Eccentric training has been a popular topic for those who want to get bigger, stronger, and prevent injuries. Whereas in the past weight training articles would focus on how many sets and reps to perform, now many fitness writers will discuss how long it should take to move the weight. In fact, there are some bodybuilding protocols recommending lowering a weight for 10 seconds or more to achieve maximum muscle growth stimulation. That’s fine, but consider that there are also benefits to performing fast eccentric contractions.
As a starting point, consider that a concentric contraction occurs when a muscle develops tension and shortens; for example, pressing a barbell off your chest during a bench press is considered a concentric contraction. If a muscle develops tension and there is no change in the length of the muscle, this is considered an isometric contraction. Using our example of the bench press, resting the barbell on your chest or holding it at extended arms would be considered isometric contractions. And if a muscle develops tension and lengthens, such as when lowering the barbell to your chest, this is considered an eccentric contraction.
In many strength training programs to improve the bench press, you’ll see a recommendation to lower the bar slowly, usually about 4 seconds. Slowing down the movement in this manner creates a higher level of muscle tension. This type of eccentric contraction would be more precisely described as a “slow eccentric contraction.”
The problem is that many athletic movements occur rapidly, such that the activity quickly switches from eccentric movements to concentric movements. An example would be when a basketball player makes a sudden move to throw the defender off balance so they can get clear for a shot. A popular term to describe such movements is “ankle breakers,” such that the sudden change in directions often causes the defender to fall down. Another example of an activity that involves fast eccentric contractions is sprinting. Studies on elite sprinters found that shorter ground contact time (when the foot touches and leaves the ground during a step) is a characteristic of superior sprinters. Ground contact time is a combination of eccentric, isometric, and concentric contractions.
Some coaches would say that the Olympic lifts do not have any significant eccentric component, but this is not accurate. The truth is that the Olympic lifts are one of the best ways to work fast eccentric strength. During the dip for the jerk, for example, the athlete rapidly bends and straightens the knees to create and release elastic energy to create a more powerful leg drive.
Many strength coaches believe that powerlifting exercises such as the squat and bench press, which for safety reasons should be performed with a relatively slow eccentric component, are enough to condition athletes for sports. Such exercises can certainly improve athletic fitness, but consider that there is considerable research to suggest that exercises with a fast eccentric component may help athletes become even faster and more powerful.
One study comparing the benefits of weightlifting and powerlifting on athletic fitness was performed on Division III football players. Twenty athletes were divided into two groups, one group focused on powerlifting exercises and the other group on Olympic lifting exercises. The study lasted 15 weeks, and researchers found that the Olympic lifting group experienced significantly more improvement in the vertical jump and a twofold greater improvement in the 40-yard dash.
This discussion is not to make a case that powerlifting exercises have little value for athletes, but that the optimal program for athletes should include exercises that have fast eccentric movements. Exercises that include fast eccentric movements include barbell squat jumps (which are performed with a ¼ range of motion) and plyometric depth jumps. Of course, many athletes, especially heavier athletes or those involved in sports that involve a lot of jumping such as basketball or figure skating, have a hard time handling the stress of depth jumps. One way to get around this challenge (to increase the eccentric load) is to perform box jumps holding dumbbells, releasing them as you jump onto a box.
Many exercises can be modified to create a fast eccentric component, one example being to change a lunge into a drop lunge. With a drop lunge, you stand on a low platform, about 4 inches high, then step forward so that you have to deal with the additional stress of dropping 4 inches before you begin to flex your front leg into the low position of the lunge. You can increase the intensity by standing on a higher platform (generally, about 8 inches should be the highest platform used in this exercise) and holding some type of resistance in your hands, such as a medicine ball or dumbbells.
Another option is to use bands. An eight-week study on soccer players found that band training can significantly improve hip-adduction strength and as such could be considered a practical way to prevent groin injuries in that sport. Band training has also proven especially popular among powerlifters for increasing the eccentric load during squats, deadlifts, and bench presses.
The major difference between chains and bands is that chains provide a gradual increase in resistance, whereas bands provide the most resistance only near the end range of motion. A conventional leg workout using bands could start with a superset of squats with bands and lying leg curls, followed by a superset of leg presses with bands and back extensions. Because bands create a higher eccentric load at the finish of an exercise and create greater instability, more rest time is needed between sets. Also, consider that band training is quite stressful, so as a general guideline such training should only be performed once a week.
To get the most out of your workouts, perform fast eccentric movements when your nervous system is fresh, which means performing them before exercises that involve slow eccentric contractions. For example, a workout could start with push presses, followed by box jumps with dumbbells, and finish with back squats. Another sequence could be power snatches followed by barbell squat jumps followed by deadlifts. Regarding longer-term planning, the early stages of an off-season could focus on conventional powerlifting exercises and later focus on Olympic lifting and plyometric exercises.
There are many training methods that can improve athletic fitness, and a balanced approached to program design will do the most towards improving performance and reducing the risk of injury. Consider the benefits of fast eccentrics, and try to include a few exercises that focus on this type of muscular contraction in your workouts.