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Fitness Defined: Concentric and Eccentric Contractions (and Why It Matters)

By: , SparkPeople Blogger
2/26/2010 10:19 AM   :  78 comments   :  36,342 Views

Usually, the average exerciser doesn't think about physiology or kinesiology when he or she is exercising. Sure, you think about form, doing your exercises correctly, and achieving balance—both in terms of overall fitness (a balance of cardio, strength training and flexibility) and individual workouts (a balance in the body where you exercise all of your major muscle groups). And that's great! But there is also a lot going on in your body during each workout, and sometimes, learning more about exactly what is happening can help you work out more effectively so you can get better results.

Whether or not you've heard of concentric and eccentric muscle contractions, you can benefit from learning the difference—especially because focusing on ONE of them can help you get even better results from your strength training program—without spending more time in the gym.

Fitness Defined: Concentric and Eccentric Muscle Contractions (And Why It Matters)

Concentric (Positive) Contractions: Put simply, this contraction shortens your muscle as it acts against resistive force (like a weight). For example, during a biceps curl, the biceps contract concentrically during the lifting phase of the exercise.

Eccentric (Negative) Contractions: During these contractions, the muscles lengthen while producing force—usually by returning from a shortened (concentric) position to a resting position. Using the same example above, the lowering the weight back down during a biceps curl is an eccentric contraction for the biceps. Think of this as "putting on the breaks." You're basically slowing the descent of the weight back down instead of allowing the weight (and gravity) to just pull your arm back down passively.

So why does this matter?
It's a good idea to include both concentric and eccentric contractions in your strength-training program. Luckily, most traditional exercises include these movements—a lifting phase (using the shortening or concentric phase) and a lowering phase to return to the start position. However, how much time you spend in each phase can affect your results. Here are some facts:
  • Your muscles can generate more force during the eccentric phase of an exercise. For example, you may only be able to lift a 10-pound dumbbell for a biceps curl. But likely, you could hold and lower (the eccentric phase) a 15 or 20 pound weight.
  • By slowing down the negative (eccentric) phase of your exercise, you can help your muscles build greater strength. This is why, typically, people are advised to lower weights or return them to the start position slowly.
  • Negative training is a type of strength training designed for greater strength gains. It involves using heavier weights than you could typically lift concentrically and focusing just on the eccentric phase of the exercise. This does pose a higher risk for injury and should not be practiced by beginners, however.
  • You can also use negative training to your advantage—as a way to progress to exercises that are currently too difficult for you. For example, maybe you have a goal to perform real pull-ups but don't have the strength yet to lift yourself all the way up (concentric phase). You could help work up to that movement by focusing on the lowering phase. Stand on a box or step to come up to the "up" position and then work on slowly lowering yourself back down. After each lowering, step back up onto the box and repeat the lowering phase again. You'll be working the same muscles and still benefit from the exercise this way.
So next time you're in a class or following along with a DVD and the instructor tells you to lower the weights more slowly than you lifted them, you'll know that you're helping your muscles develop greater strength by doing so. And if you ever hit a plateau in your strength-training program focusing a little more on the negative part of your training can be just the ticket you need to make it to the next level.

Happy Lifting (and Lowering)!

Have you ever tried negative training? Will you think more about the eccentric phase of your exercises now that you know how much it can help you?


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Comments

  • 78
    Thanks for the blog! I'm just starting back to strength training and this is definitely something I needed to know. I just love Spark people! You all are the best out there! - 1/28/2011   12:50:16 PM
  • TLGRNT
    77
    Great article!! I hope that others will also follow suit and incorporate this technique into their workout routines. - 4/7/2010   10:19:35 AM
  • 76
    WHO KNEW!!!???

    If I knew this from the 80's I've certainly forgotten much. But we taught people to do exercises then that are now banned as unsafe . . . so hurrah for the new info, regardless of whether this is new or old. Thanks! - 4/4/2010   12:55:39 AM
  • 75
    I saw BARBARA WALTERS working out with a PT and she was doing the VERY slow weights. She's 78. - 3/24/2010   12:49:03 AM
  • 74
    Very helpful....am soon to start strength training...had done it many years ago but had been searching for refresher info...will help me think of good form. Thanks! - 3/7/2010   2:58:09 AM
  • 73
    This was very informative, thanks. - 3/2/2010   1:16:08 PM
  • 72
    I loved this article! It is so helpfuf that I added it to my favorites. I have no muscle tone and per my Doctor I am trying to strengthen my muscles. I really learned a lot about muscle toning, thank you. - 3/2/2010   11:26:33 AM
  • DELLINJ
    71
    I work with a personal trainer and he has me do 4 second returns occassionally. You know you have trained after 2 circuits this way. - 3/2/2010   10:16:16 AM
  • 70
    A lot of good information. Thanks - 3/1/2010   10:20:34 PM
  • 69
    This is just the kind of info that I need. Thanks so much! - 3/1/2010   4:56:26 PM
  • KARISHMAJHU
    68
    I wonder if this would work for pushups (which I cannot do at all yet). Is there a way to start in the "up" position and lower myself down slowly? going to have to experiment with this. - 3/1/2010   4:01:34 PM
  • PEEBS60
    67
    I wonder how this could apply to a "Curves" circuit when the workouts are designed to go faster. The machines are hydrolic and increase intensity when forced to go faster. - 3/1/2010   2:48:53 PM
  • AIRBORNE84
    66
    I use a Bowflex machine. The constant tension that these machines provide, are great for negative exercises. Now I have more info to pass on to my wife. Thank you! - 3/1/2010   1:56:31 PM
  • 65
    Great article. I had heard it was important to control the movement both directions but did not know why. This was a great explanation. Thanks, Coach Nicole! I will work harder at this during my next strenth training routine. - 3/1/2010   1:11:22 PM
  • 5PARKS1
    64
    Great article. I have tried the HIT training program off and on over the last few year and really enjoy it. The HIT training program emphasizes lifting under control in both the eccentric and concentric direction. However, I never had thie whole process explained like you did here. This articles encourages me to continue training implemmenting some of the HIT philosophy with a better understanding of what is being accomplished. - 3/1/2010   11:01:25 AM
  • 63
    Yet more clear info - something else I didn't know that I really needed to know. Spark is so motivational and educational. Thanks Coach Nicole! - 3/1/2010   12:30:14 AM
  • SNIKWILLS
    62
    Good stuff! - 3/1/2010   12:24:41 AM
  • B12UNITED
    61
    Good information. Thanks. - 2/28/2010   11:45:56 PM
  • 60
    Oh, this explained everything! I always wonder why we have to go to start position slowly. - 2/28/2010   11:26:25 PM
  • 59
    A clean simple explanation of why "lower slower" is good thing. Thank you!
    Motivation to stop procrastinating about increasing that good thing in existing and future workouts - 2/28/2010   8:28:29 PM
  • 58
    Good stuff....thanks - 2/28/2010   7:09:10 PM
  • 57
    Now I understand why the fitlinxx system at our YMCA has you lift in 1/2 the time it has you return to the start position! Makes so much more sense now and I'll remember to follow the timer on all the machines for greater strength training benefit. - 2/28/2010   12:23:01 PM
  • 56
    This makes so much sense. I've often wondered why it's easier to do reps faster but did not see the results I was wanting. - 2/28/2010   12:01:28 PM
  • KATVA1311
    55
    Thanks for the information. I was in an accident 8 months ago and the left ulna was crushed. The bones are healed, but I have no strength in that arm. Lifting 5 pounds is a struggle at times. - 2/28/2010   9:30:39 AM
  • ITCANBEDUN
    54
    Great information. - 2/27/2010   11:06:36 PM
  • 53
    That's so funny! I was just thinking about this during my workout today and wondering if there was any futher theory behind the "lower slower" concept than building strength/endurance by focusing on control rather than momentum. How timely that I should come across this article by chance tonight!
    This was very clearly written and informative. Thanks! - 2/27/2010   10:58:39 PM
  • KAINE0812
    52
    That was a wonderful and very informative article. I never thought that the lowering of the weight was the more important part. Thank you so much for the information. - 2/27/2010   10:55:33 PM
  • 51
    I totally agree - especially when I wanted to be able to do more pull ups. I got on a stool and then lowered myself down from the pull up bar for 5 seconds. After a couple of weeks of doing 5-10 reps of 'down' only, I was able to do 8 full pull ups! - 2/27/2010   10:41:52 PM
  • 50
    This makes so much sense.... - 2/27/2010   10:20:34 PM
  • GENOME
    49
    Interesting. i will have to discuss this with my workout buddy to make sure we absorb this information properly. - 2/27/2010   9:26:03 PM
  • 48
    I will definitely pay more attention when doing strength training, during the eccentric phase! Thanks! - 2/27/2010   8:57:19 PM
  • 47
    Excellent article, great info! - 2/27/2010   7:48:42 PM
  • 46
    Thanks! I'm going to go negative and try to work back up to pull-ups! - 2/27/2010   7:35:34 PM
  • 45
    Great article - I'd read most of this, and wanted to add one thing. Researchers have found a relationship between increased DOMS and eccentric moves, and those with fibromyalgia in particular may want to speak with their docs before changing emphasis to this type of workout (that's one of the areas that was explored). I like to balance my workouts between eccentric and concentric moves and have personally not found the DOMS difference to be enough to bother me, but thought I'd mentioned the possibility here. - 2/27/2010   4:44:04 PM
  • 44
    Wow, I knew the gym always advised me to lower the weights slowly, but I thought it was just to prevent injury to myself. I didn't realize there was an advantage to that slowdown. Thanks! - 2/27/2010   2:49:49 PM
  • 43
    My upper body strength is low. I will have to try this concept. Thanks. - 2/27/2010   2:21:19 PM
  • 42
    I've heard of negative training before. If I read my fitness magazines correctly, Taylor Lautner used negative training in order to pack on 30 pounds of muscle for his role in the Twilight movie.

    I do some negative training of my own. I do feel a difference when I slow down the motion. When I slow down, I know I'm using my muscles instead of momentum.

    - 2/27/2010   1:43:17 PM
  • 41
    I was taught to lift weights this way many years ago in a corporate fitness center and I still do it. Sometimes it takes me a long time to finish weight training and I get impatient, but after reading this I will again persevere.

    Question, since there are different muscle fibers for slow movements and fast movements, is there any need to tdo additional training for the muscle fibers that do the fast movement? - 2/27/2010   1:13:17 PM
  • 40
    Great information! I'll be putting it to use today! - 2/27/2010   12:48:58 PM
  • 39
    Thanks Great info!!! - 2/27/2010   12:09:11 PM
  • ANTHRO_VTX
    38
    Negative training can produce epic gains. When I used to train for competitive powerlifting, we would say that negative training resulted in the most substantial increase in strength and muscle mass. The point, I suppose, is that muscles develop and strengthen in response to stress and load, and nothing beats extended negative sets for that. - 2/27/2010   12:00:44 PM
  • 37
    This is a very interesting and informative as well as helpful article. I saved it to my favorites for reference later. I always find that understanding how something works helps keep me motivated.

    I read about lifting and lowering weights to a count of 10 each in order to avoid momentum with quicker reps. As I understand it, it causes the muscles to fire copletely thereby building them more quickly. I usually do a single set of 10 for each of my moves instead of doing quicker sets of three. It takes the same amount of time as three sets so that tells me that it's not "cheating". If find that this has been effective in building muscle.

    Thank you for this, Coach Nicole!

    - 2/27/2010   11:45:22 AM
  • 36
    WOW ... I have never heard of negative muscle training before ... thanks for the very helpful blog from a beginner who can sure use the info! - 2/27/2010   11:41:18 AM
  • 35
    I have always practiced the "lower/slower" simply because I was told to do so, but I had no idea that it was so beneficial! I love the idea of being able to do a pull-up, and I never thought about starting in the up position and lowering in order to build up my strength. I would love to be able to do pull-ups in my 50's, and I will be 51 in June. Thank you! - 2/27/2010   9:55:27 AM
  • 34
    great blog i am going to try this when i lift weights again. - 2/27/2010   9:52:12 AM
  • 33
    I want to be able to do One Pull Up. I am going to give this a chance. Thanks. - 2/27/2010   9:40:53 AM
  • 32
    I had a wonderful fitness instructor who trained me on weights and she drilled it into my head that lower weights and slower reps were the way to go. That was 15 years ago. I STILL see dudes at the gym pumping iron and creating an actual wind from their fast reps. They put their backs right into it, swinging those 25 lb dumb bells, one in each hand, grunting as they go. It really makes me wonder. - 2/27/2010   9:40:40 AM
  • 31
    Thanks for the clearly written reminder! - 2/27/2010   9:37:17 AM
  • 30
    I'll try this for my push ups. Thank you so much for the information! I would do weight training slowly, but have hit a plateau so maybe focusing on this for a while will help that :) - 2/27/2010   8:56:09 AM
  • 29
    I've known that it should be done, but not why - thanks for the great info! - 2/27/2010   8:55:43 AM

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