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Extend and Grow

Extend and Grow

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Most lifters don't think about the type of contraction they are using to elicit the results they want. Their thought process is most often dictated by exercise selection and sets and reps. While I can't disagree, I'll also note that this tunnel vision approach isn't optimal. To maximize strength and size, we must be aware of how we use the three different muscle contractions to make gains.

A Quick Review
I know that most ProSource readers are savvy weight-room vets, but if we have a young lifter in the crowd, let's have a quick review of muscle contractions.

Concentric: The muscle shortens.

Isometric: The muscle contracts but doesn't change length.

Eccentric: The muscle lengthens.

Truth is, all three contractions build muscle. But there are pronounced advantages to including eccentric training in your hypertrophy programs.

Why Eccentrics?
What makes eccentric contractions so special, and why should you emphasize them in some training cycles? Here are a few solid reasons.

Focus Change: It's often that our training focus is on the result of a concentric contraction--more weight moves up, rather than down. There's not a thing in the world wrong with this. Physically, and mentally, however, adaptation requires change.

The nervous system is plastic, meaning that it is molded based on the input it receives. This is true for the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and its peripheral message system. Adding a new stimulus (such as a training cycle emphasizing eccentric contractions) helps reinforce nervous system plasticity. As a result, you prepare to grow bigger and stronger and your brain gets a break from monotony.

Movement Control: Eccentrics pattern movements. Let's use the bench press as an example.

Lowering the weight slowly with control builds a negative image in your brain of the concentric press. When you return to pressing concentrically, a positive image is placed atop the negative one and your brain is apt to allow more force while training your bench concentrically. I learned this lesson from Dr. Andreo Spina as he applied it to the ring muscle-up.

The more we teach our nervous system that it can efficiently control the negative image of a movement, the greater the chance it will give us the force we want when switching from negative to positive.

Time Under Tension: Muscles create mechanical tension that move loads. Create more of this tension and you send a strong message that you need more muscle. It's simple.

Eccentrics are great for increasing time under tension via slow negative lifts.

Heavier Loads: We can handle much heavier loads eccentrically than we can during concentric contractions. Don't blame me. It's not my fault. It's science. But since it's reality, let's take advantage of it. Add time under tension with heavier loads and we've a powerful mass and strength building equation.

If you're going to haul a yacht 200 miles to the ocean, you're not going to do it with a Ford Fiesta. That job requires a big engine with lots of endurance.

Apply this analogy to your frame. As your body is exposed to heavier loads over longer periods of time it needs a bigger engine to get the work done. Your brain can't go buy a bigger engine, so it builds one.

The why of eccentrics is convincing, but when does it make the most sense to use them? As with most things training related, it's more art than science. I can't offer you absolutes. I can, however, offer a few guidelines to get you started.

When You're Stale: Training ruts are a great time to emphasize eccentrics. This coincides with our previous conversation on neural plasticity. This is the best time for a perspective shift: you'll be excited to train again and you're body is primed for new training stimuli.

Hypertrophy Phase: Early in the off-season, team sport athletes go through a hypertrophy phase to maximize their future strength training. Smart lifters plan their training in similar cycles. If you'll be preparing to do heavy concentric training within the next sixteen weeks, a four-to-six-week cycle employing eccentric emphasis training lays the ground work for big strength gains through increases in muscle cross-sectional area.

Plateau: It's inevitable. Every lifter plateaus at some point; size and strength gains cease and we're left scratching our heads. The worst part is that we're mentally ready for more but our plan just isn't working.

Eccentrics put a plateau back on the climb for the same reasons they alleviate staleness. Sometimes the brain and its minions just need a stronger input.

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Improving Technique: Whether you're learning a new movement, or just trying to get better at one you've used for a while, eccentrics groove the movement. If you're new to bench pressing, eccentric sets prime your brain to press off of your chest. Want to squat bigger? Load the eccentric portion and be cognizant of your joint positions.

If you're new to the movement, don't make the eccentrics heavy. Use light to moderate weights and lower slowly while raising your awareness of where your body is in relation to the load.

Here are a few ideas on how to use all the information from above.

Heavy Eccentric Only: I'll caution you , this variation requires training partners, strength and lifting experience.

Load the bar with a supramaximal weight, 110% to 125% of your 1 rep max and perform slow, controlled eccentrics. Each rep should last between five and ten seconds without form break down. Perform sets of three to five reps.

Eccentric-Quasi Isometrics: During this technique you'll lower slowly to different sticking points throughout the lift and hold there. Let's return to the bench press for an example.

Load the bar with a submaximal weight (50% to 75% of your 1 rep max) and lower to the three quarters position and hold for three seconds. Lower slowly again until you reach the half-way mark and pause again for three seconds. Finish by lowering the bar until it rests just an inch or two from your chest and squeeze there for three seconds. Press the weight quickly to end the rep.

If you choose a lighter load you can perform sets of a few reps. Handle heavier loads with more caution. Keep sets to single reps.

Controlled Eccentric with Concentric: This variation requires only that you do a slow controlled eccentric followed by the normal concentric contraction. The eccentric contraction is as slow as you'd like it to be, Just be sure you don't choose a load too heavy, or an eccentric so long, that you can't perform the concentric lift.

Awareness of the muscle contractions you're using in your training is important for size and strength gains. With three different contraction types to choose from, there's no sense in containing yourself to one. Devote a training cycle to eccentric training and you'll be a bigger, stronger and better lifter.

Many athletes have a favorite workout regimen or strategy designed to shock muscle into new growth after a lull. What's yours? Tell us in the comments field below!

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