How Concentric Contractions Help Build Muscles
When we think of strength training, we tend to refer to the process of building muscle mass. It may involve lifting a barbell to strengthen your biceps or using a Smith machine or chest platform to increase the size and strength of your chest muscles.
The actual process of "pushing" or "lifting" in these exercises involves an action known as a concentric muscle contraction. By definition, a concentric contraction is one in which the tension in a muscle increases as it shortens.
Concentric contractions are a central aspect of muscle growth and development. As the muscles contract, they begin the hypertrophy process ("hyper" means increase and "trophy" means growth). With muscle hypertrophy, every muscle cell will grow under the influence of constant stress. The muscle fibers themselves, known as myofibrils, also divide and increase muscle mass.
While concentric contractions are vital to achieving growth, they are just one type of contraction that the body relies on to build muscle.
An easy way to visualize a concentric muscle contraction is to do a dumbbell barbell curl. As you lift the dumbbell from the fully extended (down) position towards your shoulder, you will see the biceps muscle activate.
While weight lifting is the exercise we commonly associate with concentric muscle contractions, there are many ways to activate muscles as they shorten. Examples include:
- The lifting phase of the barbell curl
- The upward movement of a squat
- The upward movement of a pull-up
- The upward movement of a push-up
- The upward movement of a sit-up
- The lifting phase of a tendon flexion.
This includes running, running uphill, biking, climbing stairs, and simply getting up from a chair, causing the quads to contract concentrically.
Even carrying a baby in your arms would involve concentric movements, as the biceps and forearm must contract and shorten to support the weight.
Concentric vs. Eccentric Contractions
When lifting a weight, you experience a concentric contraction. On the other hand, as you slowly lower the dumbbell, the muscle stretches but still remains tight. This is the phase known as eccentric muscle contraction. It is the yang of the concentric muscle contraction. Examples include:
- The release phase of the bar
- The downward movement of a squat
- The downward movement of a pull-up
- The downward movement of a push-up.
- The downward movement of a sit-up
- The release phase of a tendon flexion.
While concentric movements are effective for building muscle mass, eccentric movements can help if you maintain constant control and tension throughout the movement (rather than just "letting go").
Also, by maintaining constant control during the concentric movement (rather than "shaking" the weight), you can build muscle much more effectively.
Incorporation of isometric contractions
Increasing muscle mass and strength is a complex physiological process that requires muscle activation and rest. A concentric muscle contraction is one of the three types of activation. The other two are eccentric muscle contractions and isometric muscle contractions.
Isometric contractions differ from the other two types in that they do not involve stretching or contracting the muscles. Rather, it is a type of activation in which the muscle is consciously tense but the associated joints do not move.
Examples include carrying an object in front of you without moving, sitting crouched against a wall without moving, or staying in a plank position for a minute or two. In each case, the muscle is activated without movement.
While concentric contractions are critical to building muscle mass, eccentric and isometric activations should also be used to build muscle in a more cohesive way.
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