By Dr. Peter Borten, LAc, DAOM, Acupuncturist and Herbalist at The Dragontree Spa and Creator of Imbue Pain Relief Patch
In my earlier post on eccentric exercise, I covered the basics of what eccentric exercise is, how it differs from concentric exercise, and its unique benefits. In a nutshell, the concentric phase of an exercise is where you are working to shorten (contract) a muscle. An example is, when doing a curl with a dumbbell, you start with your arm hanging down and then you bend at the elbow, bringing the weight toward your shoulder. This is concentric contraction – the phase, in nearly all exercise, that we tend to focus on. When you let the weight down again, this is the eccentric phase. The exercise part of eccentric exercise occurs by resisting allowing the muscle to lengthen. Rather than letting your arm and the weight come crashing down, you work in this phase to slow down the lengthening of the muscle, and the more emphasis you put on this, the greater your eccentric workout. The eccentric phase is often neglected, yet it’s just as important as the concentric phase.
Now, let’s look at some of the ways to make eccentric exercise work for you.
The easiest way to emphasize the eccentric phase of an exercise is to simply perform this part of the exercise slowly. If you want to focus on eccentric contraction of the chest, for instance, you could raise yourself into a pushup and then lower yourself back to the floor over a nice slow period of about 8 seconds. If that’s very easy for you, work up to 20 – 30 seconds. If you’re doing sit-ups, instead of focusing entirely on the sitting up part, and dropping back down quickly, you can spend 8 seconds on the lowering phase of each sit-up. Likewise, if that’s too easy, lengthen it to 20 – 30 seconds.
You can lower more weight through eccentric contraction than you can lift with concentric contraction, but you usually need to do a concentric contraction to set yourself up for an eccentric contraction. If, for instance, you want to emphasize the eccentric phase of a pushup (that is, lowering your body), how do you lower more weight than you lift? The easiest way is to use both arms to push yourself up, and then transfer all the weight one arm and lower yourself. However, it’s only safe if you can lower the weight (your body, in this case) in a controlled manner. Only those in great shape can lower their body from a pushup with just one arm in a slow and controlled manner. So, an easier modification would be to do the pushup against a wall, stepping far enough away from the wall to make it difficult to lower yourself slowly with one arm, but not so far away that you can’t lower yourself slowly and with good form.
Another upper body exercise well suited to emphasizing the eccentric phase is pull-ups. Even if you can’t pull yourself up to the bar, you can use a stool to get yourself up and then let yourself drop very slowly. Again, you can start at around 6 – 8 seconds, and make it longer over time if you’re able to do more than about 10 in a row. You can also strap weights around your waist to make it even more difficult. If you go to a gym that has an assisted pull-up machine, you can use it to help you up to the bar (if you’re not strong enough to do the concentric phase) and then flip the footpad out of the way so you can lower yourself without assistance.
Squats can be a great lower body eccentric exercise. Just lower yourself as slowly as you can. If you have friends to help you, you can add weight on your waist or shoulders and they can help you stand up each time (if it’s more weight than you can lift concentrically). Another way to do this is to have a grab bar or rope to help you straighten up. But even without extra weight, you can just slow down the eccentric phase, so that it eventually takes you 20 seconds or more to drop to a squat.
Eccentric workouts are best done using compound exercises as opposed to isolation exercises. Isolation exercises involve just one joint and isolate a single muscle group. Examples include biceps curls (especially on a machine), leg extensions on a machine, and triceps presses (“kickbacks”). Compound exercises involve multiple muscles and joints. Examples include push-ups / bench presses, overhead presses (lifting a weight up above the head), dead lifts, pull-ups, dips, and squats. Besides being well suited to eccentric emphasis, compound exercises tone the body in a much more comprehensive way than isolation exercises do (I’ll discuss this more in a future blog).
Go forth and be eccentric! But don’t overdo it. As with any exercise regimen, good form and knowing your limits are everything. Check with your doctor for guidance before beginning. It’s not hard to injure yourself by being overly ambitious with this kind of exercise. Warm up, take it slow and listen to your body.
Dr. Peter Borten