Ask the Professional: Eccentric Training
When partaking in weight training as a mode of building strength or muscle, there is more to your movements than just “down, up, down, up” for each repetition. Timing is everything; and a particularly important thing to consider is time under tension. Generally speaking, the “down” portion of your movement, or lowering of the weight, is going to be considered the eccentric portion of the movement. On the other hand, the “up” portion of the movement, or the lifting/raising of the weight, is considered to be the concentric portion of your movement. When performing weight-bearing exercises, are you paying attention to how much time each of these phases are taking? Are you lowering the bar to the bottom of your squat or to your chest on the bench press as fast as you can, and then trying to bounce out of the bottom of the movement? Or are you lowering the weight in a slow and controlled manner before forcibly changing the direction of the bar at the bottom of the movement? If you have to think for more than a few seconds about any of these questions, chances are you are missing out on a very important training piece: eccentric training.
But what does eccentric training actually consist of? Training the eccentric phase of your exercises, is essentially training the “brakes” of your muscles. This consists of an extra emphasis on the portion of your movement when the muscle(s) is lengthening and you are in the “down” phase of your exercise. For example, in the squat you might count off between 4 and 6 seconds on your descent before actually getting to the bottom of your squat; increasing the time your muscles are under tension and the eccentric stress. This can be applied to just about any movement. The time under tension or the time spent in the eccentric contraction can be manipulated any which way to add or reduce the amount of stress placed on the muscle. The vast majority of the general fitness population places their emphasis on the concentric contractions of their exercises while the muscle is shortening. Often times the eccentric portion of the movement may even be less than one second for many. It is all about getting the weight up, right? Not necessarily! By ignoring the eccentric portion of your lift, you may potentially be missing out on some significant strength and muscle gains. Beyond that, you may also be missing out on benefits to joint health, metabolism, and injury prevention.
In regards to added strength and muscle gains, science tells it all. It has been proven that muscles are stronger eccentrically than they are concentrically; in fact, studies have shown they can handle up to 1.75 times more weight eccentrically. But what does this mean to you? Well, greater amount of weight used means greater stress to the muscles, which will open the door for much greater adaptations to occur. One way to use the eccentric training method is to use moderate weight and really focus on a slow eccentric, followed by a quick concentric contraction in order to try to induce greater muscle tearing, and in turn more hypertrophy.
Relative to actual strength gains, you will likely be using close to or even greater than you one-rep maximum and placing a heavy emphasis on the eccentric contraction. But how am I supposed to get the weight back up if I am using such a heavy load? In this case, you are likely going to want to use a spotter. However this will not be a traditional spotting approach that they will be taking. Your spotter will be spotting you with the understanding that they are going to be doing work on EACH repetition, just like you. On the concentric portion of the lift, your spotter will be taking on a significant amount of the load in order to help you get back to the starting position for the next eccentric repetition. If you are doing this, make absolutely sure that your spotter not only knows exactly how to spot correctly, but has been properly briefed on what their purpose will be here. A couple of other modes that experienced lifters may choose to use are bands or chains for varying resistance throughout the movement.
These muscle and strength benefits are great for helping break through plateaus. However eccentric training is not just for athletes or competitors either. As mentioned previously, eccentric training is beneficial for joint health, injury prevention, and metabolism. All of these things are important for any population. We use eccentric movements on a daily basis. Walking down stairs or hills, or even just the stopping any movements generated by the body and using those deceleration muscles require eccentric strength. If we need eccentric strength for these every day movements, then it would be beneficial to anybody to add in that eccentric work. A lack of eccentric strength is what may lead to joint problems and potentially to various injuries. The difference lies in how you should incorporate it. Somebody with no significant strength or athletic goals probably does not need to be using greater than their one-rep maximum for eccentric repetitions.
There are a couple of caveats to eccentric training. Not that these mean you should not do it, but these are things you should probably be aware of prior to incorporating it. One of these things is the severity of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) that is caused by eccentric training initially. When beginning eccentric training, the increased loads and time under tension will likely cause some extreme muscle soreness. With regular eccentric training however, this should eventually begin to occur to a far lesser degree. The second is one that we already discussed. When performing eccentric training, in many cases you will want to make sure that you have an experienced spotter that knows exactly how to spot eccentric for eccentric work. Beyond that, there are a ton of benefits to be had by incorporating eccentric training. Give it a try and see the benefits to your training and everyday life!