Recover faster and decrease muscle damage by manipulating time under tension. Research shows that it is possible to decrease muscle damage and soreness by varying training tempo with eccentric pre-conditioning lifts. Having less muscle damage and soreness is beneficial if you need to recover quickly in preparation for competition or because you want to perform a subsequent workout that is more demanding and yields increased soreness.
For example, a new study in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that performing an exercise bout of 30 maximal eccentric contractions with the elbow flexors will result in less muscle damage in a subsequent bout of maximal eccentric contractions a few weeks later.
This complicated study was inspired by previous evidence that it’s possible to precondition or warm-up the muscles with slow eccentric contractions so that when fast velocity eccentric lifts are performed, less muscle damage and soreness is caused. This new study used untrained subjects and tested the effect of pre-conditioning the muscles by doing eccentric lifts using either 10, 20 or 100 percent of the 1RM. Then, three weeks later all participants did one bout of 30 eccentric maximal contractions and various muscle damage and soreness tests were done. Additionally, maximal isometric contractions were tested for their ability to pre-condition the muscles with the elbow flexed at either 20° or 90°.
Results showed that pre-conditioning the muscles with maximal eccentric contractions provides more of a protective effect than using a smaller load of 10 or 20 percent of maximal. The idea is that the more damaging the initial bout of exercise, the greater the protective effect on the second bout. This proved to be overwhelmingly true with the initial maximal eccentric contractions providing between 65 and 98 percent protection on muscle damage and soreness for the second bout. None of the other eccentric loads or isometric contractions provided more than a 55 percent protection.
Interestingly, pre-conditioning the muscles with the maximal isometric contractions at 20° of elbow flexion provided more of a protective effect for the second bout of exercise a few weeks later than using eccentric contractions with light loads of either 10 or 20 percent of maximal. The 20° flexion angle was also more protective than the 90° angle. This indicates that when you perform isometric contractions with the muscle lengthened it causes more muscle damage during the first exercise bout, which provides a more protective effect for the second bout.
If you’re wondering why anyone would even care about minimizing muscle damage three weeks later, this study comes after others that have shown a protective effect 7 and 10 days after the initial bout. You must allow time for adequate recovery from the first bout, but once that is accounted for, you can perform very intense training without eliciting significant muscle damage or soreness. The good news is the effect lasts for 21 days. It also highlights how quickly our bodies do adapt, and that recovery from a muscle thrashing training session goes on for more than just 24 or 48 hours.
Use this information to program your training so that you lift a large volume to produce strength and muscle gains. Based on previous evidence that slow contractions pre-condition the muscles for fast eccentric contractions, you can also manipulate tempo to allow for a larger volume of work to be performed with less muscular stress than the smaller volume that would be performed with just a set of fast-velocity contractions.
Chen, T., Chen, H., et al. Attenuation of Eccentirc Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage by Preconditioning Exercises. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2012. Published Ahead of Print.