Some research has shown that soreness isn’t a necessary component of muscle growth. No pain, no gain has largely been debunked. However, some would say that people who say that want the quick fix or the little pill to swallow that avoids hard work to get what you want. We always need hard work for growth. So I’ll say instead, getting sore every workout shouldn’t be a parameter that you check off your to-do list when seeking growth.
Soreness can be caused by many different stimuli. But you can almost guarantee an eccentric component is part of the picture; maybe a big part of it. Just to refresh, concentric contraction of muscle is the muscle shortening phase. If you measure the extreme ends of the muscle tendon from insertion to attachment, that shortening can be physically measured as muscle contracts. Then, when you release the contraction, the eccentric phase is the lengthening of the muscle. However, muscles don’t completely relax while it is under load. It still puts out little myosin-actin bridges or micro contractions to lower a load with control. The lengthening, or eccentric contraction, is where most soreness occurs. It happens as you lower into a squat, as you release a barbell curl to full arm’s length, and when you lower a military press from overhead to the rack position. Sometimes you want to maximize eccentric contraction with tools like negative reps and partner assisted lowering with extra pressure. It has been a big part of old school bodybuilding forever. So yes, eccentric is still essential, but soreness isn’t always the desired outcome.
So, can we really avoid eccentric contraction in a workout?
The answer is an emphatic YES! Haha, I say that tongue in cheek because you’ll see where we still go a little eccentric at times. But here are a few ideas for eccentric work:
1. Sled drags – when you pull a sled horizontally across a surface, it is nearly 100% concentric. You never have to kinetically lower a sled from a high action potential (excerpt from my days of physical chemistry). It is always on the ground. Your quads and glutes are burning on all cylinders, but its all concentric. Yes, you still may get sore because it is really hard, but once you are trained for that kind of effort, you may not get sore anymore. Movements like Farmer Carries are close to this as well because you don’t pick up the weight very high and you lower it a couple inches back to the ground.
2. Olympic weightlifting – this is where tongue in cheek comes into play—yes, there is still a squat in Olympic lifting. When you catch a clean at the rack position and lower into a squat, that is eccentric. The same is true when you catch a snatch. But, what if you used a manageable weight that you caught either in a power clean or a clean where you don’t lower when you catch. Then, it would be almost all concentric. The key is dropping the weight. So if you are not in a gym that allows weight to be dropped and that doesn’t have bumper plates, you’ll be in a jam. Again, kinetic energy. From floor to overhead is concentric, but if you use any effort to lower the weight, it adds the eccentric. Let’s say you are doing power cleans. You clean it, then drop it, then do it again. Its a great workout without any eccentric contraction.
3. Throwing/lifting movements – a strongman atlas stone or soft stone lift is perfect! You can lift it to shoulder or overhead, then drop it. Med ball slams are pretty good too. Lift it and drop or slam it to the ground. Try a 30 or 50 pound ball 20 to 100 times and you’ll realize what a sick workout it is. And its nearly all concentric. You can also do a wallball drop. You can’t catch it or that will be eccentric. This is better for a heavier med ball. Do like a wallball throw to a mark on the wall or rafters, then let it drop. Clean it and then do it again.
You can get really creative with this. Basically, anything that starts from the floor (no potential energy) to some height (maximum potential energy), then drop it. That will most likely be concentric in your body.
When do you use strictly concentric lifting?
You use concentrics when you don’t want to or can’t get sore. I teach yoga classes and I need to be able to demonstrate poses to students. If I can’t do a pushup (chaturanga) or a squat (chair pose), I’m not going to be able to demonstrate. I can’t afford cramps either, especially in hamstrings or biceps. So, either I don’t workout the day before class, or I do concentric work instead. Also, maybe you are on a deload for competition; maybe you’re running a race on the weekend; or maybe you are working as a massage therapist or tire changer and you need to be able to function at work—-that’s when you use concentrics.
I hope this gives you something to think about. Have fun and keep at it!