The aim must be to achieve powerful contractions shredding the fibers and lay the groundwork for new tissue. Yes, technically that is true, but do you understand the difference between the types of contractions?
Most lifters focus on the concentric phase. They see this contraction as the essence of ‘lifting’. In this phase, the muscle shortens under load, and the weight gets ‘lifted’..Now, let’s not misunderstand the point here. Concentric contractions are a vital part of muscular stimulation. They are arguably the most important. But, they are not the be-all and end-all. Two additional phases follow the concentric phase. Lifters usually overlook these phases to the detriment of performance and results.
First, there is the isometric phase or peak contraction. The muscle neither shortens nor lengthens. The muscle still works hard during this phase. The tiny filaments fire and ripple as a well-organised array of motor units. Together, they strive to keep the weight from falling. Obviously, this is not true for the lock out phase of lifts, such as bench press or shoulder press. Even so, holding the weight just short of lockout achieves the same effect. If you can’t hold the weight at peak contraction for at least one second, you didn’t use muscular force to get it there. This is a great tell-tale sign of technique.
Second, there is the eccentric phase of the lift, or the lengthening of the muscle as the weight is lowered. At this phase, the muscle fibers and motor units work intensely. This causes a lot of stress to the system and stimulates the growth and strengthening of all tissues involved.
Studies show you can hold 25% more weight at peak contraction than you can lift. You can also slowly lower 25% more, in a controlled manner. So, the eccentric phase is approximately 50% stronger than the concentric.
So, why do so many people ignore this vital and powerful phase of the lift? Why do they simply let the weight drop, instead of lowering it?
Because they miss out on feeling the muscle stretch and shred back to the start position.
Three answers link that essential understanding:
Never neglect the eccentric, or negative phase of your lifting. If you do, you throw away valuable and potent muscular stimulation. Remember: muscular stimulation equals growth!
Take between 2 and 4 seconds to lower the weight back to the start position, before using muscular effort, not strength, to boost the weight back up again. Focusing on the eccentric phase also provides an excellent tool for building the mind-muscle connection. As you feel the muscle stretch, you gain an insight into the workings of your body.
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So, you know about lowering the weight slowly and in a controlled manner to reap the rewards of the potent growth potential of the eccentric phase. But, what about using the added strength of this phase as a stand alone workout tool for growth and strength gain?
There are multiple techniques you can add to your training routine to take the muscles beyond failure and hit them with a deep and powerful shock.
Pure eccentric training almost always requires you to use a reliable and strong training partner. On the last set of an exercise, pick a weight allowing you to perform 6-12 clean reps with perfect form (as you should always!). When you reach failure and can no longer complete another rep, your partner should step in and lift the weight for you. This should not be a forced rep, where your partner provides just enough help for you to complete the rep; instead your partner should take as much strain as possible.
This is all about the eccentric phase. When the weight is lifted, lower it slowly. Take between 5 and 8 seconds (or longer if you can) to reach the bottom of the lift. This hurts, but hey, that’s what you’re there for! Repeat this procedure until you can no longer control the eccentric phase for more than 3 seconds.
Do NOT do this on every set, as that is a sure way to push yourself into overtraining territory.
When doing an exercise such as concentration curls, lift the weight with your free hand.
Another method of utilizing eccentric training requires two training partners. As previously mentioned, the eccentric phase is much more powerful than the concentric. This works to your advantage for lifts performed using a Smith machine. Lift the weight, then get your partners to add a plate to either side for the eccentric phase. They should then swiftly remove these plates at the bottom of the lift, ready for another rep. Bench press, shoulder press, and box squats are excellent exercises for using this method, but never attempt it with a standard barbell! That is a recipe for disaster!
Eccentric training for strength really steps up this technique a gear! You require at least one very strong and reliable training partner to make this work effectively and safely.
Now, if you train specifically for strength, it can be assumed that you know what your one rep max is? You know precisely how much weight you can shift on your big lifts? Well, prepare to ‘lift’ more!
Warm up and perform two or three well weighted, working sets, then get into some hardcore eccentric training. Take your one rep max and add more weight! As previously mentioned, your eccentric phase is far stronger than the concentric. To begin with, add 10% to your max, and with the aid of your partner, unrack the weight. Using barbells is far safer here, as the injury risk lowers, and it is far easier for your partner(s) to help.
Now, lower that bar as slowly as you can. Feel the burn, grimace and fight gravity. At the bottom, your partners will almost certainly have to do most of the work, and fast. Repeat until you can do no more. As you adjust to this technique, add more and more weight. It’s all about progression!
This technique improves people’s one rep max. The power of the eccentric phase should never be forgotten! But, do not employ these techniques every session, or you will burn out and find yourself overtrained.
Jonathan Warren is a national level physique competitor and personal trainer with multiple certifications including NASM, NCCPT, and IKFF. His specializations include mobility training and corrective exercise as well as contest preparation.
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