Stronger, Bigger, and more Flexible? Do Eccentric Lifts

Go to any gym, and you will find athletes doing work to gain

1) Strength
2) Size
3) Flexibility
4) Combination of the above.

What you don’t see very often is athletes training with eccentric lifts. They should be. Eccentrics are awesome (and super hard). They should have a place in any training regimen. Keep reading to see why.

What is a Eccentric Training?  

Here’s what the book says:

“An eccentric contraction occurs when the muscle is forcibly lengthened or elongated. Put another way, an eccentric contraction results when the force produced inside the muscle is less than what is applied to the muscle externally and results in active lengthening of the muscle fibers under some level of load” (NSCA Essentials of Personal Training)

What does that mean? Imagine you’re about to do a Back Squat. You start in the standing position, and begin to lower yourself by initiating the squatting movement. This is the eccentric portion of the lift. Your muscles are lengthened (feel that stretching sensation?). You hit parallel or below, and then begin to raise the barbell back to standing. This is the contraction portion of the lift.

The same applies for any movement. You lower the weight on a dumbbell curl - that’s the eccentric portion. You bring it back up - that’s the contraction portion.

This also applies to jumping, sprinting, throwing, and all other explosive natural bodyweight movements. Notice when you jump, you first lower your hips a bit before launching upwards? That little dip is the eccentric portion of the movement, and where the majority of your power comes from.

Got it? Good.

Poliquin and Eccentrics Translated

Below is the transcript from an article from Charles Poliquin’s website. Charles Poliquin is a strength and conditioning guru. He and his staff have trained numerous Olympians, bodybuilders, and pro athletes. When he talks (or writes), I listen (or read). 

His writing is geared towards strength and conditioning coach’s, so some of the terms and language might be lost in translation. Below each point from the original article, I’ve provided a ‘translation’ that might help it be more understandable.

1. You are stronger eccentrically. You are stronger during the eccentric phase of any lift—as much as 1.75 times as strong as during the concentric phase! This is why you can lower more weight in the bench press or deadlift than you can raise. As such, to overload a muscle eccentrically you must use a longer eccentric contraction or use more weight than you can lift concentrically.

Translation: Picture yourself finding a 1-Rep Max for the Back Squat. Bringing the weight down is relatively easy in comparison to lifting it back up to the standing position. You’re still controlling the load during the eccentric phase just as you are during the concentric phase, but you are stronger during the lowering (or eccentric) phase.

2.  The eccentric phase of every lift should be performed under control. For strength and mass gains, you never want to ignore the eccentric motion of an exercise and let the weight fall with gravity. Lower the weight in a controlled fashion and follow a prescribed tempo (a specific number of seconds to lower the weight).

Translation: As the author will state below, the eccentric training protocol calls for lowering the weight in 4-6 seconds. To make it simple, just count to 5 as you lower the weight. Once you hit the bottom of the lift, lift the weight back quickly in an explosive manner. This is can be painful, but in the best kind of way.

3. Eccentric-enhanced lifting creates greater hypertrophy than conventional training. By programming the eccentric motion of your exercises, you can achieve the greatest muscle growth by making certain you have the right intensity of load and the ideal time under tension to cause maximal muscle fiber damage. Studies suggest that protein synthesis is greatest after eccentric-enhanced lifting. For example, a simple way to pack on more muscle is to use a longer tempo for the eccentric motion (4 to 6 seconds) with an explosive or 1-second concentric motion.
In studies comparing eccentric-only and concentric-only training, eccentric-only is far superior for producing hypertrophy. This is because the eccentric motion damages the myofibers and it preferentially recruits fast-twitch fibers. This means there is a greater amount of stress per motor unit with eccentric exercises, producing greater muscle growth.
In contrast, concentric-only training doesn’t lead to significant hypertrophy. One study had males perform concentric-only or eccentric-only training using 4 to 6 sets of 8 to 12 reps, 3 times a week. At the end of 12 weeks, slow-twitch fibers didn’t increase in either group. But the fast-twitch type II fibers increased 10 times more in the eccentric-only group than the concentric-only group! However, research suggests that the best stimulus for hypertrophy is training that uses both the eccentric and concentric motions but favors the eccentric motion.

 Translation: Basically, dudes got bigger doing eccentrics in a hypertrophy program (hypertrophy = 8-12 rep range at sub-maximal load) compared to a regular lifting program. .

Want to train strength with eccentrics? Start with 80% of your 1RM for 1-5 reps, for 4-5 sets. 5 second drop for each rep. Take ample rest between sets. Over a period of several weeks (depending on number of strength training sessions), work up to 85% 1RM, then 90%. I wouldn’t recommend going over 90% - I’ve tried and it wasn’t doable.

4. Eccentric contractions use less energy than concentric contractions. An eccentric contraction requires less energy (or ATP) to complete than a concentric contraction. This is important because it means you can perform more work eccentrically, which has implications for body composition, strength, and size gains.
Manipulating the use of energy and ATP breakdown is an important component of maximal muscle growth. Let’s say you are performing a set of squats with a heavy load and are nearing concentric-failure—for example, a load that is 85 percent of your squat 1RM and you are on the 6th rep of 8. Your muscles are running out of energy. You are close to being unable to sustain the contraction and lift the weight out of the squat. Upon reaching fatigue, the fibers physically “lock up” due to insufficient ATP, and if an eccentric action is then performed, small tears occur in the muscle, requiring muscle remodeling and growth.
These ideas are encouraging, but consider that there are additional factors at play than just the depletion of ATP for triggering high levels of protein synthesis after eccentric training. The anabolic response and the activation of gene pathways appear to play a role, and there may still be other unidentified mechanisms as well.

Translation: ATP is your primary energy fuel for a short duration. Less energy expended on a lift allows for more work. More work creates a positive adaption from your body in the form of muscle strengthening and/or growth.

5. Heavy negatives and force reps increase exercise intensity. The locking up and tearing of muscle fibers is not the only reason eccentric training is superior for hypertrophy. Heavy negatives and forced reps allow you to train at a higher intensity, thus producing greater stress and adaptation. These methods also trigger an anabolic response.
For example, heavy negatives are performed with an above maximal concentric load—one that is 20 to 50 percent greater than your concentric 1RM. An ideal way to do this is with eccentric hooks that add weight, which you put on the end of a barbell. You lower the extra load using a prescribed tempo (4 seconds, for example), the hooks drop off when they hit the floor, and you raise the weight with the lighter load.
Studies show heavy negatives will produce greater motor unit recruitment, more protein synthesis, and a greater increase in insulin-like growth factor-1 than if lighter eccentric loads were used. Forced reps will also recruit more motor units and lead to more growth hormone release. To perform them, choose a load that is heavier than normal for the given number of repetitions. For example, for a program that includes 4 sets of 8, identify the maximal load you can perform for 8 reps and then increase that load by 5 or 10 percent. Perform your intended 8 reps with the heavier load and use a spotter when you reach concentric failure to eek out a few more for a better anabolic response.

Translation: Your pancreas releases insulin (and other stuff) in response to the stress of lifting. Insulin allows for muscle growth. These are good things. Eccentric training increases intensity, with a positive effect on your hormonal response and adaptation. 

6. Eccentric-enhanced training increases concentric power. A proven benefit to doing fast eccentric training is greater concentric power. One study found that eccentric-enhanced training enables you to produce more power for sports such as football, rugby, lacrosse, and boxing. It also provides variety to combat boredom for the recreational trainee.
This study used college athletes and tested the effect of using different eccentric loads with a set concentric load of 40 kg in the bench throw.  Eccentric hooks were used on the barbell to test loads of 40, 60, 70, and 80 kg for the eccentric motion. The hooks dropped off at the bottom. Then the athletes explosively bench pressed or “threw” a 40 kg bar and power output was measured. Results showed that the heavier eccentric loads (60, 70, and 80 kg) allowed the athletes to produced greater concentric power than the 40 kg load. The greatest concentric acceleration was produced with the heaviest 80 kg load.  
The researchers suggested the athletes were able to produce more power with the heavier eccentric load because lowering a greater weight increases muscle tension and cross-bridging of fibers. Also, as expressed relative to the athletes 1RM bench press, the eccentric load that led to the best bench throw for the 40 kg load was 66 percent of the athletes’ 1RM bench throw.

Translation: Eccentric training carries over to overall performance for athletes. This is part of the stretch shortening cycle. Think of your muscle(s) as a spring. You compress the spring, and you get a big reaction when the tension is released. This applies to sprinting, jumping, throwing, etc. Eccentric force is the main driver of movement in the human body.

7. Fast eccentrics produce the most hypertrophy. Fast eccentric actions cause more protein synthesis and muscle damage than slower eccentrics. They also stimulate gene-signaling pathways and activate satellite cells, which participate in muscle growth.
It’s all fairly technical, but it comes down to eccentric magic—you will get bigger if you train this way. For example, one study compared an 8-week power training program using 30 to 60 percent of the 1RM with a traditional strength program using 70 to 85 percent of the 1RM.  The programs weren’t eccentric-enhanced, but they did include the eccentric and concentric action.
Results showed that the power training group had a much greater increase in type II muscle fibers than the traditional program. Researchers think this is because the fast eccentric motion of the power protocol activated gene signaling and greater protein synthesis while recruiting distinct muscle fibers that aren’t used during slower movements.

Translation: Type II muscle fibers move you fast. Type I moves you slowly. A marathon runner is predominantly Type I, while a sprinter is predominantly Type II. Genetics play a role in this, but you can train to develop and improve Type II muscle fibers (or vice versa). Eccentrics will help develop those Type II muscles.

8. Apply fast eccentrics with complex training to get bigger and stronger. One of the best ways to apply fast eccentrics is to perform complex training in which you do a heavy strength exercise followed immediately by a fast power exercise. For example, perform squats at 85 percent of the 1RM followed by vertical jumps. In addition to activating the high-threshold motor units on the heavy, slower lift, your performance in the power exercise will benefit from pre-activation by the heavy load. Hang cleans followed by squat jumps are another option.

Translation: Fast eccentrics is just a way of saying plyometric movements, like a box jump. Complex training uses a heavy barbell exercise, followed by an unloaded or very light explosive movement. This is a principle of Post-Activation Potentiation (PAP), that basically has proven that you will be able to recruit more motor units for an explosive movement (jumping) after utilizing a heavy exercise (back squat), and therefore jump higher.  

9. Eccentric-enhanced training strengthens tendons. Eccentric training is well known for strengthening tendons. Just like eccentric training is a robust stimulus for muscle growth, it also rebuilds tendon tissue. Eccentric training is commonly used to rehabilitate ruptured tendons, but including eccentric training in your program can help you prevent such a debilitating injury.
From an athletic standpoint, consider that tendons don’t act like steel cables, but rather as springs that contribute to the storage and release of energy. For a sprinter who needs to increase their stride length to run faster, they must use functions of the tendons to enable them apply more force into the ground.

Translation: Tendon strengthening applies to all forms of strength training. I’m not sure eccentric training is any more beneficial than a normal concentric lifting program for tendon strengthening, but it’s all good for you in relation to injury prevention and durability.

10. Eccentric training increases flexibility. Eccentric training has been shown to be one of the very best methods for increasing flexibility. It’s much more effective than static stretching, and a new analysis found that eccentrics can increase hip range-of-motion by an average of 22 percent.  Range-of-motion in all joints measured was found to increase by at least 13 degrees.
Eccentric training works for increasing mobility because it causes muscle fiber growth, increasing the sarcomeres in series within a muscle, meaning the muscle becomes longer and you get more flexible! Just about everyone wants to be more flexible, and the more technical lifts require a large degree of flexibility to perform them correctly. If your deep squat, deadlift, power clean, or front squat technique suffer due to poor flexibility in the ankles, hips, shoulders, or wrists, you won’t be able to get the most out of your training—and you’ll look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Eccentric training is the solution.

Translation: Eccentric strength training is the lengthening of the muscles, just like a normal stretch lengthens the muscle. Makes sense that by adding weight, the outcome in flexibility would be great. It won’t make you a Yoga stud or really good at one of those stripper pole fitness classes, but it’s a great tool especially for those of us who don’t have time to spend 45 minutes on stretching/mobility drills every day.

Additional Notes

  • Eccentric strength training is brutal and can lead to some serious soreness - like, I can’t sit down on the toilet sore. If you decide to implement eccentric strength training, start conservative. If you’ve never done it before, 70% of your 1RM is a good starting point for basic strength work. Progression is the name of the game - don’t jump into the deep end if you can’t swim.

  • Use common sense in exercise selection. Big compound movements like the Back Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, and Weighted Pull Ups are great for eccentrics. You can also implement isolation exercises for hypertrophy (growing big muscles) work.... Curls for girls, tricep extensions, or targeted quadricep/hamstring work so people stop laughing at your chicken legs.

  • Use a spotter. Seriously.

-Charlie

This article “10 Things You Must Know About Eccentric Training” was originally published by the Poliquin Group. I highly recommend you check them out.