Using Different Types of Muscle Contraction for Strength Training Workouts

Using Different Types of Muscle Contraction for Strength Training Workouts

I answer a lot of fitness questions during each session and I glean tremendous value from the conversations I have with clients about fitness.  Conversing with them allows me to develop a better understanding of how different people with different results view exercise and fitness results.

One of the questions I was asked by a client new to strength training workouts was:  “Why do I need to control the weight when I’m lowering it?”

While it seems like a simple question, I started to wonder if there were some, or even quite a few people who don’t know the difference between or the value of different types of muscle contractions.  I thought I’d create a post with some insight.

There are three different types of active muscle contractions: concentric, eccentric, and isometric.  As you read on, take note that the word contraction, which implies shortening, actually refers to an action that generates tension within the muscle and causes it to perform work.  Muscle contraction (work) can be performed during the shortening, lengthening, or static tension of the muscle.

Concentric Muscle Contraction: Muscle Actively Shortening
Lifting a dumbbell upwards during a bicep curl

“When a muscle is activated and required to lift a load which is less than the maximum tetanic tension it can generate, the muscle begins to shorten. Contractions that permit the muscle to shorten are referred to as concentric contractions.” [1]

Eccentric Muscle Contraction: Muscle Actively Lengthening
Example: Lowering a dumbbell down during a bicep curl

“During normal activity, muscles are often active while they are lengthening.  As the load on the muscle increases, it finally reaches a point where the external force on the muscle is greater than the force that the muscle can generate. Thus even though the muscle may be fully activated, it is forced to lengthen due to the high external load. This is referred to as an eccentric contraction (please remember that contraction in this context does not necessarily imply shortening).”[1]

NOTE: “muscle strengthening may be greatest using exercises that involve eccentric contractions.”[1]

Isometric Muscle Contraction: Muscle Statically Contracting
Example: Holding a dumbbell half-way up during a bicep curl

“A third type of muscle contraction, isometric contraction, is one in which the muscle is activated, but instead of being allowed to lengthen or shorten, it is held at a constant length.”[1]

As you can see by the definitions listed above, the purpose of controlling the weight as you lower it, is to maximize the eccentric muscle contraction.  According to references used for this article, maximizing the eccentric portion of the contraction will cause you to develop maximum strength in the target muscle group.

Try this example of a shoulder strength training workout circuit which includes all three types of muscle contractions.  Perform all three exercises in succession with a rest period at the end then repeat for a total of 3 sets. Let me know what you think!

Exercise 1 & 2:
1)Seated shoulder press, alternate arms during press
2)Stand and hold weights statically overhead with perfect posture for 1 minute (no squirming!)

Exercise 3:
Pike push-up on ball or bench

Exercise 4:
Standing lateral raise with dumbbells 20 reps



Strength Training for Sprinting

Strength Training for Sprinting

If you want to become a better sprinter, you can do so by incorporating various strength training workouts into your training plan.  Particularly, workouts focusing on the posterior chain will help you improve sprint ability.  The posterior chain includes your spinal erectors, glutes, hamstrings, and calf musculature.  These muscles are often referred to as the ‘running muscles’ because they do the majority of the work during running and sprinting.

Unfortunately, many conditioning regimens neglect posterior chain which can cause muscle imbalance and also reduced performance.  I also think most of us recreational athletes and fitness enthusiasts tend to unknowingly gravitate towards movements that negate the posterior chain.

Strength training workouts to improve sprint performance should be well rounded, including both anterior and posterior movements.  This will promote balanced muscular development, joint health, and optimal performance.

Primary Muscles Used in Running/Sprinting
I placed a brief 22 second below that illustrates muscles used during running.  Take a look.

While sprinting technique is slightly different than running, the video gives shows that muscles used in sprinting are mostly in the posterior chain.  In fact, a large part of the movement comes from the hamstrings role in hip extension. While it’s not only hamstring strength you want to develop or even solely posterior chain development, a well rounded sprint conditioning program should definitely include movements that develop the glutes, hamstrings, and emphasize both glute activation and hip extension.

Elements of Sprint Strength Training Workouts

  • Olympic Lifts
  • Squats (and their variations)
  • Lunges (and their variations)
  • Deadlifts (all types)
  • Hamstring Isolation Exercises (Machine & Body Weight)
  • Glute Ham Raise
  • Kneeling Good Mornings
  • Single Leg Glute Bridge

Strength Training Workout Guidelines
When training specifically for sprinting, strength workouts should stay in the lower rep range (approx 6 or less) with a focus on moving the weight quickly while staying under control.  Movements should mimic the explosive nature of the activity without becoming sloppy or potentially damaging.

Strength Training Workouts: Chest Workout Push-up Challenge

Strength Training Workouts: Chest Workout Push-up Challenge

As you know, effective strength training workouts are an important part of producing fitness results.

A favorite component of my chest strength training workouts is push-ups.  It may surprise you to know there are a lot of different ways to perform a push-up.  Most often, push-ups are performed with momentum with little attention given to body position or targeting a specific muscle group.  People often drop their hips, scrunch their shoulders, or over-arch their lower back in order to squeak out a few more reps.  This is because push-ups are often tested against time or the exerciser is attempting to do the maximum number they can before failure.

The form you use for push-ups should be dependent on your specific goal.  For chest workouts, I teach clients to do push-ups while holding the neutral spine, stabilizing the shoulder girdle, and isolating the chest muscles.  Using this form is an effective way to use push-ups as part of your chest strength training workouts.

I used this push-up workout with a few clients to get add something new and different instead of the standard flat bench or flat dumbbell press.  I call it the 100 push-up challenge.  The goal is to perform 100 (women 70) push-ups at the beginning of your chest workout.

Step 1:  As many push-ups as you can do starting with perfect form and control, and allowing your form to slip only a little.  Use your form as a guide; if you cannot hold decent form, then you’ve worked until failure.

Step 2:  Perform 25 sit-ups as a recovery.

Step 3:  Repeat step 1 & 2 until you’ve done 100 total push-ups.

Note:  If you’re accustomed to doing push-ups, you may need to set your number higher than 100.  Generally I’ve found that getting to 100 requires at least 3-4 sit-up breaks for most people.

Real Life Example
Set 1 = 40 push-ups; 25 sit-ups
Set 2 = 25 push-ups; 25 sit-ups
Set 3 = 18 push-ups; 25 sit-ups
Set 4 = 10 push-ups; 25 sit-ups
Set 5 =   7 push-ups

Push-ups are often overlooked as an effective means for strengthening the chest because they are such a simple body weight exercise.  The truth is body weight exercises are an excellent addition to any strength workout and can also be used in substitution for traditional strength training workouts.

When done correctly, body weight exercises are challenging, realistic, and relevant to real world movement including functional movement and athletic performance.  They require you to stabilize yourself, activate your core, and control your body position as the target muscle group becomes fatigued.

Even if you opt-out of the 100 push-up challenge, I recommend incorporating some form of push-up into your chest strength training workouts as part of a super-set or as a simple warm-up before you being your standard workout.  If you do decide to take the challenge, report your results back to me here, I would love to know how you did!

Including Medicine Ball Exercises In Your Strength Training Workouts

Medicine balls are commonplace at most gyms and workout facilities these days.  They are used for anything from push-ups and overhead throws to functional swings and twists.  For such a simple piece of equipment they are extremely versatile and there are a number of different types of medicine balls to choose from.

Most med balls come in various weights and diameters.  And depending on the type, some are made from soft mushy leather while others are hollow with a hard rubber surface.  Some even have handles to facilitate a better grip.  With so much variety available, sometimes I wonder if people know what a medicine ball is really for but are unsure of how to incorporate them in their own workout routine.

Medicine Balls & Core Strength Training
Similar to the BOSU ball, a medicine ball can provide an unstable surface that challenges both balance and stability.  By knowing how to perform movements properly, one can easily torture clients capitalize on the challenge provided by the unstable surface and use it to challenge the core during push-ups, abdominal movements, shoulder movements, and hamstring movements (and more).  Learning how to stabilize the body when an unstable surface is present is one of the main components of core strength training.

Medicine Balls & Sports Performance Training
Medicine balls are used a lot in functional training and sports specific training such as MMA and boxing.  Med balls are also used regularly in cross-fit style workouts.  Having various diameters and weights available allows the exerciser to perform resistance oriented exercises that would be awkward if attempted with a dumbbell.

Working with a variety of diameters and weights also helps to improve grip and forearm strength, mimic coordinated movements, and provide resistance for explosive movements.  The various weights allow you to progressively increase difficulty, strengthen target muscles, and increase overall demand on the body.

When using a medicine ball as part of a sports specific training regimen, exercises are most effective when they mirror movements you perform in your sport.

Do Medicine Balls Really Fit into A Strength Training Workout?
When I work with clients, one of the things I teach them is to create a circuit of strength training movements and medicine ball exercises.  By choosing the right combination of exercises, I use this method to effectively challenge both the core and the target muscle groups while increasing overall demand on the body and creating a more intense strength training workout.

If you want to learn how to use a medicine ball correctly, check out this video below. The video is a little dry, but also informative. It’s created by one of my favorite online companies, Perform Better.

Consider Risk to Benefit Ratio When Designing Strength Training Workouts

Consider Risk to Benefit Ratio When Designing Strength Training Workouts

I saw a guy at the gym the other day benching three plates on each side of the bar…what’s that about 315 lbs.?  This was a pretty regular size guy and all I could think the entire time was…why not do a squat instead?  Ok, ok that’s just me staying true to my style of training and lifting.  I do understand there are different forms and purposes for lifting in different ways.

That being said, every person creating their own strength training workouts should consider a few important variables instead of just replicating what they see other people doing.  When preparing for the bench press, you should first decide which of the various forms you’ll use (ie: power lifting vs. bodybuilding, etc.) and the goal you want to achieve when performing the exercise.  Second, the lifter should also consider the risk to benefit ratio of the type of lift and the amount of weight lifted.

There is a risk to benefit ratio for basically every exercise and the risk varies depending on both form used and the condition of the person performing the exercise.  If you are designing your own strength training workouts, you should first assess your current level of conditioning and your experience level with strength training.  Beginners should always choose low risk exercises, use low risk form, and light weight.  This will allow you to train your nervous system to activate the appropriate muscle groups, strengthen weak link muscles, and discover any potential muscles imbalances you may not yet be aware of.

The more advanced lifter should still consider risk to benefit ratio of each exercise they choose, but is more capable of handling higher risk movements. While the risk level of certain exercises may be higher, people with more experience, knowledge, and in better condition have the ability to exercise greater nervous system control during the movement and therefore the risk is lessened overall.  As you, the lifter, choose higher risk movements, one option to decrease overall risk is to perform the specific movement with the same form but lower weight.

Another variable to consider is your age.  Be aware that as you get older, flexibility in ligaments, tendons, and muscles decreases.  This means that you should gravitate towards low to medium risk movements that give you maximum overall benefit.

1.  Optimal Muscle Training by Ken Kinakin

72 Year Old is an Inspiration

What would it take for you to eat only fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans every day. Why would anyone want to do it? (Do people really do that?)

What about this…try eating only fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans AND working out for an hour each day, 6 days per week. (Not me, at least not right now…Is chocolate a vegetable or fruit? 🙂 )

Well, after seeing the video of this 72 year old man, I’m thinking about trying it! I found an excellent and inspiring story of a 72 year old, former Mr. America who still strength trains to this day. He looks absolutely amazing!  Check it out and you might feel the urge to start eating like he does as well!

The awesome part about this man is not only how amazing he looks, but the example he is setting for all of us to be healthy and active for life. At 72, he still works out for an hour each day. I’m sure he lives and active life, has strong bones, and gets around really well (he didn’t tell me that personally so don’t quote me!). His quality of life is 100 times better than if he wouldn’t have made the commitment and effort to exercise and healthy eating.