By Carl Valle
In 1993, I began incorporating eccentrics into my training. But I didn’t really use the method well until I started coaching years later. Since most exercise science textbooks and bodybuilding magazines inform and expose students and trainees relatively early in their development, we assume we know the truths of eccentric training. I have also made some changes to my training and rehabilitation programs because I have moved away from researching science to making science now that I have better biochemistry data and instruments to observe transfer.
In this article, I will review some myths that science is changing as a result of better research. Anyone—from the personal trainer working with geriatrics to elite performance coaches—can benefit by learning more about the evolution of eccentric training.
My biggest annoyance is starting from ground zero because most readers want to skip to workouts, exercises, or protocols. But we need to start with a working definition of eccentric training specific to coaches and sports medicine professional.
“Eccentric action is simply muscle lengthening from loading during negative work.”
I developed this definition after reading research studies and online resources. When I read my exercise or sport science texts, I saw a pattern that favored resistance training but wanted to get away from the weight room to general body loading. Nearly every example of eccentrics was the cliche “dumbbells during bicep curls,” so I wanted a broader spectrum.
We tend to think of eccentrics as a part of a repetition in lifting because of the popularity of tempo numbers from strength and conditioning coaches who popularized Time under Tension (TUT). But we need to look at all movements more closely, not stay compartmentalized in the weight room. On the other hand, the irony of velocity-based training is that most data focuses on concentric metrics, such as peak power and mean velocity.
Finally, I wanted to include more injury reduction strategies and return to play concepts because the gray exchange area between discharging from therapists to strength coach intake is usually botched. Eccentric exercise is not only a continuum of tension but also a process of preparing for sports training and rehabilitation.
Myth #1. Adding Eccentric Training Creates Excessive Soreness
A common fear among strength coaches, especially at higher levels, is the reported discomfort of elite athletes after heavy eccentric training. Even worse, some athletes overreact to simple DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) from even the most gentle of workouts. So coaches must look at readiness and athlete confidence from training. Some coaches, especially soccer and baseball, battle cultural stigmas with weight training. So if coaches are already getting flack from weight training at low levels, many of them don’t want to even think about eccentric training.
The truth is that avoiding soreness backfires in the long run. Coaches who cater toward removing the eccentric phase paint themselves into a corner later. I have seen trap-bar deadlifts, step-ups, and hip bridges used as a way to activate. This leads to poor eccentric ability later, and even more sluggish recovery. Durability comes from gradual adaption, not avoiding training or being overly aggressive.Coaches who cater toward removing the eccentric phase paint themselves into a corner later. - Carl Valle Click To Tweet
So what to do? The simplest course of action is to be more precise on loading and timing of the workout. No coach likes being blamed for injury, so what usually happens is the coach babysits vocal players. Based on research on creatine kinase, we tend to see the more explosive type athletes as more susceptible to soreness. The divas (read talented and slightly lazy) avoid training and have a legitimate point of the uniqueness of their responses to training. As athletes increase their ratio of explosive type II fiber, so do their total output and recovery demands.
Some research indicates that improvement without DOMS is possible, and that also applies to eccentric-heavy options. The solution is an incremental build-up (slow progression) and opportunistic timing (early in the offseason). So while soreness is normal and part of training, eccentric training doesn’t need to be crippling to be effective. Just like regular training, a focus on eccentrics can be done without excessive soreness. A good rule of thumb is the more soreness in the offseason, the less soreness in the regular season.
Summary: Eccentric work like any option can be cycled in and is dose dependent. The body can adapt to eccentric work, but it’s best to be more aggressive on the offseason. Use a minimal amount of eccentric work in the competitive phase, depending on your sport.
Myth #2. Eccentrics Must be Slow to Reap Benefits
Another myth is that eccentric training needs to be this slow countdown of lowering weights only. Eccentric training is usually equated with tempo work, and coaches may think about metronomes or Viking ship drums as a representation of that training option. Poliquin and King have helped the profession by creating more articulation of rep prescription, but eccentric training is not just a heavy and slow overload option. Depth jumps and sprinting, along with other ballistic actions, can increase the eccentric contributions of muscles. Most coaches worry about weight on the bar being too high and a risk to athletes; very few think about body velocity or box height. My earlier articles have shared the Reactive Strength Index and quantifying speed with electronic timing, but what I should have talked about is the length of negative work that can interact with an eccentric load. All of this can get complicated, so a smart way to looking at things is this classification of velocity and external and internal loading:
- Rapid contraction internal load (locomotive height)
- Rapid contraction internal load (jumping height)
- Intermediate contraction load (loaded jumps)
- Slow contraction external load (weight training)
- Slow contraction internal load (body training)
Video 1. Light Squat Jumps help with reinforcing squatting patterns and transitioning to more rapid eccentric action.
There is not too much middle ground here since most training seeks to create a clear contractile signal. That usually means running fast or doing heavy lifting. While plyometrics and loaded jumps are common, most early progress comes from absolute extreme training. Over time, more power-based options versus speed and strength modalities will become a better method, as coaches want to develop more force through shorter time periods.
Research is not clear on the phenomena of new or different exercises causing soreness. One theory is that a less-coordinated contraction leads to more fiber ruptures from poor inhibition recruitment. Simply stated, change or unfamiliar exercise may increase DOMS, but that is just theory. I like gradual transitions—what most coaches call blending—by slowly migrating to new exercises or transitioning smoothly to new workouts or phases.
As you can see from the list above, eccentrics don’t need to involve super-slow training protocols from the 1980s. They can be ballistic. Moving away from slow overloads with very heavy weights to a spectrum or pallet of contractile patterns is how coaches can find ways to introduce effective training options.
Summary: Eccentrics are about the muscle lengthening, and the speed is a continuum from slow to very rapid. Also, the loading in addition to the velocity of contraction is another variable to consider.
Myth #3. Eccentrics Makes Athletes Stiff and Tight
It’s true that eccentric training creates some feelings of being tight. Stiffness is more of a sensation of swelling (meaning free proteins), and other leakage makes the body feel restricted. The truth, though, is that good eccentric training is the best way to get muscle length. Sound eccentric training will increase lower body flexibility, according to the British Journal of Sports Medicine. I have used eccentric work and over time the injury resilience benefits with adductors and hamstrings have shown up time after time.
So what’s the sweet spot? The art of eccentrics is to minimize stiffness but still get length. That means progressive overload with repeated and simple programming, not expecting much over a few weeks but rather over several months. Coaches can see dramatic changes over the years when athletes commit in the offseason and preserve the range in the competitive season. This is very hard in elite soccer, because the longer the season the shorter the preparation phases. Marco Cardinale points out the limits of elite soccer here, and the trick is to make progress incremental and be patient.
Think about the average strength coach. He is likely working with an athlete over three years—sometimes less, sometimes more. Some coaches will give up using eccentrics and say “I will try next year” as they are all or none. Even one set done right will build into more sets or higher loads. I have a saying that I don’t care if you lift pink dumbbells from the fitness class, make sure you lift powder blue dumbbells eventually. Over time rivers make canyons, and the secret is to do what you can and not give up on anything. At youth levels, we see many selfish programs that jump to advanced training because the coaches want to be advanced. That haste ruins it for later when coaches at advanced levels have to deal with the lack of a proper foundations.
I recently had a great conversation with muscle physiologist Dr. David Opar. It was like an open book about hamstring injuries. His discussion was pure—no marketing nonsense, just straightforward science. The research was crystal clear—hamstring length and hamstring strength matter. The length he was talking about was fascicle length, not crude range of motion. If I had to do things over in my career, one certainly would be investing in people who use sonography to measure year-to-year changes.
In Dr. Opar’s research, longer hamstrings increase the success of returning to play or reducing injury. Hamstring strength and length are more important than athlete symmetry. As I have often said publicly, too many programs baby athletes and worry about symmetry without strength. Being symmetrically weak isn’t helpful, as a strength reserve is a great investment for athlete health.
Summary: Athletes may feel stiff after heavy eccentrics, but over time length of tissue is actually increasing with some options and exercises. Too much eccentric work can reduce the feeling of being free and fluid, so precision and progression must be made in choosing the right workouts.
Myth #4. Eccentrics Are Only for Elite Athletes
I am at fault for possibly being part of the problem by showing elite athletes on YouTube. This publicity could lead many people to assume eccentrics is something done only at that level. A better way of thinking is that eccentrics is for anyone at any age and any level. Eccentrics is more popular with elites because world-class athletes look for a Holy Grail to get better when they hit a plateau. Things get questionable when athletes feel like they need to shock the system. Instead of a simple progression of what to do with eccentrics, I will share examples of how we are already generally doing a good job.
Physical Education – Teaching a child to land carefully is eccentric training. Progression is simple with pedagogical challenges from doing movements on one leg instead of two, or something a little faster. Absorbing energy is important, but PE often gets robbed of time and money. If schools focused on PE as a primary way to improve total body and mind health, we would see amazing things in the classroom as well. Cutting programs early means athletes will be cutting class later or getting cut for surgery down the road.
Youth Development – Teaching kids basic control of their bodies when doing pull-ups involves focusing on lowering rather than how many reps they can do on their own. A bout of 3×5 negatives builds more strength faster than fooling around with bands. I believe that bands are great if used carefully, but partner-assisted negatives on pull-ups is a great way to build teams and focus on body control.
Rehabilitation – The key with injured athletes and regular Joes is to get range and start remodeling. The research on Insulin Growth Factor -1 with eccentrics is something exciting to coaches. But remember, sports medicine is mainly submaximal training and more manual therapy—so think early eccentrics. I shared a great example of early eccentric use to help muscle turnover and healing with my article on the best exercises here. If I had to do it again, I would have written a general science of eccentrics article first. The key is aggressively remodeling the tissue. But being sane and careful is the cornerstone to getting better.
Elite Sport – While Olympic sport is about maximizing output and team sport is about optimizing (Hakan Andersson 2012), you still need to challenge adaptation. Most coaches chase their tails in circles looking for a better way when in reality the ways they came up with are likely good enough, and they need to be more precise. A lot of suggestions exist regarding loading percentages and other formulas, but the truth is that linear progression works best. Those who are looking to “shock” the system or “bust through barriers” are usually suffering from poor program design. From time to time, a more aggressive form of training is needed, but making sure one is doing as much as necessary instead of as much as possible (Henk Kraaijenhof) is still the name of the game.
As you can see, there is plenty of room for eccentrics at all levels and all purposes. The art is determining the precise dose with the appropriate population in the correct form at the right time.
Summary: Nearly any population can benefit from eccentrics, it’s all dependent on the instruction and planning. Eccentrics are not just for athletes; it’s a universal option for health and fitness.
Myth #5. Eccentrics Slow Down Athletes
Many coaches fear eccentrics slows down athletes. Several plausible reasons exist why this may be true. Bodybuilding with a focus on hypertrophy for the sake of getting bigger without trying to be faster and more explosive may indeed create a bigger but slower athlete. If all you do is train slow, you may still get faster but not as fast as someone who does both speed and eccentric training. Finally, a focus on strength training without power and speed training will not create favorable adaptions. Type IIX fiber, the fastest and most explosive isoform, only improves during resting. Some coaches have misinterpreted the research and assumed that any hypertrophy will slow an athlete down. The myofibril versus sarcomere hypothesis popular ten years ago is not true, and fascicle lengthening has been researched to be a potential mechanism for faster contractile elements.
The best way to get faster is to have eccentrics prepare for the hierarchy of priorities. Sports performance is usually a set of compromises and combinations since no one quality can be a winning ticket to stardom. When thinking about improving athlete speed and the use of eccentrics, focus on the following:
Athlete injury reduction – We have already talked about preventing injuries, but it’s important to note that staying healthy and having more time for great training is much better than having genius training on paper but nursing a hamstring pull. I have focused on aggressive injury reduction techniques early and touch-up work throughout the season. Eccentrics once a week will not last more than 3-4 months of competing, so it’s a wise bet to do it twice and keep the second session to 1-2 sets.
Athlete foundational strength – General and comprehensive programs elicit eccentric responses without having to resort to artificial overload protocols. Not to overcomplicate things, a good way to think of foundational strength is sticking to the classics and maintaining constant and safe tension. I think the reason the tempo training that Poliquin and King advocated worked in the past was not because special timing numbers were magic, it just reinforced good lifting. A slower tempo usually meant it was under control. A longer time frame means full range and tension on the muscle and tendon, not falling and bouncing on passive connective tissue. We need more polishing of the basics and less new and cute exercise ideas.
Athlete speed – After the two above elements are added, an athlete is more likely to have a chance of running faster than by not doing the progressions. Eccentric work rapidly via reactive options and maximum speed or natural overspeed options (wind) can help athletes provided they can handle the opportunities. Athletes who sprint and do eccentrics with propulsive muscle groups may see speed changes just from better muscle architecture.
Summary: Eccentrics may be a valid option in speed development if integrated properly. The old school idea that eccentrics create slow athletes because of tempo training are overzealous, and training is a composite of all variables, not just one workout.
A Word of Caution
Any exercise can be dangerous if done wrong or implemented incorrectly. Eccentric training is not evil or risky; it’s actually more friend than foe. The problem is that some coaches get carried away with experimentation and become more mad scientist rather than good sport scientist. In working with athletes, treat them as people, not biological tissue or “organisms.” A helpful book is Coach like a Mother, which my former athletic director gave me.* The book is about connecting with athletes. We tend to think about pushing athletes to get better versus being a guide. I think eccentrics need to be treated like any other option—being responsible and educated.
*Small world—my AD was an awesome track athlete whose strength coach was Mike Woicik, currently with the Dallas Cowboys. Mike was a very good discus thrower who may still hold his league record.