Eccentric Action Training

The eccentric action of a muscle refers to a resisted lengthening of that muscle. In short, the muscle is exerting force while it's being lengthened. This type of action has also been called the yielding action (opposed to the overcoming action which refers to the actual lifting of the resistance) as well as negative action.

Eccentric action is present in most free weight and machine exercises; however, since concentric strength potential is lower than the eccentric strength potential, the yielding portion of a movement is rarely fully stimulated: the relative weakness of the overcoming portion prevents a complete overload during the yielding portion of the exercise.

As I'll explain more in-depth later, it's the yielding or negative portion of an exercise which gives us the most bang for our buck. So, an individual seeking maximum results should plan training methods emphasizing eccentric overload. How? I'm glad you asked.

It's been a while since we've known that the yielding (eccentric/negative) portion of an exercise is responsible for more strength gains than the overcoming (concentric/miometric/positive) portion. For example, a study by Hortobagyi and coworkers found that the total maximal strength improvement from eccentric-only training brought more strength gains than a concentric-only program followed for six weeks.

By total maximal strength, I mean the sum of maximum concentric, isometric, and eccentric strength. In that parameter, eccentric training gave a mean improvement of 85% while concentric training led to an improvement of 78%. Furthermore, this study used submaximal yielding actions and maximal overcoming actions. Surely this tells us a lot about the potential of yielding strength training, at least when maximum strength gains are concerned.

It's to be noted that these results are in accordance with the body of scientific literature on the subject. For example, a study by Higbie et al. (1996) found a combined strength increase (concentric strength improvement plus eccentric strength improvement) of 43% with an eccentric-only regimen compared to one of 31.2% with a concentric-only regimen.

We should also note a study by Hilliard-Robertson and coworkers which concluded:

"A resistance training protocol which includes eccentric as well as concentric exercise, particularly when the eccentric is emphasized, appears to result in greater strength gains than concentric exercise alone."

This is in accordance with an early study by Komi and Buskirk (1972) who recorded greater strength increases after an eccentric training regimen than after a concentric-only regimen. It was also found that omitting eccentric stress in a training program severely compromise the potential strength gains (Dudley et al. 1991).

The last study mentioned above found that eccentric-only training led to an average muscle size gain of 6.6% over ten weeks while a concentric-only program led to gains of 5%. While the difference may not seems to be huge, any bodybuilder who knows his stuff understands that 2% more muscle over a ten week period can be important, especially in the long run.

These results are backed by another recent study (Farthing and Chilibeck 2003) which concluded that eccentric training resulted in greater hypertrophy than concentric training.

One recent study (LaStayo et al. 2003) even found accentuated eccentric training to cause 19% more muscle growth than traditional strength training over eleven weeks!

Eccentric training allows one to stimulate greater strength and size gains than pure concentric training. Why is that? There are five major reasons:

  1. There's a greater neural adaptation to eccentric training than to concentric training (Hortobagyi et al. 1996).
  2. There's a more important force output produced during a maximal eccentric action (greater overload) because you can use a higher external load (Colliander and Tesch 1990).
  3. There's a higher level of stress per motor unit during eccentric work. Less motor units are recruited during the eccentric portion of a movement, thus each of the recruited motor units receives much more stimulation (Grabiner and Owings 2002 , Linnamo et al. 2002). Furthermore, since the nervous system seems to recruit less motor units during a maximal eccentric action, the potential for improvement could be greater than with maximal concentric action.
  4. There's some evidence that maximal eccentric actions will preferably recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are more responsive to muscle growth and strengthening (Nardone et al. 1989, Howell et al. 1995, Hortobagyi et al. 1996). In fact, eccentric training may stimulate an evolution towards a faster contractile profile (Martin et al. 1995).
  5. Most of the muscle microtrauma to the cells occurring during training is a result of the eccentric action performed (Brown et al. 1997, Gibala et al. 2000). It's been established that this microtrauma acts as the signal to start the muscle adaptation process (Clarke and Feedback, 1996).

For most of us, strength and size gains are the name of the game. However, the positive effects of negative training don't stop there. We could also note the following "fringe" benefits:

  1. Greater cross-education will occur (Hortobagyi and Lambert 1997). Cross-education refers to transfer of strength gains from one limb/side to the other. In practical terms it means that if you were to work only your right arm using eccentric actions, some of the strength gains would transfer to the left arm. This can be very beneficial to prevent excessive strength loss if one limb is immobilized.
  2. Eccentric training is also a superior method to treat tendinitis when compared with concentric exercise (Mafi et al. 2001). It could be argued that this form of training is beneficial to injured athletes and that it's relatively safer than concentric training even if the loads used are greater.
  3. A last point of interest is that strength gains from eccentric training are maintained longer during a period of detraining than concentric-only training (Collinder and Tesch 1992, Housh et al. 1996). This may be very important for athletes who can't train as much during the season as they can in the off-season.

The last few sections were very dense in scientific information, but what does it all mean in the real world? It means:

  1. If you deemphasise the yielding portion of your strength exercises (lowering the bar very fast, not contracting your muscles during the eccentric portion, etc.) you might as well not be training at all, at least if maximum strength and size are important to you. Be careful though, it doesn't mean you should accentuate/emphasize the eccentric stress in all of your exercises, just that some exercises should target a very large eccentric overload.
  2. Accentuating the eccentric stress during a session will lead to more strength gains. The reasons are related to structural as well as neural adaptations.
  3. The eccentric portion of a movement is the main stimulus for muscle growth as it's the cause of most of the microtrauma inflicted on the muscles. This acts as the signal to kick the muscle-building process into overdrive.
  4. One more benefit I found from experience is that overloading the eccentric portion of an exercise allows one to get used to holding big weights and controlling them. This can have a very important confidence-building effect when attempting to lift maximum weights.

The 2/1 technique

This technique can be used quite effectively with exercises such as seated rowing, cable rope curl, cable rope triceps extension and most exercises that can be done using the triceps rope. It also works on most machines.

The way it works is pretty simple: you lift the weight (overcoming/concentric portion) using two limbs (both arms if you're doing an upper body exercise, both legs if it's a lower body movement) and you return the weight (yielding/eccentric portion) with one limb.

So the load during the yielding portion of the exercise is twice as high as during the overcoming portion. The load to use should be light enough so that you can accelerate it during the overcoming portion but heavy enough to make the single-limb yielding portion hard to do. A load of around 70% of your maximum two-limb result is a good place to start.

The overcoming portion should be done as fast as possible while the yielding portion is to be executed in five seconds. Sets of three to five reps per limb are performed (so six to ten total reps per set).

The Two-Movements Technique

This technique works by doing the overcoming portion of the lift using a compound movement and the yielding portion using an isolation movement. The two best examples are the power clean/reverse curl (lift the bar as a power clean and lower it as a reverse curl) and the close-grip bench press/nose-breaker (lift the bar as a close grip bench and lower it as a nose-breaker or triceps extension). I've provided some photos of this further down.

Using this technique will allow you once again to use a very heavy load in the yielding portion of the movement, thus placing a super-adaptive stimulation on your muscles and nervous system. I find that doing three to five reps work best with this type of training, too. Here are a few examples of possible movements with which to use this technique:

Muscles to be overloaded Overcoming portion Yielding portion
Biceps, brachialis Power clean from hang Reverse curl
Triceps Close-grip bench press Nose-breaker
Pectoralis major Dumbbell press Dumbbell flies
Anterior and medial delts Dumbbell shoulder press Lateral raises
Quadriceps, glutes Two legs squat with a DB One leg squat
Hamstrings, erector spinea Weighted back extension One leg back extension
Rhomboids, posterior delts Dumbbell bent over rowing Dumbbell rear delt raises

Super Slow Eccentrics

This technique is fairly simple: using a moderate to heavy load (60-85% of your max) you execute a super slow yielding phase while lifting (overcoming) the bar explosively. The following table gives you the parameters to use depending on the load you select:

Load Yielding Portion Reps/Set Load Yielding Portion Reps/Set
60% 14 sec. 3 75% 8 sec. 2
65% 12 sec. 3 80% 6 sec. 1
70% 10 sec. 2 85% 4 sec. 1

This type of accentuated eccentric training is fairly easy to do and can yield impressive muscle size and tendon strength improvements.

Negative Training

"Negatives" basically refer to performing only the yielding portion of an exercise and having spotters lift the bar for you. You should use a load that's between 110 and 130% of your maximum when performing negatives. The time of the action (lowering) depends on the load:

  • 10 seconds if the load is 110-115%
  • 8 seconds if the load is 115-120%
  • 6 seconds if the load is 120-125%
  • 4 seconds if the load is 125-130%

When doing supramaximal negatives you should only do sets of one rep. Anywhere from three to ten singles should be performed in a workout. This type of training places a very serious demand on the nervous system and for that reason you should take relatively long rest intervals when using this technique.

Let's put the above ideas to work! The following program will have you train your upper arms twice per week with at least 72 hours between each workout. Biceps and triceps are done in the same session and no other muscles should be included in these sessions.

This program is a shock program and thus shouldn't be used more than four weeks in a row. However, it can be repeated after using a different program for another four weeks.

A. Biceps Two-Movements Technique: Power Clean/Reverse Curl

Power clean/reverse curl
  • 5 sets of 5 reps
  • Explosive overcoming with 5 seconds of yielding
  • Use a load between 90-110% of your strict reverse curl
  • 60 seconds of rest between sets

B. Triceps Two-movements Technique: Close-grip Bench/Nose-breaker

  • 5 sets of 5 reps
  • Explosive overcoming with 5 seconds of yielding
  • Use a load between 90-110% of your strict nose-breaker
  • 60 seconds of rest between sets

C. Biceps 2/1 Technique: Preacher Machine Curl

  • 7 sets of 3 reps
  • Explosive overcoming with 5 seconds of yielding
  • Use a load between 70-80% of your two-arms machine preacher curl
  • 60 seconds of rest between sets

D. Triceps 2/1 Technique: Cable Rope Pushdown

Cable rope pushdown
  • 7 sets of 3 reps
  • Explosive overcoming with 5 seconds of yielding
  • Use a load between 70-80% of your two-arms cable rope pushdown
  • 60 seconds of rest between sets

E. Biceps Super Slow Eccentric: Straight Bar Curl

  • 7 sets of 3 reps
  • Yielding portion in 12 seconds, overcoming as fast as possible
  • Use approximately 65% of your best curl
  • 60 seconds between sets

F. Triceps Super Slow Eccentric: Reverse Grip Cable Pressdown

Reverse grip cable pressdown
  • 5 sets of 3 reps
  • Yielding portion in 12 seconds, overcoming as fast as possible
  • Use approximately 65% of your reverse pressdown
  • 60 seconds between sets

A. Triceps Negative: Negative Close-grip Bench Press

  • 5 sets of 1 rep
  • Lower the bar in 8 seconds
  • Use a load that's 110-115% of your maximum close-grip bench press
  • 3 minutes of rest between sets

B. Biceps Negative: Negative Barbell Curl

  • 5 sets of 1 rep
  • Lower the bar in 8 seconds
  • Use a load that's 110-115% of your maximum strict barbell curl
  • 3 minutes of rest between sets

C. Triceps Timed Speed Reps: Cable V-bar Pushdown

  • 3 sets of as many reps as you can complete in 40 seconds
  • The movement is done as fast as possible while still being strict
  • Use a load that's 50-60% of your maximum pushdown
  • 2 minutes of rest between sets

D. Biceps Timed Speed Reps: Reverse Incline Hammer Dumbbell Curl

Reverse incline hammer dumbbell curl
  • 3 sets of as many reps as you can complete in 40 seconds
  • The movement is done as fast as possible while still being strict
  • Use a load that's 50-60% of your maximum hammer curl
  • 2 minutes of rest between sets

Hopefully you now understand how to apply accentuated eccentric training to your program. If you do you'll be rewarded with a faster rate of muscle and strength gains than ever before!

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