling and greater protein synthesis, while recruiting distinct muscle fibers that aren’t used during slower movements.
8. Apply fast eccentrics with complex training to get bigger and stronger. One of the best ways to apply fast eccentrics is to perform complex training in which you do a heavy strength exercise followed immediately by a fast power exercise. For example, perform squats at 85 percent of the 1RM followed by vertical jumps. In addition to activating the high-threshold motor units on the heavy, slower lift, your performance in the power exercise will benefit from pre-activation by the heavy load. Hang cleans followed by squat jumps are another option.
9. Eccentric-enhanced training strengthens tendons. Eccentric training is well known for strengthening tendons. Just like eccentric training is a robust stimulus for muscle growth, it also rebuilds tendon tissue. Eccentric training is commonly used to rehabilitate ruptured tendons, but including eccentric training in your program can help you prevent such a debilitating injury.
From an athletic standpoint, consider that tendons don’t act like steel cables, but rather as springs that contribute to the storage and release of energy. For a sprinter who needs to increase their stride length to run faster, they must use functions of the tendons to enable them apply more force into the ground.
10. Eccentric training increases flexibility. Eccentric training has been shown to be one of the very best methods for increasing flexibility. It’s much more effective than static stretching, and a new analysis found that eccentrics can increase hip range-of-motion by an average of 22 percent. Range-of-motion in all joints measured was found to increase by at least 13 degrees.
Eccentric training works for increasing mobility because it causes muscle fiber growth, increasing the sarcomeres in series within a muscle, meaning the muscle becomes longer and you get more flexible! Just about everyone wants to be more flexible, and the more technical lifts require a large degree of flexibility to perform them correctly. If your deep squat, deadlift, power clean, or front squat technique suffer due to poor flexibility in the ankles, hips, shoulders, or wrists, you won’t be able to get the most out of your training—and you’ll look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Eccentric training is the solution.
Eccentric training is one of the most powerful tools you should have in your exercise toolbox. Learn how to use it properly to quickly achieve your goals, whether they are to improve athletic fitness to transform your physique.