There is more and more evidence starting to show that eccentric-focused training provides greater adaptations to strength training than “traditional” training, says @peteburridge. Click To Tweet
Eccentric training has been getting more attention across the world of sports performance, and it may allow us to take an athlete to the next level in terms of their strength and peak force capabilities. Once only found in bodybuilding and powerlifting circles, elite college programs and pro sport teams are starting to implement eccentric methods a little more. There is more and more evidence starting to show that eccentric-focused training provides greater adaptations to strength training than “traditional” training. But what is eccentric training? Why should you add it to your training, and how should you perform it?
Here are the key points you need to understand before undertaking eccentric training:
- There are many ways to do eccentric training, and some have a little more evidence supporting them than others.
- Eccentric training is very good for improving strength and quite good for improving muscular hypertrophy. It even helps to make improvements in speed and power as well.
- When manually overloaded, a lift can be intensified throughout the entire range of motion, leading to more positive adaptations.
- When having your athletes perform eccentric training for the first time, you need to consider the athlete’s training history, where they are in their competition schedule, and your coaching manpower to guide the session.
What Is an Eccentric, and How Can You Apply It?
An eccentric contraction is the motion of an active muscle while it lengthens under load. Eccentrics are also known as “negatives” in old-school bodybuilding circles, and pretty much every lift you do in the gym will have some element of an eccentric within it.
For example, while just doing a basic squat, the muscles work eccentrically on the descent into the hole. However, eccentric-focused training (otherwise known as AEL—accentuated eccentric loading) usually uses a variety of means to overload the eccentric portion of the lift. This accentuated eccentric loading can take different forms, with some having more scientific rationale than others.
Tactic # 1: The ‘Gym Bro’ Way
This is the most common way to overload a lift eccentrically, and it uses the same load that you would normally lift, only with a slower tempo. This helps to increase the TUT (time under tension) but doesn’t really achieve any of the major benefits of AEL, as the load is essentially the same as (or oftentimes actually lighter than) the load you normally lift with. You often see a stereotypical “gym bro” at your local gym arguing the case for doing it this way for dem mad #GAINZ. Unfortunately for him, though, there are better and more scientific ways to achieve adaptation than this.There are better and more scientific ways to achieve adaptation than simply lifting the same load with a slower tempo, says @peteburridge. Click To Tweet
Tactic #2: The ‘Meathead’ Way
With this tactic, you actually use supramaximal loads and can in fact go about making significant changes to your force production capabilities. More weight than you normally lift is put on the bar—usually somewhere between 100% and 130% of your 1RM. You only lift the bar for the eccentric portion of the lift, with spotters then either helping lift the weight back up to the top for you or helping strip the weight at the bottom. Your bearded, smelling-salts-sniffing meathead is often fond of this method.
You need spotters for this due to the ungodly amount of load. Obviously, because of the supramaximal nature of the lift and the need for effective spotters, this can be a more dangerous lifting strategy. More positively, you will make large improvements in force production due to the load being much greater than your 1RM.
However, as you go through the lift, the bar velocity tends to increase throughout the range of motion because you will struggle to control the bar speed once you are past your peak torque angle. This means you simply don’t have the force generation capacity to control the bar past a certain point, which can lead to the bar pancaking you at the bottom. Unfortunately for the spotter, what goes down must also come back up again! So, for multiple reps, the spotter has a lot of responsibility either lifting a whole lot of weight or doing a lot of fiddly stripping of plates.
Tactic #3: The ‘Manually Overloaded’ Way
This tactic tries to get the best of both worlds: control throughout the entire range of motion, but a supramaximal load that should help develop peak force. You still need spotters here, but the actual load on the bar is a little more manageable. The load can be quite variable—you want enough resistance so that the spotter isn’t working like crazy, but then not too much that you can’t provide a steady amount of resistance throughout the whole range of the lift.
Video 1. The spotter helps on the way up and adds extra graded resistance on the way down. The bar in front helps stabilize the lifter.
The spotter’s job is to provide variable resistance throughout the range of motion. They control the velocity by giving more resistance when you’re at your strongest and backing off at points in the lift where you are weak. For example, at the top of the bench press they would push down harder, but then only push a small amount at the bottom portion of the lift.
Video 2. In the eccentric bench press, the spotters lift the weight to the top, and then the lifter builds tension into the bar. The spotters will have to work harder at the top portion of the range for most people and back off a bit at the bottom.
Why Should You Use These Lifts?
There are a few reasons to do these types of lifts, including for increased force production, hypertrophy, and speed-power.
The main reason we decide to do eccentric-focused training is to improve force production. Considering that, compared to concentric contractions, skeletal muscle is capable of as much as 20–50% more force production during maximal eccentric contractions4, it makes sense that we would be capable of having more load on the bar while doing accentuated eccentric training. In practical terms, the easiest way to think about this is that the height we can box jump is far less than the height of a box we can jump down off of. The reason for this is that the force we are capable of producing to propel ourselves up concentrically in a box jump is far less than the force we can absorb from landing eccentrically.
You can get greater intensity in your program with supramaximal eccentric training, and the more potent stimulus will drive more optimal adaptation, says @peteburridge. Click To Tweet
Keeping that in mind, you can get greater intensity in your program with supramaximal eccentric training. This has a number of positive effects: First and foremost, intensity drives adaptation. With a more potent stimulus you will get a more optimal adaptation. Eccentrics seemingly do this through an increased amount of neural drive.5 Although some academics dispute it, you may also be able to get preferential recruitment of HTMUs (high-threshold motor units), which has been shown to increase force production.6
Video 3. A lifter can perform all eccentrics better when they can build up their tension, so rather than jumping to the top of the lift, get the lifter to climb up using the pins in the rack before pulling them down.
By doing eccentrics with manual resistance, you develop strength throughout the full range of motion as well. This enables you to generate force at long, medium, and short muscle lengths, which has a positive impact on injury prevention.7 This is especially important in team sports like rugby, where athletes are exposed to many different joint configurations and joint angles and have to effectively generate force to prevent against injury.
The next reason you might implement eccentric-focused lifting into your training is for hypertrophy. In sports like sprinting this may not be desirable, but in sprint momentum-based sports like rugby and American football, getting an athlete bigger can be a big training focus. One potential way that eccentrics help is improving satellite cell proliferation and activation in type II muscle fibers1.
Satellite cells are cells that donate their myonuclei to another cell (in this case muscle fibers), allowing for greater control of a group of muscle fibers. The easiest way to think about this complicated idea is to think of an airport: the satellite cells are like the control towers, and the runways are the muscle fibers. If you only have one control tower, you can only have a small number of runways before the control tower can’t handle the airplane traffic. If you want the airport to grow, you need more control towers—and with more control towers, you have the potential to lay down more runways (muscle fibers). If, through your lifting, you can lay down more satellite cells, then you have the potential to lay down a lot more runways (muscle fibers).There is a strong case for exposing young athletes to this kind of training to lay down satellite calls early and give them a greater potential for growth at a later age, says @peteburridge. Click To Tweet
This is the science behind the principle of reversibility. Even if the airplane traffic stops, the control towers remain, so there is still potential for growth if the airplane traffic comes back. This is why when someone stops training for an extended period of time, they are able to put on size much quicker than someone who hadn’t done the training previously. Because of this, there is a strong case for exposing young athletes to this kind of training to lay down satellite cells early and give them a greater potential for growth at a later age. This is also the reason people have called for lifetime bans for steroid users, because those satellite cells they lay down when juiced-up don’t go away, and so their potential for muscle growth will always be higher whether they have stopped using steroids or not.
Video 4. The eccentric leg press takes some manpower to spot, but it can be a great way to safely achieve high mechanical tension. The key is to not “lock out” the spotters and keep pushing in the deep ranges.
It is suggested you can get preferential recruitment of type II fibers with eccentric training—these fibers have bigger growth potential than type I fibers2 and are arguably more important fibers for the high-intensity activities you regularly get exposed to in a sport like American football. There is also a growing body of literature that shows eccentric training has more of an effect on muscular hypertrophy when compared to concentric lifting, as this meta-analysis of studies shows3:
From my own experience, we have practice-based evidence that shows very positive results when eccentric-focused lifting has been added to players’ programs, with players putting on mass at accelerated rates in comparison to normal lifting.
Eccentrics help to increase the number of sarcomeres in series, which allows for greater fascicle shortening speeds8. If our muscles can shorten at greater velocity, we should be able to move much, much faster. The use of eccentrics, especially when manually overloaded, allows for greater force production at long muscle lengths9. This then shifts the length-tension curve to the right, which can have positive adaptations in speed and power.
Not only that, but eccentric training tends to favor hypertrophy in distal portions of the muscle, which are, again, favorable to contraction velocity10. Despite there not being too much direct evidence for eccentric-focused lifting improving speed and power, there are a lot of adaptations that should help develop the muscle to be able to shorten quicker and faster. This should then lead to developments in speed and power qualities.
Video 5. Manually resisted hamstrings are a good way to get people strong at long muscle lengths and are comparable to Nordics, except you can control the resistance so the athlete works at the end range and not just at the early range.
Why (or When) to Not Use Eccentrics
Despite there being a lot of evidence for implementing eccentrics into your program(s), you still need to consider a few things. If doing manually resisted eccentrics, you obviously need a decent amount of manpower, as it probably isn’t feasible for a coach to spot a whole team through a session of eccentrics and then get through the session without some sort of overuse injury!
So, either select athletes who need to be targeted on an individual basis or get them to work in teams to spot each other. With that, of course, you need to spend a large amount of time educating the athletes on how to spot safely and effectively. This is a key point, because ineffective or reckless spotting either reduces the adaptations you’re after or, worse, can be dangerous to the athlete if performed incorrectly.
Video 6. Eccentrics are a great way to target and isolate some of the rotator cuff muscles that are important in preventing shoulder injuries. A smooth rep is a good rep.
The next consideration is when to add manually overloaded eccentrics to your players’ programs. There is a large amount of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and muscle damage associated with training this way. They will get your athletes very sore, so they need to be well transitioned into a program. You can’t just chuck them in; you need to start with very low volumes and build up the athletes’ tolerance to eccentric-focused training—otherwise, it may limit their capability to perform on-field training or other gym work. Sometimes, as low as 2 x 3 is all that you need to do with someone to make them significantly sore, so it is key you build these strategies around physical development blocks or windows outside of competition.You can’t just chuck manually overloaded eccentrics into a program—you need to start with very low volumes and build up athletes’ tolerance to eccentric-focused training, says @peteburridge. Click To Tweet
The final consideration is the lift has to be maximal, otherwise athletes might as well just stick to their traditional lifts. We would all love to work with 100% honest athletes, but, unfortunately, we don’t. Especially at the pro level, there are some people who will simply pretend to push as hard as they can, when in reality they are capable of much more. So, for those athletes who don’t train with honest intent and are prone to pulling a face and just “faking it,” it may be best if they stick to traditional lifting.
An Example Program
Following is an example real-life program of a rugby back who is in season but looking to put on a bit more size and get stronger while still maintaining his speed.
Take Home Messages
Hopefully, I’ve made a strong enough case that eccentrics are a valuable tool to have in your training toolbox. If you do decide to look further into using eccentrics in your program(s), here are the key things to remember:
- There are different ways to do eccentrics, but some may get more of the physiological adaptations that you’re after than others.
- There is much evidence for improvements in strength utilizing eccentrics and some evidence of a small but meaningful improvement in hypertrophy compared to traditional training (10% vs. 6%).3
- There is both some theoretical and growing real-world evidence of improvements in speed and power following eccentric-focused training.
- Be aware of how much you prescribe and more importantly when you prescribe if implementing these strategies into your program(s).
- Some personality types are better suited than others to train this way.
- In sports, with large playing and on-field training demands, you will have to schedule athlete training intelligently around games and training.
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2. Anderson J. and Aagard P. “Effects of strength training on muscle fiber types and size; consequences for athletes training for high-intensity sport.” Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 2010; 20(Suppl. 2):32–38.
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7. Timmins R.G., Bourne M.N., Shield A.J., et al. “Short biceps femoris fascicles and eccentric knee flexor weakness increase the risk of hamstring injury in elite football (soccer): a prospective cohort study.” British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2015 Dec 16.
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10. Abe T., Kumagai K., Brechue W.F. “Fascicle length of leg muscles is greater in sprinters than distance runners.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2000;32(6):1125–1129.