Eccentric Exercise: More Muscle and Strength with Less Wear and Tear

When used appropriately, eccentric exercise helps you build more muscle and improves strength while giving your joints a break from the grind of concentric-focused, traditional strength training workouts.

Unfortunately, eccentric training is often overlooked and underutilized. 

In this article, I’ll answer the following questions:

  • What is eccentric training?
  • What are the benefits of eccentric training?
  • What are the risks of eccentric training?

I’ll explain how to combine eccentric training and tempo to build muscle faster, using lighter weights and giving your nervous system and joints a break.

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What is eccentric exercise?

Scientifically speaking:

An eccentric (lengthening) muscle contraction occurs when a force applied to the muscle exceeds the momentary force produced by the muscle itself, resulting in the forced lengthening of the muscle-tendon system while contracting. During this process, the muscle absorbs energy developed by an external load, explaining why eccentric action is also called “negative work” as opposed to concentric (shortening) contraction or “positive work.”

Stéphanie Hody, et al. Eccentric Muscle Contractions: Risks and Benefits

Put more simply, eccentric contractions control movements in the direction of gravity’s pull, and concentric contractions create a force against gravity.

For example, in a push-up, the eccentric portion of the movement is where you lower yourself to toward the floor. Your pecs, triceps, and anterior deltoid remain contracted as they lengthen to allow you to descend towards the floor.

In strength training jargon, an eccentric contraction is also called a “negative,” and the concentric contraction may be called the “positive.”

When most people weight train, they reach a point of concentric muscle failure while still having plenty of strength to continue performing eccentric contractions.

Reaching eccentric muscle failure improves concentric strength as well as eccentric strength.

Benefits of Eccentric Training

The following are some of the benefits of eccentric training:

Greater anabolic signaling

Eccentric training creates a more significant anabolic signal, which helps build muscle faster than traditional strength training. Muscle damage or inflammation may trigger a greater anabolic signal.

Less nervous system or central fatigue

Excessive heavy strength training takes a toll on your nervous system.

For a high-performance athlete who has no other focus beyond training, competing, and recovering, that might be okay.

The average person with inconsistent sleep patterns, mediocre nutrition, and higher personal or professional stress, training heavy, year-round, can’t handle that same stress level. It leaves them physically and emotionally drained.

Though eccentric training is very difficult, it doesn’t cause the same drain on your nervous system as other types of strength training does. People with adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue, chronically high stress levels, or who are sleep deprived might also benefit more from eccentric training than traditional training.

Gains in strength and muscle mass

This is probably why you’re reading this article. If there wasn’t a superior benefit for muscle and strength gains, I wouldn’t be writing about eccentric training either.

Like any training style, you might eventually plateau or get bored, so I don’t recommend eccentric training as the only way to train. But it can be an effective component of an annual training plan.

Improved speed, power, and agility

Eccentric movement isn’t only about weight training.

Running downhill, landing when you jump off a box or slowing your lateral momentum so you can sidestep and run the other direction are all examples of eccentric muscle contractions.

Eccentric training improves the performance of eccentric movements. So, if an athlete participates in a sport that relies on eccentric strength, they should include negatives in an annual training program.

Improved strength when muscle is lengthened and under tension

You have greater strength and joint stability when your muscles are in a shortened position.

However, most injuries occur when a muscle is contracted and in its lengthen position or end range of motion. With eccentric training, you improve strength and stability in that position.

Greater neural adaptation

It takes significant coordination to slowly control a bar, dumbbell, or other resistance through an eccentric contraction.

The first time you try it, you’ll probably shake like you took too much albuterol. Over time, your control of the movement improves significantly, as does your ability to handle heavier loads.

Increased resting metabolic rate and fat metabolism

Because eccentric training causes higher levels of muscle damage and triggers more inflammation in the muscle cell, it also raises metabolic rate to a greater extent than many other training methods.

With an elevated resting metabolic rate, fat metabolism increases as well.

Improved insulin sensitivity

Muscle stores glucose as glycogen. The more muscle you have, the more sugar you can store, which is why building muscle improves insulin sensitivity.

Since eccentric training builds muscle so well, it also improves insulin sensitivity.

Risks of Eccentric Training

Increased muscle damage

Increased muscle damage from eccentric exercise is a benefit, but it can also be a risk.

I don’t recommend negatives for novice exercisers or those who already have compromised immune systems or higher inflammation levels.

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)

If you’ve never done eccentric training before, expect to be very sore in the days following your first few workouts.

Eventually, the soreness won’t be quite as bad, but it’s worse than most other types of exercise. Don’t do it the day before you commit to helping a friend load or unload a moving truck.

Prepare for the pain ahead of time and read my article on how to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness.

Post-workout muscular fatigue

Eccentric training significantly reduces strength and performance abilities after your training session.

I did an eccentric-focused training session today, and my triceps are so fatigued that my arms are shaking as I type out these words.

It isn’t debilitating, but it is something to be aware of. 

Risk of muscle or tendon injuries

Though your ligaments and cartilage won’t take the same sort of pounding, eccentric training does put significant stress on your muscles and tendons.

If you’re a male in your 30s or 40s, you’re already at a greater risk of a bicep tendon rupture. This shouldn’t be an issue when you use tempo-based negatives, like I explain below, but it’s a risk when you use pure strength-based eccentric training.

How to Do Eccentric Training

I integrate eccentric work into training programs a couple of ways:

  1. To build strength 
  2. To maximize muscle growth

Each has advantages, but using eccentric work for pure strength requires a training partner and shouldn’t be done alone. It’s also less valuable unless you’re a strength-based athlete or weightlifter.

Eccentric training for strength and power

Useful for athletes and weightlifters.

To maximize strength gains, you can use a variety of tools and tricks to overload the eccentric part of a movement while using your usual resistance for the concentric.

To emphasize the eccentric contraction, you could:

  • Position bands or chains around the bar or your body to reduce the load through the concentric contraction and remove the assistance as you progress through the eccentric contraction, or add load during the eccentric contraction
  • Use specialized equipment with flywheels and pulley systems that increase resistance during the negative portion of the movement.
  • Have a training partner who applies extra pressure on the bar or body during the eccentric movement or helps lift the weight during the concentric movement
  • Drop from a box to a squat, which uses gravity to add resistance as you stop the momentum generated from dropping off the box

In each of these examples, you must control more resistance on the lift’s negative portion than the positive.

The inclusion of eccentric loads not constrained by concentric strength appears to be superior to traditional resistance training in improving variables associated with strength, power and speed performance.

Jamie Douglas, et al., Chronic Adaptations to Eccentric Training: A Systematic Review

Though this intense form of training might be useful for strength athletes, I don’t find it beneficial for middle-aged men and women who want to be healthy and fit.

Fortunately, there’s another way to leverage the benefits of eccentric training without using massive loads or needing special devices or training partners.

Eccentric training for hypertrophy

Useful for all adults, even older adults and those recovering from injuries.

Muscle failure stimulates your muscles to get bigger and stronger. Though we often equate muscle failure with maximal lifts, you can also cause muscle failure by slowing your contraction’s pace and using less weight.

Controlled contractions may be more effective than uncontrolled contractions. When you press the bar up on bench press with as much force as you can generate, you create momentum. Somewhere between the bottom of the press and the top, the bar holds enough momentum to reach the end range of motion, and you no longer need to contract your muscles with the same force.

Some muscle fibers get a temporary rest in the midst of a lift. The same is the case for the eccentric contraction. Many people let the bar fall toward their chest, stopping its momentum toward the bottom. But at the top of the fall, their pecs, triceps, and anterior deltoid muscles remain partially relaxed.

By controlling the bar’s speed (or dumbbell, cable, or your body), you remove the momentum and maintain a consistent resistance. Though you cannot use as much resistance, you can create more muscle failure with a slower tempo.

What is tempo?

Tempo refers to the speed of each portion of a movement. Strength coaches and trainers usually denote the tempo with a four-digit designation as follows:

Eccentric | Pause | Concentric | Pause

On the bench press, a tempo of 4211 means you’d slowly control the bar as it moves toward your chest over a 4-count, pause for an isometric contraction in the bottom position for a 2-count, drive the bar back to the top, briefly pause, and then slowly control the bar back down again.

Remember, you work with gravity during the eccentric contraction, and during the concentric contraction, you work against gravity.

As your tempo slows, your time under tension increases. As time under tension increases, the amount of weight you can use to perform the same number of reps decreases.

By using a slower tempo for the negative, you reach momentary muscle failure in the eccentric contraction. This may lead to more significant muscular development and possibly increased strength, even though you use lighter loads.

This style of training isn’t only beneficial for healthy, experienced fitness enthusiasts. It’s also effective for helping people recover from injuries or build muscle mass as older adults.

Using the bench press as an example once more, let’s say you can do five reps at 225 pounds without considering your tempo.

If your training program calls for a tempo of 4112, you’ll significantly slow your eccentric contraction, which means your time under tension increases. You have to maintain a contraction for a longer time. As a result, to complete five solid reps, you’ll need to use less weight. Yet you can get the same, if not better, results.

Should you use eccentric training in your workout program?

In my opinion, almost everyone would benefit from slowing their tempo, increasing their time under tension, and focusing on slow, deliberate negatives.

On the other hand, most people don’t need bands and chains, and not everyone is ready for plyometrics, which is why I don’t include them in most training programs outside of VIGOR Strength Athlete.

When used for a portion of your annual training year, eccentric training makes a significant difference in your results.