No, eccentric training isn’t what you see when some guy uses the cable machine to perform acrobatic moves. Sure, that guy might be an eccentric, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about training the lowering portion of a strength-training move (a.k.a. negative training).
Resistance training exercises are made up of three main parts: the lifting phase (called ‘concentric’), the hold (called ‘isometric’), and the lowering phase (called ‘eccentric’). While a lot of people credit the lifting phase (and the satisfaction of the squeeze) for most of resistance training’s strength and size benefits—think curling a dumbbell or pressing a barbell overhead—eccentric training can actually promote greater overall muscle growth, according to world-renowned exercise scientist Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.
Evidence shows that eccentric training can promote growth in certain aspects of the muscle that concentric just can’t,” explains Schoenfeld. Here’s why: You’re actually a bit stronger when you lower something than when you lift it (think of bringing something heavy down from a high shelf versus lifting it back up there), so specifically training your eccentric strength will help you more fully work your muscles, develop strength, and improve your performance. You may also land yourself more symmetrical looking muscles.
Eccentric training is useful for all types of exercises, but it’s particularly helpful for progressing in bodyweight exercises. Since bodyweight movements like pullups, pushups, and dips often feel like pass-fail without serious modification (you can either do a pullup or you can’t), adding an eccentric focus to your training can help you build the strength you need to perform these moves unassisted.
The drawback: “Eccentric exercises produce more muscle damage than concentric or isometric exercises, so overdoing them is more likely to cause intense (and potentially debilitating) soreness,” says Schoenfeld. To reap the gains of eccentric training without going too far, limit any eccentric-specific exercises to a few sets and save it for the end of your training session.
To correctly supplement your regular routine with eccentrics, try one of these three methods during your next workout.
1. Slow Your Lower
Where you may have previously ignored the negative portion of an exercise, you’ll want to now focus on lowering the weight in a slow and controlled manner. “When you let gravity do the work for you on the way down, you don’t reap all of the benefits of the time you’re putting in at the gym,” explains Schoenfeld. By focusing on slowing the lowering portion of a movement, you’ll tap into the benefits of eccentric training with every rep you perform.
How to do it: Keeping your contraction at its usual pace, control the load (be it a dumbbell, barbell, or your bodyweight) as you lower it back down and extend that eccentric movement for three to five seconds. Try this in one or two sets per workout, and keep your lower at a normal, controlled tempo throughout the rest of your sets.
2. Lower Only
In this method, you’ll perform only the lowering portion of the movement. It’s particularly useful for working on bodyweight exercises (like pushups and pullups) you might struggle with. Remember, your muscles can handle heavier loads in the eccentric phase than they can in the concentric phase. So while you may not be able to pull yourself up in a pullup, you can likely lower yourself down with control.
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How to do it: Start at the top of a rep and lower your body through the negative portion of it at a controlled pace. (To do this for pullups, for example, you’d use a box or step to help you jump to the top of the pullup and then lower yourself slowly down from the ending position back to the starting hanging position.)
Try a few sets of these at the end of your workout.
3. Overload The Lower
Since you’re stronger in the eccentric phase of a movement, you can also use more weight when training the eccentric part of a move than you can when performing full reps of that same move. “You can lower a load approximately 120 to 150 percent of your one rep max—the most weight you can lift for just one rep—which gives you the opportunity to overload your muscles to promote greater strength development,” says Schoenfeld.
How it works: In pushups, for example, wear a weight vest or rest a plate on your back. Start at the top of the pushup in a plank position. Lower to the bottom of the movement and then drop to your knees to press yourself back into the starting position.
Reap the benefits and avoid potential muscle damage by tacking just a set or two of these intense reps onto the end of your workout in place of any other eccentric-only training.