What if I told you that with a single exercise you could...
Increase your strength
Increase muscle size
Increase muscle length
Increase athletic performance AND
Seems pretty good right? Sadly, the technique known as “Eccentric Training” is often underused and the above benefits are forfeited. Let me explain what eccentric training is and how you can incorporate eccentric protocols into your own workouts.
In order to get the most out of this article you’ll need to know a bit about basic muscle physiology so bear with me for a second while I get my nerd on! There are two types of muscle contraction (ok, there are really three but we’re ignoring one for today); concentric and eccentric. A concentric contraction is likely the one you’re familiar with and is defined as a muscle that SHORTENS to produce force. Think of this as your standard bicep curl - you start with a weight in your hand and your arm straight. Your bicep physically SHORTENS as it contracts to bend your elbow and lift the weight. For those acting that movement out at home, you should be standing there with your elbow bent and massive bicep bulging out. That’s a concentric contraction! Go ahead and give it a little kiss... it’s not narcissistic, it’s science!
An eccentric contraction is the exact opposite of the concentric and is oxymoronically defined as a LENGTHENING contraction. Picture the lowering action of the bicep curl - your bicep is still activated to control the movement against the force of gravity, but the muscle length is INCREASING to allow the appropriate stretch to return to the original position. Still with me? Great! Now put those guns away and buckle up for a wild ride into the exciting world of eccentric training!
Eccentric contractions are quite important in our everyday lives. Any time you have to resist gravity or your own inertia you’re requiring your muscles to act eccentrically. This includes lowering an object from a height, sitting down, and stopping or changing directions. Despite their prevalence, as soon as we hit the gym, eccentrics are completely forgotten and concentrics get all the love. Just to be clear, most exercises naturally contain an eccentric component (see the bicep curl example above) but these are rarely the focus of the movement. The eccentric portion becomes the means of returning to the beginning of the exercise and is usually rushed and sloppy. After all, people want to talk about how much weight they can lift, not how much weight they can safely set down!
But...for eccentric strength to improve, you need to specifically train eccentrically. Since most exercises have a natural eccentric contraction it is easy to manipulate the focus of the exercise. Instead of focusing on the lifting portion, make the lowering portion the priority. A squat is a good example because it begins with the eccentric lowering component. Instead of quickly dropping into the bottom of the squat, concentrate on a slow, controlled descent that takes between 5-10 seconds. As an extra benefit, slowing an exercise down increases the time a muscle is under tension, a key factor in stimulating muscle growth. If larger muscles are your goal, incorporating slow eccentrics into your exercises are a must!
Did you know that you are actually 25-50% stronger eccentrically than you are concentrically?! You can use this to your advantage when performing new or difficult movements like a single-leg squat. If you don’t have the strength to complete a full single-leg squat, practise by lowering yourself slowly on one leg and using the other leg to help stand back up. Over time, the increase in eccentric strength can transfer to an increase in concentric strength and allow you to perform the entire movement on one leg.
Remember earlier when I mentioned that your muscles are acting eccentrically when you stop and change directions? The ability to quickly brake and “cut” are key features of many sports and generally referred to as one’s agility. Specifically training your muscles in these lengthened positions will increase strength, therefore increasing the muscle's ability to quickly absorb and transfer force and ultimately boost your overall athletic performance.
If becoming bigger, stronger and more athletic still hasn’t convinced you to incorporate eccentrics, maybe the protective benefits will. Eccentric exercise is beginning to gain popularity in the prevention of muscular injury. Hamstrings are infamous, particularly in sprinting, football and rugby communities, as a commonly strained muscle. These injuries often occur in a lengthened position when the muscle is most vulnerable. Luckily, the use of eccentric exercises such as the Nordic Hamstring curl (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPRZcNx_C0A) have been associated with a decreased likelihood of hamstring injury.
Last but definitely not least, eccentric training has the potential to physically add length to a short muscle (Contrary to popular belief, this is something that stretching does NOT do). The mechanism behind this phenomena is still being studied but can easily be put to practical use. Eccentric exercises targeting areas that are often short and tight, such as the hamstrings and pectorals, can be beneficial in restoring length through those muscles and increasing range of motion and function.
A word of caution before you go throwing a ton of eccentrics into your next workout: eccentric exercise is associated with increased microscopic muscle damage (that’s the good kind that promotes muscle growth!) but this can also cause increased soreness in the days following your workout. So don’t go too crazy - build up the weights and volume appropriately and allow your body to adapt to this new type of training!
Are you keen to start eccentric training but not sure where to start? Book in to see Clay today - book online here or call us on (08) 9448 2994!