Do More: Eccentric Strength
This week’s “Do More” installment focuses on eccentric strength. There are three phases of an exercise: the eccentric, the isometric, and the concentric. The eccentric phase may also be referred to as the negative. During this portion of the exercise, the target muscle lengthens. The easiest way to picture this is when you lower the dumbbell during a biceps curl. As you lower the weight, the biceps eccentrically contract and lengthen.
Unfortunately, many athletes overlook the eccentric portion of an exercise and focus solely on the concentric phase, or the action of shortening the target muscle through contraction. This is because many athletes don’t know why the eccentric phase is important for injury prevention and athletic development. I am not blaming them. Many times, workout videos focus on the concentric portion of exercises because that is when you are doing “the work”. Many trainers and coaches will label the concentric portion as the “hard part” of an exercise and the eccentric as the “easy part”. Although this may have some truth, athletes take it as if the eccentric phase is of little importance.
Today, I will show you why, instead of neglecting eccentric strength, athletes should focus on building eccentric strength. By emphasizing this portion of an exercise, athletes can increase their lifting proficiency, enhance coordination and body control, reduce injury risk and improve speed, agility and overall athleticism.
Why Should We Train Eccentrically?
1. First and foremost, neglecting to at least control the eccentric portion of a lift is a recipe for disaster. An uncontrolled negative increases your chance for injury. One example is the negative portion of the bench. If you lower the weight, without control, the barbell may slam into your chest and cause injury. Or think about the squat. By “bottoming out”, you put yourself in a perilous situation with poor posture, an unstable spine and core and deteriorating form. All of these are ingredients for serious injury.
2. By performing slow negatives, you can focus on perfecting your movement patterns. This allows you to become a more proficient lifter. Improving technique and mastering movement patterns allow you to move more weight and reduce the chances of injury.
3. Increasing eccentric strength, well, strengthens your tendons. Studies show that eccentric training can not only increase the strength of muscles, but it can increase the dynamic and passive stiffness of the working tendons.
4. By incorporating slow eccentrics, you can increase flexibility. This flexibility, partnered with an increase in muscle strength and stability, can enhance mobility. Mobility is the desired improvement as it is the ability of a joint to move freely (with stability) through its full range of motion.
5. Eccentric strength reduces your chance for injuries. In “An Eccentric Approach to Hamstring Injuries”, the authors discuss the importance of training the hamstrings with an eccentric focus. They argue that the hamstring acts eccentrically during the late swing phase of running in order to “slow the lower leg and prepare and position the leg for ground contact.” They discuss a study that was conducted during track and field trials. During the sprint, an athlete suffered a hamstring strain during the late swing phase. They concluded that “With the understanding that the hamstrings must be conditioned to withstand the high forces associated with this point in the gait cycle, the authors recommended that hamstring injury prevention and rehabilitation programs should preferentially target strengthening exercises that involve eccentric contractions performed with high loads at longer musculotendon lengths.” A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that an eccentric hamstring training program positively addressed different factors in hamstring strain injury by increasing eccentric and concentric strength, improving hamstring-to-quad ratio (which also reduces knee injury) and increasing flexibility. These improvements ultimately reduce the risk of hamstring injury.
6. Improve athletic performance and sprint speed. Chris Beardsley, a much smarter man than me, found that eccentric training is a valuable method for improving athletic performance in movements that have peak contractions at long muscle lengths such as the ground contact phase of sharp change of direction maneuvers. In order to improve our braking ability during athletic movements, we must improve our eccentric strength. This will allow us to prevent injury during these moments and also improve our ability to stop on a dime and change direction. Beardsley also argues that eccentric strength “increases muscle fascicle length, which allows superior contraction velocities. Therefore, it is a valuable method for improving athletic performance in high velocity movements, such as sprinting.” Boom.
7. We are stronger in the eccentric portion of an exercise compared to the isometric and concentric phases.
8. It causes more muscle fiber damage (not a bad thing).
9. In “Physiological and Neural Adaptations to Eccentric Exercise: Mechanisms and Considerations for Training”, the authors argue that eccentric strength training is “the most effective stimulus for promoting muscle growth and enhancing the neural drive in the muscle.” This is evidenced by the greater muscle hypertrophy (gainz, bro), greater neural activity and larger force production following eccentric exercise.
10. Less metabolic cost than isometric and concentric muscle action. You use less energy substrates during eccentric training and put less of a demand on your cardiovascular system. This leads to less perceived fatigue during the workout.
Repeated Bout Effect
Although eccentric exercise causes more muscle fiber damage and muscle soreness, it also triggers the “repeated bout effect”. Simply put, the repeated bout effect describes your body’s ability to adapt to the stressors that it experiences during a workout. That crazy two day muscle soreness (DOMS) that you feel after the first couple workouts is much less likely to occur as you continue to train in a similar pattern. Although researchers don’t know the exact cause, repeated bout effect is a real phenomenon. Your body will become accustomed to the stress and will recover much quicker as you progress.
How to Train Eccentrically:
1. Accentuated Eccentric Exercise/Tempo Training
This training technique calls for a slow, controlled eccentric phase of a lift followed by a normal isometric and concentric muscle action. Our programs provide the preferred tempo in a format that looks like this: Goblet Squat: 3×6 (3/0/x). This would mean that the athlete is to do 3 sets of 6 repetitions. Each repetition would consist of a 3 second eccentric phase (lowering), no pause during the isometric phase and an explosive concentric phase. Three seconds going down, no pause at the bottom, and an explosive return to the top position.
There are endless possibilities with this technique. You can incorporate it with squats, RDLs, bench press, rows, etc. As you start out, it would be best to limit the technique to one or two exercises per session. For instance, during upper body day, we would prescribe a tempo technique for the bench press. This would normally be the main lift of the day, done first in the order of strength exercises. The rest of the exercises would be completed with a normal tempo.
2. Negative Training
This technique is slightly different from the “tempo training”. During negative training, you complete only the eccentric portion of the lift. Like tempo training, the eccentric portion is slow and performed under control.
An example of this style of training can be seen with the pull-up. Begin by hanging with your chest at bar height and slowly lower yourself to a dead hang. Instead of pulling yourself back up, simply use a box/bench to stand up and get back into the starting position. This is a great regression for those athletes that cannot complete a pull-up.
This technique can be applied to the bench press with the help of a reliable spotter(s). Lower the bar slowly to your chest, resisting the weight as it lowers. When the weight reaches your chest, the spotter(s) lift the bar back up to the starting position. You will be able to handle more weight during the eccentric phase than you can lift during the concentric movement.
The push-up and Nordic hamstring curl are two more examples of exercises that can use the negative technique. Here is a video demonstrating the Nordic hamstring curl:
People often overlook the eccentric portion of a lift, but that is a big mistake. By focusing on the negative, you can unlock a ton of benefits in the weight room and on the field. Be smart with your exercise and load selections when you perform the aforementioned techniques. If you can get through the initial muscle soreness (good luck getting off the toilet!) then you will make huge strides in strength and performance!