If you want to get big arms and get strong, as efficiently as possible, you may have heard that lifting slowly is more effective than doing it fast. However, our minds have been slightly blown by research that suggests something very different.
Most lifters doing strength training want to take the FASTEST route to hypertrophy. For newcomers, no, that's not a really rad prize that you get for lifting the most; it's the medical name for how our bodies build muscle. The best way to build muscle and bulk up is to do resistance training frequently, but it's not just the number of workouts that matters if you want to build muscle mass. It's how you lift the weights or perform bodyweight exercises during your workout.
The consensus is the way you should be lifting is s-l-o-w-l-y. But the research we're looking at here suggests the opposite. Oh, and also that the 'lifting' part is not necessarily the most important bit. Yep, really.
You may be aware of 'Hypertrophy range' – the number of reps in a set that will result in the increase in muscle mass the fastest. Generally speaking, this hypertrophy range is between 8-12 repetitions per set, performed 3-4 times per workout session. However, research suggests that performing these sets in a specific way will result in faster gains. And as bizarre as it may sound to many of you, lifting at a fast pace and concentrating on the 'negative' part of the movement is THE most effective way to build muscle and gain strength.
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The research paper, originally published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology in 2003, called "The effects of eccentric and concentric training at different velocities on muscle hypertrophy" studied the effects of different speeds and type of muscle contractions. 24 untrained volunteers between the age 18– 36 years participated in the study, plus 10 people who served as controls.
The 24 participants were divided into two groups: 13 people were in the 'fast-' and 11 people in the 'slow'-velocity training group. Everyone performed the same routine for 16 weeks, which consisted of training one arm eccentrically for eight weeks followed by concentric training of the opposite arm for eight weeks.
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Eccentric (or negative) muscle contraction happens when the muscle gets longer, such as when you lower the dumbbell during biceps curls or when you lower your body doing pull ups. Conversely, concentric (or positive) muscle contraction is when the muscle gets shorter during the exercise, i.e. pushing yourself up doing dips, or standing up from a dip.
The results might shock some, but it seems that eccentric training resulted in greater hypertrophy than concentric training.
Furthermore, fast eccentric training resulted in greater hypertrophy than fast concentric training and slow-concentric training. Slow eccentric training also resulted in greater hypertrophy than fast concentric training but surprisingly, not fast concentrated training.
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Knowing all this, the researchers concluded that "eccentric fast training is the most effective for muscle hypertrophy and strength gain."
So next time you hit the gym (or your home gym), you should try building your sets around fast eccentric moves. With a dumbbell curl this would mean lowering quickly but in a controlled way. Obviously, don't just let if 'drop' using gravity as you will see no benefit at all.
Examples of 'eccentric fast training'
How to put this all in practice? How does an 'eccentric fast training' session look like? It is pretty similar to a regular session but with part of the movement sped up. In the case of biceps curls, for example, you might want to lift the dumbbells or barbell slowly (slow concentric move) and lowering it down fast (fast eccentric).
This doesn't mean you can just drop the weights. A fast eccentric move is not only fast but also controlled. The muscles used for the movement are firing on all cylinders both ways (concentric and eccentric) and your focus is on the muscle you are using.
The good 'muscle-mind' connection is paramount if you want to build muscle quickly. A research from 2016, titled "Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training" concluded by saying "resistance-trained individuals can increase triceps brachii or pectarilis major muscle activity during the bench press when focusing on using the specific muscle at intensities up to 60 % of 1RM."
Of course, there is competing evidence that suggests other techniques are better, and fast eccentric seems like an approach with a higher potential for injury than others. Even working out how to isolate the eccentric part of a move and how to do it fast, in a controlled way is something of a mental workout. Our advice is to warm up before, focus during, and keep an open mind…
Finally, here is a physiotherapist explaining the difference between isometric vs. concentric vs. eccentric moves. So now you know.