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Original Research

Survey of Eccentric-Based Strength and Conditioning Practices in Sport

McNeill, Conor1; Beaven, Christopher Martyn1; McMaster, Daniel T.1,2; Gill, Nicholas1,2

Author Information
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: October 2020 - Volume 34 - Issue 10 - p 2769-2775
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003778

Abstract

Introduction

Resistance training using various loads and velocities can result in altered hormonal, structural and neuromuscular characteristics vital for athletic performance (1). Eccentric-based training (ECC), which emphasizes the active lengthening of the muscle-tendon unit, has been proposed as an effective method of improving muscular strength, lean mass, and explosive ability and in some cases may be superior to traditional and concentric-only training (10,33,39). The manipulation of eccentric parameters may lead to adaptive responses in neuromuscular activation, type II muscle fiber hypertrophy, and the attenuation of muscle soreness (9) that could be of value to strength and conditioning practitioners.

Several studies have reported the relatively large force-generating capacity and subsequent concentric force enhancement that characterizes eccentric contractions (12,15,24,25). However, the interactions between training variables (i.e., volume, loading, tempo), and physical performance in a practical setting warrant further research. These factors likely have implications in the prescription and adaptation to eccentric exercise throughout the training process.

Despite these positive reports, Buskard et al. (4) questioned the justification of supramaximal ECC for all populations in a recent meta-analysis given their findings yielded similar benefits when to compared with traditional training for weaker subjects. Mike et al. (28) demonstrated strength improvements with submaximal eccentric loads, but found longer eccentric durations actually decreased squat jump peak velocity. These findings suggest that the prescription process and the inclusion of other ECC methods (i.e., tempo) may have differential effects on strength and power outcomes. For practitioners, these factors will likely play a role in the decision-making process of when and how to implement ECC in the annual training plan.

The efficacy of ECC as a training strategy for improving neuromuscular performance is well documented (20,38,40). Numerous investigations have reported positive physiological and performance outcomes following ECC in both untrained and athletic populations (2,6,8,18,21,36). However, the extent to which this body of research influences practice remains to be seen. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to investigate common practices for ECC program design and implementation with athletes in actual training environments.

Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

The survey consisted of 44 total questions and was divided into 4 sections (Coach Demographic, Perceptions of Eccentric Training, Athlete Demographic, and Program Design). For clarity, eccentric exercise was defined as “an exercise where the downward portion of a movement is emphasized through tempo, load, velocity, etc.” The “Coach and Athlete Demographic” sections were comprised of mostly closed-ended, multiple-choice questions. The “Perceptions of Eccentric Training” section was designed to gain a greater understanding of what sources coaches use to learn about ECC and how coaches subjectively gauge the efficacy of ECC when compared with traditional training. The “Program Design” section included closed- and open-ended components to allow subjects to describe their approach to developing ECC programs.

Subjects

Subjects ranged in age from 18 to 64 years of age. Informed consent was obtained for all subjects. Strength and conditioning practitioners were surveyed regarding eccentric exercise prescription and program development (see Text, Supplemental Digital Content 1, which contains the survey, http://links.lww.com/JSCR/A220). Inclusion criteria required that potential respondents were actively involved in the planning and implementation of training programs for athletes. Subjects were identified through existing coaching networks and were sent an electronic link to anonymously complete the survey. Those subjects who completed the survey were asked to forward the link to appropriate contacts. This study was approved by the University of Waikato Human Research Ethics Committee: (HREC(Health)2018#60.

Procedures

A cross-sectional, web-based survey (Qualtrics, Provo, UT) was used to collect responses. A pilot version of the survey was sent to a small group of coaches (n = 6) before being sent out to the target population. Originally, 224 subjects were contacted, which led to 117 total responses. Of the total responses, 19 were excluded from the analysis; one respondent declined to participate in the survey, whereas 18 surveys were left blank. The remaining 98 surveys met the inclusion criteria and were included in the final analysis.

Statistical Analyses

Survey data were collated in an Excel spreadsheet (Microsoft Corporation, Redmond, WA) via the Qualtrics export function. Answers were reported as absolute values or as a percentage of the total responses. Strength and conditioning practitioners may have been responsible for working with multiple teams or athletes concurrently, therefore the total responses for a single question may have exceeded the number of surveys included in the analysis. Responses to open-ended questions and comments were sorted into categories for a frequency count by the primary author and then discussed with the research team before a consensus was reached.

Results

Demographic data from the 98 respondents and their athletes are presented in Table 1. Athletics or track and field (13.0%), rugby union (12.2%), football (9.0%), and basketball (8.3%) were the most common sports worked with of the 278 total answers, including respondents working with multiple teams. Other responses listed netball (2.5%) and hockey or field hockey (2.5%) most frequently. Respondents working at the professional (34%) or elite/nonprofessional (20%) level made up approximately 54% of the total sample. Demographic data for the athletes are listed in Table 2.

Table 1 - Demographic data for eccentric-based training survey respondents.*
Demographics No. of responses % of respondents
Age group
 18–24 years old 1 1%
 25–34 years old 53 55%
 35–44 years old 29 30%
 45–54 years old 9 9%
 55–64 years old 4 4%
Sex
 Female 12 12%
 Male 86 88%
Education
 Associate degree 2 2%
 Bachelor degree 28 29%
 Doctorate degree 10 10%
 Master degree 55 57%
 Some college credit 1 1%
Certification
 ASCA 30 26%
 CSCCA 10 9%
 NSCA 45 39%
 UKSCA 7 6%
 Other 24 21%
Location
 United States of America 30 31%
 New Zealand 24 24%
 Australia 10 10%
 United Kingdom 8 8%
 Malaysia 6 6%
 Canada 5 5%
 Switzerland 3 3%
 China 2 2%
 Ireland 2 2%
 Sweden 2 2%
 Argentina 1 1%
 Brazil 1 1%
 Hong Kong (S.A.R.) 1 1%
 India 1 1%
 Italy 1 1%
 Samoa 1 1%
Experience
 <2 y 4 4%
 3–5 y 21 22%
 6–8 y 16 17%
 9–11 y 20 21%
 12–14 y 9 9%
 15–17 y 8 8%
 18–20 y 4 4%
 >20 y 14 15%
*ASCA = Australian Strength and Conditioning Association; CSCCA = Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association; NSCA = National Strength and Conditioning Association; UKSCA = United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Association.
Respondents may hold more than one certification resulting in a different number of total responses.

Table 2 - Athlete demographics.
Demographics No. of responses % of respondents
Age group*
 <17 y 17 8%
 17–20 y 52 26%
 21–25 y 64 32%
 26–30 y 42 21%
 31–35 y 20 10%
 >35 y 8 4%
Sex*
 Female 30 28%
 Male 50 46%
 Mixed 28 26%
Training experience*
 <6 mo 22 9%
 6 mo to 1 y 30 12%
 1–2 y 53 22%
 3–5 y 59 24%
 6–8 y 42 17%
 9–11 y 23 10%
 >11 y 13 5%
*Coaches working with one or more teams reported data for each of their groups resulting in different total numbers of responses.

Perceptions of Eccentric Training

To gain a greater understanding of how ECC is prescribed, subjects were asked about their sources for training information. Responses indicated that academic journals were the most popular source of information for ECC (22%) along with professional colleagues/other programs (21%), conference (17%), book (15%), website (15%), workshop (9%), and other (4%). Approximately 4% of respondents did not use ECC for the following reasons: “confidence and proven success using other methods,” “lack of knowledge, experience in successfully implementing this method of resistance training,” and “potential short-term impact on performance.” When asked if respondents had prescribed ECC with their athletes in the last 24 months, 96% responded “yes.”

Program Design

Most respondents preferred to implement ECC outside of the competition season: either in the preseason (32%) or off-season (30%). Seventeen percent of respondents preferred ECC in the early competition phase. Very few used ECC in the late competition phase (8%), postseason (5%), or playoffs (4%).

Respondents were asked to rank their reasons for implementing ECC. General (32%) and sports-specific performance (32%) combined for 64% of the number one reason to include ECC. Injury prevention (24%) and injury rehabilitation (8%) taken together accounted for 32% of respondents' primary reason to include ECC. Respondents listed injury prevention (40.6%), general sports performance (25.0%), injury rehabilitation (17%), and specific sports performance (15.6%) as the second reason to include ECC in their programming. The proportions of specific physical abilities targeted with ECC are displayed in Figure 1. Twenty-five percent of subjects reported performing fitness/energy system development/conditioning concurrently with ECC. When asked whether respondents actively avoided targeting a specific athletic ability or form of training concurrently with ECC, 37% responded “no”; 34% avoided various high-intensity training activities (high neural output, maximum strength, speed); and 14% reported avoiding training that could cause additional delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

Figure 1.
Figure 1.:
Proportion of specific physical abilities targeted by practitioners using eccentric-based training (ECC) methods in athletes.

Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they did not use any form of athlete monitoring to quantify ECC load or fatigue. In addition, 75% reported not using any eccentric-specific testing to assess physical performance. The back squat (54 responses), rear foot elevated squat/Bulgarian (37 responses), bench press (35 responses), and pull up (34 responses) were the most common exercises where ECC was applied. The back squat was ranked as the most important exercise for ECC prescription by 64% of respondents followed by rear foot elevated squats (13%), Nordics (11%), and pull ups (9%).

The equipment used for ECC and the most common methods for modifying the eccentric phase of the aforementioned exercises are displayed in Figure 2 and Figure 3 respectively. Of those methods, respondents commented using velocities of “[less than] 0.35 m·s−1,” and “0.10 m·s−1” while comments related to tempo ranged from 3 to 6 seconds durations during the eccentric phase.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.:
Equipment used by strength and conditioning practitioners in eccentric-based training methods with athletes.
Figure 3.
Figure 3.:
Responses to how practitioners modify eccentric-based training exercise parameters with athletes.

Forty-seven percent of subjects reported sequencing eccentric-based exercises as the primary exercise (the main exercise of a session). Subjects reported training volume primarily within 3–5 sets of 3–6 repetitions with 1–4 minutes of rest (Table 3). Furthermore, subjects reported prescribing 2 days (38%) and 3 days (36%) of recovery as the most frequent time between training sessions of the same movement pattern or body part. Subjects prescribed ECC for the same movement pattern or body part 2 days per week (56%), 1 day per week (29.2%), and 3 days per week (10%). The most common method to quantify the intensity of ECC was through % of one repetition maximum (RM) (34%) followed by rate of perceived exertion (20%), and velocity (16%).

Table 3 - Eccentric-based training programming variables used with athletes.
Variable No. of responses % of responses
Program duration (wk)
 <1 2 3%
 1–3 29 41%
 4–6 28 39%
 7–9 4 6%
 10–12 2 3%
 >12 6 8%
Sets
 <3 12 8%
 3 49 32%
 4 43 28%
 5 25 17%
 6 12 8%
 >6 10 7%
Repetitions
 <3 24 11%
 3 33 15%
 4 40 18%
 5 42 19%
 6 39 17%
 7 11 5%
 8 18 8%
 >8 10 4%
Rest (min)
 <1 0 0%
 1–2 33 46%
 3–4 30 42%
 5–6 3 4%
 >6 1 1%
 Other 4 6%

Discussion

Survey responses indicated that practitioners use ECC to improve a range of athletic abilities, which is supported by research investigating strength, speed, explosive ability, and change of direction (26). Strength was the most common response, which is perhaps unsurprising given the evidence regarding the capacity for eccentric maximal strength (15,16). A variety of ECC methods, such as tempo, inertial devices, and the use of accentuated loads have been shown to improve measures of strength (38) which is at least partially supported by the findings of this study, although the extent to which inertial devices are used in practice is unclear. Eccentric-based training has been shown to improve strength more than concentric training alone (33); however, the efficacy of specific ECC methods on strength performance may vary based on population and training experience (4). The review by Buskard et al. suggests that supramaximal loading, while effective, may be more appropriately reserved for individuals with greater strength and training experience. Two respondents in the current survey commented that “I don't [prescribe] heavy eccentrics with athletes with a low training age. However, I do modify tempos to accentuate the eccentric portion…” and “When used with a low training age, the weight is a lighter weight and the eccentric is used more as a positional tool” suggesting that training age may influence ECC prescription. The athletes trained by respondents of this survey varied widely in experience (Table 2) with nearly 21% of athletes having one year or less and approximately 32% of athletes having greater than 5 years of training experience. The use of tempo as an ECC method may have a relatively low potential for training stimulus while accentuated and supramaximal eccentric loading may be comparatively more advanced (37). Indeed, the respondents in the current survey reported using loads from 105 to 140% concentric 1RM. This disparity of methods may be reflected in our data as both tempo and load were reported as the most common ways to modify the eccentric phase of exercise.

In addition to strength, practitioners also reported using ECC to improve hypertrophy, power, and speed. Although each of these qualities may require specific programming strategies, ECC may enhance common elements of physical performance including neuromuscular and morphological factors (10). Respondents indicated goals specific to physical abilities such as hypertrophy: “high level motor unit & fiber recruitment,” and “mechanical strain” for hypertrophy. Responses for power included “type II fiber overshoot,” “Improved fiber recruitment,” and “Increasing the strength base….” Those respondents who reported using ECC for speed responded “Overload posterior chain and load Tendons” and “Adding sarcomeres in series….” These answers suggest that practitioners are using overlapping adaptive responses to support different physical abilities. However, the dose-response relationship and optimization of particular ECC methods for distinct physiological and performance outcomes warrants further investigation.

The nature of ECC may present challenges for practitioners regarding exercise selection in athlete populations. The prescription of heavy loading may warrant the use of spotters and specialized equipment to ensure a safe training environment (27). Isokinetic dynamometers, for training purposes, may help to resolve these issues, but may be resource prohibitive for many real training environments (27). Encouragingly, Coratella et al. (6) suggested that unilateral ECC may be as effective as isokinetic means when performed with dynamic constant external resistance exercises. Survey responses specified the use of traditional exercises (back squat, rear foot elevated split squat, bench press, pull up) and equipment (barbell, dumbbell, bodyweight) for the implementation of ECC highlighting the need for practical programming strategies. Simple bodyweight exercises such as the Nordic hamstring exercise (17,18,21) and Copenhagen adductor exercise (19) have been shown to result in improved sprinting, jumping, and eccentric strength. Future research should continue exploring the relationship between programming strategies and adaptive outcomes of practical ECC exercises.

Seventeen respondents reported avoiding the concurrent programming of high-intensity activities during ECC blocks. Of note is a body of research that examines the relationship between muscle damage and fatigue on proprioception in the affected limb (32). Evidence has shown changes in perception of limb position and force production following ECC (3) suggesting that muscle damage may play a role in proprioception. Similar effects on position sense were noted after matched eccentric and concentric training highlighting fatigue as a contributor. Taken together, the effects of ECC during periods of intense or sport-specific training may affect the overall goal for the training phase, although the long-term adverse effects of ECC on performance and injury mechanisms are still unclear (32). Subsequently, concerns regarding DOMS may be one reason that nearly two-thirds of practitioners in the current survey preferred to prescribe ECC outside of the competitive season. However, this practice warrants further scrutiny as regular exposure has been suggested as an important factor in the protective benefits from ECC exercises such as Nordics (14). In addition, the occurrence of DOMS is known to be mitigated after repeated exposure to ECC (5,23) supporting consistent, repeated exposures and systematic progression in training volume. Practitioners should consider these factors when deciding to integrate ECC into their yearly training plans.

Dynamic resistance training is commonly prescribed as a percentage of a maximal repetition or on the basis of movement velocity which is well supported and is generally believed to induce intensity- and volume-specific adaptations (1). A similar approach to ECC is difficult for practitioners to implement as qualities such as maximal eccentric strength have proven challenging to measure (27). Several protocols have been proposed to assess eccentric qualities such as strength (15), change of direction (8,29), and explosive ability (2,7,22). Eccentric testing may aid practitioners in the prescription of ECC, but do not seem to be widely adopted based on the findings of this survey, given that just over three-quarters of respondents reported not using any eccentric-specific testing. These findings are surprising given the evidence supporting the contribution of eccentric phase characteristics to dynamic performance (7,22). Subjects using eccentric monitoring for fatigue reported practices such as “rate of perceived exertion,” “Questionnaires,” and “athlete feedback.” As athlete monitoring is an established practice in sport, engaging in eccentric-specific monitoring practices may be especially pertinent at early phases of ECC prescription. A greater understanding of how monitored eccentric contraction qualities contribute to sports performance and injury prevention may help define testing and monitoring protocols that could aid in the prescription of ECC interventions.

The effects of eccentric tempo and velocity during training has been investigated as a method for improving performance (2,28,30,36). After longitudinal exposure, fast ECC may result in greater gains in strength, torque, and muscle cross-sectional area than slow ECC (13,31,35). Paddon-Jones et al. (31), suggested that fast ECC may also elicit more generalizable adaptations leading to improvements in torque production over a wider range of testing velocities. More recently, Zachariah et al. (41) reported that fast eccentric squat training (eccentric duration 0.7–1.1 seconds) resulted in significant changes in strength and explosive ability using 50–70% 1RM, although these subjects were untrained. Interestingly, Sharifnezhad et al. (34) found that fast lengthening velocities led to an increase in fascicle length, which would likely contribute to increased force production and contraction velocity (39). Conversely, Douglas et al. (11) found that fast ECC impaired sprint performance, although the time course of recovery and adaptation following the intervention may have interfered with results. Subjects in the current survey reported using eccentric contraction durations from 3 to 6 seconds and relatively slow velocities. It is important to note that, unlike traditional dynamic training where eccentric and concentric contractions are coupled, the typical response (e.g., supercompensation) from ECC in an athletic context remains relatively unknown. It is apparent that the specific velocity during ECC may play an important role in enhancing physical performance.

Responses indicated that academic journals were the single most common source of ECC information; however, 78% of information used to guide ECC prescription tended to be more anecdotal in nature. Three respondents indicated other media as a source of training information, specifically highlighting books such as “Triphasic Training” (10). Although these sources provide valuable observations from experienced practitioners, there is scope for a greater degree of evidence-based ECC prescription.

The authors recognize the complex task of designing training programs in competitive sport with the understanding that athlete health, wellness, individual characteristics, organizational resources, time constraints, and sport-specific training (among other factors) play a role in the process. A survey tool that captures all of the nuances of ECC is unlikely and as such there may be specific elements of ECC that were not evident in the process. Although an electronic survey allows for the economical collection of data across the globe, the authors acknowledge the constraints of this platform as a limitation in the current investigation. Future ECC survey research could further differentiate the application of ECC training across sports, training ages and sex.

Practical Applications

This survey sought to gather information regarding ECC prescription from coaches working with trained athletes. The findings of this survey indicate that designing resistance training programs based on the unique properties of eccentric contractions is apparent among strength and conditioning practitioners across a wide range of sports and athletes. The popularity of ECC in practice may reflect anecdotal experience and empirical evidence, but more research is needed to understand the long-term implications of ECC and the effect on different aspects of physical performance.

The authors suggest that ECC is a diverse exercise regime from which distinct training methods may be derived. Practitioners wanting to implement ECC may first consider how the eccentric phase contributes to performance and injury prevention within their athletic populations. Once a particular strategy or method has been identified, the internal response (e.g., muscle damage, soreness, acute loss of force production) should be considered within the context of the periodization scheme and overall training plan. Accordingly, athlete monitoring and wellness tracking may be useful in determining the time course of recovery and adaptation, especially in the early phase of ECC.

Acknowledgments

C. McNeill: research concept and study design, literature review, data collection, data analysis and interpretation, writing of the manuscript, or reviewing/editing a draft of the manuscript. C. M. Beaven: research concept and study design, data collection, data analysis and interpretation, writing of the manuscript, or reviewing/editing a draft of the manuscript. D.T. McMaster: data collection, data analysis and interpretation, reviewing/editing a draft of the manuscript. N. Gill: research concept and study design, data collection, reviewing/editing a draft of the manuscript.

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Keywords:

eccentric training; athlete; team; performance; periodization

Supplemental Digital Content

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