As a coach, I’ve been taught a wide variety of training schemes for gaining mass and strength. There always seem to be conflicting schools of thought on the subject. It can be extremely confusing for many, not to mention frustrating for hard gainers.
In this series, I’m going to teach you the methods I’ve seen work best for most people when it comes to rapidly gaining muscle size and strength.
In this article I’m going to speak specifically about:
- Eccentric Training
- Concentric Training
- Isometric Training
Remember, there is no panacea to strength and size. It requires an attention to how your individual body responds to the methods I’m going to teach you. So just be sure to measure the things that are important to you (i.e. arm circumference, lean body mass, etc) so that you can re-measure them after a period of training with each methodology. This way you can start to craft a long-term plan that works best for your body type, your genetics, and your goals.
When it comes to strength training. You have two primary movement phases of lifting. The first phase is usually known as the concentric phase (which I will cover more in a minute). This is the positive or “overcoming” phase where the weight is moving away from the ground. The second phase is known as the eccentric or negative phase, which is where the weight is being lowered toward the ground. It has been well established by research that eccentric training can be more effective than concentric training at gaining strength. One study, performed with twenty randomized controlled trials, found that when eccentric exercise was performed with high intensity, eccentric strength and total strength increased more significantly as compared to concentric exercise.1
They also found that eccentric training performed at high intensities was more effective in increasing muscle mass (as measured by muscle girth). One theory around why eccentric training seems to be more effective at increasing strength and size is related to how the muscle can tolerate higher loads during the negative phase vs the the positive phase. Another study found that eccentric only training was nearly 12% better at increasing total strength (concentric and eccentric) than concentric only training.2
So why is eccentric training so much more effective for building size and strength? Here are the primary reasons:
- Your are producing more force during a maximal eccentric concentric by virtue being able to better overload the muscle
- There seems to be an inherent superior neural adaptation with eccentric training than concentric training
- Type II muscle fibers, which are known to have the propensity for greater increases in muscle growth and strength, are better activated by eccentric training
- There is some research to suggest that much of the positive muscle cell damage happens during the eccentric phase
- There is a higher ratio of stress incurred per motor unit recruited
What does all of this mean, exactly?
Basically, it means that if you want to experience maximum gains in size and strength you need to slow down and pay attention during the eccentric phase of most of your lifts. It also means that the mechanical and neurological changes triggered by eccentric training yield more muscle and strength. Lastly, lifting with heavier weight than you normally would and focusing on the negative phase not only helps you build more muscle but also helps you inoculate the “threat” of this load to your brain. When you do this enough you’ll find yourself more comfortable and stronger to lift with that same weight in general.
Here are a few methods to integrate eccentric training into your program:
- Eccentric Overload – pick a weight that is between 90-105% of your 1 rep max and perform 3-5 eccentric reps. To get set up for the exercise, either have a spotter help lift it for you so you can focus on just the negative or use a compound movement to get the weight in position for the negative.
- Self-Assist – use both limbs to help get the weight in position, then do the negative with one limb. For example, you might do the lifting portion on the leg extension with both legs but then only have one leg control the negative phase. Make sure to do 3-5 reps per side and pick a weight of 70-90% of what you can lift with both limbs.
- Slow Reps – pick a weight that is 65-90% of your 1 rep max and do 1-3 reps with 5-15 second negatives. The key is to do the higher end of the reps and negative-duration with the lighter loads (i.e. 3 reps and 15 second negative with 65% of 1 rep max).
- Yielding – pick a weight that is 110-130% of your 1 rep max, and with the help of a spotter perform 3-10 sets of one rep. You will want the negative phase to be 5-10 seconds in duration, with the higher durations for lighter loads (i.e. 110% of 1 rep max) and the lower durations for the heaviest loads.
As mentioned before, the concentric phase is the lifting portion of the movement. People generally get confused about this because the position of the weight from exercise to exercise throws them off. For example, the concentric phase on a squat is when you are coming out of the squat and standing upright, whereas the concentric portion of a Lat Pulldown would be when you are pulling the bar toward your upper chest and the weight stack is moving up, away from the ground. One rule of thumb is to look at the weight, not the implement you are holding. If the weight stack is moving away from the ground when you are using a machine you are performing the concentric action. When the bar is moving away from your chest (and away from the ground) during a bench press, you are performing the concentric action.
Now, I know we talked in depth about how eccentric training is superior to concentric training for building size and strength. But, here’s the deal, you need both. Research has shown that eccentric training alone, although it will increase size and strength, it leads to general decreases in concentric strength.
And if your goal is total functional strength as well as size, you will want to develop both eccentric and concentric strength.
Also, when it comes to size, concentric training is only a percentage point or two behind eccentric training for effectiveness in increasing muscle size. There is also research to show that different parts of the muscle are stimulated for growth by eccentric vs concentric training. Concentric training generally helps build the middle of the muscle whereas eccentric training seems to have a better hypertrophy effect on the more distant regions of the muscle fibers. To provide an example of this, let’s look at a bicep curl. The concentric action should help develop the “ball” portion of the bicep, whereas the eccentric action should help develop the biceps brachialis better (the lower part of the bicep, near the elbow).
So to maximize your muscle gain, you clearly want to integrate both forms of loading.
There are three primary ways to maximize your concentric phase results:
- Lift heavy weight with a slow tempo
- Lift moderate weight with a moderate tempo
- Lift lighter weight with a powerfully, fast tempo
These three methods all help maximize intramuscular tension and are all based on the physics principle of force production: Force = Mass x Acceleration.
Isometric training involves creating muscle tension without a change in muscle length. There are essentially two ways to achieve isometric resistance. One is to push against a fixed object, and the other is to hold a weight in fixed position. An example of pushing against a fixed object could be pushing against a wall to isometrically activate the pecs, triceps and shoulders. An example of holding a weight in a fixed position could be holding a curl bar with the elbows bent to 90 degrees and holding for 30 seconds. Both methodologies have their place and merit depending on the goal.
Although isometrics may not provide any distinct advantages for building maximal strength when compared to eccentric or concentric training, it does however provide better muscle activation. One study3 looked at the activation of the quadriceps femoris during knee extension, and found something interesting. The average muscle activation during maximal eccentric and maximal concentric contractions were 5-7% less than maximal isometric contractions. This indicates isometric training is superior to helping recruit more muscle fibers.
But how is this useful?
One way to think about it is to look at your strength capabilities as a “map” that your brain maintains. If there are pieces of the map missing (i.e. weak areas or ranges of motion) your strength and muscular development will be limited. So isometric training can be valuable in the way of improving this map, so that we can better control and exert during concentric and eccentric movements.
I also like isometric training for gaining size because it more easily allows for higher durations of intramuscular tension (a.k.a. time under tension). Increased intramuscular tension helps achieve more sarcoplasmic hypertrophy which is how bodybuilders gain their size and physique.
Here are some general guidelines for isometric training:
- Keep the muscle under tension for 3-6 seconds
- Contract the muscle as much as you can during the duration of the isometric exercise
- Vary the position of the joint to training all potential weak ranges of motion
- Stack isometric exercises with concentric/eccentric exercises
- Keep rest periods at 30-60 seconds (closer to 60 seconds when isometric contractions are closer to 6 seconds)
- Perform you isometric exercises toward the beginning of the workout to help activate the muscle groups of focus for the workout
In the early 1960s, a highly respected physician by the name of Dr. John Ziegler developed what he called “functional isometric training”. This methodology involved three basic positions: a few inches from the starting position, the sticking point, and a few inches from the end position of the lift.
The primary lifts he focused on were big lifts like overhead pressing, back squats, and pulls. Each of these exercises were done with maximal effort for 9-12 seconds, and workouts were short (about 15 minutes). The beauty of this style of training is that it spares energy that would normally be lost during dynamic movement and translates it into more focused strength output during the isometric concentric.
By taking a focused approach to the phases of your lifting motion with specific concentric, eccentric, and isometric training exercises you can help burst through plateaus and gain strength and size faster. Not to mention more efficiently. They say the average person who works out at the gym for an hour only does about 6 minutes worth of work.
So you can imagine that if you really concentrate on maximal muscle tension and time under tension in the three phases, while keeping rest periods relatively short, how much more efficient your workouts will become – probably tripling or quadrupling the amount of physical work done.
This type of training efficiency is especially useful for maximizing anabolic hormone production as well as for spiking your metabolism and shedding body fat.
The other thing that is great about this form of training is that it doesn’t require you to radically change the exercises you’re already familiar with and enjoy. All you’re doing is manipulating the way you emphasize the lifting, holding or lowering of the weight – which can be applied to nearly any exercise you’re already doing.
These methodologies also work great with blood flow restriction training. Particularly, occlusion training tends to work best with a concentric emphasis. For a limited time, grab a free pair of BFR Bands here:
In Part 2 of this series I’m going to dive into some other plateau-shattering methods of training such as contrast training, accumulation training, and complex training.
Check out the next article in this series here:
- Roig M, O’Brien K, Kirk G, et al. The effects of eccentric versus concentric resistance training on muscle strength and mass in healthy adults: a systematic review with meta-analyses British Journal of Sports Medicine Published Online First: 03 November 2008. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2008.051417
- Elizabeth J. Higbie, Kirk J. Cureton, Gordon L. Warren III, Barry M. Prior. Journal of Applied Physiology Published 1 November 1996 Vol. 81 no. 5, 2173-2181
- Nicolas Babault, Michel Pousson, Yves Ballay, Jacques Van Hoecke. Journal of Applied Physiology Published 1 December 2001 Vol. 91 no. 6, 2628-2634