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By Carl Valle
Everyone involved with athlete health and performance values eccentrics, but using the adaptations and reaping the benefits are very difficult. Today, enough research exists from sports medicine and performance experts to prove that eccentrics are the cornerstone of training, but they’re very challenging to leverage in a chaotic environment such as sports. And although it’s easy to show how exercise interventions work in the controlled settings of research, it’s harder to make them work for athletes who have options and control their training.
In this article, we share new research and information and bring together past articles and resources to show you how to make eccentric training work in the applied world. It doesn’t matter if we’re working with regular Joes, scholastic athletes, or elite populations—eccentrics are powerful agents when integrated properly.
This road map will not be for everyone because eccentric training requires extra work and evaluation. I wish it were easy to toss a few exercises into a program and sleep at night without worry, but eccentrics will not help your athletes without attention and planning. If you experience nagging injuries, staleness, or just want a better insurance policy, the information explained in this article will make a difference.
Our main recommendation is to map out the season and commit to it. Any progress you see will be a win, as most training adaptations are not earth-shattering. Eccentrics are about subtle progression and picking the right time to use them, so don’t worry about the complex process and implementation difficulties in a team environment. The soul of this article is this: challenge the athlete at the right speed through common friction points in the real world.
Assessing Eccentric Capacity
We can evaluate eccentric abilities with some testing but don’t expect a perfect process with your athletes. It’s not hard to assess eccentric measures with equipment, but you do have to put in time and effort. The best example of simple field testing is the EUR or Eccentric Utilization Ratio. Just comparing jump height of squat jumps and countermovement jumps will open your eyes to how an athlete handles eccentric forces. As they advance, force analysis is likely to be the end game.
Here are five tests that you can perform with athletes and the metrics they provide.
Peak Eccentric Force—A simple summary of the strain at a very small snapshot of time, peak eccentric forces are useful for testing hamstrings during Nordic movements and flywheel exercises.
Eccentric RFD—How an athlete brakes rapidly is a sensitive but viable metric for jumping and sprinting. Most force plate jump tests easily capture this metric, and if you don’t use them, you’re missing out on a very direct way to discern if an athlete is tolerating ground reaction forces.
Reactive Strength Index (RSI)—The ratio between ground contact time and airtime is a popular measurement, and for a good reason. The contraction speed of rapid jumping correlates well with sprinting, and the ability to bounce is a great skill to have.
Fascicle Length—Sometimes a direct evaluation of muscle length is a good idea for elite-level athletes. In addition to helping evaluate risks, the measurement can assist program evaluation since many teams have coaches who employ techniques that are different than those used in research investigations.
Change of Direction Deficit—While not a true measure of eccentric ability, the relationship between linear speed and redirection abilities is a fine way to appraise athletes without much equipment. The test’s great perk is that you likely have the ability to measure it with existing timing systems.
The five tests are only the tip of the iceberg, as coaches and medical staff have access to more measures and testing options. Still, these tests are very useful and valid markers of eccentric capacity. How all of the measures differentiate and trend during a season isn’t very clear, but we now know that eccentric training requires objective feedback to appraise properly.We now know that #eccentrictraining requires objective feedback to appraise properly, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Each test has norms and typical cut-off points that alert coaches to potential problems. While no test is perfect, they’re not as difficult to perform as in the past because many of the testing tools are capturing the information anyway. Testing jumps, sprints, lifts, and even the muscles themselves are steps forward in building more robust athletes.
Training should include some measurement over the season, and as the database grows with your program, you will start to see real trends in both performance and injury patterns. For example, RSI measures are excellent markers of stiffness—a great indicator of knee injury prevention. The change of direction deficit measurement helps ensure a balanced movement program for athletes. All of the measurements have interpretation requirements, but for the most part, they’re easy to understand, and interventions are not difficult to implement afterward.
Estimating the Eccentric Load of Training Sessions
Regardless of the technology used to evaluate the load and training program, eccentric exercises still require a little bit of trial and error. Down the road, expect modeling to make eccentrics more accurate with loading protocols, but today it’s a guestimate.
Subjective feedback about soreness and referred pain continues to be part of both the rehabilitation and training processes, so combine athlete feedback with the quantitative process. Examples include body charts that allow for notes regarding specifics, such as attachment sites behind the knee when performing Nordics or where the strain occurs during Romanian deadlifts. From the research, we know that various exercises stress the involved muscles differently, so variety and adherence to technique are important.
Monitoring Dose Response
The next thing to consider is the dose response to a chaotic environment. The challenge to monitoring athletes is that many factors are in play and multiple measures are necessary to give the coach a better chance of creating a better program. While I’m all for the theoretical concepts regarding building resilience and robustness, we sometimes forget what it’s like to be handed a ticking time bomb, meaning athletes who are near injury points. On paper, training hard should cover the bases, but having enough time and energy with your athletes is more difficult than ever. I state this firmly:
To see the impact of one variable, you need to evaluate and weigh the other factors contributing and perhaps confounding the results of an intervention.
Creatine Kinase—Measuring an exercise’s external load is nice, but we also need to monitor tissues and specific elements of a tissue complex internally. While testing creatine kinase levels in muscle tissue gives only limited information and does not provide a true representation of eccentrics, it does have enough value to include in blood tests at least quarterly. We usually do a blood test after the heaviest training phase and during a recovery block. These two test periods are not enough, but they do show how an athlete’s body responds to severe work and regeneration. In-season blood testing a few times to see how your athletes respond to microcycles helps as well because the repeated rhythm of a week allows for comparison. Other biomarkers are also helpful, though blood markers and saliva do not show a precise picture of what’s occurring to the connective tissue biochemically.
Muscle Dynamics—We can monitor muscle dynamics with thermography, tensiomyography, and near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). I’ve written about NIRS, specifically with mitochondrial changes in sport. Elastography and other techniques also help coaches create a model so they don’t have to test as often. The value of monitoring tools is to create better programs; we don’t want to be slaves to constant athlete testing and create a bad culture where our athletes feel like competing lab rats. A structured weekly microcycle that’s repeated will have enough natural variation from the chaos of training and life that there’s not much need for a lot of periodization to grow. Just ride the program long enough so you can see changes.
Program Records and Evolution—Finally, nothing beats training records and the slow evolution of a program. Having a strong background in coaching theory facilitated by mentors is the ultimate way to plan better workouts because each year is about refinement, not chasing the next cool thing. Every year a coach needs to review the recorded information, not what they imagined. It’s great to have talented coaching eyes, but at all levels, the average coach will not be able to see every piece of information and keep it in their head like a savant, so record keeping is instrumental.
Methods Relevant to Eccentric Programming and Planning
A great primer on weightlifting tempo was posted here on SimpliFaster, which covered the dynamics of a single repetition. This article, on the other hand, offers a big picture guide to programming over a season. The reason I didn’t use the term periodization in the title was simple—eccentrics are hard to employ in any program, never mind an advanced one. I’ve already covered myths of eccentric training with some great exercises, and now it’s worthwhile to take a step back and share modalities.
Here are the common options when designing workouts that use eccentric overload.
Conventional Weight Training—General resistance training usually includes an eccentric component, but some exercise have more than others. A lot of exercises, including deadlifts, step-ups, and even power exercises, involve low eccentric loading compared to their peers. Many coaches think extending the eccentric phase is the solution, but this is actually a very small part of the equation.
Plyometrics and Speed Training—Change of direction, linear sprinting, and jump training exploit training’s eccentric component. In fact, most practices and games have enough eccentric load that adding more becomes the most difficult problem coaches face during a season. Coaches tend to think of weight training as eccentric training, but explosive field training is very taxing.
Flywheel Training—Flywheel training is a type of eccentric training that’s here to stay after years of underground popularity. And while flywheel training is a part of eccentric training, it’s not all that is necessary. Flywheel training can replace many of the conventional exercises but should not make up an entire program.
High Torque Isolation Exercises—Specialized exercises that overload the eccentric component of muscle groups are all the rage. While most of the attention has focused on hamstrings and groin muscles, plantar flexors and knee extensors are gaining traction. The idea that training for elites means keeping athletes healthy is an erroneous frame of mind since injury-reducing exercises have not worked in the past. Athletes need full training in some fashion.
High-IntensityEccentrics—The final modality is true eccentric overload. Some scientists call it supramaximal eccentric overload or accentuated overload where the strain level is more than an athlete can handle concentrically. These are the most demanding and also the most rewarding for performance. There’s not enough data to know how effective they are in reducing joint and muscle injuries.True eccentric overload is the most demanding and most rewarding for performance, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
These modalities make up the entire palette of options for coaches and sports medicine specialists. The art is using them to not only overload progressively and recover the eccentric component of muscle contractions but also to progress parts of performance other than adaptations of local muscle groups. The scope of this article can’t cover everything in training, so it’s up to you to go beyond linear thinking and focus on managing the jungle of other areas.
Thoughts on Rehabilitation Phases and Return to Play Periods
When progressing an athlete through an R2P (return to play) program, think in terms of a baseline. If you don’t have a baseline measure to work with, you have a problem. The number one issue with injuries is that too many unknowns exist in the real world. All of the research can’t fix the crisis until those involved follow the recommendations of the process and stop shopping around for interventions as a quick fix.
I’ve witnessed a clear pattern of success and failure with teams. Those with baseline information do not send many athletes to my therapist. On the other hand, those with a rash of injuries never seem to have any information, even for athletes who’ve been on the team for years.Elicit enough info to guide rehabilitation—not so much that an athlete feels like damaged goods, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Communication with athletes presents a mixed bag. Keep in mind that the goal of a rehabilitation program is to empower an athlete. The ideal is to elicit enough information to guide the rehabilitation process but not so much that an athlete feels like damaged goods. Resetting an athlete’s mind requires an ideal dose of feedback just as much as their injury needs an ideal dose of overload.
Maximize the General Preparation Phase or Bust
The safest time to perform eccentric training is during the later phases of the general preparation phase (GPP) or offseason period. Using eccentrics too early in the season is a bad idea—usually what happens is a coach forgets to hit a goal with getting the work done because they got lost down a rabbit hole. Getting a baseline for testing and training starts with introductory eccentrict raining. The first step is not overload. It’s learning to apply tension on the descent of most exercises.The safest time for eccentric training is later in the general preparation phase or the offseason, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
During GPP, there are three goals to address with eccentrics: exposing the athletes to the exercises they will do during the season, exposing them to the exercises they will see the next year, and progressing them to move on from exercises you hope they will never see again. Using eccentrics in GPP is like progressing in school—you will likely take the same classes and review old material, but hopefully you advance enough to build from year to year. Even getting athletes to do the lowest form of eccentric training is a win because it gives them a sane reference point.
When the season starts, the plane is in the air, so to speak, so it’s important to challenge them twice a week. We found that a small dose of eccentrics and a larger dose is better than two medium doses. The small dose is to teach, and the large dose is to challenge. Our goal is for the dose to feel less demanding each week. After three weeks, we challenge them further. Linear progression is impossible to do unless the dose is so small it’s nearly silly.
How to Thrive in the Competitive Season when Resources are Scarce
Most teams struggle with eccentrics during the in-season period, and rightfully so. When athletes are “eccentrically broke” and don’t have much to work with, teams tend to scrap the idea and wait for next year. Don’t give up. Instead, learn to accept that rushing into eccentrics is just as bad as waiting for perfect conditions.
Maintenance doses are always easier to apply than catch-up doses. Bob Alejo wrote an excellent post on in-season training, and we learned that focusing on eccentric prescriptions means changing the workout slightly more than expected to ensure we don’t overdose. The new research on catching the clean was a great reference point for those who value the catch. Evidence showed that cleaning from the floor does not create too much overload that would interfere with direct eccentric work from other movements.
The catch, or other parts of Olympic weightliftinglike the jerk, may not show anything exciting over the main pull phase, but it’s about more than eccentric overload, it’s also about coordination at high velocities to move in the right biomechanical positions. We’ve learned from ACL tears that stiffness and other rapid contractions contribute to a complete program, and concentric power alone will not cover these bases.
Why the Potential of Eccentric Training Fails
If eccentrics work and are so effective, why do we still see injuries and so many teams ignoring the modality? My answer is simple: the majority of athletes don’t like eccentrics, and overzealous coaches ruin the value of negative work. Either coaches give up on eccentrics, or they get so excited they go crazy and poison the well for the rest of us.
Plenty of optimal load articles and studies come out every year about power and speed, yet how many tackle eccentrics? I am not blaming coaches or sport scientists, but I am concerned that there is not the same amount of resources for coaches as there are for sports medicine.
The best example of eccentrics and adoption patterns is the Nordic hamstring exercise and soccer. With all the research on eccentric training and hamstrings and all of the equipment and knowledge regarding the findings, one would think hamstring injuries would be obsolete by now. Instead, we see alternate exercises met with opposition, and rightfully so—there’s hardly any research available.
The research that is available on Nordics is met with either skepticism or a blind eye because they are not fun. A coach or medical professional experimenting with a NordBord can become very proficient quickly, but their biological resources and experiences are much different than those of the athletes they are responsible for. I too listened to complaints by athletes who performed the “Russian Leans” or glute hamstring raise exercises and avoided them, even after progressing them carefully.
I have also witnessed mistakes with posterior chain training that’s too aggressive, resulting in tears and avulsions because the coaches tried too hard. The solution lies somewhere in the middle, and the sweet spot is so narrow, it’s easy to miss.
Progression is a buzzword now regarding both long-term athletic development and sports medicine programs that load athletes incrementally. Progression is the new functional. We can no longer use the term haphazardly. We need to be specific and explain the details of progression correctly. It’s safe to say that progression means sequencing challenges in the right pattern. The tricky part is revealing the essential details.
Find a Way to Get Eccentric Training Done
No excuses. Awareness and committing to getting the work done, period, are the challenges with eccentrics. The core lesson here is to create a process that enables coaches to use eccentrics with just the right timing and intensity to leverage eccentric adaptation.Progress #eccentrics just enough to make a difference, and not so fast that the process backfires, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
In summary, coaches need to progress athletes at a rate to make a difference, but not too fast that the process backfires. Our recommendations in this article are enough to help you make a real step forward in using more eccentric training methods in your programs.