There’s a lot of hype about eccentric strength training. What are the benefits for climbers?
—Greg Simmons | Chicago, IL
Concentric training movements involve positive resistance to forces, for example when pulling upward during a pull-up, or when pushing up during a push-up. Either way, the primary muscles always shorten (contract). Eccentric muscle contractions involve the resistance to negative forces, such as lowering down during a pull-up or press-up. During these movements, the muscle fibers lengthen while contracting in order to maintain control.
Climbing is mainly about concentric movements, but we are also required to lower ourselves down occasionally; such as in down-climbing to a rest, or testing holds while trying to solve a baffling crux. It would be easy to predict that we should focus predominantly on training concentric movements, as these are the main requirement in climbing, especially when almost every concentric exercise (such as a pull-up) also features an eccentric movement as part of the deal. All the research concludes that strength gains result from exercises that combine both types of movement. However, there are also strong additional advantages to focusing on eccentric movements from time to time as part of an overall strength-training campaign.
Eccentric training can be used to build strength for climbing in three main ways. The first is “forced reps,” where you carry on doing the negative part of the movement after you can no longer perform the positive part. An example would be to do pull-ups to the point of failure, then use a step or foothold to enable you to perform more “negatives,” where you lower down and continue again to failure. This lets you extend the set further into the failure zone. Most research concludes that forced rep sets are good for strength training, and that you are better off doing fewer sets with forced reps than more sets without. A guideline for weighted pull-ups for a low-intermediate-level climber might be (after warming up) to do 3 or 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps plus 2 or 3 forced reps, rather than 5 or 6 sets without forced reps. Those climbing at a higher level should follow pyramid structure (sets of 10, 6, 4, 6, 10). Again, each set should finish with 2 or 3 forced reps.
The second way that eccentric training can be used is to do “pure negatives,” where you only do the eccentric part of a movement. The advantage here is that you can train with far higher weights than would be possible with exercises combining concentric and eccentric movements. If used strategically, negative sets have a superb system-shocking effect, and can help kick off your strength training. One way that pure negatives can work for climbers is as a component of a progressive plan to do a one-arm pull-up. Even if you are unable to do a one-arm pull-up, you may still be able to lower yourself on one arm in slow control, and if so, then you are ready to start! Train three times a week, using the pyramid structure given previously, and start your program by doing eccentric-only movement. To increase resistance you will need a weight belt and should train until you are able to handle 5 pounds for the 10-rep sets, 10 pounds for the 6-rep sets and 15 pounds for the 4-rep sets. After making these gains you can add static lock-offs to these sets (for example hold still for two or three seconds at full lock, at 90 degrees and at 180 degrees). Then, once you can hold the lock-offs within the negative sets for four or five seconds (with the weight belt), switch to assisted concentrics where you use your other arm for help. Start with a knotted rope, holding it very low down and then switch to putting your free hand on your bicep. Finally, you can go for your first one-arm pull-up—all thanks to those negatives!
A third way that eccentric movements fit into a training program is in the form of plyometric exercises. These movements involve resistance to negative forces at high speed, for example, when dropping down during a “touches” exercise on a campus board. (The touches exercise is performed by hanging with both arms from a low rung, pulling up fast, latching a high rung, dropping back down, and then repeating, alternating from arm to arm.) A great deal of research into plyometric exercises for mainstream sports such as sprinting and gymnastics has concluded that they are a key method for increasing explosive power. While there is clearly a concentric component to a plyometric exercise, the eccentric movement is understood to do most of the valuable work. The forces involved in the “drop-down” are clearly enormous, as you attempt to absorb the weight of your falling body under gravity. Remember that you can increase the intensity of plyometric exercises such as touches in two ways. One is to go up to, and down from, a higher rung, and the other is to attempt to do the sets more quickly. If we are entitled to translate research from other sports, then there is more benefit in trying to do faster plyometric sets in comparison with doing higher rung sets. The true goal of a plyometric exercise is to reduce the time it takes to convert the negative force into a positive force (known as the “amortization phase”). A good training guide for touches for campus newcomers is to do 3 sets of 10. More advanced climbers can use the pyramid structure given above—for example, go to higher rungs for the lower rep sets, but get your stopwatch out and try to go faster (rather than higher) every session.
Clearly there are other ways to use eccentric training for climbing, but hopefully this gives you a few ideas to bring to the gym.