Getting stronger is a science. Although it’s fun to think you can walk in to a gym, turn “beast mode” on and thrash around plates in a destructive manner, the reality is that 99% of us don’t have the genetics to simply lift more each session. To see your weights go up, you have to have a firm understanding of set concepts and principles behind biomechanics, physiology and programming so that you don’t become unstuck. If you don’t, it’s very important that the person who is coaching you does.
Before we begin, let’s cover the basics and explain what exactly eccentric training is. During most lifts, there will be two moving components; lifting the weight, the concentric phase and lowering the weight, the eccentric phase. All strength sports and demonstrations of strength are geared around concentric strength, i.e. how much you can lift. Therefore it’s easy to see why eccentric training gets overlooked.
Furthermore, due to prolonged time under tension, eccentric training becomes less appealing in the hypertrophy world due to the fact the accumulation of fatigue means you cannot use as much weight. The most common mistake I see in the gym is when guys use weights that are far too heavy for them, resulting in what only can be describe as a drop down followed by a sometimes excruciating fight to press it back up. This is not a safe nor effective way to train.
Consider the table below derived from the EliteFTS website. Here it states the ideal time under tension based on the goal.
When explaining the theory behind programming I repeat constantly “What is the goal of the set?”. Programme design complexity can become almost irrelevant if you have no idea why or what you are trying to achieve. Fact of the matter is, most guys in the gym are looking to put on size. Therefore Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is their objective. This requires around 40 seconds of time under tension.
So what impact does Eccentric training have on strength?
The relationship between eccentric and concentric strength is critical in programme design. By comparing the ratio of these numbers, you will be able to identify where weaknesses lie and how to improve performance. According to various literature, you will be able to eccentrically lift anywhere from 20-40% of your one rep max. So in other words, if your bench press is 100 kilos, you may be able to lower 140 kilos safely to your chest in a power rack.
Say this test of strength is mediated via a tempo. So for example, the trainee will unrack a supra maximal load and lower it to pins at chest height with a 4 second eccentric tempo. Once the eccentric tempo cannot be adhered to, you have found the maximal eccentric weight that can be lifted. This data can then give you an idea on how eccentric training can be programmed.
What we have here, is information that shows the eccentric to concentric ratio deficit. Eccentric strength is an indication of concentric strength potential. Therefore, the more you can lower with good tempo and form, the more you’ll be able to lift concentrically. If a trainee can only eccentrically lower 10% more of their one rep max, it’d be advisable to include lots of slow eccentric tempos in their programme to correct this deficiency.
One of the most common things I hear as a trainer is “I don’t usually do it that slow”. As soon as I add a tempo to an exercise, it’s commonly met with a readjustment of ego and realising that the weight has to be reduced. Truth be told, barely anyone I’ve trained has ever used a proper tempo before.
The change in form is also accompanied by the trainee then explaining how they’ve never felt a muscle like that before, as they get up and feel their chest post set. If a guy comes in and says he can bench press 80kg for 10 reps, I will always start with 50-60kg and a 4010 tempo to see if they can actually lift properly.
I can’t remember exactly who said it, but I’m a fan of the quote “If you can’t do something slow then you can’t do it fast”. I like this idea as it transfers well into the strength world and especially eccentric training. In my opinion, a lot of poor technique is masked by doing something with too much momentum. This is especially true in the squat and bench press.
The way I see it, eccentric strength means control, control means confidence. This ties in well with an extremely important aspect of lifting which is, “you control the weight, don’t let the weight control you”. Eccentric training will increase your ability to handle high intensity weights but also with better form.
What does the science say?
I think training must be an even mix of scientific evidence and in the trenches experience. I’ve had lots of training experience in how it works, so this is what the research says.
Munger et al. (2017) found that performing supra maximal eccentrics potentiated concentric strength by increasing speed at 90% intensity in the front squat. Although it is not directly applicable to the time under tension principle explained earlier, it does show the usefulness in this tool for increasing lifting speed.
Wirth et al. (2015) found that eccentric training was effective in increasing strength and force production, however, this study was carried out using a 45 degree leg press as the indicator lift, so in my opinion, doesn’t count. I’m a much bigger fan of research where compound movements such as squats and deadlifts are used, rather then machines or isometric exercises. Higbic et al. (1996) looked in to the effects of eccentric and concentric training on muscular size and neural activation. The conclusion was that concentric training makes you better at concentric training, whereas eccentric training makes you better at eccentric training. So in other words, you get good at what you train at. Neither bare much eye opening conclusions.
Perhaps more relevant research was Vikne et al.’s work on muscle and performance parameters in the elbow flexors (2006). This study suggests that increases in concentric strength and velocity may be attributed to the change in cross sectional muscle area produced by eccentric training. The improvements may not be solely due to hypertrophic reasons as it is thought that a neural element will impact these results as well.
The best reasoning I could find to utilise eccentric training was Kelly et al’s (2015) research in to eccentric training’s effect on bench pressing strength. The study found that eccentric strength had a better effect on increasing rep performance at 90% max intensity in comparison to concentric only training. The benefits were not as prominent for lower intensities though with there being little differences in improvements at 60-80% max. This may suggest that eccentric training is better suited for strength than hypertrophy gains.
Putting it all together. Programme design
I first learnt about the theory of eccentric training and programme design from Winning Performance 3 and half years ago. During this internship, I was told that eccentric training has a potentiation effect which takes anywhere from 4-8 weeks to kick in. I was unable to find the study that corroborated this claim, however I can say I have found this to be the case when designing both my own and my client’s programmes.
This is a basic example of what my coach has prescribed for me and what I have used myself on several occasions.
Weeks 1-2: Accumulation 1
A1) Back Squat – 5 x 4-6 reps – 4010 tempo (100)
A2) Lying Leg Curl – 5 x 4-6 reps – 4010 tempo (100)
Weeks 3-4: Intensification 1
A) Back Squat – 10 x 1 (week 3), 8 x 1 (week 4) – 10,010 tempo (180)
Weeks 5-6: Accumulation 2
A1) Back Squat – 5 x 3-5 reps – 4010 tempo (100)
A2) Lying Leg Curl – 5 x 3-5 reps – 4010 tempo (100)
Weeks 7-8: Intensification 2
A) Back Squat w/eccentric hooks – 10 x 1 (week 7), 8 x 1 (week 8) – 10,010 tempo (180)
Weeks 9-10: Accumulation 3
A) Back Squat – 4 x 2-4 reps – 4010 tempo (150)
Weeks 11-12: Intensification 3
A) Back Squat – 6 x 5,5,4,4,3,3 – 30X0 tempo (180)
Week 13: DELOAD
Week 14: Re-Test 1RM
In this programme, you can see all the principles in this article are addressed. The first exposure to eccentric training is 10-11 weeks away from testing, the second is 6-7 weeks away. In my opinion, this gives enough time for the neural adaptions from training to properly engrain themselves and provide a potentiation effect to make you stronger. As Munger (2017) found, using supra maximal weights has a profound effect on concentric speed and strength. This shows why eccentric hooks are such an effective tool when used in conjunction with slow tempos.
Constantly using slow tempos will lead to the law of diminishing returns. You may get good at one component of training, but in doing so neglect other aspects which are equally, if not more important. At the end of the day, strength sports are all about how much you can lift, not lower. Therefore eccentrics are useful for when 16-24 weeks out from a comp, but maybe not as much when it comes to peaking 4-8 weeks before a meet. Furthermore, although it is good to be strength potential builds endurance, slow eccentrics are not something I would over utilise if I were to be doing a rep event. In that case lactate accumulation would be more so the goal.
Like all other training methodologies, everything has it’s place. Eccentric training is a excellent, yet overlooked protocol in a lot of coaches arsenals. It can build strength, muscle and mental fortitude as well as providing new and exciting training programmes to try. Rather than just take my word for it though, why not try a training phase with that above suggestions and see how you respond.
1. Higbic, E., Curelon, K., Warren, G. and Prior, B. (1994). 172 EFFECTS OF CONCENTRIC AND ECCENTRIC ISOKINETIC TRAINING ON MUSCLE STRENGTH, CROSS-SECTIONAL AREA AND NEURAL ACTIVATION. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 26(Supplement), p.S31.
2. Kelly, S., Brown, L., Hooker, S., Swan, P., Buman, M., Alvar, B. and Black, L. (2015). Comparison of Concentric and Eccentric Bench Press Repetitions to Failure. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(4), pp.1027-1032.
3. Munger, C., Archer, D., Leyva, W., Wong, M., Coburn, J., Costa, P. and Brown, L. (2017). Acute Effects of Eccentric Overload on Concentric Front Squat Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(5), pp.1192-1197.
4. Verkhoshansky, Y. and Siff, M. (2009). Supertraining. Rome, Italy: Verkhoshansky.
5. VIKNE, H., REFSNES, P., EKMARK, M., MEDB??, J., GUNDERSEN, V. and GUNDERSEN, K. (2006). Muscular Performance after Concentric and Eccentric Exercise in Trained Men. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 38(10), pp.1770-1781.
6. Wirth, K., Keiner, M., Szilvas, E., Hartmann, H. and Sander, A. (2015). Effects of Eccentric Strength Training on Different Maximal Strength and Speed-Strength Parameters of the Lower Extremity. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(7), pp.1837-1845.