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An Important Ingredient That Might Be Missing From Your Workouts

How developing Eccentric Strength can improve your functional fitness and balance

We are all familiar with the experience of lifting a heavy object whether that’s a twenty-pound shopping bag, a forty-pound child, or a sixty-pound rucksack. The lifting of any of these requires a certain amount strength. But, so does lowering them. When we think of lifting weights, we often envision an athlete raising a weighted barbell. We seldom think too much about the lowering of that barbell. But, that aspect of our training, eccentric strength or the controlled release or lowering of a load, is a critical and often overlooked element of functional fitness and balance.

 

Eccentric strength in the mountains…

Paul and Julie hiking in the White Mountains

Paul and Julie hiking in the White Mountains

Julie and I recently experienced the critical role that eccentric leg strength plays in our functional fitness when our family went hiking in the White Mountains. The Whites are famously rugged. It seems like there are no gradual slopes or smooth trails to be found throughout their entire expanse. Every direction we headed we were scrambling up steep “trails” of gigantic boulders that were dropped in massive piles of granite when the glaciers receded. Climbing up these trails is hard enough on our quads and glutes. But, coming down constitutes it’s own special form of torture. The demand of descending sure tested our eccentric strength. Both Julie and I gingerly poked our way down, concentrating hard to maintain our balance and footing while facing downhill and trying to minimize the accumulating toll that each step down was collecting from our reserves of strength. Meanwhile, youngsters in their teens and twenties were blowing by us and skipping down these precipitous jumbles of granite with hardly a thought to how steep and treacherous the trails seemed to their elders. As too often happens on these little hikes of ours, which I somehow persuade Julie to join me, this one turned into a brutal death march that came close to threatening our marriage. By the time we got back to our campsite, our legs were smoked and I was doing my best to be a kind, understanding, and charming husband.

 

OK, so what is this notion of eccentric strength and why is it so necessary to intentionally develop it?

It is a critically important element of functional strength development. Unfortunately, it’s often overlooked or neglected in favor of its better known cousin, concentric training. But it has a very beneficial effect on our fitness and balance.

 

Eccentric vs Concentric

The bicep shortens in the concentric phase (raising the dumbbell) and lengthens in the eccentric phase (lowering the dumbbell)

The bicep shortens in the concentric phase (raising the dumbbell) and lengthens in the eccentric phase (lowering the dumbbell)

There are two phases to a muscle contraction, the concentric and eccentric. The concentric contraction is when the muscle shortens while doing work. A great example of this is how our bicep shortens up when we’re doing a dumbbell curl.

The eccentric phase is when the muscle is still in contraction but it is elongating. It’s still doing a lot of work but we are often lowering or releasing a weight. In the example of the bicep curl it’s when we are lowering the dumbbell while the elbow extends.

Focusing on the eccentric contraction can be very beneficial for developing solid functional strength. Eccentric strength in our lower body is particularly helpful in improving our balance.

 

Five benefits eccentric training:

  1. It improves our neuromuscular coordination. Concentrating on the deliberate control of a weight through the full range of motion helps to improve our ability to master our body and train it to move with precision and control. We have all marveled at the remarkable control displayed by gymnasts on the rings as they slowly lower their body into the iron cross. Similarly, when a figure skater completes an amazing acrobatic leap with several twists and then nails the landing with unbelievable grace we are witnessing impressive eccentric strength.
  2. This improved neuromuscular coordination directly benefits our balance. There are several physical elements that comprise balance. Eccentric strength is one of the most critical. Think of any time you have slipped on the ice but were able to save yourself from falling. It was the eccentric strength in your core and leg muscles, combined with your proprioceptive system that engaged to keep you on your feet. Another example is to think of the differences of going down stairs, or steep mountainous trails, versus going up. We are much more exposed to accidents when going down a set of stairs than on the way up. This becomes especially true when we are carrying something.
  3. A deliberate focus on the eccentric phase will help you to burn more calories. Essentially, you are doing more work, hence increasing the caloric burn from the effort. Without a focus on the eccentric contraction, we typically allow gravity to take over and do more of the work for us. Releasing the weight in a slow and controlled manner demands more from our motor units, thereby increasing the amount of calories we expend to complete the movement.
  4. It improves our exercise technique. Proper form equals safety. Exercise injury tends to increase measurably when form begins to crumble. Controlling the weight through the entire range of motion in both the concentric and eccentric phases will help to improve our technique.
  5. Eccentric training can help to add lean muscle mass. There is ample research that demonstrates that the lowering of weights more so than lifting them is responsible for a hypertrophic response. In other words, the deliberate control of a weight as we release the load helps us to build lean muscle more than the active effort of lifting it.
The Iron Cross from gymnastics is an impressive display of awesome eccentric strength

The Iron Cross from gymnastics is an impressive display of awesome eccentric strength

But, unfortunately Eccentric Training is often neglected…

Eccentric training is often overlooked or neglected. That could be because it’s simply a little easier to just allow gravity to take over and lower the weight without much resistance. Doing so conserves energy and feels easier. The simple fact is that concentrating on a deliberate and slower eccentric contraction involves more muscle burn. That burn can begin to accumulate quickly and become increasingly uncomfortable.

It can also increase our post exercise soreness. Because it is harder, eccentric training results in higher levels of physiological and neurological adaptation. We stress our muscles, neurons, and connective tissues more. And we really challenge our muscle fibers on the cellular level. The result is increased post exercise discomfort from the effort. Because of that, we need to make sure to program adequate recovery time between bouts of eccentric training. 

Functional strength is defined as the strength necessary to accomplish everything we need to in our day to day lives and what we aspire to in our dreams…

Paul and Jules after a hike. She's still speaking with me...

Paul and Jules after a hike. She’s still speaking with me…

As Julie and I painfully experienced on our recent hike in the White Mountains, eccentric strength is a critical component of functional strength. If “functional strength” is defined as the strength we need to accomplish everything we need to in our day to day lives and what we aspire to in our dreams, then it is an absolute necessity if I am to continue to pursue my passion for climbing mountains and hiking with my bestie, Julie. Consequently, a focus on the development of eccentric strength will remain an integral aspect of my strength development plan. And so it should for you too.

Click here to see a video of suggested exercises that can improve your eccentric leg strength. 

How about you? How have you experienced eccentric strength, or the lack thereof? In what ways has it made a difference in your life? We’d love to hear from you so please leave a comment in the thread below…

Paul Reilly
Paul Reilly
Paul is the Owner, President, and Head Strength and Balance Coach of ACCELERATED Strength & Balance. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association.