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

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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


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 Do the Different Types of Contractions 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 about the difference between concentric and eccentric movements:
  • 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

KHALIA2 7/23/2018
Great info, Coach, thanks! Report
BILLTHOMSON 7/19/2018
Great information . It helps me to plan my workouts. Report
DIROB57 5/21/2018
Great information....thanks! Report
SHELLEYMCELROY6 4/23/2018
Y'all blow my mind with the truthful articles I read every day. I'm SO grateful I stumbled upon Spark People! I was just looking for a calorie counter when I found this app. Two months later I'm twenty pounds lighter, stronger and healthier. Thanks for the information. I'll definitely use it Report
BILLTHOMSON 4/18/2018
Excellent article Report
BONDMANUS2002 4/6/2018
Absolutely great Report
DHBEST 1/6/2018
Finally a good reason to slowly lower the weights that I understand! Report
Great Information Report
Great information Report
Great information. I can't wait to try it during my next workout. Report
You spelt BRAKES wrong. I had to do these to help my Achilles I am sure it works but in my case it was no fun. Report
I will try this today in my workout. Thanks1 Report
Any thoughts on Zumba Toning that does exactly the opposite and how is it that fitness testing is Push ups etc done in a time frame therefore rapid. Form definitely is not a consideration there yet it is a standard tool for assessment...
Step ups are also used to measure fitness.
Any answers for me ? Report
Any thoughts on Zumba Toning that does exactly the opposite and how is it that fitness testing is Push ups etc done in a time frame therefore rapid. Form definitely is not a consideration there yet it is a standard tool for assessment...
Step ups are also used to measure fitness.
Any answers for me ? Report
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! Report
TLGRNT
Great article!! I hope that others will also follow suit and incorporate this technique into their workout routines. Report
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! Report
I saw BARBARA WALTERS working out with a PT and she was doing the VERY slow weights. She's 78. Report
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! Report
This was very informative, thanks. Report
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. Report
DELLINJ
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. Report
A lot of good information. Thanks Report
This is just the kind of info that I need. Thanks so much! Report
KARISHMAJHU
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. Report
PEEBS60
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. Report
AIRBORNE84
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! Report
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. Report
5PARKS1
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. Report
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! Report
SNIKWILLS
Good stuff! Report
B12UNITED
Good information. Thanks. Report
Oh, this explained everything! I always wonder why we have to go to start position slowly. Report
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 Report
Good stuff....thanks Report
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. Report
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. Report
KATVA1311
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. Report
ITCANBEDUN
Great information. Report
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! Report
KAINE0812
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. Report
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! Report
This makes so much sense.... Report
GENOME
Interesting. i will have to discuss this with my workout buddy to make sure we absorb this information properly. Report
I will definitely pay more attention when doing strength training, during the eccentric phase! Thanks! Report
Excellent article, great info! Report
Thanks! I'm going to go negative and try to work back up to pull-ups! Report
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. Report
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! Report
My upper body strength is low. I will have to try this concept. Thanks. Report