To Get Lean Muscle Faster, Go Slow and Get “Eccentric”

by Chris Freytag

What’s the very best way to get maximum results in minimum time with strength training? It’s all in the timing.

Slowing down to a 6-second repetition (2 counts to lift, 4 counts to lower) has been shown to be among the most effective ways to build muscle strength. There are a couple of key reasons why:

1. The 4-count (eccentric) part of each repetition builds muscle faster.

The first one has to do with concentric vs. eccentric parts of a resistance exercise. Concentric part of an exercise is when the muscle shortens in length, usually the lifting phase. If you think about a very basic weight exercise like a bicep curl, the concentric part of the move is when you curl that weight toward your shoulder. The eccentric part is the lengthening phase — when you lower the weight and straighten your elbow back to the starting position.

Your muscles need to work in both of these phases for optimal results. But many experts have pronounced eccentric training superior to concentric for inducing muscle hypertrophy — the ability to build lean muscle tissue.

This “Smarter Dumbbell Workouts” video clip by Gaiam demonstrates why taking more time in the eccentric phase (4 counts) than in the concentric phase (2 counts) is a technique I use in my 2-Week Total Body Turnaround program: because it’s one of the quickest ways to get results.

Here’s why: In the eccentric part of an exercise, the muscle fibers have to work against resistance as they lengthen. During this eccentric phase, nerve impulses signal motor units to fire, but there are fewer motor units involved than during the concentric phase — and therefore more stress on each one. That stress leads to muscle breakdown; the more breakdown you have, the more the muscle has to rebuild, and it’s this rebuilding of muscle that gets you stronger.

Want proof this workout works? Let me count the ways:

  • In a study from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, subjects who trained for 5 weeks following a program with a similar concentric/eccentric training emphasis to the 2-Week Total Body Turnaround had nearly twice the strength gains as those who only placed an emphasis on the concentric phase of exercise.
  • A study from East Carolina University found that placing an emphasis on the eccentric overload experienced a 46 percent increase in strength in just 1 week!
  • A 2007 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found women were up to 160 percent stronger in the eccentric phase of an exercise than in the concentric phase over the course of a 2- week testing period.
  • A 2007 study from Penn State University found that eccentric training not only significantly increased lean muscle, it also helped improve bone density and bone mineral content among women.

2. Slowing down means you can’t use momentum to cheat.

The second key way the 2-Week Total Body Turnaround strength plan works is by extending the amount of time it takes to do each repetition. No more flying through the workout, whipping the weights around: Slowing the movement down for each repetition of the exercise helps eliminate one of the biggest “cheats” that many of us make during resistance training. When you swing a weight through the air, you’re relying heavily on momentum, which will compromise your results. By slowing down the exercise to a 6-second count, you’ll eliminate this momentum, so your muscles work harder through the full range of motion.

The longer repetition has another big advantage: You’re increasing the amount of time your muscles work under tension. And research has shown that more time under tension equals better results. One study from the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found men and women who slowed down the amount of time it took to perform one repetition had about a 50 percent increase in strength after about eight weeks of training.

One point I’d like to make has nothing to do with research studies or important scientific journals: When you take the time to really slow down and think about every aspect of an exercise, whether you’re lifting and lowering a weight or just doing a simple pushup, you’re helping to cement the relationship between your mind and your body. Taking your time and counting out each beat of an exercise means you’re not just going through the movements: You’re getting your brain as involved in the exercises as your muscles, and that will help ensure your success over the next two weeks and well beyond.