Getting stronger and building muscle is more complex than just grabbing a pair of dumbbells and doing the first five exercises that come to mind. In order to build muscle and improve your strength, you've got to go into the gym with a plan, train consistently, fuel your body with adequate nutrition, and be patient. Whether you've just finished your first strength workout ever or you hit the weights four times a week, there's an important step to lifting you need to know if you want to build muscle.
When you lift weights, your muscles are activated and they can either shorten (a concentric contraction), lengthen (an eccentric contraction), or not change in length (an isometric contraction). To find out if the eccentric contraction (the amount of time your muscles spend under tension) can help you build more muscle, POPSUGAR spoke to Heather Milton, MS, CSCS, an exercise physiologist and clinical specialist at NYU Langone's Sports Performance Center.
What Is an Eccentric Movement?
"Eccentric movement or exercise is really when the muscle is lengthening," Heather told POPSUGAR. She then explained that our muscles are different patterns of tissue and fiber that overlay over each other. If you're feeling lost, put your phone down and interlace your fingers. This is how your muscle fibers sit, she explained.
"When you're lengthening the muscle, those fibers are actually stretching away from each other," she said. As this happens, Heather explained that tiny proteins in our muscles try and hold them together. "When you're doing eccentric exercise, you're actually, in a sense, elongating the muscle in a controlled fashion, meaning that the proteins within the muscle are actually trying to control the rate that you're elongating it," she said.
To help you visualize this, think of a bicep curl. When your hands are near your shoulders and you begin to lower the weight back down toward your thighs, that's the eccentric part of the exercise.
Why Eccentric Exercises Are Important For Building Muscle
If you're trying to build muscle, you should start focusing on the eccentric portion of each exercise. Why? Because the longer the muscle is under tension (the longer it takes you to lengthen the muscle) the more that muscle has to work. For example, if your trainer or group instructor tells you to lower down in a squat for three seconds, time under tension is what they're referring to. As you lower your body down, your quadriceps (aka your thighs) muscles will lengthen.
By spending more time under tension, the proteins in our muscle have to work harder to hold the muscle and control the contraction, according to Heather. This causes tiny breaks in the muscle that get stimulated after exercise as you sleep, which is imperative to improving your muscle health, quality, and strength, she said. While you sleep, your body begins to repair the tiny filaments and fibers that were broken during exercise, and they grow back healthier and stronger than before.
How to Perform Eccentric Exercises
Eccentric exercises can help you build more muscle, but there are a few things you need to consider. Heather said, in general, "If you're doing slow, controlled time under tension (called the hypertrophy or muscle-building phase) . . . that's where you would gain the muscle mass."
You'll also need to factor in the load (how much weight you're lifting) and the types of exercises you're doing. If you're training in the hypertrophy phase, Heather said to follow a three or four count tempo. Here's how to determine how heavy you should be lifting, and a here's list of exercises that will help you build muscle.