There are a variety of efforts that we use in our daily lives to accomplish all the tasks we perform. In exercise those tasks get really specific, in order to train for very particular goals. For the purposes of this article, the two I will focus on are called concentric and eccentric effort.
When people think about flexing their muscles, the most overwhelmingly popular image is to lift an arm, bend at the elbow, and make a big biceps pump. You have just envisioned concentric effort.
When a muscle gets shorter while under tension it has performed a concentric effort. Other examples include standing up from the bottom of a squat. Pressing a barbell from the bottom of the range of motion to the top is also concentric effort. Often this is the portion of an exercise people focus on. It’s very common to see people perform biceps curls such that they lift the weight to bend their elbows slowly, and then perform little or no resistance as the hands fall down to straighten the elbows.
If you think only about a muscle man flexing his biceps, then this would make logical sense. However, muscles are not at their strongest during concentric effort. Yes, it is obviously important to practice working against gravity, but muscles are actually far stronger when they perform eccentric effort.
The opposite of a muscle getting shorter under tension is getting longer under tension. Coming back to the biceps curl as the most familiar example, the eccentric phase of the repetition is lowering the weight down to straighten the elbow. Bringing more focus to this action puts the muscle under more tension, and is excellent for increasing strength.
Muscles are stronger when they resist gravity than when they exert to overcome it. Try it as an experiment: Lift a weight you feel is heavy, but then slowly return to your beginning position. You will almost certainly feel that the weight seems less challenging. Perhaps this is counterintuitive?
If you would like to increase your one repetition maximum effort (1RM), the best way to do this is to focus on eccentric effort. By increasing the time under tension that is created by performing eccentric effort, muscles experience more damage at the cellular level. This forces more recovery and results in more creation of new muscle fibers. With more muscle mass comes higher 1RM, allowing for greater volume of work. That is the definition of muscle and strength gains.
Examples of Eccentric Effort
So, how can you unlock this method of growth? Focus on negative reps. What does that mean?
Perform slower reps, and focus on moving toward gravity. The tempo of your reps refers to how long it takes to perform each of them. There is a format for specifying tempo notation. It includes Eccentric:Pause:Concentric:Pause, and it looks something like this for negative reps: 4:2:1:1. It might also look something like 3:0:1:0. How do you read that?
Let’s assume you’re still doing biceps curls. Begin the rep at the top, not the bottom, so that your arms are bent and the weight is in front of your shoulders. In the first example, lower the weight for four seconds. Don’t straighten your arms all the way at the bottom (keep a tiny bit of bend in your elbows, so that you don’t lose the tension). Hold that tension at the bottom for two seconds, then lift the weight back up toward your shoulders in one second. At the top, squeeze harder for one second. Repeat.
In the second example you would lower the weight for three seconds, immediately lift for one second, then immediately begin lowering the weight again. Repeat for however many reps it takes to be genuinely exhausted at 8-12 repetitions. Ultimately you want to be under tension for 45-60 seconds, so perform however many reps at your chosen tempo until you reach exhaustion within that time. The slower you move, the heavier the weight will seem.
To apply this to other exercises, look at which direction of movement causes a muscle to get longer. For chest presses, start at the top and resist slowly as the weight moves towards you. Push more quickly away from yourself. For rows, start at the top, resist as the weight moves toward the floor, then pull more quickly to bring the weight back toward you. For squats and deadlifts, start at the top and move slowly as your knees bend. Straighten the knees more quickly. Same with an overhead a shoulder press: Start at the top, resist as you lower the weight toward your shoulders, press it back up with a quicker movement. For lat pulldowns, start at the bottom, resist as your arms straighten overhead, then pull quickly as you bring the bar back down toward your chest.
info: Jack Kirven completed the MFA in Dance at UCLA, and earned certification as a personal trainer through NASM. His wellness philosophy is founded upon integrated lifestyles as opposed to isolated workouts. Visit him at jackkirven.com and INTEGRE8Twellness.com.