Understanding Muscle Contractions for Better Performance

Today’s article addresses the following questions:

  1. Should we just go through the motions with exercise and training or can we be more purposeful in how we contract our muscles in the pursuit of results?
  2. In certain sports or movement patterns, do our bodies have a tendency to utilize one type of contraction over another?

As I consider that first question I think that right off the bat we want to do more than just go through the motions with any exercise. Movement is an art, and it is a skill to be practiced. We should always be trying to refine and improve our movements. This results in better economy (improved fuel utilization and less energy leakage), efficiency (higher energy production at a given effort), and effectiveness (graceful, poetic movement that not only gets the job done but produces less wear and tear on our bodies). All that stated, eventually a lot of our movements can shift to autopilot, as the subconscious mind can execute them flawlessly with little cognitive input. 

However, in training and particularly in the gym, good programming will give consideration and even leverage to the types of muscle contractions. A shout-out goes to Cal Dietz and Ben Petersen for their book Triphasic Training in which they developed a comprehensive system around the types of muscle contractions. However, the appreciation of muscle contractions and their impacts on the body have been a staple in training since practically forever.

First, let’s take a quick look at the 3 major types of muscle contractions:

  • Concentric: The muscle shortens as it moves in opposition to an external load (this could be gravity alone or a dumbbell for example). Think of a bicep curl on the way up.
  • Eccentric: The muscle lengthens as it resists an external load. Envision that bicep curl on the way down or someone attempting to “controlled crash” an object that is too heavy to lift.
  • Isometric: The muscle contracts against an immovable object or in a static position but does not shorten or lengthen appreciably.

Those three contraction types have specific effects on the body:

  • Concentric: This is an overcoming or antigravity contraction that we associate with pumping or squeezing the muscle. It’s like a spring recoiling from a stretch position.
  • Eccentric: This is a yielding or lowering (usually) contraction which lengthens or loads the spring. These contractions tend to produce more force and develop greater strength than concentric, but this comes with greater risk of muscle fiber damage (temporary in most cases) and soreness.
  • Isometric: This static contraction builds strength at a specific joint angle and also has been shown by research to improve tendon extensibility (especially if held for durations of 30 seconds or longer).

Basically, when we consider integrated human movement, the three types of contractions are blended by our motor cortex (the brain-muscle connection) in a metered, instantaneous, and flowing manner. As we focus on the big picture of creating movement, the neuromuscular system selects and turns on and off the proper muscle contractions and sequences. At least this is true once we have honed a movement to high proficiency. This is also coordinated with how we breathe, how we orient the skeleton, and the way in which our visceral organs (guts) are displaced within the abdominal cavity. 

Summing up my response to question #1, with global, overall body movement, we generally want to get to the point where we are not thinking about muscle contractions, but they are happening in ideal fashion. But when we are training in the gym, we absolutely want to incorporate the usage of all three types of contractions to develop the most healthy, well-rounded athlete possible. This is one of the foundations of intelligent programming.

Now let’s turn our attention to question #2, which asks whether or not certain body types or athletes in different sports/positions might have a bias toward a contraction type. Well, everything is always context-dependent (type and speed of movement, the environment, the orientation of the body, etc.) but the simple answer is YES.

A few years ago, when I was developing my AnimalFIT system, which is a method for identifying your body type and optimizing your training, I discussed what I call a “movement problem-solving strategy.” This is essentially the way in which a given athlete (person, beast, body type, etc.) will approach a movement task. There can be many examples but one that I use often is the “jump onto the chair” scenario. How this works is pretty simple. With no instructions or methods cued, I’ll simply tell someone to jump onto a chair (assuming this is safe for them to do). As a second choice, I’ll just ask them “How would you do it if you were not going to actually do it?” Obviously, the actual test works a little better than just the question, but here’s what usually happens.

With no specific instructions and not a lot of time to think about it, people will select one of three ways to get onto the chair. I’ll relate this to the muscle contractions.

  • Concentric: These are generally your more force-dependent, muscular athletes. They will square up to the chair, descend somewhat slowly into a moderate depth countermovement, and then recruit their muscles concentrically to erupt into the air and onto the chair. This is max force production.
  • Eccentric: These are your force-transference folks who basically harness energy within the system, steer it, and minimize leakage. Because they can’t generate as much force as concentric athletes, they will usually back up a bit from the chair and take a run at it. As they approach the chair, they convert their horizontal velocity into vertical displacement by storing the energy eccentrically in their system as their muscles lengthen and they “bend” their force vectors. This is channeling of force more than raw production.
  • Isometric: This movement pattern typically goes with the more elastic, explosive athletes who possess cat-like characteristics. They will generally take a small, short hop to approach the jump and then quickly load and explode upward, almost bouncing up onto the chair. They utilize a rapid isometric contraction to create stiffness and use ground reaction force to the max. This is rapid force reversal.

It’s important to note following the above example, that every human has the ability to do all three of these contraction-based movement patterns. However, you’ll generally find that you prefer one as your go-to. Your brilliant inner beast knows what works best for you through thousands of practice experiences. That’s why I don’t give instructions and just say “jump onto the chair.” You’ll self-select or self-organize into the pattern that works best for you.

Perhaps a final consideration would be thinking about how to use these contractions and patterns in training, not just jumping onto a chair. In a well-rounded athlete, it’s always a good idea to have several movement options in any scenario. In this case it’s a great practice to place a little emphasis on training and improving your weaknesses (liabilities) in the gym and on the field. But, for the most part, you are always going to get more out of your strengths (assets) than your less-pronounced qualities. For that reason, most of your training should focus on polishing your strength (preferred contraction and movement pattern). And when it really counts, you want to go to that pattern which has proven to be your strong point. Train liabilities some (so they are less of a weak point) and assets a lot (to be at their strongest). You should almost always compete with your strength.

Thank you for reading and I hope this gave you some useful food for thought. Whether you are self-coached or working with a professional, it’s always valuable to know how your body functions best and how to train it for peak performance.

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