Every effective program—those for high-level athletes, the average Joe, or those getting on in years—will include at least a partial focus on eccentric loading. The eccentric portion of a movement is the lowering or lengthening phase, and there are numerous articles on the benefits of improving strength and control through training it specifically.
Proper eccentric loading can bring immense strength and mass gain benefits, and help develop flexibility. Muscle fibers also have a much higher eccentric loading potential than contractile force, so introducing eccentrics properly can be a critical factor in breaking through strength plateaus.
Eccentrics and the Aging Athlete
I offer a different view on eccentrics. While they are great for all of the above reasons, they offer other massive benefits not often thought of in the mainstream discussion.
Eccentric loading is the most important training stimulus for the aging population. Period.
Imagine the last time you watched an elderly individual cautiously take a step down. Perhaps they had to turn sideways, hold the doorway or railing, and exercise extreme caution. But when they take the same step up, they do it in stride, without a second thought.
No one falls going up the stairs; they only fall going down.
Coordination and balance hinge on eccentric strength. We can define concentric (or contractile or shortening) phases as our ability to create movement, and eccentric phases as our ability to stop or resist movement.
Concentrics are your gas pedal. Eccentrics are your brakes. Skilled race car drivers are not defined by their ability to step on the gas; anyone can do that. Winning a race (and avoiding disaster) relies on their ability to control, manage, and resist their speed effectively. This same concept applies to high-level athletes, general trainees, and the aging population alike. Physical mastery depends much more on our abilities to control and slow our limbs and external weight than on our ability to incite motion.
The most detrimental physical aspect of aging is loss of coordination and control. Losing the ability and awareness to place your steps, and recover from missteps, turns into a serious hazard later in life. While studies show that muscle tissue retains eccentric strength better than contractile force during aging,1 both decline rapidly, as much as 40% from age 25 to 80.2
Eccentrics offer a two-pronged approach to aging gracefully. They incite muscular growth and strength for a population rapidly losing both. Eccentric control also develops coordination and balance, the two most functional attributes to maintain and strengthen your physicality while aging.
Check out the video for methods to implement functional eccentrics. These will help the aging population maintain strong and capable bodies, and also help athletes at every level build strength, balance, and stability.
1. Roig, Marc, Donna L. MacIntyre, Janice J. Eng, Marco V. Narici, Constantinos N. Maganaris, and W. Darlene Reid. “Preservation of eccentric strength in older adults: Evidence, mechanisms and implications for training and rehabilitation.” Experimental Gerontology 45, no. 6 (2010): 400-409.
2. Gault, Mandy L., and Mark ET Willems. “Aging, functional capacity and eccentric exercise training.” Aging and Disease 4, no. 6 (2013): 1-13.