“Move explosively, drive the bar, make it snappy, etc” are all examples of common things I and many other coaches say in the weight room. One key to building a lot of strength is moving the bar explosively; by putting as much force into the bar as possible, you’ll activate more muscle fibers and create a larger response through the nervous system.
Lifting in this manner can be problematic, however. Form errors might be overlooked or missed due to the nature of lifting in this fashion. An outside observer might see that the weight moved quickly, the bar path looked good and there appeared to be no issues. However, if we take that same person and force them to slow the movement down, it might totally fall apart; the bar will be all over the place, they’ll be out of alignment and the exercise might start looking like shit.
This is the beauty of focusing on the eccentric portion of your lifts. There are typically two components of an exercise:
Concentric – the lifting portion
Eccentric – the lowering portion
This a really basic view but it serves for our purposes. If we take a simple exercise such as a bench press, the concentric would be the part where you press the bar up away from your chest and the eccentric would be when you are lowering the bar down to your chest. Rather than focusing on the concentric portion of a lift and moving the bar explosively as possible, we want to instead focus on the eccentric part of the lift and move the bar as slowly as possible typically taking about 3-5 seconds. Using our bench press example, I would unrack the bar, take 3 seconds to lower it to my chest, lift it back up and repeat for the prescribed number of reps. This does a few things for us.
First, and most importantly, you’ll very quickly discover how bad you actually suck at performing a given exercise. Slowing down the movement forces you to remain in a good position throughout the entire movement; you can’t out muscle a bad movement pattern when doing things slowly. It’ll give you immediate feedback on things you need to work on.
Second, you’ll learn control and how to remain tight throughout your body. One thing we coaches try to teach clients is how to create tension to maintain good form throughout an exercise. By slowing things down, you have to create tension out of sheer necessity.
Third, eccentric lifting is actually really good for your connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, etc). During the eccentric portion of a lift, your muscles are being lengthened, meaning more strain is put on the connective tissue in the body. They are forced to do more work, more blood flow moves through them, they get bigger, stronger and more resistant to injury. In short, you get connective tissue gains. This is ideal for the typical “older, beat up lifter.” Yes, I’m talking about myself.
Fourth, eccentric lifting places the muscles under stress for a longer period of time, what is known as Time Under Tension (TUT) which is one of the “keys” to building larger muscles. In short, you get more gains.
Fifth, this really isn’t a benefit but a fair warning. You are going to be sore as fuck if you’ve never done eccentrics before. Eccentric lifting places the most amount of stress on the muscles and you’re doing that for an extended period of time. This is a double whammy of “I can’t sit down” the next day.
It’s pretty simple to cycle eccentrics into your training. If you’ve been lifting heavy for a while, you could simply do a block of eccentric focused training before a hypertrophy phase or even as a hypertrophy phase. You could also use eccentrics to get more volume in with a specific lift. For instance, you could follow your normal programming for back squat on Monday and do some eccentric squat work on Wednesday. This will allow you to get more practice with the movement without overloading yourself.
Eccentrics can also be a great tool for the new lifter as well. The slow cadence forces the new trainee to execute the movement properly and will ingrain proper movement patterns. Caution should be taken here, however, as the eccentric portion, again, causes excess soreness so keep volume very low for the newer lifter until they’ve built a tolerance to exercise.
Try incorporating eccentric exercises into your routine and see how much your performance improves as a result.