Eccentric training – the ultimate way to break through training plateaus and maximise your strength. Let’s dig in deeper and get to it.
Ever feel like you lose your balance? Or have “poor coordination”? Many people struggle with the ability to control their body position particularly when performing newer exercises. Although this is a product of kinaesthetic awareness, stability is significantly influenced by your eccentric strength.
On top of that, if you ever find yourself hitting a plateau with your strength, particularly in the squat, bench press, pull-up etc. then this article is perfect for you; it will show you the answer you’ve been looking for.
Learn the topic.
Muscles work in 3 different ways when under active tension:
Which is the Most Important?
There is no perfect method of training and never will be. It all depends on what you’re aiming to achieve and where your weaknesses lie. If you’re someone who has a blatant sticking point/weak joint angle or is aiming to maximize neurological strength, then isometric training may be for you.
However, if you’re someone who needs to learn more control in a movement and wants a new training stimulus that will bring about gains you’ve never felt before, eccentric training may be the way to go.
Let’s face it. No one cares. Throughout historical accounts of remarkable feats of strength, people only really document what someone was able to lift from A to B (such as Paul Anderson’s Backlift), or hold in position. But in very few places are there records of what someone was able to lower under control.
This largely because it’s very difficult to standardize. It’s easy to record and check if someone has lifted a weight from A to B, but how do we know if someone had the weight under tension or simply just held it in place and then dropped it.
Unless we use time. Which we will discuss later.
May be not you personally, especially in comparison to the people around you. But relative to other animals in the animal kingdom, it’s well known that humans are weak. Our biomechanical levers in each joint don’t favour us at all and then the metabolic cost of producing a concentric muscle contraction is quite high, compared to low cost eccentric contraction (12).
Although we may be weak, our muscles are designed to be much stronger and more efficient at lowering things or, performing eccentric contraction. In fact, some studies have documented that humans can produce 20-30% more force at the same level of activation during eccentric contraction (15) and we may be up to 60% stronger (8).
Now, there is a significant element of specificity in training. We know that the more you practice something, the better you become at it and you may be thinking, “Surely training to lower weights will only get you better at lowering weights?”
However, what most people don’t realize about the body (particularly the nervous system), is that when placed under a significant amount of stress, positive adaptations can occur on a systemic, whole body level, in areas/movements that aren’t directly trained.
A classic example of this is known as cross education in orthopedic rehabilitation. It used to be the case (out of fear of muscle imbalances) that you didn’t want to train the unaffected limb. However, more recent knowledge has shown that unilateral strength training also increases the voluntary activation of the untrained limb (16).
Keeping this systemic, whole body response in mind, eccentric training (although it emphasizes the lowering phase), can directly increase the strength within the lifting phase. In fact, because you are able to train at a higher intensity (e.g. handle weight up to 40% heavier), you can become even stronger than simply doing traditional training.
Eccentric overload training has been shown to result in significant strength gains and even greater gains in jump height when compared to traditional training (7). In fact, the researchers stated that
“enhanced eccentric load led to a subtly faster gene expression pattern, inducing a shift towards faster muscle phenotypes”.
In other words, the enhanced eccentric load also has the potential to lead to increased power and speed.
If there is one aspect of eccentric exercise that truly amazed me, it’s this one. Get your nerd hat on.
Cortical activity is the term given to what is going on in the cerebral cortex, in reference to how we experience movement and how we interact with our environment. Different types of exercise results in changes in cortical activity (6), that differs depending on both the exercise mode and intensity employed (2, 5).
This is the craziest part. When it comes to stability, we know that synergist muscles (stabilising muscles that contribute to the movement alongside the prime movers) are incredibly important, those who don’t have stability tend to show case weakness in this area. However, eccentric exercise has been shown to result in preferential recruitment of fast twitch motor units in synergist muscles when compared to traditional concentric lifting (11, 19, 20).
To add to that, neuro-imaging of the brain has shown a greater amount of feedback to the brain during eccentric contractions with regarding to factors like body position, pain etc. when compared to concentric actions (18, 25). Researchers think this is due to the body’s attempt to prevent excess structural muscle damage (22).
So, taking this in mind. When you’re wanting to improve your movement efficiency/technique within a movement, the eccentric portion of the movement is significantly more important than you may have thought.
Research by Hortobagyi et al. (10) found that even when adding weight to the eccentric contraction (around 50% additional weight), subjects gained 2.0x more strength when compared to a traditional training group (who lifted and lowered the same amount of weight).
Now you could say that it’s because the first group simply did more training volume. However, this study accounted for that, decreasing the total reps down by the eccentric overload group to make sure the total weight lifted (sets x reps x load) was the same.
Continuing from above, another study found a 29% vs. 19% increase in eccentric enhanced vs. traditional training in the hamstrings muscle group (13). In fact, a recent systematic review summarised that using loads in eccentric training (that were not limited by what you could lift) was a superior mode of training, which…
…“Appears to be superior to traditional resistance training in improving variables associated with strength, power and speed (3)”.
Now, if you’re brand new to lifting – there is a bit of ambiguity as to whether or not this method of training is effective for you.
Research has shown similar gains between both traditional resistance training and eccentric overload training for untrained subjects (24). However, it is important to note two things:
One thing this study did help to highlight, was the fact that despite the differences in training volume, the eccentric training group had significantly greater lactic acid response. This is one of the factors that is thought to contribute to delayed onset muscle soreness also known as DOMS.
You may have noticed me saying the words, “volume was matched” or something similar. As I’ve written about before, training volume refers to the total weight lifted (reps x sets x load). During eccentric training, if you are using a significantly heavier load, your volume will naturally go up. So, you cannot (and should not) use the same sets x reps scheme, as this could very quickly lead to over- training, or a state in which you are unable to recover due to the significant muscle damage that takes place during eccentric training.
For example, a study by Barstow et al. (1) found no significant improvements from eccentric overload training when compared to traditional training. However, the same reps + sets scheme was given to both groups, which may have resulted in too much training volume from the participants. As a result, there is a pretty big chance that the subjects simply weren’t able to adequately recover.
Following on from the previous point, further research has highlighted that stronger subjects benefit more from the heavier eccentric loading (23), which may be explained by lower inhibition when tolerating heavy loads (4).
So if you squat 100kg, you may be able to benefit from 120kg eccentrics (+20%), but any higher may be too much for your body. Where as if you squat 200kg, you may be able to handle 260kg (+30%) and benefit from it.
Something definitely worth noting is the difference between men and women in this respect. Although women recover much faster and basically have much higher durability then men, research has shown that women possess a greater difference between their eccentric and concentric strength, meaning they naturally have greater ability to lower a load than they do an ability to lift it (9).
Combine this with women tending to be more hyper-mobile and reduced joint stability, eccentric training is a great way to facilitate strength gains in women.
On top of everything else eccentric training has to offer, it can also help improve lower limb flexibility (21). If you struggle with squat depth, progressively increasing the load for eccentric based squats is a perfectly viable method!
Learn the science and theory.
Here we go again, let’s get your nerd hat on and pull up your high waisted smart pants. A quick explanation of muscle contraction.
Within a muscle belly, we have something known as muscle fibres, which can be broken down further into sarcomeres. Within each sarcomere are what’s known as, myofilaments. Myofilaments form the foundation of muscular contraction and although there are other biochemical factors at play, these are the mechanical components of muscle. And muscle contraction occurs through a mechanism known as “Huxley’s Sliding Filament Theory”.
As you can see in the beautifully constructed image below – the action of muscle contraction shortens the muscle. The myosin heads are responsible, as they pull on the actin filaments and draw everything towards the midline.
However, during an eccentric contraction there is resistance of these myosin heads. They’re hooked in and don’t really fancy letting go, as a result they resist being pulled apart slightly (even without excessive neural stimulation from your own effort). This one of the factors that contributes to something known as “passive force enhancement” (17).
God damn. 3rd article using the same heading. That’s got to be a new record. But alas, head on over here to read more about how our ability to walk explains why eccentric strength is so important for walking and postural strength.
Learn the implementation.
This is the current issue with eccentric training – you have to get quite creative and logistically, it can be very inconvenient and annoying. Machines and pretty much all forms of equipment are constructed based off our love of lifting things rather than lowering them.
But before we go into specific exercises, we need to talk about the most important aspect –
Regardless of what you do, how we do it needs to be addressed first.
This is the hardest part for most people to understand, especially from a motor coordination point.
Ever heard the phrase –
“Walk before you try and run”. This couldn’t be more true with all forms of strength training, but especially with eccentric training.
The movement should look smooth throughout. If you’re moving the bar slowly at first as you lower into a squat and then all of a sudden drop at the last minute – you won’t receive the true benefits.
Maintaining control throughout the course of the whole movement is essential. This is obviously going to be much harder in the most stretched portion of the movement, but that’s where the fun begins!
Research has shown that something often referred to as, “over-speed eccentrics”, in which you perform the eccentric contraction in a rapid manner, actually increases the force produced (14).
However, it takes a hell of a lot of skill to maintain tension and move rapidly. So, I almost never recommend this method (unless you’re highly trained) and instead prescribe a much more controlled duration.
The research itself is relatively ambiguous and I won’t dive into that too much at this point (considering the wealth of references above, chances are that’s enough science for today). However, you want to focus on the relationship between duration and fatigue.
It’s a common mistake people make when using/focusing on eccentrics or tempo. They slow down way too much and end up not using a load that is actually overloading their maximal strength.
Anywhere between 3-6 seconds is recommended and has been used within most of the studies quoted above.
If you’re using machine work in isolation exercises or body weight exercises, you can use two limbs to lift and one to lower.
Think about a leg extension machine – use two to extend, then take pressure off one leg and lower with only one.
Or a body-weight squat to a box – use two legs to stand up, then perform a single leg/pistol squat down to the box.
A great video demonstration of this is given here by Dr. Joel Seedman.
I can’t count how many times I’ve lost count of people falling into the bottom of the squat like they’ve just been launched from an aeroplane. Or people more or less drop the bar to their chest on bench press and wonder why they can’t lift it back up.
Simply being aware of and controlling the eccentric phase of the movement (although it won’t provide huge amounts of overload eccentrically) can help you receive many of the benefits this type of training has to offer.
Eccentric training isn’t for everyone. Everyone can benefit, but for significantly different reasons.
Jon Mallon has spent every waking moment developing his understanding of the body’s capabilities. He has an undying passion for all things strength, with his extensive knowledge from coaching hundreds of clients, to his 1st Class BSc Sports Science and MSc Strength and Conditioning, paving the way to deliver results directly to you. He has been a strength and conditioning coach for a variety of sports from amateur boxing to professional rugby, providing him with the art of coaching required to deliver the science of training. Jon's current areas of focus involve comprehensive postural analysis, neurological strength and evolutionary biology.
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