Youth Athletes: Eccentric Training For Performance and Injury Prevention
One of the best things I can do for a youth athlete as a strength coach is to teach them to control their body.
Most decent athletes are pretty natural when it comes to creating force. They can sprint, they can jump, and they can get from one side of the field to the other in a hurry.
They have hopefully been doing this for years as kids, and just need a point in the right direction to build upon this base.
What many of them struggle with is controlling the force they have learned to create.
This is where eccentric training comes in as a highly effective method for improving performance and decreasing the risk of injury.
Three Parts to Every Movement
Before we dive into everything eccentrics, I want to start by saying that a movement can be broken down into three phases of muscular contraction. We will use the squat as an over simplified example here to keep things easy.
Eccentric- Phase one is the eccentric or lowering phase, and what we will be talking about primarily today.
Isometric- Phase two is the isometric phase, or time between eccentric and concentric phases. Think of this as the bottom of the squat as you finish the descent and begin to stand back up.
Even if you don’t purposefully pause during this time, a brief isometric contraction is still occurring.
Concentric- Even if you don’t purposefully pause during this time, a brief isometric contraction occurs. An isometric contraction is also occurring in all of the other stabilizer muscles involved that are not changing in length.
So What Are Eccentrics?
An eccentric contraction is one where the muscle contracts and lengthens under load. Think of a traditional dumbbell curl. The lowering phase is the eccentric contraction for the biceps, as the muscle lengthens under load.
The thing about the eccentric phase is you can handle much more weight than you can in the concentric, or raising, action.
This is also the part of the movement that is responsible for the most structural damage to the muscle, therefore causing the most soreness. That’s why movements that force you to slowly control the eccentric phase make you considerably more sore. A good example of this is walking lunges.
Cool Story, But Why Eccentrics?
Focusing on the eccentric part of the movement is important, but it becomes even more important for athletes.
Why is that?
Let’s think of the body like a car.
Traditional training, mainly emphasizing the concentric action, is like improving the engine of your car. It allows you to produce more force and therefore go faster. It won’t be hard to get young athletes excited about this concept.
Training isometrics on the other hand is like upgrading the wheels of your car to give you better handling and control. These are harder to get athletes excited about, just as it is harder for you to get excited about putting snow tires on your car. It’s not sexy, but it is important.
Finally, training the eccentric phase is like upgrading the brakes on your car. This allows the athlete to decelerate, change direction, and absorb the force they have learned to create.
I like to talk about these phases in terms of a car because people understand the relationship between different parts of a car. And, just like a car, the different phases of movement have a strong relationship with each other.
It’s Like a Car. Well, Kinda.
As I mentioned before, most athletes are either naturally good at building an engine to create more power or already have one. On the other hand, what many are lacking is a solid set of brakes to help absorb the force that is being created.
What many programs focus on is primarily the concentric phase, as this is typically the limiting factor when performing most movements.
Not only is this something that a youth athlete may not necessarily need exclusively, it can actually create problems down the road (get it) if we keep building the engine but not the brakes.
Think about a young driver who just turned 16 learning the rules of the road. They can be compared quite easily to a young athlete learning the rules of their sport and the limitations and abilities of their own body.
If this new driver was given a slow car with good brakes (a Prius for example sake), they would safely be able to learn the rules of the road. As they got more proficient, they would get to upgrade to a faster car.
Not a bad idea right?
Now lets propose a different scenario.
What if that new driver was given a brand new Ferrari that tops out at 210 miles per hour. Pretty high level of force production right?
Now let’s cut the brakes on that Ferrari.
How do we feel about it now?
I think we can both agree that eventually that Ferrari is going to crash, and it is going to crash a lot harder than the Prius we talked about before.
This is what happens when you have the ability to create a ton of force but lack the necessary means to control it.
Instead of a car crash, this is when performance limitations become obvious and injuries can occur.
Wrapping Things Up
What we are trying to do with youth athletes is develop the ability to control and harness the strength they will undoubtedly gain.
For most, this means spending some time on force absorption and deceleration work. This takes the form of isometrics, and more importantly, eccentric training.
By preparing your athletes to stop before you give them the power to go fast, you will do them a huge favor in the short term.
More importantly, you will be doing them an even bigger favor in the long run in terms of injury prevention and longevity.
That's All, Folks!
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