Slow Down for Strength Gains

It seems that despite how long I’ve been strength training there are certain exercises that never fail to make me sore. One would think that after 10+ years of training soreness (at least the make-you-walk-funny level of soreness) would be a thing relegated to new trainees.

No such luck.

Here are a few of the most offensive culprits:

Bulgarian split squats

RDL (single or double leg)

Slow tempo pushup

Ab wheel roll outs

(Caveat: I would be remiss to mention soreness is NOT the primary indicator of a workout. Training for to get sore for the sake of soreness is not a productive method for strength gains. Just because you're not sore doesn't mean that you're not making progress.)

The commonality among these exercises is a loaded emphasis on the eccentric, or negative, portion of the exercise.

Quick primer: Concentric muscle action is the muscle shortening while contracting, think of this as the curling up part of a bicep curl. The bicep muscle is contracting (producing force) as it shortens. Eccentric muscle action is the muscle lengthening while producing force, this would be the lowering portion of the bicep curl. The bicep is still producing force by controlling the weight downwards so your arm isn’t jerked out of socket.

It’s easy to think of the concentric phase as the most “important” part-- pulling the barbell off the floor in a deadlift or getting up out of the bottom of a squat-- which they are if you’re trying to complete a lift, but from a strength building standpoint, we actually want to focus a little bit more on the eccentric phase.

Concentric Strength Potential < Eccentric Strength Potential

If you could boil down strength gains to an equation it would look like this:

Eccentric gains + isometric gains + concentric gains = total strength gains*

In this equation the eccentric gains have the potential to yield the highest contribution to the overall increase in strength. The relative weakness of the overcoming (concentric) portion of an exercise prevents and limits the complete overload of the negative (eccentric) portion to its full capacity. What does that mean? A practical example would be an athlete is unable to perform a full pushup on the floor, but can knock out 5-8 negative-only pushups (just the lowering portion). This demonstrates the principle of strength in the eccentric exceeding that of the concentric. Got it, so why do we care?

Eccentric Stress is a Superior Stimulus for Strength Improvements

Training programs that include both eccentric and concentric exercises, especially when the eccentric is emphasized, appear to yield greater gains than concentric exercises only*. Why? Adaptation to stress is the name of the game, my friends.

  1. Greater neural adaptation in the eccentric- as we know, strength is not just the size of your muscles, but the speed at which the nervous system fires signals to the muscles. The nervous system directs the muscles therefore the more efficient the neuromuscular connection is, muscles produce force all the more quickly and more powerfully. Nerves + muscle fibers = motor unit. More on that below...
  2. Muscles produce a higher force output in maximal eccentric because you can use a higher load- this results in a higher stress/stimulus per motor unit. The central nervous system (CNS) recruits less motor units in an eccentric action than in a concentric action so each motor unit (again, nerves + muscle fibers) has to work harder.
  3. There is some evidence that eccentric actions will preferentially recruit fast twitch (over slow twitch) fibers, which are more responsive to growth and adaptation.
  4. Eccentric movement causes a higher level of micro-trauma (why you’re sore) and that leads to higher rate of repair, which is the reason muscles grow bigger and stronger.

Essentially, what this means is that if you’re not utilizing eccentric training (even simply focusing on controlling the negative portion of exercises) you’re missing out on a powerful tool to increase your strength.

Eccentric Training Techniques

What kind of help would I be if I didn’t offer some ways to incorporate soreness-inducing negatives into your training? For reference, I will denote a tempo such as 1-2-3 with the first number corresponding to concentric part, second to the isometric (usually the top of the movement before returning to starting position), and the third to the eccentric part.

  • 2/1 Technique

The concentric uses 2 limbs, the eccentric uses just 1 limb. For example, a standing cable row:

Note that the load should be light enough to accelerate through the concentric phase but heavy enough to make a slow eccentric difficult.

Tempo: 0-1-5

  • 2 Movement Technique

Concentric portion using a compound movement with the eccentric portion an isolation-type exercise. For example, a dumbbell bench press to dumbbell chest fly.

Tempo: 1-1-5

  • Super Slow Negatives-- use a percentage based on a 1 rep max of a lift
  • Negative Only Training-- note that you’ll need to do this with spotters to help move the bar/weight because the goal is to have the load heavy enough to actually tax the eccentric potential of muscles, which means that it will exceed the concentric strength. The following numbers are a percentage of a 1 rep max.

110-115% → 10 sec lowering

115-120% → 8 sec

120-125% → 6 sec

125-130% → 4 sec

If you use this method, only perform single repetitions per set since this a pretty CNS-intensive method and you’ll need to rest in between to allow that to recover between sets.

Good luck fellow iron-lovers! Embrace the DOMs and let the gains begin!



*Much of this information was adapted from Christian Thibaudeau’s Theory and Application of Modern Strength and Power Methods.

**There are very, very few exercises that would be considered “concentric only” but I would argue that anytime the eccentric phase is uncontrolled (such as just ripping through a set of rows like you’re cranking a chainsaw, or simply letting gravity take over during the lowering portion of a squat) then the exercise turns into a more concentric-only lift.