Do you know those people in the gym that perform every exercise slowly? Turns out, they might be smashing mad gains by emphasizing eccentric exercises.
Eccentric exercise is the lengthening of a muscle during movement. However, a true eccentric exercise is when the muscle is forced to lengthen as it cannot produce adequate force to stop the stretch.
We can go deeper than that when it comes to defining eccentrics which we will below. But I will also be covering all the benefits of eccentric exercise and how you can use them for yourself to become a powerhouse.
Table of Contents
- What Is Eccentric Exercise?
- Eccentric vs. Concentric Exercise
- Eccentric Exercise Benefits
- Eccentric Exercise Risks
- Eccentric Exercise Examples
- How Many Sets & Reps Of Eccentric Exercise & How Heavy?
- Eccentric Exercise For Flexibility
- Advanced Eccentric Exercise Modalities
What Is Eccentric Exercise?
Eccentric exercise is defined as “when the force applied to a muscle exceeds the force produced by the muscle, it will lengthen .” It is also known as the negative or lowering phase of an exercise. Think of lowering the dumbbell during a bicep curl. This would be the eccentric phase.
Because eccentric contractions are the strongest out of the three (isometric and concentric), loads greater than you can lift are often used and is why force applied to the muscle exceeds the muscle's capacity to produce force.
However, sub-maximal eccentric exercises are often used to prepare the body for supramaximal eccentric training or to strengthen positions during an exercise. For example, taking 4 seconds to descend in the squat or taking 4 seconds to lower a deadlift.
Technically, this is called tempo training rather than eccentric training but emphasizing the eccentric phase through tempo can be a way to increase time under tension and the ability to “control” the weight.
Eccentric vs. Concentric Exercise
Eccentric contractions involve a lengthening of the muscle whereas concentric contractions involve shortening of the muscle. When comparing both types of exercise, we see that eccentric exercise:
Honestly, this isn't even all of the differences between eccentric and concentric exercises. But these would be what I consider the most important differences to know regarding each contraction type's adaptations.
I’m going to dive into many of these differences below highlighting the extreme benefits of eccentric exercise and why you must be using some form of eccentric exercise within your training routine whether that be through specific eccentric training cycles or as part of your current regime.
Eccentric Exercise Benefits
Produce High Forces At Low Metabolic Cost
This benefit is geared more towards the older population and the rehabilitation side of training. However, it can also be useful in certain situations in the average lifter. This has been extensively studied when using eccentric cycling.
You might be wondering how this is even possible. When you put two bikes facing each other on one long chain, you can have one bike that pedals forward (concentrically) and one that resists backward (eccentrically).
The gears are set up where the one pedaling forward has to pedal at very high speeds while the one resisting backward is at slower speeds. The one sprinting while pedaling forward is working at maximum effort while the one resisting is barely breaking a sweat.
My wife Mona and I went through 3 months of testing this twice a week and here is what she says about it:
“Eccentric cycling made my legs feel mobile, warmed-up, and I had very good training sessions afterward. It didn’t fatigue me one bit.”
Whereas I was blowing after every 15-second sprint. Mona could match my power output eccentrically with little energetic cost whereas I was essentially doing maximum effort alactic sprint intervals.
When we look into the research, sedentary subjects were able to increase muscle strength and size by 40% after 8 weeks of eccentric cycling . Subjects that performed normal concentric cycling at the same exercise heart rate did not see any changes in muscle size or strength.
We also see that the oxygen requirement of the one resisting backward is 1/6th to 1/7th of the one cycling forward at the same workload . I can attest to this after sprinting on the bike to have Mona feeling like she barely worked on the other end.
Reduction In Eccentric Muscle Soreness
Have you done an activity like walking down a steep hill while hiking for hours and the next day you can barely walk? That is the intense eccentric exercise from having to brake every time you take a step to stop yourself from falling down the hill.
Because fewer motor units, and therefore fewer muscle fibers, are recruited during submaximal eccentric loading compared to concentric actions, each motor unit must generate more force. Hence, the increase in muscle damage as the fewer motor units need to make up for the other inactive motor units .
But! If you went and performed the same downhill hike again a week later, you wouldn’t be as sore. This is known as the "repeated bout effect" and is a protective adaptation to eccentric training .
Greater Muscle Hypertrophy Than Concentric Actions
This is what you all came here for. Who doesn’t want to be an absolute ball of muscle ready to lift anything put in front of them? Supramaximal eccentric exercises elicit the greatest mechanical tension and muscle damage compared to concentric exercises .
Most interestingly is that eccentric exercise targets muscle growth at the far end of the muscle whereas concentric exercise targets muscle growth in the middle . It is speculated this is due to the added sarcomeres in series mentioned in a previous section where muscle fibers are lengthened by eccentric exercise.
Greater Increase In Force Production
We are 20-50% stronger during eccentric contractions compared to concentric contractions . This means when eccentric exercise is supramaximally loaded (i.e. loads over our normal lifting 1RMs), we are exposing our muscles to much higher forces.
For example, supramaximal eccentrics (known as accentuated eccentric loading) increased back squat 1RM to a greater extent than traditional strength training . This enhanced strength increases likely come down to greater activation of the muscle .
Hack The Force-Velocity Relationship
Force and velocity have an inverse relationship. That is, when very high forces are produced, a very low velocity of movement occurs. Think of how your bar speed slows down as you work your way towards a 1RM bench press and how slow that rep can be.
When velocity is very high, the force produced by the muscles is very low.
This is what makes eccentric exercise such a potent stimulus. No other type of exercise can produce high forces and speed together.
Increase Muscle Length
Many lifters will try to stretch their way to longer, more flexible muscles. These changes in range of motion are often passive. Meaning you are not able to control and produce a lot of force in these newfound ranges of motion.
This is a problem especially if you find yourself in one of these positions needed to produce force. For example, overstriding when sprinting. The result? A muscle strain is a best-case scenario. A large tear is a worst-case scenario.
Eccentric exercise can lengthen the muscle while improving its ability to produce force at longer muscle lengths . This is known as altering the length-tension relationship. That is, at extremely short or long muscle lengths, you have a diminished ability to produce force. Think about where you feel strongest during a bicep curl. It's usually around halfway up.
This is the angle at which your biceps can produce peak force. How? Without going too deep into muscle architecture, the connections within the muscle are optimally aligned to produce maximum force. Here is a demonstration with my fingers.
When only my fingertips are together, it's very easy to pull my fingers apart. When they are deeper, it is much harder to pull apart. This is a visual example of how it works within the muscle. Specifically, within the blocks of the muscle fibers named sarcomeres.
Eccentric exercise adds sarcomeres in series, meaning at the end of the muscle fiber. This is what makes them longer. Doing this increases the muscles’ ability to contract quickly and produce force at long muscle lengths.
For example, when comparing strength training with static stretching after five weeks, both protocols improved hamstring and hip flexor flexibility but only the strength training group improved quadriceps and hamstring strength .
Eric Richter, physiotherapist and strength coach at A1Athlete says, "quadricep focused eccentrics are one of the most effective ways at building knee integrity to prevent injuries, but also restore function to injurd knees."
Maintenance Of Type IIx Muscle Fibers
The shifting of muscle fiber type is a phenomenon that occurs with exercise. Contrary to popular belief, shifting of pure Type I (slow-twitch) to Type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers and vice versa rarely occur.
That is, you can't suddenly increase the proportion of slow or fast-twitch muscle fibers you possess (however, you can shift these toward hybrid muscle fibers which I won’t touch on in this article to keep it simple).
What will happen though is the shifting between fast-twitch muscle fibers. That is, the fastest muscle fiber Type IIx shifting to a slower fast-twitch muscle fiber Type IIa . This adaptation is great for mixed sports athletes that need to maintain fast and powerful movements like boxing or rugby.
But for pure speed athletes like sprinters, throwers, and jumpers, this may be a negative adaptation because of the reduced contraction speed.
Increase In Limb Stiffness
Limb stiffness sounds like a bad thing. But I'm not talking about stiffness in terms of being inflexible. I'm talking about active stiffness. That is the ability to quickly turn an eccentric into a concentric movement. Think about taking a running jump to try dunk a basketball.
This is known as the stretch-shortening cycle and takes advantage of the passive elastic structures surrounding our muscles and the tendon itself. Stiffness is important in explosive tasks as a lack of stiffness results in a leak of elastic energy and subsequently, force output.
Eccentric exercise has been shown to increase the stretch-shortening cycle performance better than traditional strength training . Further, this elastic recoil is an energy-saving task. Think about running where you need to make thousands of fast eccentric to concentric contractions each time your foot hits the ground.
A stiffer leg developed through eccentric exercise can halve the energy cost with each foot strike .
Eccentric Exercise Risks
While there is a multitude of benefits associated with eccentric exercise, there are also some inherent risks when not done properly.
Supramaximal Loads Can Be Dangerous If Not Prepared
Just like with any exercise, if you go straight to maximum intensity without gradually building, you’re bound to cause an injury. Eccentric exercise is no different and loading the bar with loads greater than your one-rep max is a recipe for disaster if you haven't prepared your body.
To prepare yourself adequately for supramaximal loads, start by performing tempo training where you increase the duration of the eccentric phase during the exercise. For example, taking 3-5 seconds on the descent of a bench press before exploding back to the top after touching the chest.
Excessive Muscle Soreness
As with any new exercise modality, muscle soreness is often inevitable. But this is taken to the next level with eccentric exercise. As mentioned earlier in the article, more force is required from fewer muscle fibers during eccentric contractions causing more muscle damage than traditional strength training.
That means even more delayed onset muscle soreness (you’ve probably heard the term DOMS before and experienced it!). Extreme muscle soreness reduces exercise performance so while you may have survived heavily loaded eccentrics, the following few days can increase your risk of injury.
Eccentric Exercise Examples
Before diving into some eccentric exercise examples, some equipment is needed when employing accentuated eccentric training protocols. Weight releasers are simple and effective which you can get here.
Weight releasers allow you to load the eccentric heavier than the concentric phase of the exercise by “releasing” from the barbell once you are in the bottom position leaving only the weight left on the barbell.
Eccentric Exercises For The Legs
Tempo Eccentric Squat
The tempo eccentric squat is about increasing the time it takes to descend to the bottom. Where it would normally take you 1-2 seconds, you will increase this time to 3-5 seconds. This will dramatically reduce the load you are capable of lifting because of the increased time under tension.
Accentuated Eccentric Squat
As mentioned earlier in the article, true eccentric training is using loads above what you can handle concentrically. Enter the accentuated eccentric squat. For this, you’ll need to use the weight releasers I referred to above in this section.
The next section will give you guidelines on how to load your barbell and weight releasers.
Tempo Eccentric Deadlift
Controlling the eccentric portion of the deadlift is a neat tactic to blow your deadlift up. Because the deadlift is purely concentric only, you can increase the work you perform just by increasing the time it takes to lower the bar. You will notice there is no accentuated deadlift option. I don’t believe overloading the eccentric during a deadlift is a good idea regarding the risk to reward ratio.
Tempo Eccentric Pull
This is a method used by Olympic Weightlifters to improve the strength of their pull when further away from competition. The Olympic lifts are mostly concentric only. Controlling the eccentric part of the pull will increase your strength to hold the correct positions as the loads get heavier.
Tempo Eccentric Romanian Deadlift
A slower tempo is often prescribed for the Romanian deadlift so you may already be doing a tempo RDL. It seems you get the most out of this exercise by slowing down the eccentric anyway.
Accentuated Eccentric Romanian Deadlift
This is for the advanced lifters looking to pump their hamstring, glute, and lower back strength. You’ll be using loads that you can deadlift but can’t Romanian deadlift. Load the bar in a rack so you can take it out at the top. You’ll lower the bar to the floor to put an extreme stretch on the hamstrings.
Tempo Eccentric Staggered Stance Trap Bar RDL
Romanian deadlifts are great. But staggering your legs means you can emphasize one leg over the other turning it into a supported single-leg hip hinge eccentric that will destroy your hamstrings and glutes.
Most people are familiar with the Nordic drop. Familiar with the cramping feeling you get if you haven’t done them before! These are best done with a partner but you can also do them by hooking your feet under something.
It’s important to keep a straight line from your knees to your head. You don’t want to break at the hips which is what happens when the hamstrings can’t handle the exercise.
Tempo Eccentric Lying Leg Curl
If you have access to machines, you can perform an easier hamstring eccentric exercise than the Nordic drop. Simply controlling the eccentric during the lying leg curl can have you performing more work.
2 Up, 1 Down Lying Leg Curl
Using 2 legs to lift the weight, and 1 leg to lower the weight is a simple way of accentuated eccentric loading without the need for fancy equipment. The load should be heavy enough that you can’t raise the weight with 1 leg.
Tempo Eccentric Leg Extension
Controlling the eccentric during the leg extension, just like the other exercises, is a simple way to increase the time under tension of the exercise.
2 Up, 1 Down Leg Extension
Just like the lying leg curl, you can do 2 legs up, 1 leg down with the leg extension to blow up your quads. Be careful with this exercise if you have any knee issues.
Tempo Eccentric Leg Press
Instead of using the leg press like pistons, control the lowering phase to have your quads and glutes performing more work per set.
2 Up, 1 Down Leg Press
Yep… you can do the leg press in 2 legs up, 1 down fashion. This is a great exercise for sports performance.
Partner Resisted Hip Thrust
I’ve used this exercise extensively with athletes. It’s an accentuated eccentric exercise that doesn’t carry the same overall fatigue compared to eccentrically overloaded squatting.
Plyometrics And Jumps
Both plyometrics and jumps are eccentric exercises for the legs. Jumps would be considered a slower stretch-shortening cycle exercise whereas plyometrics are fast stretch-shortening cycle exercises.
Eccentric Exercises For The Upper Body
There are fewer options for the upper body as with smaller muscle groups, you generally don't want to eccentrically overload for the risk of injury.
Tempo Eccentric Bench Press
Not only does controlling the eccentric increase the total work you are performing, but you can dial in your technique and bar path. Getting your bar path wrong during the bench press can severely limit the loads you are lifting.
Accentuated Eccentric Bench Press
This is really the only upper body exercise you want to perform accentuated eccentric loading. Using your weight releasers, you can overload the eccentric phase.
The eccentric pull-up is often prescribed to beginners who can’t perform a regular pull-up. If you can control the entire range of motion, you are likely able to perform a regular pull-up.
Tempo Lat Pulldown
Lifters who relax during the eccentric phase during the lat pulldown are missing out on back gains. It can be very easy to let your biceps take over the movement. Controlling the lowering of the weight can help you feel your lats work.
Tempo Barbell Curl
Similar to the lat pulldown, lifters can get into the habit of swinging their barbell curls and missing out on taxing their biceps effectively. The soreness you will feel after controlling the lowering phase is unlike any other.
How Many Sets & Reps Of Eccentric Exercise & How Heavy?
Here are general recommendations so you can set up your own eccentric exercise program. The recommendations will differ based on whether it is sub-maximal tempo eccentric, accentuated (supramaximal) eccentric, or a fast eccentric exercise .
Sub-Maximal Tempo Eccentric
Eccentric load: 100-130% 1RM
Concentric load: 70-85% 1RM
Eccentric load: 120-150% 1RM
Concentric load: 30-50% 1RM
Eccentric Exercise For Flexibility
When it comes to flexibility, the eccentric exercises you will use will be targeted towards biarticular muscles. These are the muscles that cross two joints that are susceptible to shortening especially with prolonged sitting postures.
I’ve detailed these exercises and more in my full “Mobility Exercises For Athletes” article so I will offer a few exercises here. Many of the eccentric exercises for hamstrings flexibility have been detailed under the eccentric exercise for the legs section.
But the hamstrings aren’t the only muscles susceptible to shortening and injury. The rectus femoris, one of the quadriceps, crosses both the knee and the hip. As a primary hip flexor, it is often shortened when sitting all day.
So here are eccentric exercises for flexibility that target the rectus femoris of the quadriceps.
The reverse Nordic targets the mid and lower portion of the rectus femoris. You will feel it! It’s important that you keep a straight line from your knees to your head and not break at the hips. A straight line means your rectus femoris is maximally stretched.
Eccentric Lunge Push
The eccentric lunge push targets the upper portion of your rectus femoris. This variation is brutal and should be used when you have more lifting exercise under your belt.
Advanced Eccentric Exercise Modalities
I’ve covered many of the different eccentric exercise modalities above. But that’s not all. Yep, you can go down a deep dark rabbit hole when looking to implement eccentric exercise. All of the eccentric exercises I have given as examples are slow movements.
As mentioned previously, eccentric exercises can be performed quickly which maximizes both force and velocity which is impossible with other forms of exercise. So here are some fast eccentric exercises and other advanced eccentric modalities.
Fast Eccentric Exercises
Accentuated Eccentric Squat w/ Light Concentric Load
Just like the accentuated eccentric squat presented in the eccentric leg exercises section, this particular protocol involves having minimal loading on the barbell (30-50% 1RM) with the rest of the load on the weight releasers (120-150% 1RM).
The idea is that the heavier load will speed up the eccentric as you won’t be able to resist as easily and the lighter concentric load will allow you to use that stored elastic energy to maximally accelerate the concentric phase.
Partner or Band Assisted KB Swing
This is truly a fast eccentric exercise. A normal KB swing has the kettlebell fall with gravity unless you are actively pulling down with your arms. But nothing will match the speed when a partner thrusts the kettlebell back down between your legs.
You need tremendous eccentric strength to be able to decelerate the kettlebell and turn it into a powerful concentric contraction.
Trap Bar Staggered Stance Drop Catch RDL
I love the drop catch variation of exercises for the hamstrings. Hamstring injuries when sprinting often occur when overstriding, the foot hits the ground and the extreme braking forces are too much for the hamstrings to handle.
The drop catch increases the speed of the eccentric and forces them to stop isometrically at very long muscle lengths. This is a great protective exercise for the hamstrings for advanced trainees. You can do this with a traditional Romanian deadlift but you won’t get the same stress on the hamstrings as the staggered stance places emphasis on the front leg.
Drop Catch Single-Leg Back Extension
This drop catch variation will nail your hamstrings even further as you don’t have your other leg to support you. It’s important to maintain the lordotic spine position of the lower back to maximally target the hamstrings.
Eccentric Quasi-Isometric Exercises
I touched on eccentric quasi-isometrics in my “Isometrics For Strength And Hypertrophy” article. The result of using these is that you can use higher intensities for longer set durations and perform more work which leads to greater mechanical tension and metabolic stress .
To perform an eccentric quasi-isometric, you will hold a contracted position and as you fatigue, you will slowly lower yourself through a maximal eccentric. See the example below.
Eccentric Quasi-Isometric Pull-Up
As you can see, you will hold it near the top of the pull-up. As you start to fatigue, you won't be able to keep this position and you will slowly end up with your arms straight.
Band Eccentric Exercises
Using elastic strength bands is known as accommodating resistance. It is called accommodating or variable resistance as it alters the strength curve. What does this mean? Let’s take the squat for example. The hardest part of the squat is at the bottom. Getting out of the hole. The easiest portion is the top half.
Once you get past that sticking point at the bottom everything is a breeze. Bands turn that on its head. Because the resistance increases as you stand up, it changes the strength curve to the bottom being easier as there is less load, and the top half being harder due to more load.
How does this relate to the eccentric? Well, you now have a greater eccentric load at the top half of the movement while simultaneously increasing the speed of the eccentric . Band tension can be added to most exercises, especially the big compound lifts such as squats, bench press, and deadlifts.
Accentuated Eccentric Jumps
This is up there with some of the most advanced jumping protocols. The more rapid the eccentric portion of the jump, the greater the elastic energy returned for the concentric resulting in greater force output. Which means you jump higher and display more power.
But you need to have the eccentric strength to be able to quickly descend, decelerate, and use the elastic energy without it dissipating into heat. This is trained through the eccentric exercises presented in this article. These jumps are the icing on the cake for crazy power development.
Accentuated Eccentric Box Jump
Here is a great example of an accentuated eccentric box jump. Holding light dumbbells, you will dip and let go of them at the bottom. Essentially, it’s a loaded eccentric with an unloaded concentric movement.
Eccentric exercise can be a gateway to amazing progress in strength, speed, power, and hypertrophy. But just like any tool, you need to understand how to use it effectively so you reduce your risk of injury and get the most out of it.
Start with sub-maximal slow eccentric exercises and progress your way to supramaximal eccentric exercises. From there, you can look to incorporate fast eccentric exercises if your sport requires very high power outputs.
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