What if I told you that you could get stronger by only doing half of an exercise? As usual the devil is in the details. In this case, I’m talking about eccentric contractions.
Muscles get stronger when you regularly give them a load to carry that’s heavier than they’re used to. By “regularly” I mean that one move, once or twice a week, won’t cut it. That being said, you’d be pleasantly surprised at strength improvements to be found from adding a handful of minutes of strength-training moves to your day. By “load,” I mean anything placed upon the body that stresses muscle tissue. Exercises are created to load muscles in different ways, but also moving around in daily life—getting up and down out of chairs or the floor, taking the stairs, carrying a backpack and picking up and setting down kids are all loads created through daily life. (Haven’t read Move Your DNA yet? Go get it now!)
When we think of strength moves, we often picture lifting something heavy, but for every lift there is also a lower and it’s during the controlled lowering phase of muscle-driven movement that many muscle developments are found.
Imagine curling your arms to bring a heavy rock toward your chest. The shortening action of your biceps muscles while lifting the heavy load is called a concentric contraction. When you lower that same rock slowly, your biceps are still working, but now to control the descent of the arms. The action of the biceps muscles working while getting longer is called an eccentric contraction.
Every movement we do has some muscles working eccentrically and some working concentrically, but here are a few moves many are trying to work on (pull ups, squats, and roll-ups) that can be made more accessible through an “eccentric half” approach.
“Arm Lower Downs”
If you want to make progress from hanging to a pull-up or chin-up but keep getting stuck, do sets of just the lowering down part. You’ll need a chair or something that can get you and your arms up to the starting height. From there, step off the chair and control your descent as best you can. Then, get back on the chair for the next rep. Repeat until your arms are noodles.
“Controlled Sit Downs”
(lowering yourself onto a chair or stool or step).
Work on getting up more easily—from the ground or from a chair—by repeating the lowering-down phase a bunch of times in a row. If it’s a chair you want to get out of with more backside strength (think less momentum, less pain, or less arm use) you can make a chair seat your target. If you’re working on standing up directly from the floor, then set up your seat (stool, yoga block, or stack of pillows) to the lowest height you can get to without falling. With practice you’ll get stronger and be able to decrease the seat height over time.
Starting from standing, slowly lower your butt towards the seat. Once you’ve landed, use your arms to help get up, or if all the way on the floor, crawl up with your arms and legs until you’re back in the standing position. Repeat until your legs are noodles.
“Spine Roll Downs”
This move is a favorite way to develop abdominal strength, especially if you’re working with pressure-related issues like diastasis recti, hernias, or pelvic organ prolapse. Start sitting with your legs out in front of you. Slowly lower your torso backward to the floor by rolling your spine down bit by bit, starting with the waistband. Note: this is different from keeping your torso straight as a board and lowering “the board” down to the ground. The slower you go, the more strength you’ll develop, so it’s not only about doing a lot of these—it’s also about doing them with greater control.
Once you’re down, roll over to one side and use your arms to push you back up into a sitting position and lower away. Repeat until you are a noodle.
Lifting your body up is harder than lowering it down when it comes to energy expenditure. That being said, when you’re trying to learn a particular skill, or you’re trying to overcome a larger gap in strength, eccentrics are a useful tool. You can just pick one of these moves to work on or create a short workout that’s mostly the lowering-down part of a handful of moves. You can also adapt the principles here to other moves you want to master. In general, identify the “lowering” part of the move and focus on doing that slowly and with good form. Then do what you need to do to get back into the starting position and repeat.
Adding eccentric exercises is just one way to approach moving more. You can find two other ways here.