Coach: “Hey, [insert athlete’s name], let’s slow those down a bit.”
Athlete: “I am going slow, Coach.”
Coach: “Your training program calls for a five-second eccentric. You’re doing more of a two-second eccentric.”
As a coach, I bet you’ve been here before. I bet there’ve been times, too, when you’ve questioned the why behind using eccentrics, isometrics, and tempo in your training programs.
Let’s be brutally honest: eccentrics, isometrics, and tempo work are extremely boring. Generally speaking, they all take a long time to complete and come with zero excitement. However, each type of muscle contraction comes with a ton of benefits from an overall health and performance standpoint.
We’re going to break each one down with some background info, benefits, and most importantly, how you as the strength coach or personal trainer can begin implementing these strategies into your training programs.
Often referred to as the “lowering” portion of an exercise, eccentrics play a vital role in your ability to control a movement pattern.
Consider the rear-foot, elevated split squat, where one foot (working leg) is stationary on the floor and the other leg (nonworking leg) is supported behind you on a sturdy object at roughly knee height.
You start at the top standing tall with the front (working) leg. Then you descend into the bottom position. That entire descent is considered the eccentric component. In most cases, you would lower until reaching your bottom point and then come back up to the top position. This full-range-of-motion version of eccentrics is the one most commonly used in training. However, you could also focus solely on the eccentric component alone, such as in this example:
In that video, you can see how this specific exercise calls for you to avoid performing the concentric and isometric aspects. We’ll take a deep dive into those muscle contractions later. This video example is an accentuated eccentric exercise where only the lowering portion is performed. Both forms of eccentrics work.
Eccentrics allow you to build the capacity and skills necessary for slowing down, landing, absorbing force, and being able to control your body. Deceleration and landing skills are vital for your success in sports and overall physical performance. Eccentrics play a pivotal role in this regard. You can read up more on deceleration and landing skills in this recent article.
Body control allows an athlete to better manage external loads and forces, whether we’re talking about athletic performance or general health. Either way, eccentrics are great for becoming strong and durable. Although it may not always seem obvious, “eccentric muscle contractions are an integral part of most movements during daily or sport activities.”1
Supporting your athletes in the process of building strength and durability takes time. So does the actual performance of each lift and exercise. Spending quality time under tension is a key factor in their ability to build said strength and long-term durability.
When it comes to eccentrics, it’s important for you as the coach to be judicious in your programming. Keep in mind that if you give someone a three-second eccentric, they’ll likely perform only a one-second eccentric. Because of this very human tendency, I’ve followed this general rule of thumb over the years:
- If you’re working with a novice athlete, opt for using a 3-second eccentric in a given exercise. They may perform it only a 1- or 2-second eccentric. Just remember that they’re new and still learning the training process. Plus, they may not have developed adequate strength or body control yet.
- If you’re working with an intermediate athlete, feel free to use a 5-second eccentric in a given exercise. At this point, the athlete will have developed some form of strength and body control, thus allowing him or her to better manage the lowering component.
- For the advanced athlete, you can be more creative in your training approach and implement accentuated eccentrics and even longer duration eccentrics in a given exercise (for example, 6-to-10-second eccentrics).
Make sure you track volume to get the most out of eccentric work while keeping your athletes healthy. Don’t forget that eccentrics cause an increased level of neuromuscular fatigue and muscle damage, which is why you as the coach must program accordingly. Your athletes will likely feel a bit of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) for a day or two post-training. However, intelligent program design will allow your athletes to recover efficiently from these eccentric-focused training sessions.
Here are some programming considerations:
- On any given training day, use 2–4 exercises that focus on eccentrics. Any more than that may cause more harm than good.
- Ensure that the athlete has at least 24–48 hours between these types of training sessions. Ideally, you’d aim for the full 48 hours to recover.
- Program an adequate amount of rest in between training sets to allow the athlete to recover as fully as possible. This will vary depending on how the exercise is being employed. If the eccentric exercise is being performed alone, then aim for 60–90 seconds of rest. However, if the eccentric exercise is being paired with another exercise in a circuit, the goal would be to provide that athlete with 90–120 seconds of rest.
Over the years, I’ve found certain programming schemes to work well for our athletes. Here are a few protocols that have proved successful:
- 3 sets of 8–12 reps with a 3-second eccentric component
- 3 sets of 6–10 reps with a 5-second eccentric component
- 3 sets of 4–8 reps with an 8-second eccentric component
Here are a couple of examples of my favorite eccentric-focused exercises:
#1 — Eccentric-Only Push-Up w/ 5-Second Eccentric
Bonus: You can do this bodyweight exercise at home!
#2 — Barbell RDL w/ 5-Second Eccentric
Any point in a given exercise where you remain still and hold a position in a pause is considered isometric.
Technically, an isometric contraction is a pause. This means that no movement is occurring.
A classic example of an isometric exercise takes us back to our middle and high school days, during basketball practice. Your team just lost a game the night before, and everyone is dogging it and disinterested. Your coach blows the whistle.
“Everyone on the wall. Wall sits for time!”
Relax. I’m not suggesting your coach was right for making you do a 10-minute wall sit. That’s a bit excessive without proper training, guidance, or format. However, programming isometrics intelligently can certainly enhance your overall tendon, joint, bone, and muscular health.
Isometrics also provide an opportunity to own a given position, master body control in that position, and enhance your ability to contract your muscles there. Most athletes new to training often need to build body awareness to get a better feel for the overall process of lifting weights and performing exercises. Isometrics can certainly fill the gaps in this learning curve.
This also holds true for athletes going through minor injuries or setbacks. Isometric contractions can provide “an acute analgesic effect and allow for pain-free dynamic loading.”2 Focusing on isometric contractions provides a host of health benefits, because you can place an emphasis on specific weak points in the ROM of a specific exercise.
You can incorporate isometric exercises into your athletes’ routines in a variety of ways. I’ve become a big fan of isometrics for novice athletes, as a way for them to build confidence in certain positions. However, isometrics have their advantages for intermediate and advanced athletes as well.
Read up more on the application of isometric exercises in this recent article, which is action-packed with examples and programming considerations. Bonus: All the bodyweight exercises mentioned there can be performed in the comfort of your own home!
I often refer to tempo work as slow motion.
We want our athletes to build the skills and qualities necessary to control movements and exercises. Thinking about moving in slow motion can help in this regard.
I imagine “body control” has become an overly familiar theme in this article by now. That’s because I can’t stress enough how important this is for your athletes, whether they’re transferring these skills to sports or using them to enhance their everyday lives. Controlling your body is a major first step in becoming strong and durable. Once you’ve built adequate strength and durability, you can then express power and explosive capabilities in your training. Make no mistake, though: Strength and durability serve as the foundation.
Let’s dissect a couple of exercises to get a better idea of what tempo work looks like.
Here’s a Tempo KB 1-Leg RDL exercise video:
The specific tempo here is as follows:
- 3-second eccentric (lowering portion)
- 3-second isometric at the bottom (pause)
- 3-second concentric (raising portion)
Tempo work, in the previous example, included all three muscle contractions: eccentric, isometric, and concentric. However, it doesn’t always look like this. You could skip out on the isometric (pause) component and instead focus your efforts on the controlled eccentric and concentric components. Below is an example of a Tempo Push-Up to illustrate my point:
The specific tempo used here is:
- 5-second eccentric (lowering portion)
- 5-second concentric (raising portion)
The best part about using tempo work is that it means greater time under tension. Time under tension can be viewed as the total allotment of time it takes to complete one set of a given exercise.
For example, if you prescribe 10 reps of a goblet squat with a three-second eccentric and a three-second concentric, that would ultimately equate to a 60-second set. When performed for three sets, this would then represent three total minutes of time under tension for this exercise. These are factors that we must keep in mind with respect to the overall volume. However, when programmed intelligently and strategically, time under tension allows an athlete to control movement patterns and become strong within them.
Current research also suggests that tempo work and slower movement speed “can have a significant effect on the pattern and efficiency of adaptive processes.”3 As strength coaches and personal trainers, we can have a profound impact on our athletes as we support their training goals and ability to undergo physiological adaptations from lifting weights.
- Hody S, Croisier J, Bury T, Rogister B, Leprince P. Eccentric muscle contractions: Risks and benefits. Front Physiol. 2019 May 3; 10: 536. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2019.00536.
- Oranchuk D, Storey A, Nelson A, Cronin J. Isometric training and long-term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review. Scand J Med Sci Spor. 2019 Apr; 29(4):484-503. Doi: 10.1111/sms.13375.
- Wilk M, Golas A, Stastny P, Nawrocka M, Krzysztofik M, Zajac A. Does tempo of resistance exercise impact training volume? J Hum Kinet. 2018 Jun 13; 62: 241–250. doi: 10.2478/hukin-2018-0034.