By Carl Valle
Eccentric exercise is making a comeback in the trends, but in reality it never left those that stay true to principles of performance. I include some eccentric exercises as a way to help reduce injuries, increase power, and build muscle fast. I don’t do much in-season eccentric work, but during the General Preparation Phase (GPP) eccentric training is a great investment to athletes. I am always cautious when adding or changing things, but after observing changes physically with some athletes in Europe I decided to add more eccentric work this off-season for two reasons. I wanted to know how effective a realistic inclusion of eccentric work was with the sport of soccer and sports with small preparation times and see the exact biological changes to my program. What I have learned was the precision of eccentric work is a very fine line, and it’s essential to measure and monitor.
Eccentric exercises are movements that lengthen muscle under tension, usually creating an adaptation that improves performance. Great interest in this type of training is making a comeback thanks to the work of Cal Dietz, but earlier work of Ian King who promoted a structured tempo of training really accelerated the popularity of manipulating contractile dynamics of training. What we do know is that research is currently pointing to signaling of the organelles and biochemistry of the body to turn on genes, thus creating morphological and biochemical changes. Be warned though, not all speed athletes will benefit from eccentric work and some athletes don’t handle extreme eccentrics. Resilience is a buzzword right now, and it’s professional to understand that durability is about a lifestyle, not an exercise or HRV monitoring. For athletes to be taking advantage of eccentrics, some prerequisite requirements are needed, or you will trash athletes. I have pushed the limits with athletes and have some humbling experiences with training. Here are some lessons I have learned the hard way and suggest you don’t make my mistakes.
Foundations First – Just because a coach is smart or has access to advanced methods, it’s likely the athlete is underdeveloped. I see this all the time, a coach is bored teaching basics and wants to play with the big boys and retards the long term growth of the athlete. I have been tempted and seduced to try new or cool stuff after visiting coaches, but it’s better to polish the basics then to progress too fast. I don’t recommend any eccentric work for performance until year two or three of a program.
Nutrition and Organized Recovery – I spend 90% of my time as a life coach because my training program never let me down, just the ability to recovery held the athlete back. Amazing how we see intricate periodization schemes, dashboards fusing HRV and GPS data, and million dollar facilities with athletes who are malnourished and fueled on Burger King. I do monthly blood tests to audit athletes, and if they score poorly, I take away the toys or in this case, the “cool training” and make them know we only train as hard as their recovery system. I use Organized Recovery with athletes because rest is a continuum ranging from a light workout to deep sleep. Too many athletes are adrenaline junkies and burn out the candles on both ends, and are constantly stimulated. My current focus is on deactivating athletes from electronics and social overload.
Measure and Monitor – Eccentric work does create DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), and this is a controversial subject because of pain science. Subjective indicators are nice, but they are a starting place and highly variable with athletes. When so many elite athletes are taking pain drugs, I wonder if we are too smart and need to be wiser about how the body is communicating. Pain, while a perception, is part of the human defense system to keep homeostasis optimized. HRV, Thermography, TMG, Myoton readings, and elastography are all part of a way to track tendon and muscle over time and should be used as much as possible.
Understand Repair – Repair to the body is a normal and essential part of adaptation. The fine line between stimulation and injury becomes murky at high levels, but what we do know is that we want as much as needed, not as much as possible. Henk Kraaijenhof is a wise man, and when he suggests to be careful, I listen. The optimal dose of eccentric training is to not disturb a program’s structure, meaning one needs to add eccentric training and not build a program around it. Anytime I hear about an “eccentric block” or “shock phase” I throw up twice. The first reason I get sick is the obsession that magic happens when someone does one modality for four weeks. Granted a lot can get done in 30 days, but realistic expectations are key. The second reason I get upset is that any extreme program is built on the graveyard of injured athletes. For every star made from extreme training, ten are left on the sidelines getting rehabbed or out of the sport. Remodeling tissue is about dose, timing of the next session, and long term planning.
After the athlete has a solid foundation of training. Add eccentrics carefully with exercises to reduce injury first, and then progress to more ballistic or extensive options. Think years of development, not micro-cycles. Just including a few months of an exercise sprinkled in may show an ugly head later, so go slow. Now to the exercises and routines.
Hip Extension Eccentrics
Hamstring pulls happen. I have only experienced three first hand since 1997, and most of the reasons I think people got hurt was too much work or not enough rest. I have taken a few broken racehorses in over the years, and the first part of the rehab is prone assisted hip extension with ankle weights. This means an athlete needs a partner to lift up the leg concentrically and let the load gently pull on the injured hamstring muscle. Since the hamstring group is composed of three muscles, the movement must be done with great control and the reps need to be slow, about 5 seconds per rep or longer. For a year, I thought the exercise was great for Jane Fonda but was not beastie for athletes, until I witnessed the work of my soft tissue therapist fix dozens of medalists and NFL athletes. I believe we need to get athletes walking and running naturally, but local work is fine at any time. I do think RDLs (Romanian Deadlifts) are sometimes effective for facial lengthening, but I believe isolated work and eccentric only is just as effective. I have seen elastography and MRI changes first hand and was humbled as I thought scar tissue was a myth. The purpose of manual massage is not to break down scar, but to remove guarding so the contractions can remodel old tissue. In the past, a scar was there for life, but in reality, a good program can decrease the extent of the program from intense weight training. The starting point is getting the athlete to trust his or her body and get internal myokines and immune responses triggered by surgical strikes to the area. Immobilizing is appropriate after surgery, but even the experts suggest getting moving. Having the athlete rot in bed and rest for weeks is why an athlete never gets better. Start moving and start targeting the area with the right amount of stress. How much and how frequent the sessions are largely based on the athlete’s repair ability.
There are many theoretical ideas of how scar tissue is formed after muscle tears, but I am interested in the long term repair evidence with function and imaging. Much of the re-injury patterns we see with hamstrings are due to program design and emotional guarding. Once an athlete is hurt, they are changed physically and emotionally. I have learned over the years that pain-free motions give confidence but eventually facing the demons will exorcise them. EMG-based biofeedback is a great way to see when an athlete is still haunted, and much of coaching is getting athletes to believe.
The Classic Calf Raise
I have favored the suggestions of Dan Pfaff for a long time because he often takes in athletes for rehabilitation. One coach suggested that some great athletes never did specific work and used a big name sprinter to provide evidence to the claim. When I explained the use of cortisone to manage an Achilles problem the athlete had, they realized that each school of thought is often based on the perspective of what medical support means. Athletes are often human pincushions and can do amazing things while injured, and I think we can do better. For some reason, the calf raise is seen as bodybuilding, and we need to see it as a way to help with plantar strength, and that includes the fascia and Achilles tendon. Eccentrics are not a magic bullet, but part of a holistic program to build and stimulate the matrix of substances that remodel the area. It’s true that some of the problems with local structures are predisposed to injury because of genetics, but athletes need to see what the body can do to get better.
Right now I am looking at the triple attack of Shock Therapy, Topaz Treatments, and PRP Injections because many programs want to roll the dice and hope for the best, and then I have to clean up the mess. Just 2-3 times a week doing 5 minutes of eccentric work can reduce the injury rates of athletes. Obviously everyone has a rep and exercise scheme they feel works, and that is not my purpose here. I feel it’s good to rotate the exercises and loading to keep athletes from rushing and skipping the routine because it’s boring. Most coaches can get bored as well and walk away when the high risk and technical work is done, and let the accessory work go to the interns or assistants. I suggest staying until all the work is done.
You can do eccentric calf work nearly anywhere, but I like them as group sessions and in pairs with athletes so they are treated as any exercise. If you want the exercise respected, treat them like the main lifts and do them in small groups, so everyone is accountable. You would never tell athletes to find their own squat station and get a few sets done, but asking an athlete to do this with accessory lifts results in halfhearted junk reps.
Neutral Grip Lowering
Pull-ups and chin-ups are great exercises, and some coaches have put too much emphasis to horizontal rows and blame vertical pulling for imbalances. While it’s good to have some ratio between pulling patterns, scapular exercises can be coached too much, leaving athletes very robotic and stiff when sprinting. Also, a good program of pulling will directly improve the middle of the back, and Olympic lifts do a great job of developing the region ballistically. Even moderate loads that may not transfer to leg development are better than nonsense.
Eccentric work is great for heavy athletes and weak athletes alike. An elite NFL lineman who has a poor strength to weight ratio or a young athlete who is starting from zero can see rapid improvements in pulling ability. A lot of online information about is promoting the value of chins and pull-ups as ways to improve stiffness of the body by connecting the glute to lat, and this is a little bro science. Sure the entire body is working during sprinting, but being great a chins is not going to help college guys break 10 in the 100 or create the next combine freak in the NFL. On the other hand, not doing upper body is a big mistake, since you can help with tapering and peaking by manipulating the work done above the pelvis. The body likes to reduce work during a taper, but beware of creating fatigue for “work capacity” sake. Sometimes too much work capacity is overthinking things and just getting athletes tired.
Many tempo options exist for vertical pulling, but I like 3-5 second lowering times and round up when athletes don’t have a good perception of time and are stubborn about slow lowering. I don’t like doing the jump and lower too much because concentric abilities act as a good safety mechanism to prevent the path of “too much too soon” and overdosing. If an athlete is stuck in developing pulling, I add 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps with a long tempo at the end of their first set. Athletes must be exhausted, or they will not reap as much benefit from eccentric work with vertical pulling.
In 2006, a coach visited me and warned me about abdominal rollouts being a risk to athletes. During this time I was using the AkroWheels religiously because I was training swimmers at the Longfellow Club, including the state record holders in the sprints. The thought process is that many athletes who have sports hernia problems are prone (pun intended) to injury and rolling out was foolish. I did my homework and checked my notes, we never had a single abdominal injury ever and I believe aggressive core reduced injuries. I find that the triad of heavy, full range pull-ups, snatching, and medicine ball throws above the head lead to the ability to handle deceleration to the core.
The EMG research is often misleading and we have done enough of it to see the nuances between muscle and connective tissue when one looks at elastography readings the day after heavy overhead patterns. Eccentric lengthening and EMG data is no easy task to decipher. Abdominal rollouts are a total body exercise, and it’s hard to imagine any motion without involvement of the shoulders and hip joints. I believe building up the ability to roll and hinge is a great way to make the tissues rugged and durable. I am not aware of the research to confirm that it reduces injury, but exposure to stress is the only way to be able to tolerate stress. I know anti-fragile is popular now, but Friedrich Nietzche first explained the value of what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. If something poses a risk to injury, that mechanism is likely the antidote and a submaximal dose may be a cure for the injury. So many coaches avoid sprinting upright and maximal so when the athlete is in a game environment that requires it, they get hurt.
Developing durability is similar to building an immunity to a poison or virus, and this means time and constant exposure to a variety of options and similar patterns. Mimicking the exact mechanism of injury is a fool’s errand, but a general capacity to handle similar stressors is a fine idea.
Precision Depth Jumps
Many of the eccentric adaptations are structural, but neurological changes are possible by increasing the coordination of muscle groups that contribute to the deceleration of the body. I am not a purist, but depth jumps of sane heights are a mixed bag and are not for everyone. Eccentrics are often thought as slowing down the tempo of the exercise or creating an overload weight wise, but the core of eccentrics is mechanical tension with an active effort. Depth Jumps are rapid and forceful contractions, and overload more than just a few muscle groups. Depth Jumps should never be done in large groups since an array of body types and abilities make it very hard to individualize the height and sequence of the training. If a small group can share equipment and can follow a similar training program, they shouldn’t pose a problem.
If an athlete has a nice background of eccentric calf work done, the Achilles should be strong enough to adapt to the strain. Remember the full-footed landings are not to be blamed for Achilles tendon injuries unless excessive motion is seen on the video. Like mentioned earlier, a GoPro camera with remote flush to the ground at 120 frames per second is enough to see peak motion to the area, but it’s an estimation. The foot strike will average about two tenths on the ground and how much motion and what direction is a contribution to injury. Pronation is normal, and it’s important to know what is not efficient, and this is up to the medical biomechanics experts.
Research on neuromuscular adaptations are a little fuzzy, but plyometrics do help improve elastic energy provided the overload doesn’t dampen the utilization of energy. Good jumps redirect the body and are reactive, meaning very spinal in response to the ground forces. Jumps should be bouncy and not muscled out, but some muscular overload is expected. Each jump should be using two legs unless the jumps are very shallow and are not maximal effort.
A simple progression to me is jumping in place, jumping out and up, stepping off and landing, and then depth jumping. This may take years, so go based on achievement versus an artificial timeline. I prefer a lower box or platform with more horizontal projection, so the ground contacts are the same, and the muscle recruitment includes greater hip projection. Experiment to see what works with your program as I am not an expert in-depth jumps like many of the elite coaches in field events.
Eccentric kBox Squatting
Last but not least is what the muse to this article is. The use of flywheel training is decades old, but now a surge of interest is back because of the Kinetic Box or kBox for short. I have observed the use of the option for years and seen amazing things and foolishness with the device. Again, like any modality it’s part of a program, not a system. The flywheel uses momentum and not weight since it was designed for NASA years ago to help preserve muscle and bone mineral content with astronauts. Like anything military grade, it will eventually find itself in elite sport in time. The kBox is versatile so if you only have a small amount of space (pun intended with astronaut quarters) you want to use something that can train the entire body effectively. But, we are on earth, so the question is how the kBox fits in the big picture.
Video 1. The kBox is great for more than just squatting; you can do other movement patterns, but the primary focus should be on lower body motions. Coaches can use the kBox 3 on the road as it’s portable, something very important to me as we train at multiple locations.
The Danish and Swedish experts are aggressive in the support of flywheel training for injury reduction in professional soccer and have written about eccentric training in the European conferences over the years. At first I was skeptical because I saw major stars getting injured more than those who were not using it. Then I dug deeper and visited and spoke to an expert while in Copenhagen during a layover last summer and needed to see video and data to see if I should include it in my program.
What I saw was a video of a customized kBox embedded into a platform and it was beautiful. Since I love christening products or systems with names, I called it the “Black Hydra” and for good reason. If you survive the protocol, you are likely leaving the training program prepared for war on the pitch. The problem is that most elite players don’t have time to prepare because of long seasons, so what to do when you have four weeks to get ready? With the soreness from extreme eccentrics and recovery rates longer than conventional training, was the kBox a good option for me?
Like anyone I needed to see the results and added it to the program but didn’t replace conventional squatting and did 37 days of careful analysis during the intervention. The results were very impressive, and the lean mass increase locally to the legs and hips were the fastest drug-free changes I have seen on paper. We hit personal bests in medicine ball throw output and maximal squat tests, but this is again empirical evidence. What is interesting is the EMG studies paired with the research on IGF-1, Free Testosterone: Cortisol ratio and Creatine Kinase markers. We did more work than usual. The ANS system was disturbed but we rebounded, and the hormones were not depressed but elevated. My guess is that inflammation may be higher than normal, but the gene activation was showing positive protein synthesis. I asked a few coaches and sport scientists, and the mystery was still present, so we will continue to experiment and track changes.
My protocol is boring, but I like the simplicity of adding bilateral squatting with six sets of 5-6 at the end of a program and not decrease the volume or intensity of the program. I will be honest and will admit this was done with an athlete who was doing everything in his nature to recover, but I needed to see what the limit was. I don’t know if a neurological protective mechanism exists by having the athlete pretense before the “Graveyard Death Grip” pulls you into Hades, but this is up to the sport scientists to figure out. This period is the only time I cheered during training to push the limit, so perhaps arousal was part of the changes. Other coaches are experimenting with lunge patterns and lateral squats more, but I kept it simple. I do like lateral squats but don’t know if RDLs are for me. I have tried the squat to eccentric calf pattern, but this is too advanced for team sport athletes.
Parting Thoughts on Eccentrics
Clearly playing around with eccentric training has risks, so start slowly and do just enough to make progress. I am a fan of organized eccentric work mainly in the middle part of the off-season and do some injury reduction work when needed. Every program is unique, and I suggest looking at the entire season instead of adding a few exercises in randomly. Some programs are what I call concentric biased, and those are usually programs that depend on the trap bar deadlift, box jumps only, overdose in step-ups, and are shallow in squatting. Most concentric based programs show up in the Raptor Test with a lousy eccentric utilization profile and tend to have poor max velocity abilities and pull hamstrings early. I encourage anyone wanting to start with eccentrics read the research and classic work from Komi and other legends in strength and power development.