Not everyone likes to focus on eccentric contractions, but this style of training deserves more attention because it may be a “secret weapon” for creating healthier joints and a long, lean body. Research reveals the perks for newcomers and well-trained athletes.
An eccentric muscle action occurs as an opposition force in response to a concentric (shortening) action, in order to protect joint structures from damage (Bubbico & Kravitz 2010). It’s our braking system—how we decelerate (think of lowering the dumbbell during a biceps curl). Here are five ways clients can benefit from including eccentric contractions in workouts.
1. Alternative to Stretching
If a client loves or swears by stretching, they don’t have to stop, but some research is showing that stretching may not be all it’s cracked up to be (Kolata 2008). That’s good news for people who hate stretching; for example, some men and avid runners. Anne Tierney, cocreator of Ki-Hara Resistance Stretching, helped to develop a practice that involves stretching against resistance. Stretching may create weaknesses in the targeted muscle and perhaps the joint, tendons and ligaments (Shrier 2005). However, if you activate the muscle when it’s long and work against resistance to lengthen the muscle, you can increase range of motion and maintain strength at the same time (Nelson & Bandy 2004). To practice resistance stretching on your hamstring, place your straightened leg on a chair in front of you at a comfortable height. Instead of bending forward or reaching for your toes, press down through the back of your leg to engage the hamstring.
2. Faster Strength Gains
Muscles are stronger eccentrically than concentrically, which means you can theoretically work through plateaus (Bubbico & Kravitz 2010). For example, if clients can’t yet do a pull-up or a push-up, progress them eccentrically. Have them start at the top of the pull-up and lower down with control. The same goes for the push-up. Cue them to slowly lower the body closer to the floor or wall. They will be making progress, because eccentric contractions will actually make them stronger concentrically (Doan et al. 2002). If a client can’t do a full roll-up, cue the exercise in reverse. Many people who can’t roll up can roll down with control. Knowing they can do the move eccentrically helps break down the mental block of a seemingly unconquerable exercise while also prepping the muscles to do it. This doesn’t mean you should completely forgo concentric contractions. You can see even more gains by combining contractions.
3. Joint Health and Safety
Have you ever had a client complain about knee pain after downhill skiing or squats? Tierney explains that this is a sign of being weak eccentrically. To hold a squat position, especially when downhill momentum is added, an individual needs strong, long quads. Get “long and strong” and joints will ache less when challenged in this way. Pilates is great for this because it incorporates very few held stretches. Pilates also puts the body under load when a muscle is lengthened. If your clients are scared to do squats because of knee pain, help them build up to doing squats safely so they can maintain lifelong mobility. If they can’t do a squat, they can’t get up and down out of a chair or in and out of a car. Squats are practical; focusing on the eccentric portion is a functional way to build strength and joint stability.
4. Reduced Risk of Injury
Some fitness professionals don’t teach nonathletes moves that focus on eccentric contraction because they increase delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), but studies show that DOMS increases only at first (Hackney, Engles & Gretebeck 2008). With regular eccentric movements, individuals become less sore and even recover faster from a workout. Jules Mitchell, MS, ERYT 500, who has extensively researched the effects of stretching, recommends that fitness and wellness professionals progress slowly, and perhaps even start with isometric contractions at a client’s current end range of motion.
Functional movements of daily life require eccentric control (think walking downstairs or downhill). It may be beneficial to work the hamstrings eccentrically when the hip is flexed and the knee is extended, especially for runners and anyone who kicks a ball (soccer players or people who play in kickball leagues). Since we are stronger eccentrically, these workouts require less effort, produce less cardiovascular strain and create options for beginners.
5. Increased Metabolism
If a client is primarily interested in burning fat, she may want to focus on eccentric contractions. Research shows that this could increase her metabolism for up to 72 hours after a workout (Hackney, Engles & Gretebeck 2008). Simply slow the workout down by emphasizing eccentric control, using a 3-to-1 ratio for enhanced postworkout return. For example, when lifting weights, take 1 second to shorten the muscle and 3 seconds to lengthen it.
Eccentric exercise is a perfect way to enhance existing program design, work around plateaus and boost injury prevention for specific activities. Learn more about this style of training and implement it confidently with clients.