Eccentric Contractions

Simply put, an eccentric contraction is the lengthening of a muscle.  For example, if you’re doing a biceps curl, the eccentric contraction occurs while you are releasing the arm back down to your side from the flexed position it was in.  The muscle is not increasing in length as if it were being stretched, but just returning to resting length.

In the fitness world, eccentric muscle action is also known as a negative.  The term “negative” was derivied from the fact that in eccentric movement, work is actually being done on the muscle rather than the muscle doing the work (or the muscle moving forces).  To paint a clearer picture, imagine that you are doing a dumbbell chest press.  Work is being done (due to the forces of gravity) as you lower the arms down.  This is negative work.  Whereas, for the concentric contraction, you are doing the work (muscles are moving forces) as you press the dumbbells back up and together.   This owns to the fact that eccentric motion moves in the same direction as the resistance is moving.  You can turn the focus to eccentric contractions in almost any exercise.

The following are some of my favorites…

  • Negative Push-ups (slow on the way down)
  • Negative Tricep Push-ups (slow on the way down)
  • Negative Pullups  (slow on the way down)
  • Negative Cable Rows (slow as you release the cable)
  • Negative Squats (slow on the way down)

For these exercises, try keeping your muscles under eccentric tension for 4 seconds to start out with.  So for the push-ups, that would be lowering down for 4 seconds (eccentric contraction), then exhaling and pushing up (concentric contraction) following the 4 seconds.  Once this becomes easy, increase the time under tension to 6 seconds.

Here’s a chest/triceps circuit to try involving an eccentric contraction:

Dumbbell Chest Press 3×12

Negative Tricep Push Ups 3×6  (4-6 FULL seconds under tension for each rep)

Tricep Push Downs 3×12

(*Note: Depending on the type of training you are going for, you can switch up the rep/set scheme.  Also, your muscles react to the amount of tension put on them as well as the time under tension.  This is why the speed at which you perform each rep DOES MATTER.  I make sure my clients are always performing movements in a slower, controlled manner (especially when weight is involved).  This also keeps the exercise much safer on the muscles and joints, whereas injury is more likely when exercises are performed too fast and with bad form).

Another positive about eccentric contractions is that they require the use of much less energy than concentric contractions because fewer muscle fibers are recruited here.  With fewer muscle fibers being recruited, less oxygen is needed and the overall energy cost of performing the work is lower.    If more energy is “saved” when lowering, more can be transferred back to the concentric part of the lift.  If you’re routine is geared towards strength and power training, increasing eccentric strength may help improve concentric performance for a given lift.

Just a heads up…

By incorporating “negative” exercises in your next workout, you’ll notice that you’ll be a little  more sore than usual.  This is because eccentric activity is known for developing DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). DOMS refers to the soreness that accompanies exercise 24-72 hours following exercise. With this being said, if you are fairly new to exercise, I wouldn’t suggest incorporating an eccentric training focus into your routine just yet.

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