Maximizing Strength Gains with Eccentric Muscle Contractions
You’re first reaction to the title of this article might be, “HUH?” What I mean by, “maximizing strength gains with eccentric muscle contractions” is basically how you can use simple exercises such as the bench press or squat more effectively in regard to growing bigger, more powerful muscles.
When we lift weights at the gym, we typically perform dynamic (isotonic) exercise. In this type of exercise, movement occurs at the joint of action. To make this more clear, take a look at the diagram below.
When you perform a dynamic exercise, in this case a bicep curl, there are two types of movement, positive and negative, or concentric and eccentric. During the concentric contraction, or when you are lifting the weight, the muscles are shortened as they generate a force which exceeds the weight opposing its contraction. Once the concentric contraction occurs, or when you are lowering the weight, the opposite eccentric contraction can occur, in which the muscle is lengthened. These concentric and eccentric movements occur in all other types of dynamic exercises, such as bench press, shoulder press, squats, and deadlifts.
How to Use Negative Movements to Maximize Strength Gains
Interestingly, we have the ability to lower up to 1.4 times the weight in which we can lift (1). So, if we were bench pressing 135 pounds, we could theoretically safely lower 189 pounds. For a better visual, 135 pounds equates to a 45-pound barbell with one 45 pound weight on each side. If we added a 25 pound weight to each side, it would equate to about 40% more of the original weight.
That is a huge difference, and several methods have been designed to harness this superhuman capability of ours.
The first method is to load a weight stack to 125% of your 1 rep max and have a partner help you lift it. Your job is to simply lower it down in a controlled manner (2). Your partner will help you lift the weight each time and lower it safely on your last rep. A second method is to use, “forced negatives.” Again, you will need a partner. Simply perform your standard set, and when you cannot lift any more, your partner can help you lift the weight up, and you can perform a few more negative movements with their help. A third method which is effective if you are not working out with a partner is to VERY slowly lower the weights on each of your last reps. So when you are fighting with the concentric contraction on the last rep and finally reach the top of the movement, take 5-10 seconds to lower the weight; you will find it great fun to control heavy weights on your own when your muscles are screaming to relax. A fourth method requires even more experience and expertise then the first three, along with three spotters. Each time you reach the apex of a movement, two spotters on each side of a barbell can quickly add the pre-determined amount of weight, and when you reach the lowest point of the movement, they can again remove the weight. There are inherent safety and synchronicity issues with this process, so the University of Florida created a machine that does it for you called the NeGator (3)!
Of the four methods mentioned for maximizing eccentric movements, each requires an advanced ability in weight-lifting, they are not techniques for beginners or novices. They should only be performed by physically capable individuals under the guidance of trained professionals. Working out in such a way is highly likely to cause delayed onset muscle soreness, especially if you are new to it. Therefore, it is best to work up to this type of training, say trying it on 1 set at first, then a week or two later, with 2 sets, and so on. You can also interchange between the types of exercises you use it with, say one week on bench press and the next on shoulder press. Remember to listen to your body and see if it is helpful and fun for you. If it is not done properly, serious injury can occur.