Are you a regular participant in strength training, but feeling completely unmotivated after performing the same exercises week after week? Your initial instinct might be to incorporate some intricate new workouts into your routine. While, yes, complex exercises can add some excitement, you can actually engage your muscles in a refreshing way if you simply focus on training each exercise in its various components.
Believe it or not, every strength-training exercise (whether bodyweight or weightlifting) can be divided into three main parts: the contracting versus lengthening movements, and a motionless hold.
“The contracting part occurs when the muscle tightens, the lengthening part occurs when the muscle elongates, and the motionless part occurs when the muscle remains still,” explains Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and the founder of Movement Vault, a digital platform for movement education.
And while you will almost always perform the entire squat, deadlift, push-up, or other exercise, focusing on each part of the movement separately does have its advantages. Below is a crash course on contracting versus lengthening movements, what isometric exercises entail, and the benefits of training them together and separately.
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Contracting Movements, Explained
The contracting part of a movement takes place when tension in the muscle increases and the muscle fibers contract or shorten, as explained by Wickham. The easiest example of a contracting movement is the initial phase of a biceps curl: Visualize bringing the dumbbell from hip height up to your shoulder. “As the weight moves closer to your shoulder, the biceps muscle shortens and the tension in the muscle increases,” he clarifies.
Other common contracting movements include:
- Hoisting an object off the ground (or the first half of a deadlift)
- Pushing to the top position in a push-up
- Rising from a squat
- Performing a hamstring curl
- Ascending in a sit-up
The Benefits of Contracting Movement Training
“The contracting part of a movement contributes to increased power, speed, and strength,” says Wickham. However, this part doesn’t strengthen the muscles as much as the lengthening part of a lift.
It’s beneficial to comprehend that for a muscle to become stronger, you actually need to harm that muscle. “You must generate microtears in the muscle that the body repairs and rebuilds even more robustly than before,” elucidates Wickham. Concentric movements do not harm the muscle as much as eccentric movements. While this implies fewer strength gains per repetition, it also indicates diminished delayed onset muscle soreness (aka DOMS), hastened recovery, and reduced additional muscle mass, he asserts.
There’s not much advantage to training only the concentric element of a movement, according to Wickham. However, there are three situations when you might want to concentrate on the concentric segment:
- Prior to a competition or race, when you’re concerned about experiencing soreness. Let’s assume you have a CrossFit competition on Sunday. If your box incorporates deadlifts on Friday, you might ward off soreness by lifting the weight and then simply releasing it, as opposed to lowering it back to the floor. (PSA: You’ll need to utilize weight lifting pads or ensure your gym has shock-absorbing floors to perform this variation.)
- If you’re a dedicated sprinter. Research suggests that the eccentric segment of an exercise is responsible for constructing more muscle mass than the concentric, so “sometimes advanced sprinters will just focus solely on the concentric segment of movements like the deadlift to prevent the development of thicker, bulkier muscles,” says Wickham. The hypothesis is that thicker muscles will lead to slower sprint times. However, for the general population of runners, this isn’t necessary, he notes. “For most runners, the loss from skipping the eccentric segment of the lift outweighs the benefit of exclusively performing the concentric,” he says. Translation: not a compelling enough reason to forgo the complete lift.
If you’re striving to refine your technique. It’s customary for coaches to instruct athletes to concentrate only on the initial half of a lift when they’re acquiring the skills for intricate movements, such as a squat snatch or power clean. Usually, the objective here is solely to confidently execute the technique, but this essentially offers athletes practice solely with the concentric segment of the lift.
The bottom line concerning concentric training: “Unless there’s a specific motive for avoiding soreness the following day, it’s preferable to train the concentric segment along with the eccentric segment,” suggests Wickham.
Unusual Movements, Clarified
Also referred to as “the negative,” the “abnormal movement involves elongating the muscle fibers,” states Ally McKinney, a certified personal trainer certified by ACSM. Generally, this implies returning the weight to its original position. For example, during a biceps curl, the abnormal movement occurs while lowering the weight down to hip level.
Typically, abnormal training refers to training that emphasizes that particular part of the movement. Consider:
- When performing a deadlift, gradually lowering the barbell back down to the floor over a count of three
- Lowering yourself from a pull-up bar as slowly as you can
- Gently rolling back during a Pilates roll-up
The Advantages of Abnormal Training
“Abnormal training places a greater demand on your muscles and central nervous system, so it will take longer for you to recover from engaging in abnormal movements,” states Wickham — but the payoff is worth it. Remember: Abnormal movements inflict more damage to your muscles compared to concentric movements.
“There are numerous advantages of abnormal training,” states McKinney. Along with strengthening your muscles, abnormal training helps fortify your tendons and ligaments, which reduces the risk of injury, she explains. In fact, one review discovered that abnormals may aid in reducing the risk of muscle strain and tears.
“Eccentric contractions can also effectively elongate your muscle fibers, resulting in physically longer muscles. Longer muscles lead to greater flexibility, and greater flexibility leads to better injury prevention,” suggests McKinney. Wondering if you would benefit from abnormal training? “The more appropriate question is: Who wouldn’t benefit?” remarks McKinney.
Static Exercises, Clarified
“During a static movement, you are completely immobile at a particular angle, causing no lengthening or shortening of the muscle,” explains McKinney. Not every exercise incorporates a static component — but you can incorporate one into most movements by inserting a pause mid-movement.
Once again, consider the biceps curl: Imagine curling your biceps to a 90-degree angle, so that your forearm is parallel to the floor, and then holding the weight in that position for ten seconds. That is static training. “Any movement that entails complete immobility can be considered a static hold,” states Wickham.
This might involve sitting in the bottom position of a squat, holding your weights with arms outstretched for 10 seconds during the arm exercises in spin class, or maintaining chair pose in yoga. There are also certain exercises that are inherently static. Consider:
- Handstand hold
- High plank
- Stationary squat
- Hollow body hold
- Hanging from the pull-up bar
- Kettlebell hold in front rack position
The Advantages of Isometric Training
If you’ve ever performed a stationary squat or remained in the lowest position of a squat, you won’t be surprised to learn that even though you’re not actively moving, you’re still fortifying your muscles. “Isometrics still require your muscles to activate, and therefore can assist in building strength,” states McKinney. Because maintaining a still position demands substantial engagement from your core, isometric exercises can be utilized to enhance balance and body control as well, she adds.
Isometrics can also help you overcome a strength plateau. Your weakest points are often at the extremes of your range of motion, Wickham explains. Consider a heavy back squat, for instance: pushing the weight up from the very bottom is typically where most individuals struggle. However, holding the lowest position of your squat with a weighted barbell on your back can help you develop the necessary strength to lift the weight back up and achieve a new personal record, he states. The same principle applies to push-ups or bench presses. Maintaining your body an inch or two above the ground during a push-up will ultimately make the entire movement easier.
“While you cannot solely rely on isometrics for strength gains, they are highly beneficial for those aiming to overcome a strength plateau or enhance their mobility,” says Wickham.
So, Should You Train Every Phase of the Movement?
Yes! “By utilizing concentric exercises to enhance strength throughout the complete range of motion, eccentric exercises to develop stronger and more resilient muscle tissue, and isometric exercises to increase strength at the extremes of your range of motion, you will become a force to be reckoned with,” states McKinney.
However, you should only do this occasionally. You cannot solely focus on training specific portions — “you must train the entire movement,” says Wickham.
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