We are coming up on the 1 year anniversary for the COVID-19 pandemic, and in Calgary at least, we are also coming up on the 6th month of the last 12 that our gyms have been closed.
You heard me right..... 50% of our year..... toast. Well, not really, toast toast. There were some silver linings, here and here for example. But you are readying that right that we've almost been home for half the year, despite uber low or non-existant spread rates in gyms and related areas of fitness and sport. This graph demonstrates the total cases from gyms and related areas for the whole of 2020, which during the same time, the province experienced over 220 000 positive covid cases. These numbers mean that these areas accounted for a 0.0014% spread of the virus, yet remain closed.
Because of this, we, like you, have been forced to work out from home, and train our clients from their homes on Zoom for a large portion of the year. We are still in lockdown in Calgary as we speak, so techniques to help people create overload, without many weights at their homes, has been paramount.
If you have been using slow tempos and eccentric type training at home for yourself, or for your clients, this article is to explore the benefits for doing what we intuitively started doing during the first lockdown.
Is this a case of the tortoise and the hare? Does slower win the race?
Many strength coaches and trainers use a slower eccentric phase in their strength training prescription. The eccentric phase just means the phase of the lift where the muscle is lengthening, rather than shortening (the way down in a bicep curl, for example). They suggest a slow and controlled “tempo” while lowering, with the intention of causing greater strength gains. You might have also heard of eccentric-only training, whereby you are assisted to the start of the exercise (top of the squat), you do the eccentric portion (squat down), and you are assisted back up to the top.
If some slow lowering is valuable, then only lowering must be better, right?
Intuitively, you know you can load up your exercises much heavier on the eccentric portion than on the concentric portion.... IF the movement only required one OR the other. If you load up your back squat with a weight 20% heavier than you've lifted before, you will likely be able to squat down with it, but chances are you'd get stuck at the bottom. Scientists estimate you can lift up to 30-50% more eccentrically (if you only needed to do 1 rep!) (Duchateau & Enoka, 2015). So if we want to lift the same weight in both concentric and eccentric phases (as most people do, most of the time), then we need to manipulate the force-velocity relationships so that the eccentric is harder than it should be. Lowering under control is one way of doing that.
The force velocity curve basically states that at heavy weights, you will only be able to move them slowly, and at light weights, you will be able to move them more quickly.
Slow eccentrics require you work harder against what is basically a comparatively much lighter weight. This is why lowering slowly is often recommended during normal strength training, instead of lowering quickly.
If you lowered quickly after lifting, and had a light weight at home (as most of us do right now) it would be far too easy.
And, contrary to previous conceptions of weight training, recent research shows that you can get stronger in ANY REP RANGE. This is great news, because if you need to lift slowly AND many times to create enough stimulus, you can still gain muscle?
So, back to lifting lighter weights, or whatever you have for weights at home, more slowly. If you don't have heavy weights to use while you're at home - can this still be beneficial?
Overload for hypertrophy dictates that training must be sufficiently, sequentially challenging enough to initiate muscle growth. The point at which training is sufficient to initiate change is called the “stimulus threshold”. This threshold is generally achieved via a combination of variables. In the context of hypertrophy, reaching the stimulus threshold means providing enough volume, load, and frequency of training to initiate muscle growth. A range of values for each variable can be effective, as long as they collectively summate to drive change. An example of this is the fact that a range of reps and loads for a given exercise can produce hypertrophy, but on the lower end of the weight range, more reps will be needed to maintain sufficient stimulus and visa-versa.
- Mike Israetel
What this means in practice, is that as long as you are practicing your reps closer to the stimulus threshold for achieving adequate stimulation of the muscle you're training, you can still achieve muscle hypertrophy, and continue to get stronger at home.
How do you know if you're achieving this? You need to consider RIR.
Reps in Reserve (RIR): Also known as reps from failure, RIR is a relative effort scaling which directs the individual to conclude a set of exercise at a prescribed number of repetitions away from going to muscular failure, technical failure, or making a maximal effort. An RIR of 2 would indicate that the athlete should cease when they feel they only have 2 more reps before hitting muscular failure. In the context of hypertrophy training, failure is denoted when another full repetition cannot be performed with proper technique.
So, when you're lifting, and in good programs like the $20 Strength Club for example, you need to use over RIR 5, and this can progress closer or further away from RIR 0 throughout the program, depending on the program's intention.
In summary - lifting slowly on the eccentric phase of the lift is a very effective way to both make lighter weights feel harder, and get closer to a very low RIR so that you can benefit from being over the threshold for stimulating muscle growth. If you need to lift for more than 15 reps with a very slow eccentric while gyms are closed, and your access to equipment is low, you can do that!
Hopefully this was helpful - feel free to drop us a line if you need any clarifications or help with your training!
References Duchateau, J., & Enoka, R. M. (2016). Neural control of lengthening contractions. Journal of Experimental Biology, 219(2), 197-204.
Ishøi, L., Sørensen, C. N., Kaae, N. M., Jørgensen, L. B., Hölmich, P., & Serner, A. (2015). Large eccentric strength increase using the Copenhagen Adduction exercise in football: A randomized controlled trial. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports.
Israetel, M., Hoffmann, J., David, M., Feather, J. (Accessed 2020). Scientific Principles of Hypertrophy Training. Renaissance Periodization.
Franchi, M. V., Reeves, N. D. & Narici, M. V. Skeletal Muscle Remodeling in
Response to Eccentric vs. Concentric Loading: Morphological, Molecular, and
Metabolic Adaptations. Front. Physiol. 8, 1–16 (2017). Scientific Principles of Hypertrophy Training 126
Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D. I., Vigotsky, A. D., Franchi, M. V. & Krieger, J. W. Hyper-
trophic Effects of Concentric vs. Eccentric Muscle Actions. J. Strength Cond. Res. 31, 2599–2608 (2017).