For your next training session, rewind back to your years as a kid playing with rubber bands. Remember when you used to stretch a rubber band as far as possible and watch it forcefully snap forward? Like a rubber band, our muscles were made to stretch and contract through the process of eccentric and concentric movements.
Whether you’re doing a simple everyday activity like walking down stairs or a high-intensity exercise like an Olympic lift, your body goes through eccentric and concentric motions. Concentric movements are the actions that “start movements, while eccentric actions slow activity down.” And as a wise coach once said, “We build concentrically; we move eccentrically.” Think of eccentric strength as the equal (and sometimes stronger) opposite reaction to powerful concentric movements.
So while you’re sprinting down the track at full speed, the concentric motion of your quadriceps propels you forward and the eccentric movement of your hamstring slows the activity down and “stores elastic recoil energy in preparation for a shortening (concentric) contraction.” Read on to learn why you need to incorporate eccentric movements into your training program to make you the best athlete you can be!
What Is Eccentric Training?
One of the first discoveries of eccentric training was in 1882 when Dr. Adolf Fick found that “contracting muscle under stretch could produce a greater force than a shortening muscle.” By definition, “an eccentric muscle contraction is the stretching of a muscle in response to an opposing force on that muscle, in which the opposing force (weight being lifted) is greater than its current force production.”
To translate all that science into everyday English: Eccentrics are also known as “negatives,” the slow lowering of a movement following a concentric movement (the fast upward power of a movement). For example, the motion of slowly lowering down into a squat before quickly powering up is an eccentric movement. The process of slowly lowering down a biceps curl is also an eccentric movement. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, “Traditional strength training eccentric programs typically involve lifting a weight in the concentric phase for two seconds and lowering a weight in the eccentric phase for about four to six seconds to maximize strength gain.”
What Are the Benefits of Eccentric Training?
Eccentric training allows for greater load on the muscles versus traditional concentric training. According to strength coach Charles Poliquin, you can “generate up to 1.3 times more tension than concentric training.” What does this mean for your muscles? The increased stimulus encourages further adaptation of your muscles and better results for your training. According to the ACSM, here are the top benefits of eccentric training:
- Improved muscle coordination
- Improved balance
- Less cardiovascular stress than intensive concentric action
- Increased muscle power and sport performance
- Recovery from tendon-related injuries
- Increased strength in the entire range of motion of each joint
“The most common overuse injuries with activity occur when applying the breaks (i.e., deceleration),” says Craig Liebenson, director of LA Sports & Spine. “This is the eccentric phase of a muscle contraction — like when landing a jump or running downhill. Forces during landing or decelerating are five to eight times greater than when propelling, running, jumping or throwing.” That’s why eccentric training is so vital to your muscles. “The purpose of eccentric training is to prepare the body to endure and control these forces,” he says. “Deceleration ability is the limiting factor of acceleration or power.” So for you lifters and athletes out there, if you want to lift more weight you must learn how to train eccentrically.
Eccentric training is not only used for building strength, it’s for injury prevention and recovery as well. According to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, soccer players who trained eccentrically (warm-up stretching, flexibility training and the Nordic hamstring exercise) experienced a 65-percent lower chance of hamstring injury than those who just did the warm-up stretching and flexibility training.
Who Benefits From Eccentric Training?
The great thing about eccentric training is that it can be tailored to your specific goals and modified for all fitness levels. If you’re looking for pure strength, work from the above-recommended ratio (two seconds concentric, four to six eccentric). If you’re looking for sports-specific exercises, you can perform eccentric exercises at a higher speed.
The importance of eccentric strength can be found in every single sport. Your eccentric strength needs to be developed to support the powerful output of your concentric strength. For example, if you’re a long jumper and can jump 20 feet, you need to be able to absorb the shock generated by the force of that jump during landing. For a figure skater, you not only need the concentric strength to jump high enough to complete a complex jump like the double axle, but also the eccentric strength to control the landing. Or in baseball, a pitcher must be able to generate decelerative contractions to preserve healthy joint functioning. Powerlifters, too, require eccentric strength, as studies have show that those who can lift the heaviest weights were the ones who could lower their weights more slowly.
Safety Precautions With Eccentric Training
Since you can lower more weight than you can lift — usually 100 to 175 percent of maximum weight — certain safety precautions should be taken when performing eccentric movements. For example, if you’re going to work on biceps strength and want to slowly lower a heavier weight than your curl, you’ll need a spotter or a rack. If a spotter is not available, you can use a machine that supports weight, such as a Smith machine.
While you’re training eccentrically, the force on the muscle is greater than that of a traditional concentric resistance exercise, therefore proper rest of three to five days should be taken between workouts. Since eccentric training can heavily tax the central nervous system, incorporating too many days of eccentric training could result in overtraining.
Put It Into Practice!
Now it’s time for the fun part—practice! Competitive weightlifter and USA Track and Field-certified coach Jan DeBenedetto likes to put athletes on a three-part program with eccentric, isometric (holding and stopping) and concentric training. “An ideal program will focus on each of these aspects of movement, ideally in microcycles,” he says. Each microcycle will last for one week to three weeks. For the eccentric portion, DeBenedetto focuses on squats. A sample workout might be:
- Warm-up: three sets of three reps between 60 to 70 percent of your 1RM. Lower for five to six seconds and power up as quickly as possible.
- Workout: three sets of three reps at 80 percent. Lower for five to six seconds and quickly power up.
Lawrence Athill, scientist and Olympic track and field coach, trains his athletes’ eccentric strength by pushing a car! By pushing a car, he says, “The linear motion of the weight being on wheels keeps a better constant than a sled or tire, causing an acceleration and deceleration of one’s bipedular motion. This also incorporates the arm strength, where the sled and tire pulling don’t.” Need more inspiration? Here are three additional exercises for weightlifters:
1. Drop Jumps
These are faster eccentric movements. Drop jumps are one of the best exercises for explosive athletes. HOW TO DO THEM: Start by standing on a box or a bench. Step off with one foot and as both feet come together on the ground, drive the arms up and jump up as high as possible.
Squats are one of the best ways to build pure lower-body strength. This can be done as either a front squat, back squat or bodyweight squat. HOW TO DO THEM: Slowly and with control, lower down to the bottom of your squat, taking five to six seconds to the bottom. Once at the bottom, explode up as fast as possible. Remember to keep your glutes squeezed, knees out and abs tight throughout the entire process.
3. Nordic Hamstring Curls
Time to partner up! HOW TO DO THEM: Kneel on a pad with your hips directly over your knees and arms crossed over your chest. Squeeze your glutes and lower your body down toward the floor in a straight line. There is no need to go all the way to the ground, as it’s easy to lose form and buckle your body to support your weight. Keep your body as stiff as a board, tighten your abs, squeeze your glutes and lower down to a 45-degree angle. Squeeze your glutes and raise back up.