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Eccentric Training: A Revolutionary Approach to Strength and Fitness

Dr. Craig Smith, MD

4 Min read

Venture into any fitness facility, you're bound to immerse yourself in conversations about the incorporation of "negatives" in exercise routines. This intriguing phenomenon, also known as eccentric training, has gained popularity among athletes, weightlifters, and physical therapists due to its unique set of benefits. In this comprehensive guide, we'll embark on a detailed exploration of eccentric training, uncovering its merits, distinguishing it from other training methodologies, highlighting common pitfalls, and providing a variety of exercises to kickstart your eccentric training journey.

Deciphering Eccentric Strength Training

Traditional strength training exercises are typically divided into three phases: concentric, isometric, and eccentric. The concentric phase involves muscle shortening, reaching peak contraction against resistance or gravity. The isometric phase is a stationary moment post-concentric contraction, while the eccentric phase follows, requiring the muscle to lengthen under load to return to the starting position.

Eccentric training homes in on this lengthening phase, intensifying it by deliberately slowing down the cadence. During the eccentric phase, external forces like weight or gravity exceed the force generated by the muscle, leading to what's commonly termed "negative" reps.

Real-world Implications of Eccentric Training

Eccentric muscle strength and control extend beyond the gym, playing a pivotal role in everyday movements. Walking or running downhill necessitates the quadriceps to work eccentrically to control the descent. Everyday activities like lowering a child or sitting in a chair without collapsing heavily rely on eccentric contractions – the controlled lengthening of muscles under tension, a cornerstone of muscular control.

Certain sports, such as skiing, are characterized by continuous eccentric muscle contractions. More crucially, everyone depends on eccentric muscle strength for stability, mobility, and injury prevention, given the constant gravitational force.

Incorporating eccentric training emerges as an effective strategy to enhance strength, stability, and control around joints, contributing to injury prevention and alleviating chronic pain.

Unlocking the Diverse Benefits of Eccentric Strength Training

Eccentric training serves as a potent tool embraced by athletes, bodybuilders, and physical therapists for its myriad of muscle-enhancing benefits. Let's delve into some of the sought-after advantages:

  • Supramaximal Training: Eccentric training facilitates supramaximal training, where exercises are performed with resistance slightly higher than what muscles can handle under normal conditions. Research suggests that muscles exhibit considerably more strength during eccentric contractions than concentric ones. Implementing eccentric training allows overloading muscles with more weight, potentially beneficial for sports requiring explosive elements.

  • Greater Movement Efficiency: Eccentric movements demand less muscle activity and energy compared to concentric movements at the same force level. Metabolically, eccentric contractions require only a quarter of the energy expended in concentric contractions. This efficiency, attributed to an elastic muscle molecule called titin, enables muscles to resist lengthening, akin to an uncoiling spring. Offering results without the energy expenditure of concentric contractions, eccentric training proves a time-efficient choice, especially in rehabilitation and athletic training.

  • Greater Muscle Hypertrophy: Eccentric actions, generating more force than concentric actions, are theorized to promote greater muscle hypertrophy. A review study comparing eccentric-focused and concentric-focused resistance training programs revealed slightly more muscle growth with eccentric training. This heightened muscle growth is linked to increased muscle damage during eccentric training, leading to a greater increase in muscle protein synthesis—an essential aspect of muscle growth.

Deciphering the Dichotomy: Eccentric vs. Concentric Strength Training

Concentric and eccentric training target opposing muscle contractions. Concentric contractions involve rising muscle tension as the muscle shortens and remains stable. In contrast, eccentric contractions involve the muscle lengthening as resistance gradually exceeds the muscle's force production. Strength training exercises typically encompass both types of contractions, emphasizing one muscle's concentric contraction while its opposing muscle eccentrically contracts.

Traditional strength training exercises often prioritize the concentric phase, while eccentric training deliberately focuses on the lengthening phase under load. Both concentric and eccentric muscle contractions are indispensable in any strength training program.

Eccentric Training's Role in Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy

Eccentric training holds a distinguished position in the arsenal of physical therapists and rehabilitation professionals, proving instrumental in recovering from various musculoskeletal issues.

  • Knee Recovery: Physical therapists frequently integrate eccentric training into knee injury rehabilitation programs. Research suggests that eccentric exercises contribute to muscle and connective tissue strengthening, enhancing knee stability post-surgery.

  • Neuromuscular Control: Eccentric training aids in improving neuromuscular control following an injury, fostering better communication between the brain and the injured muscle. This connection is particularly crucial, given documented brain alterations following injury.

  • Preservation of Muscle Mass: In the elderly population, incorporating eccentric training into rehabilitation programs helps preserve and enhance muscle mass. Eccentric training's ability to generate high force with a low energy cost is advantageous, although caution is exercised to keep loads and intensity low to avoid inflammation in this sensitive demographic.

Optimizing Eccentric Training Frequency and Exercises

Eccentric-focused exercises seamlessly integrate into well-balanced strength training programs, typically performed 2–4 times per week, depending on experience levels. In rehabilitation settings, more frequent sessions might be necessary to stimulate muscle and connective tissue regeneration while focusing on lower intensity to prevent further injury.

For beginners, incorporating a few eccentric-focused exercises at the end of regular training programs is advisable. Gradually increasing the frequency within regular training sessions allows individuals to adapt to eccentric training.

Eccentric Exercise Examples:

  • Eccentric Physioball Hamstring Rollouts: Utilize a physioball to isolate the hamstring during the eccentric phase, enhancing control and strength. Adjust the difficulty by lifting one leg during the eccentric extension.

  • Eccentric Hamstring Curl: Combine a seated or lying hamstring curl with a unique twist – curl the weight with both legs and slowly release it with one leg to intensify the eccentric force.

  • Eccentric Barbell Squats: Transform the traditional barbell squat by emphasizing the eccentric (descending) portion. Control the descent, pause, and push through to the starting position.

  • Eccentric Box Step-Downs: Step onto a box with one leg and slowly step off with the other to amplify the eccentric intensity. Adjust difficulty by using weights or altering the box height.

Common Pitfalls and Considerations in Eccentric Training

While eccentric training appears straightforward, common pitfalls can hinder progress, especially for beginners:

  • Using Excessive Weight: Muscles may be stronger during eccentric contractions, but using excessively heavy weights poses a risk of injury and compromises form, diminishing exercise effectiveness.

  • Incorrect Tempo: Accurate timing during the eccentric phase is crucial. Going too fast may reduce muscle stimulation, while going too slow can lead to muscle exhaustion and excessive soreness. Sticking to timing guidelines laid out by your training program is essential.

  • Awareness of DOMS: Eccentric exercise is known to induce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Gradual progression with light weights at low intensity helps acclimate the muscles without overwhelming them.

In Conclusion

In the realm of fitness, eccentric training stands as a dynamic and effective approach, offering a unique perspective on strength development and injury prevention. Whether you're an athlete pushing your limits or someone on the path to recovery, the eccentric phase holds the key to unlocking new dimensions in your fitness journey. By exploring a diverse range of eccentric exercises and embracing a thoughtful approach, individuals can harness the power of eccentric training to elevate their strength, stability, and overall fitness.

About the Author

In 1984, Dr. Craig Smith founded Lifesource. As a coach, he's worked with world-class athletes and guided thousands towards successful weight loss. Driven by a desire to elevate his understanding of the human body, he returned to the rigors of medical school in his 50s, achieving his goal of becoming a physician at 56. Now in his 60s, Dr. Smith leads by personal example, continuing to inspire, educate and empower individuals from all walks of life to achieve their health and fitness goals. If you wish to train and diet online with Dr. Smith, hear his message and schedule a 45-minute consultation on the New You page.