How eccentric muscle training can make you stronger and leaner quickly

Eccentric exercise focuses on working muscles as they lengthen, and is essential for balance, mobility and physical functions such as walking down stairs or lowering objects to the ground

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 June, 2016, 7:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 June, 2016, 10:54am

Are you trying to get in shape for a big sports event or race? Do you want a bikini beach body this summer? Try eccentric muscle training – there’s a lot of evidence to suggest it is more effective than typical concentric exercises to achieve a stronger and leaner physique in the shortest period of time.

By “eccentric” we’re not referring to behaving slightly strangely; rather it’s about how a muscle contracts while it is still producing force. Concentric exercise shortens the muscle to initiate a movement and produce force (think of Popeye’s bulging bicep), whereas eccentric exercise focuses on working muscles as they lengthen (typically the return phase of an exercise).

It’s simple to understand: do a strong bicep curl and look at your bicep rise up; now slowly straighten your elbow and watch your bicep lengthening along the humerus (upper arm bone), stretching from shoulder to elbow. Now poke the bicep with a finger from the opposite hand – it’s firm, right? That’s an eccentric contraction in its simplest form. The eccentric portion of the move happens as you slowly open your elbow, and, if you were holding a weight, you’d feel the burn as your muscles resist the weight while still extending.

During typical daily activities, concentric actions start movements, whereas eccentric actions slow the movement down, acting as a muscular braking system. For example, when running, the quadricep muscles propel the runner forward with concentric actions, while the hamstrings slow the forward motion.

To maintain sports performance and prevent injury throughout the whole range of motion, strengthening both phases of muscle contraction are important; however most people get carried away with concentric training, and neglect the (often) superior effects of eccentric training.

Eccentric strength is essential for balance, mobility and physical functions such as walking down stairs or lowering objects to the ground. It is also exceptionally effective for achieving specific performance goals, and increasing strength and power in a short period of time.

Muscles can support 1.75 times more weight in the eccentric phases of exercise than in concentric phases, studies show. Think about traditional bench pressing. At a certain weight, the concentric muscle action “fails” and cannot push the bar any higher, but the lifter can still apply enough force to hold the bar over the body and slowly lower it back onto the rack.

In this way, eccentric exercise is a great way to push past a muscle plateau. Intelligent training takes advantage of this by emphasising the eccentric portion of an exercise (think of lowering into a squat for a slow count of three, then powering up on a single count). Because you can handle more weight eccentrically, you can work out more intensively yielding greater potential for muscle hypertrophy.

Higher intensity means greater stress, which means greater adaptation. The anabolic response to heavy loads forces greater recruitment of muscle fibres, which by default allows muscles to move more weight in concentric actions.

At rest, full-body eccentric training burns more energy for up to 72 hours after exercise, studies show. In some cases, eccentric training has increased resting metabolic rate by as much as nine per cent.

Have you ever noticed that some “bodies” simply can’t push past weight plateaus, even though the “owner” appears to exercise all the time? Whereas others don’t appear to aggressively work out (they stick to Pilates, or slower reps with weights), yet are slimmer? This is not necessarily genetic luck, it may be how they’re exercising.

Combining a high intensity interval strategy with embedded eccentric training is even more effective at fat burning and muscle strengthening.

Here is the beautiful thing about training eccentric portions of an exercise: you actually use less energy.  Muscles require more energy to perform concentric actions (think of that bench pressing example again – you work harder pushing up than lowering). In fact, eccentric contractions actually absorb (mechanical) energy, which is then used as heat, or elastic recoil for the next movement. This powerful training phenomenon translates into more endurance, which builds more strength, and therefore more power.

Eccentric training also increases flexibility. The negative (eccentric) portion of the exercise causes growth of muscle fibres, and therefore increases the length of muscles by increasing sarcomeres, the fundamental unit of muscle structure. This also leads to greater coordination and balance.

And eccentric training builds stronger connective tissue (ligaments and tendons), which is critical for injury prevention. Imagine a car: your connective tissue would act as the seat belt for the joints, whereas the muscles act as the brakes. Too often connective tissue is forced to take over the brake function when muscles aren’t strong eccentrically or there is a deficiency in eccentric strength versus concentric strength.

At some point the connective tissue brake is going to fail and ... snap. Bodies subject to heavy load or impact in sport are particularly vulnerable to this problem. Remember, it’s important to strengthen the whole body, not just bulk up muscle.

Pretty much any strength training programme can be tailored to become an eccentric-focused workout by simply slowing down the return phase of the movement. Following a calculated, timed discipline will make this happen; for example one to four or two to six (one or two counts for the concentric phase, four to six counts for the eccentric phase).

Cable or spring resisted workouts are perfect for eccentric exercise because they allow for more natural ranges of motion, and let the muscle work at its most extended. Interestingly, all Pilates training on apparatus (which uses spring resistance) is based on eccentric strength building. The return phase of every movement is emphasised, forcing muscles to eccentrically work against the rebounding pull of the spring.

Every “body” benefits from eccentric training. For certain populations however, it is far superior to any other type of training programme. Eccentric training is essential for those training for a specific sports event, injury rehabilitation (very good for ACL recovery, chronic patellar tendonitis and connective tissue damage generally), repairing neurological damage, the elderly, and those with osteopenia, among others.

The beauty of eccentric training is that it is rapidly effective, easily adapted to all body needs, and doesn’t require overhauling one’s existing training programme. Most can shift their existing workout programme to a more effective eccentric programme by simply tweaking the protocol followed when performing exercises.

The writer is the director of Flex Studio (flexhk.com)