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Increase Strength, Size and Power Through Muscle Actions

Posted Nov 11 2009 5:48pm

I am standing with a load of weight on my back that has never been there before.  The bar is bending due to the grouping of 45-pound plates on each end.  I am about to attempt a new PR (personal record) in back squat.  Will I succeed, or will I fail?

Each and every time you work out, your body is performing hundreds of different muscle contractions.  The muscle contractions are different based on the muscle action that is occurring.  Eccentric, Isometric and Concentric are the three types of muscle actions that can be performed.  The way that you train each of these muscle actions is ultimately what will play a huge role in your success or failure in the gym.  The fate of my back squat attempt will rest on how I have trained using these three muscle actions.

What’s The Difference?


The majority of weight lifters concentrate on the concentric contraction of a muscle while performing an exercise.  This is commonly referred to as the overcoming phase and is when the muscle is shortening.  In a squat it would be when you are heading back up after your descent.  On the bench it is when pressing up, in a bicep curl it is when you are curling up.  Hopefully those examples will help you understand exactly what a concentric contraction is. One thing you want to think about with a concentric contraction is speed.   This movement should always be done with maximum speed while staying under control.  This is not saying that you need to use light weight in order to move it fast.  What this means is that no matter what the load, you should always be attempting to move it as fast as possible.  If you are using light weight that is easy to move around, don’t allow yourself to get out of control where you lose form and technique in the lift.  That being said, you really shouldn’t be using a load that light too often.  By attempting to move the weight with maximum speed you are bringing your fast twitch muscle fibers into play.  These are you strongest muscle fibers and are the ones you want to exercise if you want to get a better physique.


The isometric contraction is any point in which the joint angle is fixed and stationary.  If you are working through a complete movement, the isometric contraction is when you are changing direction.  An example of this would be when you are changing the direction from lowering to lifting during a bench press.  Many times this action is not utilized and is done within one second or less.  If you are looking to get stronger, you will be making a big mistake in not utilizing an isometric approach.

When you hold an action isometrically you are allowing for your body to  recruit more muscle fibers  than if you didn’t focus on the isometric portion of a lift.  If you are holding a heavy weight in a stationary position, the weak muscle fibers begin to fatigue and your body begins to call on the stronger fibers.  The more you train those stronger fibers, the stronger you will get.

Here are a few things to do:  1) Work on isometric holds for things such as pull ups, push ups, glute bridges and lunges.  When you hold an isometric contraction you are strengthening the muscle in a 15-20 degree range.  So, if you lower into a push up halfway down, you will be strengthening the muscles not only in that exact joint angle but also a little higher and lower.   2) Isometric work is fantastic for overcoming what’s called a “sticking point.”  If you are benching, this will be the point where you touch the chest and try to press back up, but fail.  The sticking point is the most fatal part of a lift when trying to tackle a PR.   A good thing to do is put some lighter weight on the bar and hold it an inch off the chest for time.  If you have a buddy that you train with, have them try and press the bar down into your chest while you try to push the bar up.   Hopefully you can maintain that position of just off the chest for 10-30 seconds.

There is much more in the great world of isometrics, so do some research.  Iso’s are great and extremely agonizing, but they will help build up your mental strength along with your physical strength.


Last but definitely not least is the eccentric muscle contraction.  It is hard to get much stronger eccentrically by lifting in a “normal” way.  What I mean by normal is just lowering the bar at a steady pace and then lifting it back up.  The eccentric movement pattern is when you are yielding and is the least strenuous part of an exercise.  In a pull up or bench press it is when you or the bar is lowering.  You are much stronger eccentrically than you are concentrically or isometrically.  Think about it, your body is much stronger at loading a weight than overcoming a weight.

If you get stronger eccentrically you will be doing yourself a big favor.  Why?  The stronger you are eccentrically, the more energy you will be saving in that phase of an exercise. This will keep more energy and strength for the hard part (concentric) of the exercise.  That sticking point that I mentioned earlier has a lot to do with getting exhausted eccentrically, which will put a damper on your concentric strength.

Here’s the plan:  1) Slow down your tempo when moving through the eccentric phase.  So instead of taking 1-2 seconds in the eccentric phase, slow it down to 3-5 seconds.  2) Try the 2/1 technique.  This is when you go through an eccentric movement with 1 limb then use 2 for the concentric part.  It works great on a tricep pushdown: press down with both arms, then use one to slowly bring it back to the top.  3)  Use supra-maximal lifts.  This is also known as a negative, throw on about 120% of your max and slowly move through the eccentric phase.  It is called a negative because you are focusing solely on the eccentric (negative) movement.  The idea of loading yourself with 120% your max is to recruit your strongest muscle fibers that are otherwise rarely used.   If you are bench pressing lower the bar taking 5-8 seconds, then have your spotter pull the bar off you.

So now that you know that there is more to lifting than just one movement, I hope you can push through some plateaus.  Utilize these movements to the fullest and your strength will sky rocket.

I encourage any questions or comments, please:

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