When building a workout plan, you have a lot of different exercises to choose from. With so many options available, it can be tricky to figure out precisely what movements you should incorporate into your training program. Indeed, one of the biggest debates in physical conditioning circles is whether we should focus on eccentric or concentric exercises.
What is eccentric exercise, you might ask?
Eccentric exercises, or “negative exercises,” are any movement that lengthens a muscle while it is under load. They are the opposite of concentric exercises, which is the shortening of a muscle while under load.
Up next, we’ll help you understand if you should add eccentric loading exercises into your workout routine. We’ll discuss the basics of concentric vs. eccentric exercise and give you all the information you need to get started.
What Is Eccentric Exercise?
An eccentric contraction is a movement that involves lengthening a muscle while it’s under load. This type of movement is the opposite of concentric contraction, which is when a muscle is shortened while under load. The third and final muscle movement is known as isometric contraction, which is when the muscle is stationary and not moving.
Eccentric exercises, therefore, involve eccentric contraction. This might sound complicated, but the concept is actually quite simple.
For example, during an eccentric exercise (like a negative pull-up), you very slowly lower yourself down to the ground. By slowly lowering yourself, you are placing your latissimus dorsi (aka “lats”) and biceps in eccentric contraction. This is because negative pull-ups put your lats and biceps under load as you lengthen them.
Concentric vs. Eccentric Exercises
These negative pull-ups (an eccentric exercise) are different from regular pull-ups, which involve concentric contraction of both the lats and biceps. Since a regular pull-up loads your lats and biceps while they’re contracted, they’re considered a concentric exercise.
In reality, concentric movements are what most people picture when they think of exercise. Exercises like bicep curls, bench presses, and squats all involve placing the target muscle group in concentric contraction.
Interestingly, eccentric exercises use the same muscles and movements as their concentric counterparts. But, unlike concentric exercises, eccentric exercises focus on the lowering, or “negative” part of the motion.
So, instead of focusing solely on the lifting of a dumbbell during a bicep curl, eccentric training programs want you to also pay attention to how you lower the dumbbell during this same exercise.
Do Eccentric Exercises Build Muscle Strength?
Traditionally, weight lifting was all about, well lifting weights. When we lift weights, we hope to build up strength in the muscle that we’re contracting. As such, most traditional weight lifting programs focus solely on concentric exercises.
However, eccentric exercises are just as – if not more – useful when it comes to building up muscle strength.
According to researchers at Northern Arizona University, in 1882, German physician Adolf Flick was the first to discover that muscles can produce more force while stretching (i.e., lengthening) than while contracting. Some 50 years later, English physiologist A.V. Hill found that muscles use less energy during eccentric contractions than during concentric contractions.
This means that muscles are more powerful and use less energy during eccentric movements when compared to concentric contractions.
The usefulness of this information for training was more or less unknown until a 1952 study by Abbot, Bigland, and Ritchie. In this study, the researchers created a way to compare concentric and eccentric movements at the same time.
To do so, the researchers linked together two stationary bikes with a single chain so that one person has to pedal forward as the other pedals backward. Interestingly, they found that the person pedaling backward could apply much more force than the person pedaling forward.
The researchers found that a smaller sized person pedaling backward on this bike was able to easily overpower a much larger person that was pedaling forward. This showed that a “breaking” or eccentric motion is much more powerful than a concentric motion.
The take-home message here is that eccentric exercises allow us to produce more force when lifting weights than concentric exercises. So, eccentric exercise can allow our muscles to grow in size, strength, and power, all while expending less energy.
What Are The Benefits of Eccentric Exercises?
Eccentric exercises have many benefits beyond their ability to help us get stronger through training. In fact, eccentric exercise is most commonly used by physical therapists and other rehabilitation specialists to help people recover from injuries.
Here are some of the key benefits of eccentric exercise:
- Ability to lift heavier weights than with concentric exercise
- Allows for a faster increase in strength
- Can increase muscle coordination and motor control
- Promotes muscle growth
- Requires less energy and oxygen for the muscles
- Increases the rate of metabolism, which can promote weight loss
- Can allow older folks to lift weights with less energy
- Useful for rehabilitating muscles around a ligament injury without placing too much load on the joint
- Can help increase flexibility
- May help lower the risk of injury
- Can help build connective tissue, particularly after an injury
- May increase control and stability of the muscles
Side-Effects of Eccentric Exercise
As we can see, there are plenty of great benefits to eccentric exercise. But, any new exercise routine comes with the risk of side-effects.
Why Does Eccentric Exercise Cause DOMS?
For eccentric exercise, the main concern is the development of “delayed onset muscle soreness,” which is more commonly referred to as “DOMS.” DOMS is essentially muscle pain and tenderness that occurs after a new type of exercise.
This type of soreness generally happens between 12-72 hours after an exercise. Currently, researchers believe that DOMS is the result of minor damage to muscle fibers and connective tissue after performing a new exercise or movement.
Additionally, we know that eccentric exercise is more likely to cause DOMS than concentric exercise. This is likely because eccentric exercises force muscles into lengthening, which causes micro-tears in muscle fibers.
However, the more you do eccentric exercises, the less likely you are to develop DOMS. This is because our muscle fibers tend to adapt quickly and prevent any further microtears after they get used to the exercise. So, DOMS is often more of a problem for people that are just starting with a new eccentric training program.
What’s important is that you listen to your body. If an exercise hurts or doesn’t feel right, the best thing to do is to stop and consult a professional trainer, physician, or physical therapist for advice.
The second possible side effect of eccentric exercise is injury. Since eccentric exercises allow you to lift more weight than concentric movements, they do increase your risk of injury.
The best way to avoid this is to start lifting weights slowly and gradually build up strength over time. As with any workout, slow, methodical increases in weight are key for reducing your risk of injury with eccentric exercises.
Eccentric Exercise Examples
The interesting thing about eccentric exercise is that, for the most part, they’re actually the same as concentric exercises. Performing eccentric exercises is all about slowly lowering yourself or a weight back to a neutral position.
Eccentric exercises are often called “negative exercises” because they focus on the opposite of more traditional concentric exercises.
For example, during a bodyweight squat, most people quickly lower themselves into a squat and then push themselves upward. In an eccentric squat, though, you slowly lower yourself into the squat and then slowly raise yourself back up.
By slowing lowering your body, your quads and glutes get the added benefits of eccentric contraction. Then, as you slowly raise your body, your hamstrings are put into eccentric contraction.
Nearly any other basic concentric exercise can be turned into an eccentric exercise if you perform the “negative” part of the rep slowly. This includes:
- Bicep curls
- Tricep dips
- Stationary biking (simply pedal backward)
- Downhill walking and running
It’s relatively easy to incorporate eccentric movements into your workouts. All you need to do is to perform each rep slowly and methodically. This will help you integrate eccentric movements into your training and gain their benefits without adding any new exercises to your routine.
Should I Do Eccentric Exercises?
Eccentric exercises have a whole host of benefits that are great for anyone looking to increase their overall muscular strength and fitness. Since nearly any movement that’s performed slowly can incorporate eccentric contraction, there’s no reason not to do eccentric exercises.
The important thing here is to take things slowly when trying out new eccentric movements. Since these exercises can cause DOMS and overloading injuries, it’s best to slowly get your body accustomed to these new movements instead of jumping right in.