For maximal strength gains, should you use slow eccentrics?

Bret says: Recently, Chris wrote some great articles about eccentric training (see HERE and HERE), and we got talking about whether you should choose a light weight and lower slowly during eccentric-only exercises, or whether you should choose a heavier weight and lower more quickly. He wrote up a great article about it. Check it out below!


Guest article by Chris Beardsley, from S&C Research

Many strength coaches recommend a slow eccentric phase while strength training. They suggest a slow and controlled “tempo” while lowering, with the view that this might cause greater strength gains.

Some other coaches go one step further, and also recommend using a slow tempo during eccentric-only training. They assume that since lowering slowly is probably valuable when doing normal strength training, it must also be a good idea for eccentric-only training.

But is this really true?

Let’s figure this out from the ground up.

We can start by looking at the force-velocity relationship.


What is the force-velocity relationship?

The force-velocity relationship describes how the maximal force produced by muscles while they are shortening is inversely proportional to their contraction velocity.

In other words, producing very high levels of force limits muscles to shortening slowly, while shortening very quickly limits muscles to producing a much smaller amount of force, even though the effort exerted is maximal in both cases (Wickiewicz et al. 1984; Sale et al. 1987; Hortobágyi & Katch, 1990; Westing et al. 1990).

However, during lengthening (eccentric) contractions, the force-velocity relationship is the opposite way around (Hortobágyi & Katch, 1990; Westing et al. 1990). In fact, to produce high levels of force requires muscles to lengthen quickly, not lengthen slowly!

Here is a graph to show both of these relationships together:

Force-velocity relationship

It is less complicated than it seems!

By looking at the graph above, there are four cases:

  • High force concentric = low velocity
  • Low force concentric = high velocity
  • High force eccentric = high velocity
  • Low force eccentric = low velocity

Basically, if you want to lift quickly (concentrically), you must use a light weight. If you want to lift a heavy weight (concentrically), you must move slowly. If you want to lower a heavy weight (eccentrically), you must move quickly. If you want to lower slowly (eccentrically), you must only use a light weight.


Why lower under control during normal strength training?

So now that we understand the force-velocity relationship, we can start to understand why many strength coaches recommend lowering loads slowly under control in the eccentric (lengthening) phase of normal strength training.

The fact is, that you are very much stronger when you lower a weight (eccentrically) than when you lift a weight (concentrically), and the difference is around 30 – 50% (Duchateau & Enoka, 2015).

So if we want to lift the same weight in both concentric and eccentric phases (as most people do, most of the time), then we need to manipulate the force-velocity relationships so that the eccentric is harder than it should be.

Lowering under control is one way of doing that.

Slow eccentrics require you work harder against what is basically a comparatively much lighter weight. This is why lowering slowly is often recommended during normal strength training, instead of lowering quickly.

If you lowered quickly after lifting, it would be far too easy.


Why go fast (and heavy) when doing eccentric-only training?

Some strength coaches also recommend eccentric-only workouts where the load is lowered very slowly. They recommend spending several seconds lowering the weight, and then getting a partner to help you lift it back up to the top.

Even though lowering slowly is a good idea when combined with a concentric phase, it is not the best way to get stronger in the context of eccentric-only training.

When using eccentric-only training, lowering slowly is less effective for gaining strength, because you force yourself to use lighter weights, simply so that you can lower them more slowly. If you lowered more quickly, you could use a much heavier weight (just don’t use a weight that is so heavy you can’t control it, and end up dropping it).

And even though the jury is out when it comes to lighter loads and hypertrophy (Schoenfeld et al. 2015), I think we can all agree that using heavier loads will almost always make you stronger, probably because they provide greater mechanical loading (Schoenfeld, 2010), and I would bet that this applies even when you are just doing eccentric-only training.

But is that what the research says?

Let’s take a look.


Does going fast in eccentric-only training produce greater strength gains?

The few studies that have been done comparing the effects of slow and fast eccentric-only training show similar results. Faster (i.e. heavier) eccentric-only training is indeed a much better training method than slower (i.e. lighter) eccentric-only training, if your goal is primarily to get stronger (Paddon-Jones et al. 2001; Farthing & Chilibeck, 2003a; 2003b; Shepstone et al. 2005).

For example, Farthing & Chilibeck (2003a; 2003b) both assessed the strength gains in groups who did elbow flexion training on a dynamometer at either a fast velocity (180 degrees/s) or at a slow velocity (30 degrees/s), increasing volume progressively from 2 – 6 sets of 8 reps per workout over the first 13 training sessions, and then maintaining at 6 sets for training sessions 13–22 before a taper in the final 2 workouts. The fast group increased eccentric strength by more than the slow group, irrespective of whether the strength test was performed at the fast or slow speed.

Here are the results from Farthing & Chilibeck (2003b):

Farthing 2003

Slow eccentric-only training does not look that great!

Since Farthing & Chilibeck (2003a) also observed greater gains in muscle thickness (measured by ultrasound), they ascribed these greater gains in strength to larger amounts of hypertrophy caused by the higher mechanical loading. These findings are in line with those reported by Paddon-Jones et al. (2001), who found larger gains in type II fiber proportion after fast eccentric training, compared to slow eccentric training.

And doubtless hypertrophy did indeed play some role, although simply using the heavier loads almost certainly had other beneficial (both peripheral and central) effects on strength gains as well.

Later, Shepstone et al. (2005) confirmed these findings, as they found greater gains in strength (at both testing speeds) and muscle fiber size in a fast group, compared to a slow group. In addition, they reported greater muscle fiber damage or remodelling in the fast group. This type of remodelling seems to involve the cell cytoskeleton, including titin and related signaling proteins (Barash et al. 2004; Lehti et al. 2007; 2009). Given that titin is probably key for producing passive force while muscles are lengthening, and is almost certainly responsible for the unique behavior of eccentric contractions, this would be an exiting development.

Very recently, Sharifnezhad et al. (2014) compared two different long-term programs of eccentric training with different angular velocities but exactly the same force levels. The force used in both groups was 100% of maximum isometric force, while the angular velocities used in each group were 90 and 240 degrees/s, respectively. The slower angular velocity showed a tendency to superior strength gains, which is exactly in line with our expectations based on the force-velocity relationship.

The group who trained with the higher angular velocity could have easily used a much heavier load, so the relative loads (percentage of maximal force) in each group were very different.

And heavier loads produce greater strength gains.


How can eccentric training be done in a gym?

As you may have noticed, the above studies were all done with dynamometers to control the eccentric velocity. Of course, it is much easier to control high-velocity movements when using isokinetic machines, than when training in the gym, which means some discussion of practical matters is needed.

In the studies, taking 1 second to perform elbow flexion through 180 degrees (at 180 degrees/s) produces superior strength gains compared with taking around 6 seconds to move through the same range of motion (at 30 degrees/s). So although biceps curls do not quite go through that range of motion, we can use those numbers as a very rough guide, and say that setting the load so that you can only lower the lift for around one second is very likely to produce superior strength gains compared to lowering a lighter weight over several seconds.

Yes, that will be very heavy.

Consequently, while you can do fast eccentric training with many barbell and dumbbell exercises, how easy it is to set up, and how safe it is to perform depends a great deal on the type of exercise.

For exercises that naturally use light loads, such as the aforementioned biceps curls, you probably just need a spotter to help you avoid dropping the bar, and to help you lift the bar back up.

For  exercises that naturally use much heavier loads, like front squats, the situation is very different. Even with a very carefree attitude, you will still need a very sturdy rack, a couple of spotters, a set of pins to stop the downward progress of the barbell at your ideal depth, a quick process for stripping a few plates off the bar before you put it back where it came from, and a gigantic pair of brass balls. In such cases, the amount of effort you need to go to, just to make it feasible and anything other than suicidal, makes you wonder whether it is really worth it.

In my view, tackling lifts like this is not worth it (so please don’t do it).

Bodyweight exercises are often much easier, however.

You will doubtless know that most famous eccentric training exercise of all is the Nordic hamstring curl (Mjølsnes et al. 2004). This bodyweight exercise is very easy to perform in an eccentric-only format, as you can use your hands to return to the starting point, without even trying to repeat the exact same motion as the lowering phase. Also, for most people trying it for the first time, the Nordic hamstring curl is a fairly fast eccentric exercise, as it is hard to do anything other than resist as much as you can, while gravity enforces its will upon you.

Nordic ham curl

Nordic ham curl

Even so, after training, you may find that you can lower yourself during the Nordic hamstring curl very slowly, or even get to the point where you can perform a concentric rep. At this point, adding a weighted vest would be a good way to keep the loading high enough to get the benefits of fast eccentric training.

The newly-developed Copenhagen adduction exercise is quite similar, although harder to perform without a partner (Ishøi et al. 2015). In this case, you may need ankle weights instead of a weighted vest to create a faster eccentric, however.

Copenhagen Adduction Exercise

Copenhagen Adduction Exercise

Many upper body bodyweight exercises are also feasible to perform eccentrically, although when the weight gets heavy enough so that they are performed quickly, they can get gnarly. Pull ups and dips just require a sturdy box to get you back to the starting position, and weighted vests, dip belts and climbing harnesses can all be used to create extra loading. Even so, you do need to be very careful that you are not going so fast at the end of the movement that you hyperextend your elbows (in the pull up), or overstretch your shoulder (in the dip).

Being practiced at doing eccentric training with the exercise, and having a floor beneath you that your feet can touch down on at the bottom of the movement, are essential things to get under your belt before thinking about going heavy on these exercises, and even then they are ultimately probably not great value from a risk-reward point of view.

Far, far easier than both free weights and bodyweight, however, are machine exercises where two arms or legs are used to lift the weight, and only one is used to lower it. Depending on the exact way in which the machine is set up, this is often possible with preacher curls, triceps extensions, knee extensions, leg curls, leg presses, chest presses, and even some pull-overs and rows.

Since most of these machines can be set up to stop at a certain point near to the end of their natural range of motion, this is probably the only truly safe (and therefore the only recommended) way to do fast eccentric training.


Conclusions

Studies comparing the effects of slow and fast eccentric-only training show that faster (i.e. heavier) eccentric-only training leads to greater gains than slower (i.e. lighter) eccentric-only training.

Chances are, this is because lowering a weight slowly requires you to use lighter loads, while lowering a weight faster allows you to use much heavier loads. And heavier loads will always make you stronger, probably because they involve greater mechanical loading. Whether the strength gains are mediated solely by greater gains in muscle size, or by other (peripheral and central) changes as well, is less clear.

References

  1. Barash, I. A., Mathew, L., Ryan, A. F., Chen, J., & Lieber, R. L. (2004). Rapid muscle-specific gene expression changes after a single bout of eccentric contractions in the mouse. American Journal of Physiology, 286(2), C355.]
  2. Duchateau, J., & Enoka, R. M. (2016). Neural control of lengthening contractions. Journal of Experimental Biology, 219(2), 197-204.
  3. Farthing, J. P., & Chilibeck, P. D. (2003a). The effects of eccentric and concentric training at different velocities on muscle hypertrophy. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 89(6), 578-586.
  4. Farthing, J. P., & Chilibeck, P. D. (2003b). The effect of eccentric training at different velocities on cross-education. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 89(6), 570-577.
  5. Hortobágyi, T., & Katch, F. I. (1990). Role of concentric force in limiting improvement in muscular strength. Journal of Applied Physiology (Bethesda, Md.: 1985), 68(2), 650.
  6. Ishøi, L., Sørensen, C. N., Kaae, N. M., Jørgensen, L. B., Hölmich, P., & Serner, A. (2015). Large eccentric strength increase using the Copenhagen Adduction exercise in football: A randomized controlled trial. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports.
  7. Krüger, M., & Kötter, S. (2016). Titin, a central mediator for hypertrophic signaling, exercise-induced mechanosignaling and skeletal muscle remodeling. Frontiers in Physiology, 7.
  8. Lehti, T. M., Kalliokoski, R., & Komulainen, J. (2007). Repeated bout effect on the cytoskeletal proteins titin, desmin, and dystrophin in rat skeletal muscle. Journal of Muscle Research and Cell Motility, 28(1), 39-47.
  9. Lehti, M., Kivelä, R., Komi, P., Komulainen, J., Kainulainen, H., & Kyröläinen, H. (2009). Effects of fatiguing jumping exercise on mRNA expression of titin-complex proteins and calpains. Journal of Applied Physiology, 106(4), 1419-1424.
  10. Mjølsnes, R., Arnason, A., Østhagen, T., Raastad, T., & Bahr, R. (2004). A 10-week randomized trial comparing eccentric vs. concentric hamstring strength training in well-trained soccer players. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 14(5), 311.
  11. Paddon-Jones, D., Leveritt, M., Lonergan, A., & Abernethy, P. (2001). Adaptation to chronic eccentric exercise in humans: the influence of contraction velocity. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 85(5), 466.
  12. Sale, D. G., MacDougall, J. D., Alway, S. E., & Sutton, J. R. (1987). Voluntary strength and muscle characteristics in untrained men and women and male bodybuilders. Journal of Applied Physiology, 62(5), 1786-1793.
  13. Sharifnezhad, A., Marzilger, R., & Arampatzis, A. (2014). Effects of load magnitude, muscle length and velocity during eccentric chronic loading on the longitudinal growth of the vastus lateralis muscle. The Journal of Experimental Biology, 217(15), 2726-2733.
  14. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.
  15. Schoenfeld, B. J., Peterson, M. D., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., & Sonmez, G. T. (2015). Effects of low-vs. high-load resistance training on muscle strength and hypertrophy in well-trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 29(10), 2954-2963.
  16. Shepstone, T. N., Tang, J. E., Dallaire, S., Schuenke, M. D., Staron, R. S., & Phillips, S. M. (2005). Short-term high-vs. low-velocity isokinetic lengthening training results in greater hypertrophy of the elbow flexors in young men. Journal of Applied Physiology, 98(5), 1768-1776.
  17. Westing, S. H., Seger, J. Y., & Thorstensson, A. (1990). Effects of electrical stimulation on eccentric and concentric torque‐velocity relationships during knee extension in man. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 140(1), 17-22.
  18. Wickiewicz, T. L., Roy, R. R., Powell, P. L., Perrine, J. J., & Edgerton, V. R. (1984). Muscle architecture and force-velocity relationships in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology, 57(2), 435-443.

7 Comments

  • stanley says:

    Strong point for Louies weight releasers …

  • Ron says:

    I do a lot of eccentric only lifting during certain phases of my training. I think about 110% 1RM is the most I lift…er….lower. Maybe 115% 1Rm. I actually like doing it with full squats with accommodating resistance. I like that I can really turn up the AR a little bit so its’ close to maximal effort the whole way down. I go as slowly as I can for singles and if it takes me less than 2 seconds I go down in weight. You do need some serious brass balls to do anything more than that. I can’t imagine anything around 130% +.

    With deadlifts I barely went over 100% 1RM and still wasn’t crazy about how it felt. I wound up going with traditional deadlift up and Romanian deadlift down as a replacement. Feels much safer, even when I’m tired and the weight has more control over me than I do the weight.

    I’ve loved my nordic ham raises since before I ever even knew what they were called

    Good stuff, thanks for the share.

  • Samuel Johnson says:

    Great article, Chris. If we think about a Nordic for someone who can only lower part of the way before they fail and drop the remainder of the way to the floor, what would be the implications of this information for performance of the exercise? Classically I’ve seen it recommended (and done it myself) to go slowly and control as much and as far as possible until reaching that failure point. But I wonder now if trying to lower faster would actually allow for tension to be applied through a greater range of motion and have a better training outcome?

  • David says:

    For best strength gains, youtube/google Louie Simmons’ conjugate system and follow it.
    Going slow on eccentric is not a strength gainer, it is a size gainer. Go with two workout days for all 3 major lifts: deadlift/bench/squat. One day is a ‘fast’ day, with 1/2 of 1rep max for 8 sets of 3 reps moving the bar down and up as fast as you possibly can, with ONLY 30 seconds between sets!!! (change this to 10 sets of 2 reps every other week) and the SLOW day for the SAME MOVEMENT (deadlift/bench/squat) must be at least 72 hours separated from the fast day. On that day, do 8 sets of 90% of 1rep max for 2 reps, with 3 minutes or so between each set. Add 1 or 2 accessory exercises to each workout day, going with higher reps on fast days, and lower reps on slow days. Accessory exercise examples for bench days would be machine pec flye, and incline dumbbell presses. After 3 weeks, add bands as you like for both fast and slow days. Then add chains. Then change bars. etc. etc. The FAST days increase explosive power, and the SLOW days increase maximum strength. You’ll get better strength gains with both exercise types.

  • […] If you talk about eccentric training (but don’t say eccentric overload), I think it is a broader term that could permit super-slow chins and push-ups with bodyweight. However, I also think they are a waste of time; instead, increase the load and do (fast) overloaded eccentrics because that is the trigger you are looking for. Chris Beardsley wrote a nice piece on fast vs. slow eccentrics. […]

  • Cman says:

    I thought u could lift lighter weights faster than heavier weights so how can u do eccentrics based on this article?

  • […] Fast Twitch fibers are trained using power exercises and they get huge benefits from slow eccentric training. This means you need to be focusing on maximum speed (for the concentric portion) with or without weight. This is why we include slow eccentric squats and RDLs at low reps first. (See this article) […]

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