Use Eccentric Movements to Build Strength and Improve Flexibility
Focusing on the eccentric (negative) part of movements is often overlooked. But it can have many strength, hypertrophy, and mobility benefits. In this article, we will discuss the benefits of eccentric movements and how to integrate them into your training.
The concentric gets all the drama, but the eccentric work happens on the descent.
What Is an Eccentric Movement?
A movement where muscles:
- Shorten - is concentric
- Lengthen - is eccentric
- Stay the same - is isometric
In a barbell curl, the muscle gets shorter when you curl the bar toward you (the concentric portion of the movement). As you let the bar go down, you are doing the eccentric movement as the muscles lengthen. Eccentric movements are also known as “negatives.”
"An eccentric movement can be up to 1.75 times the weight of a concentric movement."
Depending on what you want to get out of your eccentric training, you may execute them at different speeds and use different weights. Let’s go through a few different movements and how to apply them for your specific goals.
The Benefits of Eccentric Movement
An eccentric movement can be up to 1.75 times the weight of a concentric movement. Having a heavier load allows your neurologic system to get used to the heavier weight. Because of this, eccentric training can build both greater concentric strength and power (speed of movement).
Practical Application - Pull Ups: Slow eccentrics are a great tool for getting past sticky points. Many athletes have gotten their first strict pull up by focusing on the eccentric movement. I have athletes do an “elevator” drill on eccentric pull ups - as they reach the “floors” where they have the most difficulty, they go even slower through the movement.
Practical Application - Explosive Jumping: Fast eccentrics are a great way to build speed and to increase jumping ability. An overspeed eccentric kettlebell swing builds vertical leaping ability. An experienced kettlebell athlete can eccentrically throw a 53lb (24kg) kettlebell on the downswing to generate 500lbs (225kg) of force. Then having to change the direction of that force builds powerful jumping mechanics.
You can accomplish the overspeed kettlebell swing in three ways:
- Actively throw the kettlebell down after it reaches the top
- Have a partner throw it down for you
- Use a band to force it back down. This movement is not recommended unless you are very proficient with the hard-style swing.
Many people are interested in hypertrophy (typically not as important for athletes and tactical operators). Eccentric movements cause muscle damage. This damage leads to the production of factors that stimulate protein synthesis and muscle growth. Research in animals indicates that eccentric training leads to hormone changes conducive to muscle growth (less myostatin, more IGF-I).
Practical Application - Bench Press: Heavy and slow eccentric movements will help build the most muscle. This activity preferentially recruits type-II muscle fibers. Use a spotter or have safety bars in place when doing these movements. Start with adding a load that is 10 to 20% greater than your 1RM. Control the eccentric movement for about 4 to 6 seconds. You will want to imagine that you can stop and reverse direction at any moment. These movements are not recommended for beginners. Being able to control a heavy weight is important and experience is needed.
Builds Flexibility and Stronger Joints
Eccentric training for flexibility is more effective than static stretching. In fact, researchers have found the eccentric squat had a greater effect on flexibility than static stretching. The eccentric motion increases the sarcomeres in series within a muscle, making the muscle longer. That is, it organizes the muscle fibers so they are not knotted up.
Researchers have also found that eccentric movements might protect against injuries. Specifically, soccer players were able to reduce common hamstring injuries by adding in eccentric movements.
Practical Application - Front Squats: I see many beginning (and some advanced) athletes having difficulty with the front squat. Front squats are difficult for many people as the torso must stay upright. Light to medium slow eccentrics can pry the hips open. Dan John’s goblet squat is good for this, and five sets of five reps with a five-second eccentric works quite well. Spending thirty seconds while you’re in the down part of the goblet squats would also be quite helpful.
As another option, you could try the sunset dance, as described by Pavel Tsatsouline. According to Pavel, the famous Soviet dancer Mahmoud Esambayev would take one and a half minutes to get to the bottom of the squat.
How Often to Use Eccentric Movements
Eccentric movement breaks down muscle more than concentric movements, so it takes more to recover from these movements. Thus, you will want to use them sparingly. But if you are using eccentrics for stretching, then you can do them every day.
"According to Pavel, the famous Soviet dancer Mahmoud Esambayev would take one and a half minutes to get to the bottom of the squat."
You could do a greasing-the-groove type of pull-up program and do 3 to 5 negatives a day. Do intense eccentric skill sessions much less often (maybe once a week). Make sure you give yourself time to recover after these movements.
Eccentric movements can help you build strength, more muscle, and greater flexibility, but depending on your goals, you will change the speed of the eccentric movements. There have been many reports of huge gains in strength from overspeed kettlebell eccentrics. Personally, I recommend eccentrics mostly for mobility gains and for getting past sticking points in movements (e.g., the pull up).
More Like This:
- Greasing the Groove: How to Make It Work for You
- Successful Pull Ups for Beginners: Say No to Bands
- 6 Powerful Benefits of Eccentric Training
- New on Breaking Muscle Today
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Photo 1 courtesy of Recon Photography.