Whether we’ve taught ourselves how to lift weights, or worse yet, hired a personal trainer that didn’t care enough to educate us on the fine details; an often overlooked component of strength training is learning how to truly master every centimetre of an exercise before adding progressively heavier weight.
This leads to a house being built on a shaky foundation, and it’s not a matter of if, but how long until you begin to see cracks in that foundation by way of injury.
That’s why taking a step back, slowing things down and making sure your foundation of strength is truly rock solid will keep you healthy and ensure that you’re not leaving any gains on the table.
Slowing down the eccentric component of every exercise you do is a very effective way to do that.
“What’s an eccentric?”
There are three phases involved with lifting a weight:
- The eccentric (lowering) phase.
- The isometric (pausing) phase.
- The concentric (lifting) phase.
For example, in the case of a biceps curl; while you’re lowering the weight towards the ground, you’re performing the eccentric component of the lift. As you begin to lift the weight up back towards your body, you’re performing the concentric component. Taking a pause anywhere in between would be an isometric component.
Most people that don’t know better will rush through the eccentric portion of the lift — taking 1 second or even less to lower the weight back down — in an attempt to “get it over with” and move onto their next set. That’s a big mistake for a variety of reasons; you’re neglecting to stress the muscle optimally, you’re leaving strength gains on the table, and you’re putting the brunt of the work on the joints. It’s just not the best use of your valuable time and energy.
Why you‘ll benefit from slowing down the eccentric:
There are three key reasons why anyone could benefit from performing a 3 to 5 second eccentric on any given exercise — whether you’re still in your first 1 to 2 years of training or you’re a seasoned veteran that could use a refresher.
1. They’re a great teaching tool:
If there’s a flaw in your technique, slowing the movement down is going to greatly expose it. Once you know where that flaw is, you can work to correct it.
Take the bench press for example: It’s one thing to unrack the bar, drop it down, and then press it back up. That’s going through the motion in its most basic form. But when you slow things and really hone in on what it is you’re doing — or not doing — you might begin to see some glaring errors in your technique. Are your elbows flaring out too much? Is your butt popping up off of the bench on the way back up? Are your feet firmly planted on the ground, or do you begin to squirm around as the weight becomes more challenging? These are all little details that you may subconsciously be ignoring as you bang out your usual set of 10, but slowing the repetition down will expose them to a much greater extent. You can then take the feedback your body is giving you and work to correct it.
2. They’re joint friendly
Deliberately slowing your reps down keeps your form honest, prevents you from trying to move a weight you can’t truly handle with near perfect form, and gives you an optimal training effect without having to use as heavy of a weight as you might be used to.
The less beat up your joints are, the more often you’ll be able to train. Getting ridiculously strong is great, but it’s a fruitless endeavor if you’ve got to take three months off out of every year because your joints can’t withstand the beating from lifting heavy weights with less than optimal form. The goal is to get strong and healthy — so that we can stay strong.
3. They increase time under tension:
A set of 6 reps can look VERY different depending on how you’re doing them. You could sling the weight around 6 times without really focusing on the muscle you’re trying to work in the first place — or you can make every one of those 6 reps mean something by focusing on feeling the muscle stretch & contract with each rep, making sure the quality of the movement is as clean as possible, and effectively increasing the time under tension — a key component to packing on lean muscle.
Programming considerations for slow eccentrics:
If you’ve got less than 2 years of strength training experience under your belt, it could benefit you to spend up to a year or more focusing on slow, controlled eccentrics. Once you become more advanced, the explosive work you’ll eventually move onto will be done with a greater level of control than the trainee that simply “goes through the motions” when learning to lift weights.
If you’re intermediate or advanced, taking 3–6 weeks at a time to center the majority of your training around slower eccentrics could:
- Provide a much needed break for your joints.
- Serve as a reminder to clean up your form before loading anymore weight on the bar.
- Even at an advanced stage, you could still tap into new found muscle & strength gains from improving the overall quality of your workouts across the board
Whether you’re back at your local gym or still enjoying your home workouts, slowing down the eccentric today will help you build the foundation for strength and longevity tomorrow.