Eccentric exercise is scientifically more effective than the kind you already do

eccentric exercise
Your complete guide to eccentric exerciseSCShutter - Getty Images

The word "eccentric", you’ll know, is most commonly used to describe someone or something unconventional – but in the world of fitness, it means something quite different. Thankfully, eccentric exercise doesn’t refer to a particularly strange style of training – rather, it’s a specific movement, or phase of a movement, that involves lengthening muscle contractions, on the downward or lowering part of each exercise.

Studies have confirmed that eccentric training is excellent for building strength – more efficient, even, than concentric training (when your muscle shortens as tension is produced, like a bicep curl). This is thought to be related to the fact that eccentric contractions generate more force as your muscles attempt to resist both the stretch that comes with lengthening, and the load from the weight or resistance you're using (in concentric contractions, it's just the load your muscles are battling with), though more research is needed in this area.

Researchers also believe eccentric exercise may be helpful for avoiding injury in athletes, as eccentric contractions are used to decelerate or absorb energy, so your body is more able to slow itself down and your muscles are able to absorb some of the impact from high-intensity exercises. Plus, this type of training is also helpful for learning and improving your form in various movements, since it forces you to slow down.

Most people – whether you’re brand new to resistance training or a seasoned lifter – can benefit from including eccentric exercises in their programmes. But, where to begin?

We spoke to personal trainer Sana Shirvani for everything you need to know about eccentric exercise.

What is eccentric exercise?

Eccentric refers to the “lowering” or “downward” phase of an exercise, where the muscles are lengthened under tension. Think: lowering into a squat or push-up.

Eccentric exercise (also known as negative training) places emphasis on this specific phase of a particular movement, usually with the goal of developing strength or improving form within that movement pattern. As mentioned above, while concentric contractions are great for building muscle and strength, studies have found eccentric exercise to be superior.

Eccentric vs concentric exercise

There are two types of muscle contractions, Shirvani tells us. Eccentric and concentric are both types of isotonic muscle contractions, meaning your muscle’s length changes throughout the movement but the tension does not, whereas isometric contractions are when your muscle is under tension, but doesn't change length.

  • Eccentric contractions happen when your muscles lengthen.

  • Concentric contractions happen when your muscles shorten.

  • Isometric contractions happen when the muscle is under tension, but without changing length.

Most exercises feature both eccentric and concentric contractions (think about the movement pattern of a squat, for instance: the lowering part is the eccentric phase, and the concentric phase happens when you drive back up to the starting position). However, we tend to focus more on the concentric phase of movements, which you may recognise from your own training.

An example of an isometric contraction might be a wall sit or a plank - your body is under constant tension, but you're not moving.

What is an example of an eccentric exercise?

‘In a Romanian deadlift, for example, the eccentric phase will occur when you are pushing your hips backwards and lengthening the glutes and hamstrings,’ says Shirvani. ‘In a dumbbell chest press, as you lower the dumbbells, you will be lengthening your chest muscles – this will be the eccentric phase of the exercise.’

Eccentric exercises include negative push-ups, where you lower from a plank into what’s usually the mid-point of a push-up, before lowering your knees and resetting your position to complete another rep – skipping the final phase of a traditional push-up, and negative pull-ups.

Are eccentric exercises better?

That depends on what qualifies as 'better' to you, but there are many potential benefits of incorporating eccentric exercises into your training routine.

1.They help build strength

For starters – the eccentric phase of an exercise can significantly enhance muscular strength. In fact, studies have shown that eccentric exercise can be more efficient than concentric exercise for building strength. More research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms behind the superior strength benefits of eccentric exercise, however, researchers believe that it's likely due to the fact that a greater amount of force is generated during eccentric contractions, compared with other contraction types, and they require less energy to perform, too.

‘When you perform eccentric movements, your muscles must generate force while lengthening under tension, which helps increase adaptation and strength over time,’ explains Shirvani.

2. They help build muscle

Similarly, research has found that eccentric exercises are also great if you’re looking to build muscle – and for the same reasons it's helpful for developing strength. ‘Eccentric training can promote muscle hypertrophy as the controlled lengthening of muscles during the eccentric phase leads to muscle fibre damage, triggering a repair and growth response – this can result in increased muscle size and definition,’ says Shirvani. She caveats that other factors, including sleep quality and nutrition, are important for muscle growth, too.

3. They can improve joint stability

Because eccentric exercise combines both strengthening and stretching elements, it can be beneficial for improving joint stability. Studies have found it to be a positive method of reducing injury risk to the lower body, in particular, compared with classic strength training, by improving your range of motion (ROM) while simultaneously building strength.

‘Strengthening the eccentric phase of movements can enhance your ability to control and decelerate your body or external loads, reducing the risk of injuries – especially in sports and activities involving rapid directional changes or deceleration,’ says Shirvani. ‘Many sports involve eccentric movements, such as running, jumping, and cutting. Incorporating eccentric training into your routine can improve your performance in these activities by enhancing strength, power, and control.’

eccentric exercise
Running involves eccentric movement.Plume Creative - Hearst Owned

4. They can reduce your risk of injury

We've touched on the reduced injury risk benefits of eccentric exercise already, but to really hammer home the point – one study, which explored the effects of hamstring eccentric exercise on preventing lower limb injuries, found that the implementation of a hamstring eccentric training programme reduced lower extremity injuries by 28%, and resulted in a huge 46% decrease in hamstring injury rate.

In addition, it resulted in a 34% decline in knee injury rate. This is likely due to the strengthening benefits of eccentric exercise, as well as its ability to improve ROM.

'Muscle strength development can be more effective by incorporating the eccentric phase of an exercise rather than the concentric phase alone,' Shirvani confirms. 'This increased eccentric strength can help stabilise joints and improve overall joint function as well as resisting external forces which can reduce the risk of injuries.'

Tendon health, she says, is also crucial for injury prevention. 'Incorporating eccentric exercises into your programme can stimulate adaptations in your tendons, making them more resilient to the demands placed on them through physical activity. If programmed within a well rounded strength programme, your risk of tendon related injuries like tendonitis will be reduced.'

Eccentric training is commonly used in injury rehabilitation as it allows for controlled loading of injured tissues. 'This helps the healing process while improving your neuromuscular control (the ability of your muscles to work together efficiently and effectively),' Shirvani explains.

5. They can improve flexibility

Research indicates that eccentric exercise can help to improve flexibility in adults, too. This is important, because joint flexibility helps to reduce your risk of injury. Studies indicate that exercises combining stretching and strengthening elements, such as eccentric exercises, are most effective for improving both strength and flexibility.

'During eccentric exercises, muscles and the surrounding facia are stretched and lengthened under tension,' explains Shirvani. 'Over time, the continuous stretching of the muscle fibres and facia can help increase muscle length which can contribute to your flexibility.'

Eccentric exercises, she says, challenge muscles and joints through their full range of motion. 'This can lead to an increase in joint flexibility and the ability to move more freely. As muscles adapt to these challenges, they become more accustomed to lengthening, which can translate to improved ROM.'

9 best eccentric exercises

Lower-body eccentric exercises

1. Cable step-ups

  1. Place a bench in front of a cable machine, with the cable attached at the bottom position.

  2. Step onto the bench with one leg – this is the leg we are working on. (You can hold onto the cable machine with your other hand to help with stability.)

  3. Lower down for 3-5 seconds, pushing your hips backwards and working the glute eccentrically. Imagine you are aiming for something behind you with the other leg, it will promote you to push your hips backwards rather than promoting deep knee flexion.

  4. Drive up through the working leg to the start position.

2. Leg press

  1. Place your feet on the platform, ensuring your back is firmly pressed against the seat to avoid any hyper extension of the lower back, and release the leg press.

  2. Take a deep breath in to brace the core as you slowly lower the legs eccentrically for a 3-4 second count. Aim for your knees to drive towards your shoulders, this will ensure you get better range of motion, but only go to a depth you are comfortable with.

  3. Exhale as you drive back to the start position, not allowing your knees to lock out.

Eccentric hamstring exercises

3. Romanian deadlift

  1. With feet roughly hip width apart, take a deep breath and brace your core.

  2. Push your hips back and lower the dumbbells (or whichever type of weight you're using) towards the ground for a three-second count. There should only be a slight bend in your knees.

  3. Imagine pushing the floor away with your feet and return to the starting position to repeat.

4. Swiss ball leg curl

  1. Laying on your back, with your heels on a Swiss ball, drive your hips up towards the ceiling.

  2. Draw your heels towards your hips, then slowly start extending your legs away from hips. You can also use sliders, if you do not have a Swiss ball.

5. Nordic hamstring curl

  1. Kneel on a soft surface with a partner holding your ankles.

  2. Slowly lower your body forward while keeping your back neutral, tucking your pelvis under and squeezing your glutes. Try to control the descent as much as possible, using your hamstrings. You may wish to use a long loop band anchored above you, as this is quite an advanced exercise.

  3. Use your hands to push yourself back up to the start position.

Eccentric achilles exercises

6. Eccentric calf raises

The achilles tendon connects your calf muscle to your heel bone, and helps you lift your foot off the floor when you walk, run and jump, so it’s important to ensure yours are strong and flexible.

  1. Standing on a small step, push up onto your toes with both feet before shifting your weight to one foot.

  2. Slowly lower your heel below the level of your toes, for a 3-5 second count.

  3. Use both feet to raise your heel again, and repeat. You can also progress this into an eccentric calve raise in a split stance position.

Upper-body eccentric exercises

7. Push-ups

  1. Start in a high plank position with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Tuck your pelvis under, and squeeze your glutes so your body is in a solid diagonal line.

  2. Start to lower your body towards the ground, keeping your arms at a 45º angle. If your hips start to dip before your upper body, you are probably not engaging your core enough. Aim for a 4-6 second eccentric lower. (If this is too challenging, use a higher platform, like a bench or a wall, for the eccentric phase.)

  3. Return to the starting high plank position, and repeat.

8. Pull-ups

  1. Place a bench under a pull up bar and, taking whichever grip you prefer on the bar, jump yourself up to the top of the pull-up bar.

  2. Retract your shoulder blades by pulling them back and down.

  3. Slowly lower your body down to a full hang position, aiming for a 4-6 second descent. Try to squeeze your glutes, tuck your pelvis under and engage the core by keeping your ribs pinned down. If this is still challenging, and you are not able to hold the eccentric phase for too long, you can also use a band for assistance by looping the band at the top of a pull up bar, and to other end under your foot. This will aid in holding some of your weight, so you can focus more on slowly lowering yourself down (the eccentric phase).

  4. Repeat.

9. Dumbbell bench press

  1. Lay down on a bench with your feet firmly on the ground, squeeze your glutes, and pin your shoulder blades into the bench for stability.

  2. Slowly start to lower the dumbbells down towards your chest, bracing the core and keeping your arms at a 45º angle to the body. You will feel a stretch through your chest as you do this.

  3. Exhale as you drive the dumbbells back up to the start position, squeezing the chest as you do this.

What is an eccentric exercise for beginners?

If your goal is to build strength and learn how to perform a movement pattern with good form as a beginner, then eccentric exercises are your best friend. That said, beginners with zero prior experience of doing eccentric-only exercises may find them extremely challenging, and research has found that unaccustomed eccentric exercise could induce muscle damage that may result in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), so it’s important to ease yourself in if you’re trying eccentric exercise for the first time.

‘If I have a beginner client, I will most likely always get them to understand eccentric movements at the start of their training as it will help them build strength and stability, and form an understanding of the mind to muscle connection as you can feel the sensation of the exercise more when keeping your muscle under tension,’ says Shirvani. ‘Eccentric exercises can reduce the risk of injury and build strong foundations for beginners.’

If you’re new to eccentric exercise, Shirvani recommends starting by paying more attention to the eccentric phase of compound exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, push-ups and overhead pressing.

‘If we use squats as an example here – beginners will find it beneficial to slowly lower themselves into their squat position in order to build confidence, and correct their form and technique,’ she says. ‘When you progress from bodyweight squats and begin to load the exercise, the eccentric phase will be key if you are looking to build some muscle and strengthen the quadriceps and glutes.’

Eccentric exercises are really helpful for learning push-ups and pull-ups, in particular. ‘If you are a beginner, you are more than likely not able to perform a full pull-up or press up – the eccentric phase will help you build strength, and get you towards that full pull-up or press-up,’ says Shirvani.

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