Eccentric squats have long been considered as a fundamental component in the training of elite level athletes. Eccentric training per se does improve motor units recruitment and synchronization, inter and intramuscular coordination and, eventually, strength (absolute strength). Eccentric squats – heavy back squats and front squats ranging between 70-80% of 1RM and 130-140% of 1RM – represents a necessary component in the training of competitive throwers, from the early developmental stage to the elite level.
Early Developmental Stage (learn to train): male and female athletes 9 to 17 years of age.
Young and adolescent athletes are “learning how to train”. They are developing basic, fundamental skills that are necessary to further improve performance in sport. Alongside with the development of general athleticism, young athletes are undergoing the physiological process of growth and maturation, which ultimately leads to the development of physical attributes such as speed, strength, and endurance but also the development of a more mature muscle-skeleton system. Strength training is a major component of this process and eccentric training finds its place in the development of muscle-tendon stiffness but also functional hypertrophy.
Younger throwers – male and female athletes age 9 to 13 – can, therefore, incorporate bodyweight eccentric exercises aimed to target specific joint, muscles, ligaments and tendons whereas adolescent throwers might benefit from more basic, compound eccentric exercises with weights ranging between 60% and 70% of 1RM. Sub-maximal eccentric training and eccentric squats in particular can support the physiological process of ponderal growth occurring right before and after the onset of puberty laying a solid, structural foundation to increase absolute strength once athletes turn 16-17 years old.
Older, more mature throwers need to develop strength (absolute strength) as a way to improve throwing mechanics. After the age of 16-17 years old athletes are “training to compete” and strength does represent a lifting factor in their ability to perform in sport. Pound per pound, stronger, more powerful throwers achieve higher speed of release and eventually, much greater throwing distances. From the age of 13-14 years old for female athletes and from the age of 15-16 years old for male athletes, the gap between relative strength and absolute strength significantly increases.
Throwers normally peak in their career around the age of 24-26 years old. By the time they turn 17-18, male and female athletes can back squat anywhere between 1.6 and 2.2 time their bodyweight. From this point on any increase in a absolute strength requires a combination of dynamic efforts (plyometrics, Olympic weightlifting), maximum efforts (squats, deadlift, weighted pulls) and supermaximal efforts such as a combination of isometric and eccentric training. Heavy eccentric squats (120-140% 1RM) alone and/or in combination with more dynamic exercise (see complex training) provide the unique opportunity to increase absolute strength to a much greater extent.
Elite Level Throwers (train to win): male and female athletes 24 years old or older.
Elite level athlete are “training to win”. Male throwers can squat 2.2-2.5 times their body weight, snatch, clean and jerk more than 500 pounds. Female throwers can squat 1.8-2.0 times their body weight, snatch, clean and jerk more than 350 pounds. However, more than absolute strength what can – and what does – make a terrific difference for these athletes is being able to tolerate a higher amount of ground reaction force and use it to increase speed of release in excess of 30 m/sec. Using a combination of 30-40% resistance and 30-40% additional elastic bands and/or chains (for a total of approximately 70-80% of 1RM), overspeed eccentric back squats provide additional load and speed during the eccentric portion of the movement, eventually increasing peak vertical bar velocity as a consequence of a more vigorous stretch-shortening cycle.
Elastic bands and chains are meant to increase kinetic energy (elastic energy and/or potential energy, which eventually convert into speed) as the athlete perform the eccentric portion of the movement. However, with 30-40% resistance at the bottom of the squat, athletes can use the stretch-shortening cycle to suddenly increase speed as they push off the ground with bar vertical velocity in excess of 1.6 m/sec. For a 600 pounds squatter, 210-240 pounds of weight on the bar and 210-240 pounds of bands or chains (2×100-120 pounds on each side) result in a total of 70-80% eccentric load and 30-40% of concentric load. As bands progressively increase stiffness and/or chains unfold, the need to “compensate” for the additional weight force athletes to increase acceleration to preserve speed. Compensatory acceleration training (CAT) provides a combination of heavy eccentric training, explosive concentric training, and complex training representing, as a matter of fact, eccentric training at its finest.
The use of heavy, eccentric squats is normally limited to a narrow window of time during the off season. Younger, less experienced throwers should incorporate submaximal eccentric training during GPP at the beginning of a 6-8 months macrocycle. Older, more experience throwers can, instead, rotate eccentric squats during blocks of high intensity training throughout the year with heavy singles or doubles at 120-140% of their 1RM during the off-season or in combination with more dynamic, explosive exercises 4 to 6 weeks before competing.