Standard strength training involves putting tension on a muscle so that the muscle shortens as it contracts. That’s called concentric exercise. For example, when doing a bicep curl, you hold a weight and slowly flex your arm and then quickly return to the starting position.
But what if you did it the opposite way—curled quickly and then slowly extended your arm? Trainers, physical therapists and researchers are finding that such “eccentric” exercise may have special benefits.
Most people focus only on concentric exercise when they do strength training. But consider that most sports have a natural eccentric component, which works the muscle harder than the concentric component and is what contributes to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Including eccentric exercise in your workout seems to build more muscle than concentric exercise does, and, with continued training, may actually stave off DOMS. Eccentric exercise may be particularly helpful in older people, who are at greater risk for tendon injury.
Tending to tendinitis
There’s some evidence that eccentric exercise can help hard-to-heal tendon injuries, including chronic tendinitis. For example, a study in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery found that six weeks of eccentric exercise improved strength and reduced pain, tenderness, and disability in people with chronic tennis elbow better than standard treatment (stretching, massage, ultrasound, and heat/ice).
Other studies suggest it can improve Achilles tendinitis and tendonopathy of the knee (jumper’s knee). But it’s not clear if eccentric exercise helps all tendon problems or if it’s better than other therapeutic workouts.
Putting it into practice
Eccentric exercise is part of many athletic training programs and treatments for various tendon problems. If you have a chronic tendon problem, see a physical therapist, who may suggest eccentric exercise and then monitor your training.
If you are healthy and have no biomechanical problems, eccentric exercise offers a way to vary your exercise routine and can provide extra benefits. But it also increases the risk of injury if you aren’t careful. A trainer can help you—or you can try it on your own.
- Using hand or ankle weights, or the weight of your body, slow down the muscle-lengthening phase of the exercise.
- To work your calf muscles, for example, stand on a step on your toes with your heels raised; then slowly lower the heels.
- To work your quad (thigh) muscles, do a very slow squat and then rise to starting position.
- Some weight machines can be set for eccentric exercise.
- Hiking downhill is another eccentric exercise.
Eccentric exercise takes extra determination because it’s more difficult to do than concentric exercise. Working your muscles so hard can be uncomfortable. As with any exercise, though, you should stop if you feel sharp or stabbing pain.