Tuesday, 7 February 2017

A Coaches' Guide to Strength Development Part X: Eccentric Training Part II - Practical Application & Periodization Implications; a guest-post from Dr Angus Ross

photo courtesy 

As discussed in Part I, eccentric (ECC) training has had a relatively comprehensive scientific backing behind it already and from what I have seen in social media in the sport science world, it is currently the subject of numerous studies and ongoing PhDs around the globe. Questions remain in terms of how to best apply ECC training in the field, but several authors/coaches/trainers have used/prescribed it extensively and in particular, I note that Dietz & Peterson’s Triphasic Training book has several chapters detailing their use and prescription/periodization of ECC loading (in conjunction with both isometric and iso-inertial options). 

My philosophies are influenced from a range of these sources, as well as from my own trial and error and hopefully at this point they do have some logical basis behind them. No doubt these philosophies will continue to evolve as we learn more, and I am in the happy position of co-supervising two talented PhD students working in this area currently - so look out for further work from Jamie Douglas and Farhan Tinwala in the years to come.

The rules of adaptation to ECC training are certainly not hard and fast, and will vary between individuals - dependent on their genotype, performance needs and training background. However I do try to use - or at least consider - the following principles or observations in prescription, which I think are at least somewhat grounded in science (most of which have been touched on in the previous post).

  • Slow ECC phases without additional load (not beyond the concentric load) advocated by many practitioners certainly increases time under tension, perhaps helps groove a motor pattern - so it seems like a good introductory option for ECC work to set up skills, postures, develop hypertrophy and provide a protective effect against increasing DOMS in subsequent phases
  • Slow high tension (overloaded beyond concentric) ECC and isometric work – are likely to develop tissue integrity, including increases in both muscle CSA & tendon stiffness – potential changes in overall stiffness potential likely occur from this. Note that this type of training will induce additional DOMS in initial sessions.
  • SSC and/or neural-motor control-driven performance benefits may be realized relatively quickly following ECC training. Anecdotal and experimental evidence with both high performance athletes and moderately conditioned subjects suggest that these gains likely will be maintained for several weeks after the conclusion of ECC training. 
  • ECC training has greater cortical activation but decreased muscle activation relative to CON work – resulting in decreased peripheral fatigue for a given load, and a lower metabolic cost. Perhaps implications from this in terms of the training load that can be tolerated - i.e. a greater volume of work - can be tolerated at a muscle level as compared to other training modalities. A potential drawback (and not one with any real scientific evidence to date) is the possibility of central fatigue resulting from the ECC loading as a result of the high cortical drive combined with high volume and/or the peripheral damage and subsequent inhibition. An interesting question is whether this relates to the delay in realization of some performance adaptations post ECC training?  
  • As alluded to in Part I of the ECC series (and in the point above), evidence suggests that gains in concentric-only performance metrics (e.g. concentric muscle power) may take longer to occur, or at least be maximised after the cessation of an ECC training intervention. Subsequently, the administration of eccentric training should be planned carefully with regard to the phasing of performance peaks relative to competition schedules. Additionally on-going monitoring of the patterns of adaptation of the individual athletes needs to be considered to optimize competition performance.
  • To facilitate rapid transfer of positive adaptations from ECC training to performance it makes sense to include specific skill work and some dynamic concentric or SSC loading throughout any ECC dominated training phases.
  • Eccentric work is pretty taxing and I rarely go more than 3 weeks on the trot without a substantial change, indeed 2 weeks on 1 off (and then returning back to the ECC loading in week 4) may be a better loading routine if a longer ECC phase is required.
  • Fast ECC work may increase the relative proportion of FT muscle and optimize dynamic power performance. It should be noted however that modalities that induce true fast ECC work (i.e. joint angular velocities in excess of 180o -1 ) with high tensions throughout the movement range are most likely to be motor-driven or have an external power source. Many non-motorized versions of fast ECC work end up being variations of largely switching off the targeted muscle and dropping rapidly and then trying to turn the muscle on rapidly at end of range -  these are arguably not the same stimulus as what has been used in the literature when significant shifts to FT muscle have been observed; though potentially some of these ‘down and dirty’ gravity driven approaches may have some effect, and likely do help with performance in SSC and stiffness.
  • A background of ECC training appears to maintain strength qualities and muscle cross-sectional area longer during detraining than might be seen with concentric only or traditional training (Coratella & Schena, 2016). Again implications here for detraining and tapering.

photo courtesy

Proposed Periodization

My intention with a proposed periodization of ECC training for a power athlete is based on some understanding of what the adaptations we are trying to achieve are, and an understanding of where an athlete is at in terms of development. Obviously this will effect the relative emphasis of any phase to suit individual need. A final point to consider is the individual response to the loading and I completely agree with Stu’s point in Part V of this series that periodization of the output is critical (rather than just the input). So with that in mind, tracking of adaptation (or perhaps current organism state) needs to occur throughout the process to make sure we never get too far away from our ultimate objective of getting better at the sport. That is, it is counterproductive to get to the point where ECC training may have rendered the actual event or sport training to be too far away from optimal for it to be worthwhile. These factors considered, my current thought processes (subject to change as we learn more!) and typical phases in chronological order are as follows;
  • Train to train – initial training block post time off - e.g. after a pinnacle event, training moderate to high rep range with standard iso-inertial training - i.e. typical barbell work with both concentric and eccentric phases in the 5-12 rep range.  Objective: re-introduction to training and DOMS-protection for blocks to come.

  • Slow ECC phase – tempo based, but ECC load the same as CON load, typically in this phase I would include slow eccentric work in key (or sport relevant) exercises, as well as some on normal CON-ECC iso-inertial work - at least in warm up sets. Option to also include some isometric holds in key positions in this phase. Objective: hypertrophy of muscle and tendon and motor control (spinal stacking), & again DOMS protection for upcoming blocks.

  • Overloaded ECC work – slightly faster ECC tempo but with an overloaded ECC phase. Options for adding in dynamic concentric work here and certainly with this sort of training I would be advocating 2 weeks on, then 1 off to ensure sport specific skills can be maintained at  a suitable intensity during the week off the ECC overload stress. Objectives: ongoing fast twitch hypertrophy (sarcomeres in series?), plus stiffness and eccentric strength development

  • Fast ECC work – If the modalities are available, this should include eccentrically overloaded movements at fast angular joint velocities (in excess of 180os-1) throughout the range of motion. With gravity-based loading options in this phase you can include rapid RFD by sticking isometrically at end of fast movement through the ECC range, we have also used bands during this phase to facilitate the fast ECC loading. Options for adding in dynamic concentric work here also. Objective:  increased expression of fast muscle contractile protein plus strength/rigidity in amortization phase + further tendon adaptations

  • Ballistic training – fast down and fast up – reactive focus with lighter loads typically (can be done with or without an overloaded ECC phase). Objectives: dynamic amortization phase and explosive force production

  • Competition taper or Competition phase – very low volume of strength training in general, may include periodic low volume maintenance of loaded fast ECC qualities (e.g. 1-2 sets every couple of weeks) and/or isotonic power/strength. Length of this phase will vary between athletes depending on training age, their strength reserve, their muscle size reserve, and obviously how they respond to reduced load. Noting again that this period may be longer than expected with athletes that now have an eccentric training background.  Objectives: promote overshoot of FT muscle (see Andersen & Aagaard 2000), maintain strength and CSA (or minimize loss), maintain fascicle length (or minimize loss), allow un-inhibited expression of CON power as well as ECC and SSC performance

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With such a periodization, I would be seeking or expecting the performance adaptations as detailed in Figure 1 below. That is I would expect max force capabilities (which by definition are delivered at low velocities) will adapt positively to the initial phases of the training. In contrast, the high speed power (with greater sport performance implications) may be negatively affected by the same training interventions. In the latter phases, a reduction of volume, less max force work, and a higher speed emphasis in training (including the fast ECC) should set up the environment for recovery from DOMS and inhibition, and potentially for the proliferation of fast contractile proteins in muscle. The expectation from this would be that convincing gains in high speed power are elicited, with this quality peaking right at the end of the periodization. Notably there could well be mild decrements in the max force abilities of the athlete during the later stages with the concomitant gains in high speed power; the trick being to ensure the blue line below always remains above a ‘strong enough’ threshold (noting that this may actually be lower than you think in some disciplines) during a competition phase to maintain sport performance.

Putting it in practice - Eccentric Exercise Options 

Eccentric exercises need to be simple to perform and safe to terminate when an athlete’s technique is compromised.  It is possible to create supra-maximal eccentric loads even without access to specific eccentric loading machinery by being creative with variations of conventional exercise.  However, as has been mentioned previously on occasions, an ECC motor-driven option does offer real advantages.  The below is by no means an exhaustive list but gives some example modalities or options with emphasis on those that can be done without excessive extraordinary equipment options:

High Tension ECC exercises (load > CON load)
  • Perform ‘2-up 1-down’ exercises – for example, lift concentrically with 2 limbs and lower with 1 during a leg press or hamstring curl, calf raise etc. 
  • Combine CON and ECC exercises – for example, combine a push up with a Nordic hamstring lower, or a hang clean to an ECC bicep curl.
  • Partner applies load (i.e. pushing/pulling down) during the ECC phase e.g. during a squat, hip thrusts, bench press, or pull up (see Figure 2).
  • Motor-assisted CON phases to allow ECC overload

Figure 1: Eccentric partner-overloaded Hip Thrusts

Fast ECC options (aiming for joint velocities ≥180os-1)
This type of eccentric training is harder to achieve with any control without expensive motor driven equipment options, with that in mind I have included both the gold-standard motor driven devices, as well as some perhaps more accessible options.
  • Fast motor driven devices e.g. recumbent ECC bike, passive leg press, isokinetic devices. Notably I have yet to have access to these devices on a regular basis, so I don’t see them as a necessity but certainly would be in the ‘nice to have’ category.
  • Absorbing energy rapidly – for example, landing from a box (bodyweight or added load - Figure 3), acceleration to rapid deceleration run, or a downhill sprint with additional load, running\jumping downstairs with additional load (weighted vest), partner push down kettlebell swings, (noting that all of these exercise are arguably not strictly fast ECC except for a very small range – better make sure that ROM is specific to the sport!). Banded resistance work is also useful in creating the acceleration in the ECC phase. 
  • Accentuated eccentric phase via added load released prior to concentric phase – for example weight releasers for barbell exercises such as squat, bench press, push press (see Figure 4) or dropping DBs on the ECC/CON turnaround of a vertical jump (arguably same issues as point above).

Figure 2: Box Drop with additional load

Figure 3: Weight release push press

Overall Summary & Suggestions 

In summary, eccentric training should be considered by/for athletes with appropriate strength training experience where:
  • There is sufficient time in the training organization for potential long-terms gains from eccentric training intervention that outweigh potential short-term losses
  • The fast contractile properties of muscle are critical to performance outcomes and-or
  • Gains in strength, leg spring stiffness and-or hypertrophy are needed and-or
  • Strong stretch-shortening-cycle contributions is critical to performance – optimizing RFD and elastic return

Finally, periodization of the eccentric work should include the introduction of the eccentric work well before the competition season to allow assessment of both its acute and chronic performance effects on the athletes in question. Periodization options may include periodic low volume ‘top up’ of ECC qualities during the competition taper.


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