3 Ways to Grow with Eccentric Overload
Muscle responds to resistance training by enlarging its cross-sectional area—i.e., getting bigger.
The mechanisms underlying the hypertrophy response are complex and not yet completely understood by science. However, the primary stimulus for increased muscle mass seems to be mechanical stress (tension) on the muscle. An important secondary factor for increased muscle mass seems to be metabolic factors.1
Mechanical factors centre on eccentric muscle actions.2 In technical terms, an eccentric muscle action is a muscle action where the muscle gains (increases) tension, while it is forced to lengthen. In other words, the external resistive force created by the weight is greater than the contraction force created by the muscle.
In non-technical terms, an eccentric muscle action is what takes place when we lower a weight.
A muscle can produce the most force during an eccentric contraction, compared to other types of contractions (isometric or shortening).3 This indicates that the greatest mechanical stress is placed on the muscle during eccentric contractions. We all know this fact from our gym experiences, which tell us that we can lower a greater load than we can lift.
The effect of eccentric muscle actions on muscle hypertrophy (increased muscle mass) has been studied extensively:
- Resistance training with eccentric actions only or eccentric and concentric actions combined results in greater hypertrophy than training with concentric actions only.1
- At equal power outputs, concentric contractions only are as effective as or more effective than eccentric contractions to produce hypertrophy. This suggests that it is the increased force possible with heavy eccentric loading that is responsible for the greater hypertrophy associated with eccentric contractions.1
- Greater force or greater stretch during eccentric contractions could result in more muscle damage and therefore more hypertrophy.1
Note: You rarely see concentric-only or eccentric-only actions in the gym. Most training in the gym is a combination of eccentric actions (lowering) and concentric actions (lifting the weight).
Thus, to reap the full benefits of eccentric training, we must use ways of training that emphasize lowering weights heavier than we can lift (see point #2).
Thus, the type of eccentric training we are interested in is “supramaximal eccentric training.” The term “supramaximal” refers to the fact that we use a load greater than the maximal weight than we can lift.
The maximal load that we can lift is called the one-repetition maximum (1RM). It is the weight that you can lift once and not twice. The 1RM load is considered 100 percent intensity. Technically speaking, there can also be, for example, a 4-repetition maximum load, but that is not considered 100 percent intensity.
There are several ways to perform supramaximal eccentric training6 that fall into three main categories.
1: Using one movement, a supramaximal eccentric load is applied during the lowering phase of the lift. In the bottom position of the lowering phase, a portion of this load is removed. With a portion of the load removed, the lifter is able to lift the weight.
Technique 1A: Weight-release hooks are placed on the bar in the top of the lift. The bar itself is loaded with less than the 1RM. To achieve a load above the 1RM, weight plates are placed on the weight release hooks and these hooks are hung from the bar.
The height of the hooks is adjusted so the bottom of the hooks gently touches the ground in the bottom position of your lift. Due to their shape, the weight-release hooks move away from the bar when they touch the ground. As the weight-release hooks have now moved off the bar, the load is back down below the 1RM and you can lift the weight again.
Technique 1B: The bar itself is loaded with less than the 1RM. To achieve a load above the 1RM, a partner applies extra force on the bar during the lowering phase only. This technique is also called “forced negatives.”6 An advanced form of this technique is that the partner can apply more pressure in the top of the lift, where you are stronger, and subsequently reduce the pressure in the bottom of the lift, where you are not as strong. A disadvantage of this technique is that the extra load (the pressure provided by the training partner) is not quantifiable.
Technique 1C: If you train on your own, you can train inside a power rack (power cage) with the safety pins set at the height where the bar will be at the bottom of the lift. You begin each lift at the top position with a load that is above your one-repetition maximum. You lower the weight in a controlled manner until it touches the safety pins. Then you place the bar on the safety pins, step out of the rack and take off enough weight so that you can lift the bar, starting from the bottom position. Rack the bar and add the extra load again. While it seems tedious to load and unload the bar again and again, the unloading/reloading process provides a natural (and needed!) rest period. Lifting from a dead start is a really unique training stimulus in itself, so this technique gives you “two extremes” in the form of an eccentric-only and a concentric-only contraction.
2: Using force from muscles other than the target muscle to bring a supramaximal load to the top of the lift. Subsequently, the weight is lowered using the target muscles only.
Example 2A: In certain machines (for example, leg press machines) it is possible to lift the load using two limbs (arms or legs) and then, at the end of the lifting phase, remove one arm or leg from the load and subsequently lower the load using one arm or leg only.
Example 2B: Use the force from the legs to bring the bar or dumbbells to the top position of, for example, a biceps curl or a standing overhead press. Lower the weight with control. This technique is also called “cheating” and is an effective means of building strength.7 It is important to realize that there is “cheating with good form” and “cheating with bad form.” Hyperextending your low back to get the weight up causes excessive and unnecessary strain on your back and is an example of cheating with bad form. Keeping your spine in its neutral curves and using strict hip extension and knee extension to get the weight up is cheating with good form.
Example 2C: Use a load that is heavier than you can lift on your own. You begin the lift in the top position or your training partner applies force to the dumbbell or bar to help you get to the top position. In each repetition you lower the lift on your own, but the spotter applies just enough force so that you can lift the weight. This is also called forced repetitions or assisted repetitions.7
3: Place the body, arms or legs in such a way that the load is lifted against a short lever arm. Then, at the top of the lift, the lever arm is increased and the load is lowered against the longer lever arms.8
Here is an example of this third technique. Let’s say that you can perform dumbbell flyes with 40 pounds for 8 reps. Using 45 pounds, you perform the lowering phase of the movement. In the bottom position, you bend your elbows and bring the load close to the rib cage and press the weight up as in a dumbbell bench press.
Some coaches and lifters stay away from eccentric training because they believe that the sometimes excessive soreness caused by eccentric training limits the total training volume that can be completed within a week, thus potentially hindering muscle gains.
However, while greater post-exercise soreness can definitely be the case after your first workout with supramaximal eccentric training, this first workout also appears to protect you from soreness in the following eccentric workouts. After one to two weeks of eccentric training, the soreness seems to be no greater than with normal resistance training.6
Chest and back training using supramaximal eccentric techniques
Thus, if your goal is to grow some serious muscle and if you have experience with training in the 3- to 8-rep range, this program emphasizing supramaximal eccentric training is written for you.
Legs, calves, chest, back, shoulders and arms can all be trained with eccentric overload. The program listed below shows an example of how it can be done for chest and back. Since we don’t know your particular circumstances (training partners, available equipment, etc.), we have chosen to use this program to show a range of the different techniques (see above) at work. Please modify the program as needed to suit your particular circumstances.
To ensure muscle balance, symmetry and injury prevention, this program focuses on supersets of opposing movements and muscle groups for the chest and upper back.
Depending on what split you prefer, based on your strengths and weaknesses, and how quickly you recover, you can perform this program once or even twice per week.
A1. Barbell Bench Press
A2. Seated Cable Rows
B1. Parallel Bar Dips
B2. Lat Pull-Downs
C1. Dumbbell Flyes
C2. Bent-Over Laterals with Cable
A1. Barbell Bench Press: 2–4 sets × 4–9 single repetitions with 105+ percent of your 1RM
Use technique 1C. Begin by establishing your 1RM before you start the program. In your first workout, begin with 105 percent of your 1RM. Lower the weight on a count of 5 seconds. Your rest period is the time it takes to de-load the bar, get back under the bar and press it up. You may need to rest after you have pressed the bar up and before you lower it again. That is okay.
Add about 5 to 10 pounds to the bar every week. Also make sure to increase the total number of repetitions performed, either by doing more repetitions within the same set or by doing another set.
Rest 2 to 3 minutes and move on to the seated cable rows.
A2. Seated Cable Rows: 2–4 sets × 4–6 repetitions with 105+ percent of your 1RM
Use technique 2B. Begin with establishing your 1RM in the seated cable rows with strict form. Strict form means that you sit erect and use absolutely no momentum created by leaning back from the hip or the spine to complete the lift. Nothing but the arms moves.
In your first workout, begin with 105 percent of your 1RM. While keeping your spine in its neutral curves, use hip extension, not spinal extension to create the extra force needed to complete the lifting phase. With the handles close to the rib cage, assume the erect position and lower the weight on a count of 5. Repeat.
Add about 5 to 10 pounds to the bar every week. Also make sure to increase the total number of repetitions performed, either by doing more repetitions within the same set or by doing another set. Use straps only when needed. Break the set up into 2 sets of 2 to 3 repetitions with a shorter rest (10 to 15 seconds) in between if needed.
Rest 2 to 3 minutes and move back to the bench press.
Note: Technique 1B could be added here by having a training partner push down on the plates in the weight stack.
B1. Parallel Bar Dips: 2–4 × 4–6 repetitions with 105+ percent of your 1RM
Use technique 2C. Begin by establishing your 1RM in parallel bar dips. Use a loaded belt to achieve the necessary load.
In your first workout, begin with 105 percent of your 1RM. Have your training partner help you to the top position by, for example, pushing on your shins. Lower yourself on a count of 5 and have your training partner provide force on your legs, helping you back up.
Rest 2 to 3 minutes and move on to the lat pull-downs.
B2. Lat Pull-Downs: 2–4 × 4–6 repetitions with 105+ percent of your 1RM
Perform the lat pull-downs by the same guidelines as outlined for the seated cable rows.
C1. Dumbbell Flyes: 2–4 × 4–9 repetitions with 105+ percent of your 4RM
Use technique 3 and perform dumbbell flyes in the exact manner previously described.
Before starting this program, establish your 4RM load in dumbbell flyes. The 4RM load is the load that you can lift 4 times, but not 5.
Aim to use a heavier dumbbell each week. Also make sure to increase the total number of repetitions performed, either by doing more repetitions within the same set or by doing another set.
Depending on the nature of the dumbbell set that you have available, you may not be able to use a heavier dumbbell each week. The jumps in load might be too large. Plate Mates (http://www.theplatemate.com), tiny magnetic weights that can be attached to dumbbells (or bars, for that matter), offer a relatively inexpensive way to create sufficiently small, targeted increases in load.
Note: Technique 1B could be added here by having a training partner push slightly outwards on the forearms in the top position of the movement, where little resistance is provided by the dumbbells.
C2. Bent-Over Laterals with Cables: 2–4 × 4–9 repetitions with 105+ percent of your 4RM
Use technique 3. Set the pulley at around knee height and grab the handle to your left with your right hand and vice versa. As you lift the weights, let your elbows bend and pull the handles toward the rib cage. As the handles approach the rib cage, drive your elbows backwards and straighten them until there is a straight line through both your arms and the lift is completed. Keep your elbows straight as you lower the weights on a count of 5 seconds.
Add about 2.5 to 5 pounds to the load every week. Also make sure to increase the total number of repetitions performed, either by doing more repetitions within the same set or by doing another set. Use Plate Mates if necessary.
As a general guideline, you can use this program for about six weeks of developmental training. Gradually increase volume and intensity as outlined over the first three weeks. Train very lightly in the fourth week with no eccentric training, but use the listed exercises. Start the last three-week wave with the volume and intensity you used in the second week of the program.
The program aims to increase muscle mass through mechanical stress (see the discussion at the beginning of this article). If you feel that you miss the metabolic loading, the “burn,” feel free to add one or more finishers to the program (for example, 100 push-ups done in as many sets as needed).
With the significant muscle damage created by eccentric training, proper recovery is more important than ever. So make sure to get enough sleep and plenty of good food, and consider using strong FUSION supplements such as GLUTAMEND and AGENT•M.