Eccentric Moves for Building Muscle

by: Josh Bryant

Six-time Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates, has indicated that the biggest mistake beginning bodybuilders make is not controlling the eccentric portion of a lift.  Six Sandows alone should be enough street credit to pique curiosity.

Types of Muscle Contractions

There are three types of muscle contractions: eccentric, concentric and isometric.  Eccentrics allow training with the heaviest weights, getting more work done and correctly yield the greatest amounts of muscle hypertrophy.

Let’s take a cursory glance at the three types of muscle contractions.

Lifting weights is associated with the concentric or muscle-shortening contraction; in gym lingo, this is denoted as the positive portion of the lift. On the bench press this would be the upward phase.

Eccentrics are muscle-lengthening contractions; using the bench press as our example, the lowering phase is often referred to as the negative portion of the lift.

During isometric contractions, the muscle does not change length but force is produced; commonly cited examples are pushing or pulling against an immovable object or holding a weight steady like a crucifix hold in strongman. Examining the bench press, this would occur holding the bar at arm’s length at commencement at completion of a repetition, or pausing the barbell on the chest or during a sticking point.

Bench Press Isometrics Video

Muscle Hypertrophy Process

Muscle hypertrophy via strength training results from mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress and—all three mechanisms can be enhanced with eccentric training!

Mechanical tensionresults from the intensity of an exercise, assuming the exercise is performed correctly. A 500-pound squat will cause much more mechanical tension than a 200-pound squat. 

Keeping in mind this is not a license to recklessly heave barbells—muscles know tension not weight, technique degradation equals tension leakage. 

Muscle damage, what leads to muscle soreness, is a result of intense weight training initiating an inflammatory response and activating the satellite cells growth process.

Finally, metabolic stressresults from the byproducts of anaerobic metabolism and initiates a favorable hormonal response. Time under tension muscle-building strategies are using metabolic stress as their primary growth mechanism.  

Eccentric training, properly applied, enhances all three mechanisms!

Mechanical Tension

It’s harder to pick a weight up than set it down; it should come as no surprise that much heavier weights can be handled eccentrically than concentrically, textbooks state that as much as 1.6 times greater loads can be handled eccentrically.

Surprisingly, fewer motor units are involved during an eccentric contraction (because of the passive resistance offered by the cross bridges) it results in greater mechanical load per motor unit.   Mechanical tension is approximately 1.3 times greater eccentrically than concentrically.

Muscle Damage

Because fewer motor units are involved and heavier weights are used eccentrically, this catalyzes greater amounts of muscle damage!

People have fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers. The size principle states that motor units are recruited from smallest to largest; ergo, slow-twitch fibers are recruited before fast-twitch fibers.  As intensity increases so does the recruitment of large fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Eccentric exercise produces more muscle damage because heavy eccentrics favorably recruit fast-twitch muscle that are more powerful and have more potential for growth.  

The literature demonstrates a close association with eccentric training and muscle damage.

Metabolic Stress

Less ATP (energy) is required for eccentric contractions than concentric; in other words, more weight can be lifted longer.

There are more ways to prolong eccentric training than carter has pills!

The safest, most basic technique is tempo training; using the incline press as an example, take five seconds to lower the bar, then explode back up on the positive, this prolongs time under tension. Performing 10 reps this way can drag the set well beyond 60 seconds, contrasted to the typical style used by mullets at commercial gyms which might take 15-20 seconds.

 A very high intensity technique, used by advanced bodybuilders, is forced reps after concentric failure is reached because you can handle the negative phase of an incline press after positive failure as long as your spotter’s head is not up his keister. Extending the set means greater metabolic stress.

Satellite Cell Proliferation   

Satellite cells serve to repair damaged muscle tissue, inducing muscle growth after overload from weight training.

After satellite cells are damaged via intense resistance training primarily eccentrics, damaged muscle fibers are repaired by satellite cells fusing together and to the muscle fibers, which leads to muscle growth. 

After satellite cells fuse with muscle fibers, muscle fibers can synthesize more proteins creating a greater number of contractile proteins, resulting in increased size and strength.

Intense eccentric movements force muscle fibers and surrounding satellite cells to fuse, resulting in muscle fiber growth. To maximize muscle growth, intense eccentric movements will have to be a part of your regimen. 

Practically Applied

Theory without practice is nothing more than an intellectual circle jerk! Let’s look at how to make the rubber hit the road and apply eccentrics to your muscle building program.

Tempo Training

For the newbie, most forms of eccentric overload will be far too intense. However, both beginner and the experienced lifter can use tempo training.  

Tempo training, popularized by the late Charles Poliquin, refers to the cadence of the different portions of a lift, and often expressed in four digits specifying the: eccentric, pause at mid-point, concentric phase and the pause at the top of the lift before beginning a new repetition.

We will make it even simpler.

Next time you are training, pick one exercise and do it with a five-second eccentric, then forcefully complete the concentric. 

 With muscle hypertrophy as the objective, the set should take between 30-60 seconds.  On a seated a dumbbell military press, taking five seconds to lower the weight and one second to push it back up, the set should consist of 5-10 repetitions.

Tempo Band Resisted Romanian Deadlifts

Mixed Method or 2 Up 1 Down

This is an intense method, reserved for the old heads with a couple years of experience under their belt and a limit strength base. Generally, this method  is used with machines, but there are exceptions.

Concentrically lift the weight with two limbs, and then perform the eccentric with one limb for a specified amount of time ranging from four to eight seconds. With sufficient weight, this is a huge eccentric overload; if you can complete the weight on the positive with one limb, it ain’t heavy enough.  Shoot for a minimum of 1.5 times more weight than can be done concentrically with a single limb.  So, if one is capable of a 200-pound one leg press, 300 pounds minimally should be used on the two up one down leg press.

Some great exercises for this method are leg extensions, leg curls, seated rows, triceps pushdowns and one armed eccentric barbell curls.

Example with Leg Curls

Beyond Failure

This is another advanced bodybuilding, high intensity, muscle-building technique. Load a weight you can do for six to eight repetitions on the bar, lift the weight to concentric failure.  After concentric failure is reached, do two to three more repetitions taking five to six seconds on the eccentric, then have a partner assist you on the concentric.  

An even more advanced variation to lift a weight to concentric failure is to rack the weight and add 10-15 percent additional weight and perform two to three eccentric reps, drawing out the eccentric for five to six seconds, and, of course, having a partner assist you on the concentric.

Other ways to do this involving changing the movement example would be extend a set of curls with cheat curls on the concentric at failure, then tempo eccentrics, or failure on skull crushers then close grip bench press the weight back up, do the skull crusher on the negative. 

Branch Warren doing the movement with Josh (keep volume on for voice over)

Supra-maximal Overloads.  

Another step up the intensity ladder is using supra-maximal weights and have training partners spot as the weight is lowered and assist on the way back up. 

Someone with a bench press max of 270 pounds that puts 300 pounds on the bar and slowly lowers the weight has performed a supra-maximal overload. After the weight is lowered, a training partner immediately will assist by helping lift the weight back to the starting point. The weight is lowered once again and the muscles are engaged in an all-out fight against all-mighty gravity. Some athletes can use in excess with 150 percent of their one-rep max, start with 105-110 percent and slowly progress.

Science has repeatedly shown heavy negatives in this manner will produce greater motor unit recruitment, more protein synthesis, and a greater increase in insulin-like growth factor-1 than when using lighter loads. But remember, thisis a very intense technique and should be used very sparingly!

This method with eccentric hooks

Eccentric overload exercises:

>>> (Shoulders)Tempo Dumbbell Military Press 

How to correctly perform a Tempo Dumbbell Military Press:

This really stresses the deltoids and greatly increases time under tension.

How to correctly perform the tempo dumbbell military press:

  • Start off seated on a seated military bench
  • Rest the dumbbells on your shoulders to start
  • Push the weight up to arms extension
  • Return to the bottom position over a steady five-second tempo
  • Forcefully press the dumbbells to the starting position
  • Repeat for 5-10 reps

Example Shoulders Workout

ExerciseRest Interval IntensitySetsReps
Tempo Dumbbell Military Press120 secondsMax64
Cable Lateral Raises60 secondsMax315,13,12
Front Raises90 secondsMax412
Upright Rows60 secondsMax212
Face Pulls45 secondsMedium312

Important note:Tempo dumbbell military presses could also be completed with a barbell. This technique could be used with virtually any free weight movement. 

>>>(Biceps)One-Armed Eccentric Barbell Curl (2 up 1 down)

This movement can be with a partner or self-spotted.  

  • Sit at a preacher-curl bench and grasping the center knurling of an Olympic barbell with your left hand, the back of your upper arm rests on the preacher bench in front of you with your arm supinated (palm up). 
  • The barbell should be in the finished position of a biceps curl with your palm in front of your shoulder. 
  • Lower the barbell for a count of eight seconds and pause for a second at the bottom. Have a spotter assist you to the top or you can use your right hand to assist you in curling the weight up. 
  • Repeat for 3-5 reps, and then switch sides.  

Important note:Balancing an Olympic length barbell forces the supinators to work over time. 

>>>(Triceps) Beyond Failure Dips

Proponents of dips include a staple of the greatest powerlifters and bodybuilders of all-time. We are going to go a step further by going beyond failure.

How to correctly perform Beyond Failure dips:

  • Start dips with arms in extension on the dip bar
  • Lower your body until your arms are parallel to the floor
  • Return to the starting point
  • Do this until failure (between 6 and 10 reps)
  • Upon failure, step up to the starting position
  • Lower your body until arms are parallel to the floor for a steady five-second tempo
  • Step to the starting position and repeat for three additional reps.

Important note:Keep torso as upright as possible to keep the load primarily on the triceps. Add additional weight if necessary, failure should be reached between 6 and 10 reps.

  • Arms Workout
ExerciseRest Interval IntensitySetsReps
Dips120 secondsMax38
Beyond Failure Dips Max13 beyond failure
One Armed Eccentric Barbell Curl180 secondsMax44
Incline Dumbbell Curls90 secondsmax415,12,11,10
JM Press—Overhead Rope Triceps Extension Superset 120 secondsMax36…15

>>>(Back) 2 up 1 Down Seated Rows

Seated cable rows have been used by bodybuilders and strength athletes for overall back development for decades, this eccentric overload takes these to a whole new level.

How to correctly perform a 2 up 1 down seated row:

  • Using a low-row neutral grip attachment grasp the handle with both hands
  • Keeping your elbows in, pull the weight to your stomach
  • As the weight touches your stomach, keep your chest up and squeeze your upper back together
  • From this position return to the starting point with a steady five-second tempo
  • With your arms in full extended, you should feel a mild stretch in your lats
  • Repeat this for five to six reps

Back Workout

ExerciseRest Interval IntensitySetsReps
Deadlifts120 secondsMax33,5,7
2 up 1 down Seated Rows180 secMax35
Wide Grip Pull-ups90 secondsMax26-8
Narrow Neutral Grip Pull-ups90 secondsmax26-8

Important Note: Go as heavy as possible on 2 up 1 down seated rows but do not ever sacrifice tempo for weight.

>>>(Chest) Smith Machine Negative Overload Bench Press

The Smith Machine negative overloads provide a great way to eccentrically overload your pecs. This movement is performed with a Smith Machine and will require two partners.

How to correctly perform a Smith Machine negative overload bench press:

  • Lie flat on a bench placed under a Smith Machine (the bar should be directly above your chest)
  • Load the bar with 10-25 percent extra weight on the outside of the bar sleeves
  • Lower the weight to your chest for a steady five-second tempo
  • At chest level, have a partner on each side pull the extra weight off the bar
  • Forcefully press the weight back to starting position
  • Then have the partners add the weight back to the bar
  • Repeat for five-six reps

Chest Workout

ExerciseRest Interval IntensitySetsReps
Smith Machine Overload Bench Press180 secondsMax36,5,4
Reverse Grip Bench Press180 secondsMax312,10,8
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press90 secondsMax215
Decline Dumbbell Flyes90 secondsmoderate315

Important note:It’s fine to get help on the concentric, we are after eccentric overload

>>>\(Legs) AngledLeg Press 2 up 1 Down

The leg press has been a staple in the regimens of bodybuilders for decades. This eccentric overload requires no spotters but a high pain tolerance and, most importantly, a desire to get better.

How to correctly performan angled leg press 2 up 1 down:

  • Sit on the machine with your head and back against the padded support
  • With your feet on the platform, tighten your abdominals
  • Push the platform away from your body by extending your knees and pushing your hips back into the pad
  • Make sure your heels remain flat on the footplate
  • Do not lift your lower back or butt off the platform
  • With one leg bring the weight down so your knees are at 90 degrees for a steady five-second tempo
  • Forcefully push the weight back up to starting position with both legs.
  • Repeat for six-eight repetitions
  • Chest Workout
ExerciseRest Interval IntensitySetsReps
Squats180 secondsMax43,6,8,12
Angled Leg Press 2 up 1 Down180 secondsMax38,7,6
Romanian Deadlift/Leg Curls Superset150 secondsMax26-6
Leg Extensions90 secondsMax340,30,20

Important note:The lower you place your feet on the platform, the more intensely you hit the quads. By putting your feet higher on the platform and further apart, you will more directly hit your glutes and hamstrings. ROM is more important than adding extra plates.

Final Thoughts

Most your training should consist of reversible muscle actions, movements that include an eccentric and concentric phase. Eccentric training takes much longer to recover from than concentric training, so the high intensity techniques presented should not be used in a lower intensity phase. 

Eccentric training is a very powerful muscle and strength building tool that most trainees do not take advantage of.   Think about it logically, if one can lift 160 percent more eccentrically yet never approaches half this threshold—a lot is being left on the table.

The workout gives you a fish to eat today, but at JoshStrength, we believe it’s important to teach you how to fish—so you can feed your eccentric muscle-building needs for life. That’s why detailed explanations were given about each method. Time to get negative for some postitive gains!