There are multiple parts to every exercise — pushing and pulling, raising and lowering. And while it may sound odd to break up a single exercise into multiple parts (a squat is just a squat, right?) there are advantages to understanding each.
In every strength training exercise, there are three parts: concentric, eccentric, and isometric. Each phase has its own benefits and challenges. Below, I dive into the differences between concentric vs. eccentric movements and how to incorporate them into your training plan.
Concentric vs. Eccentric vs. Isometric: What's the Difference?
All exercises — pushups, squats, curls, and everything in between — have both a concentric and eccentric component. A concentric movement happens when your muscles contract, while an eccentric movement occurs when the muscle lengthens.
The best example of both concentric and eccentric movements is the biceps curl. When you curl your arm up toward your shoulder, your arm muscles contract (a concentric movement). When you lower the weight back toward your waistline, your arm muscles lengthen (an eccentric movement).
The third type of muscle movement is an isometric contraction. With isometric movements, your muscle is under tension, but does not move at all. If you performed a static bicep hold (holding out two dumbbells with both arms at a 90-degree angle), this would be an isometric movement.
What Are Concentric Movements?
Concentric movements occur when your muscle fibers shorten. The concentric portion of a movement works against the force of gravity (again, think of your arm raising away from the ground in a bicep curl), and are known as "positive" movements. Benefits of concentric exercises include increased power and speed.
Examples of concentric movements include:
- Pushing up in a bench press
- Standing up in a back squat
- Pushing up from a lowered pushup
- Lifting a barbell off the ground in the beginning of a deadlift
- Sitting up in a situp
- Pulling yourself up to the bar in a pullup
What Are Eccentric Movements?
Unlike a muscle contraction, eccentric exercises involve increasing muscle length. During the eccentric phase of an exercise, you work with the force of gravity (like lowering your arms back toward your sides in a bicep curl). These are often called "negative movements," and have been shown to help build muscle mass and increase strength.
The majority of muscle damage (which sounds like a bad thing, but is actually necessary for muscle growth) occurs during eccentric training. Therefore, one of the main benefits of eccentric exercises is muscle hypertrophy, or the growth of your skeletal muscle cells. Unfortunately, this comes with increased delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in comparison to concentric movements.
Examples of eccentric exercises include:
- Lowering the barbell toward your chest in a bench press
- Lowering into a parallel squat position in a squat
- Lowering into the bottom of a pushup
- Bringing a barbell back to the ground at the end of a deadlift
- Lowering your torso back to the ground in a situp
- Slowly lowering down from the top of a pullup
What Are Isometric Movements?
Unlike eccentric and concentric muscle movements, an isometric movement involves a muscle contraction without movement. In simplest terms, an isometric movement is a static hold.
While isometric exercises can help build strength, they won't increase mass or power (since the exercise is done without movement). However, since isometric movements force you to fully engage your core to remain steady, some of the key benefits include increased balance, core strength, and posture.
Examples of isometric movements include:
- Performing a static hold bicep curl
- Holding a wall sit
- Performing a pushup hold (at the bottom of a pushup)
- Holding a plank
- Holding at the top of a pullup
- Performing a hollow body hold
- Holding an extended tricep kickback
Concentric vs. Eccentric: Why You Need Both in Your Training Plan
As you learned above, eccentric muscle actions lead to increased strength, while concentric actions lead to more power. Lastly, isometric actions lead to increased balance.
Improved strength, power, and balance is the formula for a well-built, well-functioning athlete, with a decreased risk of injury — which is why you should have all three in a good training program. However, there is value in breaking up these three phases, and focusing on just one contraction.
The Benefits of Focusing on Concentric Training
It’s very difficult to isolate concentric training — mainly because you're working against the force of gravity. For example, imagine trying to isolate the concentric movement of a squat (standing up) — how would you get there in the first place? You almost always need the eccentric movement first (lowering down to parallel).
There are a few exceptions. For example, to isolate the concentric phase of a pushup, you could lay face-down on the floor, then push yourself up. Or, if you're performing a deadlift, simply drop the barbell when you reach the top of the movement.
Specifically, there are a few reasons to focus on concentric movements:
- Decreased muscle soreness: Since muscle damage occurs mainly with eccentric training, you'll be less sore after concentric movements.
- Perfecting your form: Sloppy form often occurs during the concentric phase (think about your knees caving in while standing up from a squat). By isolating this part of the movement, you're able to better target problem areas.
- Increasing fast-twitch muscles: If you're trying to increase your sprint speed or increase power (such as with a power clean), focusing on concentric movements executed with speed but still good form will help.
The Benefits of Targeting Eccentric Training
Eccentric training is a popular tactic amongst personal trainers and fitness professionals. Because eccentric training increases muscle strength, it can help you conquer various resistance exercises — exercises that often seem beyond your athletic ability. This is commonly known as "negative training."
Negative training involves performing [extremely] slow eccentric muscle contractions to gradually build strength. Examples include:
- Eccentric pushup: Can't quite do a pushup? Start at the top of the plank (on your toes — no knees here!), then slowly lower yourself to the ground. Once you reach the floor, you can use your hands and knees to return to a plank position.
- Eccentric pullup: A full pullup (without momentum) is one of the hardest bodyweight exercises. To start, use a step stool or resistance band to pull yourself above the pullup bar. From there, gradually lower yourself until you're fully extended, then let go. Climb up the steps again to repeat.
- Eccentric boat pose: Want to target your core? Start in the top of a boat position, then slowly lower yourself until you're fully extended (a hollow body hold). Try to take as long as you can.
Concentric and Eccentric: You Need Both in Your Training Plan
Concentric, eccentric, and isometric training are all valuable to any training plan.
There may be times where you want to strictly focus on concentric vs. eccentric training. Eccentric activation exercises — called negative training — can help build muscle strength. Performing negative movements helps progress you toward an advanced movement, like pushups or pullups. Focusing on concentric training is far more rare, but can help build speed and power.
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