Most strength and conditioning professionals have read the training manual Triphasic Training, have seen Cal Dietz – the writer of said manual – speak at a conference on the topic, or in the very least have heard of it.
Without doing Cal the injustice of trying to fully explain his work, the general idea is to first understand that every sport movement has three phases – the eccentric portion (muscles lengthening while under tension), the amortization phase (isometric phase in which the muscle neither lengthens nor shortens while under tension), and the concentric phase (muscles shorten while under tension). Every movement in human performance will utilize these three phases, and in order to maximize power output, we must learn to efficiently transfer the energy gained and summated throughout the movement. Thus, Cal has created a training program that methodically employs an emphasis on either the eccentric, isometric, or concentric portion of each training exercise.
Specifically, the eccentric portion of each movement is focused on loading the bar or body with near-maximimal, maximal, or supra-maximal loads in order to teach the body to inhibit the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO). The GTO is a mechanism within the tendon of each muscle that essentially shuts off the muscle whenever it senses too great of tension (with the goal of avoiding injury).
Have you ever heard the stories of people using extreme strength in a life or death situation? The thought is that the GTO is inhibited by the extreme stress of the circumstances in these situations, thus supra-maximal strength can be expressed.
Those who utilize Triphasic Training, then, usually begin with a phase that builds to near-maximal, maximal, or supra-maximal loads in order to:
- Build strength, and
- Encourage the body to inhibit the GTO.
For supra-maximal sets, the spotter(s) generally do most of the concentric work, while the athlete solely focuses on the eccentric portion.
In fact, I have seen Cal speak in person and, if I remember correctly, he has (at least in the past) had some of his athletes performing Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squats with 105-110% of their one-rep max for that particular exercise. Utilizing extended eccentrics (usually 3-5 seconds) the athletes descended into the split squat, while spotters on either side were responsible for the concentric motion.
Coach Dietz’s book, Triphasic Training, is a great read (I have read it twice) for the program itself, as well as the many concepts Cal touches on (e.g. triphasic movement, training residuals, etc.) and everyone who has utilized it is usually happy with the great results.
The Value of Low-Intensity Eccentrics
With the novice athlete that I work with, utilizing very heavy eccentric movements are reserved for the more experienced trainees. My first-year athlete is not going to perform a whole lot of maximal training. It occurs, but often times at a higher rep max (a goal of 3-5 reps at times).
But, in all honestly I don’t feel comfortable putting my young athletes under maximal or supra-maximal loads. And, if I’m not comfortable with it, I am not going to subject my athletes to it – plain and simple. Granted, it should be emphasized that most of “my athletes” are 14-18 year olds that possess very limited training experience Thus, to say that I am not comfortable with maximal or supra-maximal loads is to say that I am not comfortable with advanced methods for a population that doesn’t need advanced methods.
What Cal Dietz did do for my amateur athlete programming years ago, when I first read his book, Triphasic Training, was help me find the value of utilizing low-intensity eccentrics.
The value is not in power production – not directly, anyways – but in motor control, the ease feedback application, and in the ease of seeing progression.
Learning new movements in the weight room can be very difficult, even when the athlete has no pre-existing injuries or limitations. Fortunately, most of the greatest “bang-or-your-buck” exercises in the weight room simply contain one part. For example, an athlete learning to squat for the first time is not going to descend into the bottom of the squat, then ascend into a jump, and then land in a split-stance. They are simply going to squat down, then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
While basic exercises like the squat, hip hinge, lunge, step-up, push-up, and pull-up are complex multi-joint exercises that are by no means easy, their difficulty pales in comparison to more complex movements, such as the Clean, throw, or jump. These more advanced movements not only include multiple joints, but timing, speed, and sequencing that are vital to the successful completion and usage of the exercise. Thus, teaching these components with slow tempos may prove to be difficult and awkward at times.
To teach a less complex, yet vastly important exercise like the squat, though, with a slow eccentric phase under low-intensity loads can actually prove to be highly beneficial, as it allows the athlete to groove and feel the movements. “Groove” and “feel” may be subjective and unquantifiable terms, but having feel for your body and its limbs in space is subjective. Yet, it is imperative to possess if you’re an athlete in the weight room.
The ability to efficiently and safely utilize the neuromuscular system to coordinate movement is largely the greatest initial goal of a strength training program. To skip this step in order to load the bar would be a great miscalculation of athletic development.
While there are various ways to effectively facilitate motor learning, low-intensity eccentrics slow the movement down enough to allow the athlete time to receive and interpret internal feedback, without applying a constraint on this process such as a strenuous load.
Easily Applying Coaching Cues
Extrinsic feedback can also be a valuable tool in the process of learning to move well. Having a competent coach give an athlete just enough instruction at just the right time can be just what they need. Unless, of course, the circumstances are too complex for the athlete to receive and interpret that feedback, and then apply it into practice.
Movement speed can make an exercise more or less complex. Consider the coaching of a pitcher: how often do you instruct the athlete during the pitch itself? What about during a Clean; how often do we give our athlete feedback during this extraordinary rapid and complex exercise? Not often.
That’s because these movements are already so complex and fast that instruction and feedback will largely be rendered useless. But, what about a slow movement?
Slowing a movement down with long eccentrics can provide a coach the opportunity to:
- See the movement unfold more easily, and
- Provide feedback that can be used during that set or rep – especially when the load is sub-maximal.
When the coach says “knees out,” they can make the adjustment with relative ease. This is because they do not have to worry about fatigue accumulating, nor do they have to stress about whether or not they can actually complete the rep.
Easily Seeing Progression
By slowing the movement down with low-intensity, slow eccentrics all athletes can achieve a baseline standard of movement. There will be no question what the appropriate squat depth is, for example (or what is inappropriate; i.e., anything above parallel), and once we have established that, progression becomes so much easier to observe.
If a standard of movement isn’t established, progression can be harder to observe. If at first an athlete squats to full depth with 45 lbs, and then does the same with 50 lbs, we know we have progressed. But, if the athlete squats to full depth with 45 lbs, and then one inch less with 50 lbs, are we stronger? It is hard to say.
What low-intensity eccentrics can do is allow the athlete to get comfortable with their technique under less strenuous loads. Slowly they can then be progressed – both in intensity of load and speed of movement.
For example, if an athlete can squat with the precise form desired with 135 lbs performed slowly, then advances to 145 lbs with precise form performed slowly, this is progression.
If this same athlete instead begins with a proficient squat of 135 lbs performed slowly, and then achieves an equally proficient squat of 135 lbs now performed more rapidly, we again are progressing.
Put simply, progression can be easy to observe when an athlete begins with slow-tempo, low-intensity eccentrics. If utilized right, the athlete is either going to end up moving more weight with better technique than they started with, or move the same weight faster with better technique. Either way, we are progressing safely.
While low-intensity slow-eccentrics may not be for every athlete in every situation (they may not be challenging enough for the intermediate or experienced trainee) they can be a great addition to a coaches tool-box, especially for those working with young, untrained athletes. I have personally seen them work time and time again.