First, a short recap about concentric and eccentric muscle work. (I’ve stopped calling it contraction because I associate a shortening with the word contraction, which gets confusing as you’ll see.)
Concentric muscle action is a shortening of the muscle while it’s working. Eccentric muscle action means the muscle is lengthening while it’s working.
The typical example is your biceps muscle flexing and shortening as you bend your elbow and lengthening while you lower a weight in your hand down as you straighten your arm. The muscle lengthens while it’s still engaged (you still have to hold the weight). It’s not just letting go. That would be complete relaxation of the muscle.
Some people call the eccentric muscle work resisting. It’s the control over the movement that gave this method its original name Contrology.
This all sounds very theoretical, and for many regular students with no particular interest in anatomy, kinesiology or biomechanics, it can be a difficult concept to understand. We’re used to putting effort only into lifting a heavy weight. Once it’s up we’re done because gravity can take over to drop it back down. #putthatdowngently
Your student might ask, “Am I engaging the muscle or am I not engaging?” Or they think that they’re not engaging the muscle because they feel less sensation.
To help with this dilemma, I started to use a metaphor where I describe concentric movement where the muscle shortens and the intensity becomes higher or stronger as “turning the volume up”. Eccentric muscle action where the muscle gets longer and the sensation becomes less, as “turning the volume down”. That’s different from completely turning it off.
As an example, let’s take Seated Pull Down on the Trapeze Table. When you pull the bar down your arm muscles (latissimus, lower traps, rhomboids and rotator cuff) are working concentrically. You’re turning the volume up. When you hold the bar at the bottom you can feel those muscles really well. As the bar goes up, you start to lose that connection. For most people, it completely turns off, right? By controlling the bar up and moving more slowly, you incorporate that eccentric control that Pilates is all about. It’s like turning the volume down, not off.
When the bar goes down, you turn the volume up.
When the bar goes up, you turn the volume down.
Let’s analyze this concept in Standing Leg Pump on the Chair. When you push the pedal down, you can really feel your glute work in a good way. Because it’s concentrically working. When you lift the pedal up, controlling it with the glute of the moving leg, it’s less intense but it’s still working. The glute muscle is eccentrically working meaning the volume gets lower the higher the pedal goes. Just when you feel you’re about to lose the target muscle, reverse direction and push back down. The movement will become a bit smaller as you practice this. You don’t let the pedal lift as high. Limit the range of motion to where you feel the muscles actually working.
One more example would be Feet in Straps on the Reformer: Frogs. When you push away you feel your glute (butt muscle) contracting because it’s concentrically working while you press your feet into the straps. On the way in, make sure to control the speed of the movement so that your glutes are still working (eccentrically). Turn the volume up during the concentric movement (when you push away) and turn the volume down during the eccentric phase.
Try it out in your upcoming classes or private sessions and let me know how it goes. If you have any feedback, go ahead and post it in the comments below.
Note: The exercise links within the text will lead to Youtube. Here are the direct links to the exercises mentioned in this post in the Pilates Encyclopedia:
Feel at ease in each class you teach