How CrossFit got it half right.

I know I said I was going to do this on a weekly basis but quite frankly I have way too much to say to only bloviate once a week.  Today I am going to discuss the other half of the movement, the part that we never really see programmed in CrossFit….. the eccentric phase. No, I don’t mean your eccentric uncle who wears lipstick to the family reunion.  I am talking about what those body builder types refer to as, “the negative.”

What is an eccentric movement?

It is important to note that our muscles work in three different ways; concentrically, eccentrically, and isometrically.  Concentrically is a muscle shortening under tension, eccentrically is a muscle elongating or stretching under tension and isometric is a muscle maintaining a constant length under tension.  Let’s use a push up as an example.  When pressing ourselves from the ground our pectoralis muscles shorten (concentric), when we lower back down it is that same muscle controls the movement in the “negative” or eccentric phase as is stretches.  In nearly ten years I don’t think I have ever seen a negative tempo set programmed on main site (or any others for that matter)  That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, just that I haven’t seen it.

 So why is it so valuable?

Studies have shown that by manipulating the amount of time that we are in the eccentric (negative) phase of a movement the more benefits we can draw (to an extent).  By preloading our muscle eccentrically in a warm up or first section of our training session, we significantly reduce the amount of recovery time needed from our second bout.  Additionally, altering the amount of time under tension has a greater impact on our Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC)  Higher EPOC levels results in a significant increase in metabolic rate post training.  This means that you recover faster and get a greater anaerobic benefit from your intense training.  Something else to think about is by increasing the amount of time that our muscle is under tension or load, the greater benefits we will see in other connective tissue.  I can not count the number of people who have complained (rightfully so) of wrist and shoulder pain directly following a moderate to heavy overhead squat.  Those areas are often the “weak link” in our chain.  As a result, what should be our primary muscle groups in such a movement get an inferior adaptation because the demand placed on them is so far below what it should be.  One of the reasons is the lack of strength at the smaller joints.  By decreasing the load but increasing the amount of time spent under that load we can effectively strengthen those joints.  Some people will say that by focusing on the eccentric phase we have a higher degree of muscle tissue breakdown which can result in a condition know as exertional rhabdomyolysis.  Personally, I couldn’t find any articles linking the two.

So if it is so valuable why don’t we see it programmed in CrossFit?

CrossFit is all about measuring capacity, work done over time.  Variable time under tension sets are not very easy to “score”  furthermore doing heavy movements fast is more entertaining for us as athletes and for spectators of the “Sport of Fitness”  Regardless of these things I believe that integrating time under tension sets is very valuable in the progression of CrossFit athletes.   By strengthening our weak links while simultaneously reducing our recovery time and increasing metabolic rate we have a greater chance at improvement.

What would a time under tension set look like for CrossFit programming?

I have been in the habit of programming time under tension sets 2-3 days per week for a while now.  I have seen some amazing results from this integration.  After further research I have decided that utilization of eccentric preloading will be even more prevalent in the way Cuspis approaches it’s training.  Personally I will be writing more eccentric body weight based movements into warm ups, movements that mimic the muscular recruitment patterns of the main training set.  I would not advise them in a main set where time is being scored.  Keep in mind that the weight that your primary muscle groups can potentially lift in an eccentric phase is significantly higher than they can concentrically but as stated previously, some joints may not be prepared for an increased load.  Try utilizing body weight based movements first like push ups, ring dips and pull ups.  Integration of barbell movements can be programmed later.  Typically a 4 or 5 to 1 ratio is most effective when preformed in 3-5 reps per set for 3-5 sets at 50-70% of a 1RM.  If preloading for power/Olympic lifting is the goal than using an amount greater than your 1RM is very effective.  Be sure to have spotters while doing this.  I broke a long standing front squat plateau by lowering a weight 10-15% greater than my 1RM with control then bailing at the bottom.  Having a spotter on each side to assist the weight back up would have been a much more effective way to go.


Check in later this week when the topic will be….. “So you decided to sleep with someone at your gym”

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4 Responses
  1. jay

    Applause for you my bearded friend..I could not agree with you more and have programmed this for athletes in Minnesota and California with 100% results..Looking at a movement from a sort of 3-dimension instead of just “I’m gonna squat today” will result in continued 1RM smashing..It will be interesting to see if the crossfit people can actually take their blinders off one day realizing that there were crazy strong people around before Crossfit using different methods..Great to See some coaches actually have some due-diligence and pick up a book thats not crossfit journal..