You can get stronger and build muscle by grabbing a pair of dumbbells and going at it, but if you’re set on a specific strength goal, you may want to take a more intentional approach. Whether you’ve just finished your first-ever strength workout or you hit the weights four times a week, there’s an important fitness concept to know about if you want to build muscle, get stronger, and even manage muscle soreness.
That concept is called eccentric movement, and it’s about as close to a legit fitness “hack” as you’ll ever find.
Tapping into eccentric movement (also referred to as eccentric exercise) can help you get closer to your strength goals and challenge your muscles in a new way, even without weights. Understanding eccentric movement can also help you realize why some workouts leave you debilitatingly sore while others leave you unfazed.
Ready to learn more? POPSUGAR spoke to Heather Milton, MS, CSCS, an exercise physiologist and clinical specialist at NYU Langone’s Sports Performance Center to get all the details on eccentric exercise, including how to use it to your advantage.
What Is an Eccentric Movement?
During an exercise, when your muscles are activated, they can either contract while shortening (a concentric contraction), lengthening (an eccentric contraction), or without changing in length (an isometric contraction), per the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Most physical activities and exercises contain multiple types of contractions, if not all three. To help you visualize this, think of a bicep curl:
- When you’re curling the weight up toward your shoulder, your bicep muscles are doing a concentric contraction.
- When you’re lowering the weight back down toward your thighs, your bicep muscles are doing an eccentric contraction.
- If you were to hold the position in a bicep curl when your elbows are bent at 90 degrees, your bicep muscles are doing an isometric contraction.
So, an eccentric movement or exercise is when the muscle is contracting while lengthening, Milton explains. Your muscles are made up of overlapping patterns of muscle fibers. Interlace your fingers with your palms open; this is how your muscle fibers sit, she explains.
“When you’re lengthening a muscle, those fibers are actually stretching away from each other,” she says. As this happens, tiny proteins in your muscles try and hold them together, Milton explains. (For a visual, if you still have your hands interlaced, try pulling them apart without allowing your fingers to unlink.) “When you’re doing eccentric exercise, you’re actually, in a sense, elongating the muscle in a controlled fashion, meaning that the proteins within the muscle are actually trying to control the rate that you’re elongating it,” she says.
Sounds hard on your muscle fibers? It is. Research shows that eccentric movements break apart more of your muscle fibers (and thus make you more sore) than other types of contractions — but they also make you stronger. And on that note . . .
Why Eccentric Exercises Are Important For Building Muscle
To understand why eccentric exercises are so great, you need to know how, exactly, workouts make you stronger. When you exercise and you challenge your muscles beyond their current ability, you actually shear tiny tears into your muscles and connective tissues, per NASM. Your body sets off an internal response to help heal that muscle tissue and build it back stronger. In the meantime, that damage and healing process is what causes you to feel muscle soreness.
Eccentric movement does more damage to muscle fibers than concentric or isometric contractions, resulting in a bigger effort to rebuild those muscles as stronger and more capable. So, simply put, they elicit bigger strength gains. Research confirms that consistent eccentric training promotes greater increases in muscle strength and size, as well as neurological adaptations (i.e. the connection between your brain and muscles). Other research shows that eccentric exercises also increase the stiffness and strength of tendons, which helps them better transmit force between your muscles and bones.
Focusing on eccentric exercise also allows you to increase the time your muscles are under tension. (For example, if a trainer tells you to slowly lower down in a squat for three seconds, they’re increasing time under tension. As you lower your body down, your quadriceps muscles in your thighs will lengthen and eccentrically contract.) By spending more time under tension, your muscles have to work harder to hold the muscle and control the contraction, Milton explains. This is one great way to challenge your muscles when you don’t have the ability to increase the amount of weight you’re lifting, and also increases muscle activation overall, according to research.
How to Add Eccentric Exercises to Your Routine
Most exercises or physical activities include both concentric and eccentric movements, and that’s a good thing, as they’re both beneficial to have in your routine. However, tapping into eccentric exercises can help you build more muscle, especially if you’re limited on equipment.
The easiest way you can incorporate intentional eccentric exercise into your routine is to slow down the “lowering” portion of an exercise to increase time under tension. Try following a three- or four-count tempo, Milton says. For example, if you’re doing squats, you can lower your body for three or four counts, and then take one count to perform the concentric movement and stand up.
You can also perform something called “negatives,” which is when you try to perform only the eccentric movement section of an exercise. For example, if you start in a plank position and slowly lower yourself to the floor, then find your way back into the top of a plank without doing the “up” part of the push-up. (Instead, you could sit back onto your heels in a Child’s Pose and then come back into plank, for example.) You can also do negative pull-ups or, as Rita Ora demonstrated in a recent Instagram workout video, Nordic hamstring curl negatives.
When incorporating eccentric exercises into your routine, there are a few things you should keep in mind. For starters, you might be really sore for the next few days. You’ll also need to factor in the load (how much weight you’re lifting), how often you’re training, and the types of exercises you’re doing to make sure you’re not pushing yourself too hard. All of these factors will depend on where you are in your fitness journey and what your personal goals are. When in doubt, start with bodyweight moves or go lighter with the amount of weight you’re lifting to be safe.
— Additional reporting by Tamara Pridgett