Welcome back to part III of our Stretching 101 blog series. We’ve covered several topics surrounding the practice of stretching including defining stretching and various sub-types, discussing when we might use those particular techniques, highlighting some key benefits of including stretching into our routines, differentiating between “flexibility” and “mobility”, and examining the individual factors that determine our flexibility/mobility.
We mentioned in part one that while stretching is a fantastic tool and one that we often use to improve our flexibility/mobility, it may not actually be the most effective in some cases. In fact, perhaps the best way for us to improve flexibility and other aspects of muscular function is to strengthen these muscles instead of stretching them. More specifically, we’ll talk about “eccentric” strengthening.
“Eccentric” muscle action occurs when the muscle is lengthening under tension. Therefore, eccentric strengthening is generally occurring on the way down for a given exercise. For example, a simple bicep curl: as you curl the dumbbell, your bicep pulls on the forearm to bring the weight up, effectively shortening the bicep muscle (concentric phase). On the way down, your bicep slowly allows gravity to pull the weight toward the ground, effectively lengthening the bicep (eccentric phase).
In more recent years, there has been a focus in the research world and therefore a shift in our understanding of how loading muscles can affect muscle length, strength, control, structure, function, and overall health and injury prevention. Like with stretching, we can all take advantage of this technique with little to no cost/equipment, making it both an effective and accessible method of improving several key aspects of health, fitness, and performance.
Rather than over-explaining the details of eccentric strengthening, take a look at this figure to understand the features that make it up, as well as the benefits (and risks) involved. (summary below)
Hody S, Croisier JL, Bury T, Rogister B, Leprince P. Eccentric Muscle Contractions: Risks and Benefits. Front Physiol. 2019 May 3;10:536. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2019.00536. PMID: 31130877; PMCID: PMC6510035.
In summary, eccentric strength work has been shown to more rapidly improve strength, performance, injury prevention, flexibility, mobility, muscle control/activation, and other health markers as compared to other types of stretching and strengthening exercises.
Emphasizing eccentric strengthening has been known to exaggerate the normal muscle micro-traumas, soreness, and temporary reduction in muscle function that we typically see with strength training- (don’t be freaked out by the seemingly long list of “risks” above!).
We’re working on putting together specific stretching and eccentric training protocols to help simplify the process and streamline gains in mobility, so be on the lookout in our next Stretching 101 blog.
In the meantime, take a few extra seconds on your next lift to focus in on the eccentric portion of each rep and let us know how it feels!