Vivian Grisogono

Eccentric exercise

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Eccentric exercise for avoiding muscle fatigue.
Q: I’ve been told to do eccentric muscle training to reduce muscle fatigue from playing hard games of tennis, and hopefully to reduce the risk of injuries. What kind of exercises can I do as eccentric exercises of the major muscle groups? For quads and gluteals, for instance is that squats, burpees and some of those gluteal exercises where one lies on the side?
Tennis player, male, 24 , UK
A: Eccentric muscle work is a technical term which has nothing to do with being unorthodox or odd! Eccentric work takes place when control is exerted over a movement which would otherwise happen apparently on its own, or on the rebound.

When they contract eccentrically, muscles, as a group or in combination, lengthen out while controlling a movement against a force acting in the same direction. The force is often the downward effect of gravity. For instance, if you sit down, the more slowly you do the movement, the harder your front-thigh and gluteal (seat) muscles in particular have to work to control the movement as they pay out eccentrically against gravity. The faster you sit down, the less your muscles do. Without eccentric muscle work for control, the weight of your body would collapse downward under the effect of gravity.

Eccentric muscle work is the counterpart to concentric muscle action, in which a muscle shortens to move against a force acting in the opposite direction, which might be gravity or any kind of resistance. If you squat down, the downward movement requires eccentric control as the front-thigh and gluteal muscles lengthen, whereas the upward movement as you stand up again involves concentric work as the same muscles shorten to straighten the knees and hips. Eccentric work is harder the more slowly you do the movement, while concentric work is harder the more quickly you do it.

Every injury causes muscle inhibition, with loss of strength and co-ordination. Weakness in eccentric muscle work is one of the most important deficits after any injury, and rehabilitation exercises have to be done very precisely, to emphasize this vital element. It’s probable that eccentric muscle work weakens considerably with ageing, and therefore should be highlighted in any fitness programme for the over-60s, as well as for younger people who are sedentary and unfit. It’s also very possible that weakness in eccentric muscle work contributes to injuries in muscles and joints, so it is probably wise to make sure you have trained your muscles to be as efficient as possible in eccentric action.

All movements done under the influence of gravity consist of combinations of concentric and eccentric muscle work. This means all free dynamic movements in normal life or sport, all bodyweight movements or exercises, and all movements or exercises done against a load. Lifting a cup to the lips and putting it down again involves concentric - eccentric co-ordination, just as much as lifting up a child and then putting him down carefully to avoid hurting him.

Most types of weight training machines, including weights pulleys, involve the interaction between concentric and eccentric work, although isokinetic and hydraulic exercise machines generally use concentric muscle action in both directions. As an example of concentric-eccentric interplay, the knee extension weights machine exercises the front-thigh muscles (primarily the quadriceps group) concentrically as the knees are straightened to lift the weights. The same muscles are exercised eccentrically if the movement of returning the weight is done in a slow, controlled way. On the lats pull-down machine, the latissimus dorsi muscles, posterior deltoids, triceps and wrist flexors work concentrically as the bar is drawn downwards to lift the weights, and eccentrically if the reverse movement is done with control.

If you use free weights for exercise, like dumbbells, weights boots or bars with weights, the patterns of concentric and eccentric muscle work are dictated by the starting position and direction of movement in relation to gravity. For instance, the biceps curl exercise uses the elbow flexors (brachialis and biceps) when done directly against gravity, when you are sitting or standing up. If you do the movement lying on your back on a bench, starting with the arms resting on the bench, the elbow flexors work concentrically - eccentrically only in the phase where the forearm works between the fully straight position (flat on the bench) and a right- angled bend at the elbow, where the forearm is vertical and therefore in line with the force of gravity. From there, as the hand approaches the shoulder, moving into the inner range (close-packed) position, the work become eccentric-concentric for the triceps group, which controls the movement against gravity as the elbow bends, and then shortens to straighten the elbow and bring the hand back to the vertical position. From the vertical, the elbow flexors take over to exert eccentric control over the movement of straightening the elbow and bringing the hand back to the starting position on the bench.

Squat jumps include eccentric work to the extent that one slows the downward movement in preparation for the upward spring. It's more difficult to gauge how much of the movement works the muscles eccentrically, because it is a speed exercise, and the more quickly you do the movement, the less eccentric control there is. Running down steps or slopes is strong eccentric exercise mainly for the front-thigh muscles, also for the gluteals. It is an invaluable type of training for sports which involve this type of muscle work, such as fell running. Another exercise which exercises the front-thigh muscle eccentrically is the “squat-sit”, sitting without a chair, with the back against a wall for support and holding the position. A lot of people use this as pre-ski preparation.  However, eccentric training for the front-thigh is very heavy on the kneecap joints, and can undermine the balance of the front-thigh muscles and the vastus medialis obliquus (VMO), causing kneecap pain , so one has to be careful. Anyone doing this type of training should take care to do specific protective exercises for the VMO , and, if possible, to use a muscle stimulator for the VMO afterwards. It’s also important to stretch the front-thigh muscles as often as possible.

When the movements are done with proper control, you can use bodyweight exercises and weights exercises for eccentric training. Machines such as the leg press, knee extension, hamstring curls , calf raises , hip abduction, hip adduction and hip extension are good for emphasizing eccentric work for the legs, while machines such as the lats pull-down, pec deck, horizontal chest press , dorsal rise and military press can do the same for the trunk and arms.