“Eccentric exercises are important to add as part of your routine to reduce your risk of injury by improving your ability to decelerate movement and stabilize a load properly”
Whether you are a veteran weightlifter, a newbie beginning a basic strength routine, or an athlete/runner looking to improve your performance, there are a couple of components you may be lacking from your current strength training routine. In this article, I will make the case for why you should be more eccentric. By being more eccentric I don’t mean mowing your lawn in a Batman costume or hoarding Elvis memorabilia, I mean incorporating more eccentric exercises. While spelled the same, the word is generally pronounced “EE-sen-trick” in the medical/fitness world instead of the more commonly recognized “IK-cen-trick.” An eccentric exercise involves lengthening of a muscle while it is contracted. An example would be a slow and controlled lowering of something. Performing an eccentric exercise requires greater stabilization and typically greater muscle recruitment because of the lack of momentum or elastic recoil. These increased demands result in greater microtearing of the muscle relative to a standard concentric exercise (contracting and shortening of the muscle). While in the short term this can lead to more intense DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), in the long-term it can lead to greater strength gains and muscles/tendons that are more resilient to strains or tearing. Muscles must work eccentrically to decelerate a movement and/or absorb impact. In order to prepare for these motions, it is important to work on them both as isolated movements and coordinated movement patterns all while emphasizing proper trunk and limb alignment.
Some of the more popular exercise programs such as CrossFit or HIIT have very little, if any, emphasis on eccentric exercises. CrossFit and HIIT tend to focus on speed and number of repetitions. While there is benefit to faster and more explosive movements for developing speed, power, coordination, and muscular endurance this should not be at the exclusion of eccentric exercises. As a therapist I always like to see that someone can control a movement, or a similar movement, slowly before incorporating speed. This would mean working on eccentric deadlifts prior to beginning cleans, working on strict eccentric pullups before attempting kipping, working on eccentric lunges and overhead presses before attempting the clean and jerk, or working on eccentric pushups before attempt burpees. If you fail to develop the stability to control these movements before attempting to lift heavy and fast, your risk of injury will increase substantially.
We cannot always do real life activities with fast explosive movements. If you are helping a neighbor move, they probably would not appreciate you slamming their things down like you do your bumper plates. If you are climbing down a ladder carrying tools, you want to be able to control this slowly so that you don’t fall or drop something. Likewise, when hiking down a precarious boulder field you want to be able to lower yourself slowly until you know the footing is stable. I recently found myself having to carefully lower myself down from an attic onto a short ladder via a deep dip. If I had only worked on doing dips as fast as possible, this might have been a risky maneuver. Runners also need to have good eccentric control of their ankles, knees, and hips when striking the ground. Many running related injuries are a result of not being able to control the eccentric load that happens when landing every foot strike on the ground.
On the other side of the spectrum, Yoga and Pilates typically involve static holds, slow dynamic movements with no load, or small range pulses. These components can be helpful for balance, basic stability, mobility, and proprioception but they are often lacking in dynamic control through a functional movement pattern. In other words, they don’t always prepare you sufficiently for real life activities. These programs should be supplemented with eccentric exercises through larger motions and with more load.
So why aren’t more people doing eccentric exercises? I believe this can be for a few reasons. First off, doing slow controlled motions usually means doing lighter weight because it is harder to compensate. Doing slower, lighter lifts is not nearly as impressive or post worthy (if you are into that sort of thing). If we are honest with ourselves, we like to push our boundaries based on what others around us are doing or what someone we look up to recently accomplished. This often leads to attempting heavier weight and/or more repetitions than we can control properly. Another reason might be that people are not aware of the benefits of eccentric exercise. Hopefully this article will help to illuminate some of the benefits for performance enhancement and injury reduction. There is also the additional benefit of eccentric exercises in recovering from tendinopathies. Most chronic tendon injuries result in degeneration and remodeling of the tendon versus strictly inflammation of the tendon. When done correctly, eccentric exercises can help to remodel the tendon to decrease pain and reduce the risk of a tendon tear or rupture.
What is the best way to incorporate eccentric exercises? There are many ways to go about adding eccentric exercises. One method I like to incorporate is the pyramid method. The pyramid method involves starting off with light weight [or body weight] and working on lowering down very slowly [over 3-5 seconds]. The starting weight should be approximately a 15 repetition maximum (RM) or a weight that can be lifted AT MOST 15 times. With each set speed is increased slightly and load is increased up to a 3-5RM. The lifting up [concentric] portion during these lifts can be done quickly. After reaching a 3-5RM lift, gradually work down to lighter loads and slower lowering. This might involve 7 total sets of the same exercise (3 up, 1 at 3-5RM, 3 down). As mentioned previously, you should work on establishing a good foundation with eccentric exercise before developing your explosive movements. Start by working in a small range of motion that is easy to control properly. Gradually increase your range of motion as this becomes easier. While doing eccentric exercises does not guarantee that your movement will be correct when you add speed and fatigue, it can help you be more capable of correcting an error or unexpected change in direction or load. Lastly, very specific eccentrics can be used to recover from or prevent an injury by working directly on the injured area or indirectly on a supporting muscle. This last method should be done under the supervision of a therapist that specializes in your activity, especially if you have pain or a history of multiple injuries.
In summary, eccentric exercises are important to add as part of your routine to reduce your risk of injury by improving your ability to decelerate movement and stabilize a load properly. Focus on lowering slowly over 3-5 seconds with proper form. Do the exercises in a range of motion that you can control correctly. Start small and increase the range of motion as you are able. Eccentric exercises are also important for tendon health and resilience and can help remodel a degenerated tendon when implemented properly.
Stay tuned for a deeper dive into the current research on eccentric training including how it works, what it works for, and how to best implement it. If you want help getting started on an appropriate strength routine or if you need to refine your current routine to maximize your effectiveness, contact one of our therapists.