Eccentric training will catapult strength and athletic performance to a new level if used appropriately. In order to lift a weight, muscular force must exceed the downward force of a load. The opposite occurs when you lower a weight – motor units are turned off until the downward force of the load is greater than the muscular force acting upon it. With less motor units active, greater tension and more damage occurs to the remaining muscle fibers, which prompts hypertrophy (LaStayo et al., 2003b; Ridgely, 2004).
One of the drawbacks of eccentric training deals with the extreme soreness that follows (Schwane et al., 1983; Zatsiorsky, 1995). A higher level of stress is imposed on the body and more time is required for recovery. In many cases, it takes as much as a week or more for full recovery from a bout of eccentric training (Fleck & Kraemer, 1987; Fridén et al., 1983). Therefore, an adequate base is necessary – at least two years of training experience is recommended before commencing pure eccentric work (Bompa, 1993; Poliquin, 1988).
Eccentric loading can be reduced and even eliminated with the use of elastic assistance (e.g., reverse-band setup), sleds, medicine balls, partner assistance, and in some cases by dropping the bar if using bumper plates. A useful method for beginners to avoid muscle soreness altogether involves introducing eccentrics in a progressive manner as demonstrated below.
Week 1 – 100% concentric, 0% eccentric
Week 2 – 100% concentric, 50% eccentric
Week 3 – 100% concentric, 100% eccentric (normal ratio)
For example, assume a beginner was to perform 2 sets of the seated cable pulldown exercise. During the first week, the trainee will pull the bar to their chest (the concentric action) while their partner returns the bar to the initial position (the eccentric action) for every repetition of both sets. During the second week, the trainee performs both the concentric and eccentric action for the first set only; the second set is conducted with partner assistance on the eccentric action. During the third week and on, the trainee now performs both the concentric and eccentric action for every repetition of both sets. Dr. Tudor Bompa (1999), considered by many as the father of periodization, believes this strategy will help personal trainers retain new clients since it deters soreness!
For advanced trainees, eccentric training can be implemented. This method involves multiple sets (4-6) of low repetitions (1-6) with supramaximal loads (105-175% 1RM); however, the time of lowering is critical. On average, the weight should be lowered for 6-8 seconds if you are performing multiple reps, or as long as 10 seconds if you perform only 1 repetition (Schmidtbleicher, 2005). For safety purposes, terminate the set if the speed of lowering drops below 6 seconds – the chance for injury at this point is high (McGuff & Little, 2009; Poliquin in Luoma, 1996; Thibaudeau, 2004). As Olympic weightlifting coach and competitor Charles Staley (2002) puts it: “if I place a 10-pound weight on your foot, no problem. But, if I drop that weight on your foot, big problem!”
Only one body part per program should be trained in this manner. Eccentrics are very stressful to the nervous system and greater recovery is necessary (up to 7-10 days between workouts) (Vorobyev, 1978). One way to accomplish this is to alternate eccentric training with conventional training so that it is performed every other workout for that body part (Poliquin in Luoma, 1996; Poliquin, 1988).
Eccentric training is a very advanced technique and should not be taken lightly. The trainee as well as the spotter(s) require full concentration.
Here are three methods of eccentric training:
Based on my experience, the last method is the most practical but does require the use of machines in many cases. One exception involves chin-ups where you lift with two arms and lower with one arm; however, most trainees will need to use a Gravitron machine to perform this correctly (Jones, n.d.).
Weight releasers consist of hooks with angled bases that can be loaded with weight plates and attached to each end of a barbell. These devices allow more weight to be lowered during the eccentric phase of a lift. At the bottom of the movement, the hooks detach from the bar resulting in less weight being raised during the concentric phase (Doan et al., 2002; Ivanov et al., 1978; Kowalcyk, 1989; Thibaudeau, 2004; Verkhoshansky, 2006). To reduce the potential for injury, start with a conservative load and increase the weight gradually (LaStayo et al., 2003a).
There is probably no better example of “the greater the risk, the greater the reward” in strength training than the use of weight releasers. Although weight releasers can cause injury when used inappropriately, they can be quite useful to rehabilitate an injury when used appropriately! For instance, after a knee injury, squatting with an empty bar and loaded weight releasers is a great method to regain strength quickly. Perform 6-12 sets of only 1 repetition, and take 10 seconds to lower the weight each set (Poliquin, 2000). The key is to start with light loads and increase the weight gradually and progressively (LaStayo et al., 2003a).
Finally, partner resistance (also known as a forced negative) is quite effective but not always practical, especially if you train alone. However, there are certain “solo” applications. During a concentration curl, for example, the free hand can provide resistance during the eccentric action and assistance during the concentric action. Always search for the highest practicality in the least amount of time with your training, and make the best with what you have available!
Note: This is an excerpt from Catanzaro’s book, The Elite Trainer: Strength Training for the Serious Professional, available online at www.TheEliteTrainer.com.
About The Author
John Paul Catanzaro, BSc Kin, CSEP-CEP, is a CSEP Certified Exercise Physiologist with a Specialized Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and Health Science. He owns and operates a private gym in Richmond Hill, Ontario providing training and nutritional consulting services. For additional information, visit his website at www.CatanzaroGroup.com or call 905-780-9908.
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