“Eccentric training has been shown to produce greater muscle hypertrophy than concentric training as a result of greater ability for maximal force generating capacity during eccentric contractions.” – J.P. Farthing, University of Saskatchewan
In a guest post a few weeks ago , I mentioned that I’d be back to talk more about research supporting the Primal principle of “lifting heavy things.” Let’s do it.
Women Won’t Look Like Men and Men Won’t Look Like Bulldogs
Before digging into the details about lifting or lowering anything, it is important to address a common fear that exercising with heavy things makes women look like men and men look like bulldogs. The best way to address this fear is to understand our biology. Everyone has a gene called GDF-8, and that controls a substance called myostatin, which controls the amount of muscle we have and how much muscles develop naturally. The base levels of myostatin and muscle in basically all women and most men make it impossible for them to naturally build bulky muscles. It does not matter how much resistance we use. The majority of us—especially women—do not have the genes to build bulky muscles via any form of exercise.
I find it useful to think about muscle size like muscle speed. Few people are fast because few people have “fast genes.” No matter how much most people run, they will never get faster than their genes allow. However, if people do have the genetics for speed, they will naturally be faster than most people without ever training. Similarly, few people can become bulky because few people—particularly women—have “bulky genes.” No matter how much most people resistance train, they will never develop more muscle than their genes allow.
With our minds at ease let’s move on to…
Why Conventional Wisdom Fails, While Lifting Heavy Things Works
Why does conventional wisdom tell us to exercise via jogging, riding a bike, etc. for an hour per day? Because these activities involve our large leg muscles. The thinking is that the more muscle exercised, the better our results. At least conventional wisdom (CW) got that much right.
But here’s where CW comes up short: It is physiologically impossible for any amount of CW’s “cardio” to actually exercise as much muscle as possible. In fact, CW exercise approaches only activate one of the four types of muscle fibers we have. Doing more of it simply works that one type of muscle fiber over and over. And sadly, the singular type of muscle fiber it exercises is the least effective at triggering the hormonal reaction required to most efficiently burn body fat while preserving lean tissue…aka the hormonal reaction that enables us to look lean and fit rather than like a near-death bag of bones.
To dig a bit deeper into why CW fails, and lifting heavy things succeeds, we need to understand four principles of how our muscles function:
Like we have different muscles to do different things, we have different muscle fibers to do different things. This is critical to understand because just as we select specific exercises to work specific muscles, we can select specific exercises to work specific muscle fibers. For example, type 1 muscle fibers allow us to do low-force work for a long period of time. We work them when we do an hour of CW’s “cardio.” In contrast, our type 2b muscle fibers allow us to do a high-force work for a short period of time. We work them when we lift heavy things for a few seconds.
Well, that’s not exactly true…
When we do high-force and short-duration exercise we don’t exclusively work our type 2b fibers. We work all of our less forceful fibers and our type 2b fibers. We try to lift something heavy, and our muscles first try to generate enough force with our weakest type 1 fibers. Those do not generate enough force, so our muscles also activate our more forceful type 2a fibers to help. Still not enough? Keep the type 1 and type 2a fibers going and add the stronger type 2x fibers. More? Don’t stop working the other three and bring in our most powerful type 2b fibers. Thanks to this cumulative activation of all of our muscle fibers (known as orderly recruitment in physiology circles), Primal exercise actually enables us to do what CW attempts to do: exercise the most muscle possible.
Even better, recent research reveals that exercising our most forceful type 2b muscle fibers is uniquely metabolically beneficial. For instance, Y. Izumiya of Boston University studied mice in a clinical setting and learned that the development of type 2b muscle fibers:
Dr. Izumiya continues extolling type 2b muscle fiber development with:
He also states that these muscle fibers improved “insulin sensitivity and [caused] reductions in blood glucose, insulin, and leptin levels,” and that, “these effects occurred despite a reduction in physical activity.” Sign me up!
When it comes to long-term fat loss and lean tissue preservation, CW, common sense, and science all agree that the more muscle we exercise the better. The issue is how we actually do that. It’s literally impossible via low-force CW exercise. Our muscles just don’t work that way. We need to work with more force. We need to exercise Primally. We need to lift heavy things—and as we’ll see next—lower heavy things.
Lowering Heavy Things to Maximize Muscular Force
Every exercise has two parts: lifting the resistance and lowering the resistance. Lifting the resistance is called the concentric portion of the exercise. Concentric is when the muscle contracts. Lowering the resistance is called the eccentric portion of the exercise. Eccentric is when the muscle extends. Lifting weights—the concentric action—gets the most attention, but research shows that lowering weights—the eccentric action—can get us more results since safely and slowly lowering heavy things enables us to generate more force. M. Roig at the University of British Columbia found that “Eccentric training performed at high intensities was shown to be more effective in promoting increases in muscle.” Why? E.J. Higbie at University of Georgia tells us, “Greater maximum force can be developed during maximal eccentric muscle actions than during concentric.” And N.D. Reeves at Manchester Metropolitan University echoes with, “Muscles are capable of developing much higher forces when they contract eccentrically compared with when they contract concentrically.”
If you’d like to see how much stronger you are “on the way down,” hop on a seated row or chest press machine (or any exercise that moves on a horizontal plane—to eliminate the influence of gravity) and select a weight that you cannot lift with one arm but can lift easily with two arms. Lift it with two arms and cautiously relax one arm and observe as you are able to lower the resistance with one arm. You couldn’t lift the weight with one arm, but you could lower it with one arm because your muscles are literally stronger on the way down. You muscles can generate more force eccentrically—when lowering heavy things—than they can concentrically—when lifting things.
The takeaway here is not to stop lifting heavy things. It’s to note that our muscles generate more force eccentrically, so lowering heavy things may enable us to activate even more of our uniquely helpful type 2b fibers. It’s another great exercise option for us. Here’s how to give eccentric exercise a whirl.
With this technique we can lower heavy things in the comfort of our own home or at the gym. But before we go get eccentric, there are two important rules to keep in mind.
First, if we choose to exercise eccentrically on machines at our local gym, then we should only use machines that work both of our arms or both of our legs together. This is the only way to have less resistance on the way up and more on the way down. If we pick machines working our arms and legs independently, we will lift and lower the same amount of resistance. That defeats the whole purpose. Think about it this way. Say you grab a gallon of milk in each hand, lift them above your head, and then drop the one in your right hand to increase the resistance for your left hand. That does not work because lifting milk jugs works your arms independently. However, if you lifted one milk jug with each arm, but then lowered both jugs with only your left arm, you would lower more resistance with your left arm than you lifted with your left arm. Resistance training machines which work both of our arms or both of our legs together do the same thing.
Second, exercise eccentrically only when little if any balance is needed. Just as you would not pick up a giant flat-screen TV with two hands and then let go with one, you should only exercise eccentrically when no balance is needed.
Putting these two rules together, we could:
You can imagine all sorts of ways to adapt these principles to any sort of workout. Just apply these three simple points:
As you start experimenting with lowering heavy things, keep in mind that…
If we cut grass lower, we can mow our lawn less often. That is not some too-good-to-be-true gimmick. That is common sense. The more grass we cut off, the more time is needed to grow it back. Similarly, if we’re working more muscle fibers by exercising with more force, we can exercise less often. The more muscle fibers we exercise, the more time we need to recover.
How long your muscles take to recover is a great way to tell if you are exercising your type 2b muscle fibers. If you are able to lower heavy things on Monday and then lower the same heavy thing a day or two later, then your first workout didn’t work your type 2b fibers. If it did, those fibers will not be ready to go again one, two, three, four, or even five days later. Research reveals that type 2b muscle fibers need at least six days to recover.
This is not to say that we should sit around in-between lowering heavy things. We should always heed the Primal principle to “move around a lot at a slow pace.” The point here is that if we’re exercising eccentrically effectively, we’ll be too sore to do much more than moving around at a slow pace for at least a few days afterward.
CW’s “cardio” doesn’t work well because it requires little force and therefore works relatively little muscle. Lifting heavy things works because it requires a lot of force and therefore works a lot of muscle and our uniquely metabolically beneficial type 2b muscle fibers. Lowering heavy things can enable us to generate even more force and can be an excellent addition to a Primal lifestyle. Of course, do what works for you. My hope is that this research provides you with another option to assist with your long-term health and fitness goals.