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…
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
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:
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…
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.
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…