Close Your Eyes For Improved Strength, Performance, and Muscle Function
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
Eyes-closed training is something I frequently incorporate with all of my clients and athletes. That’s because it improves movement mechanics and muscle function. In fact I’ve seen it do wonders for my clients and athletes almost immediately. The reason for this is that closing your eyes on any exercise forces your muscle spindles and other proprioceptive mechanisms to work overtime in order to stabilize the movement and control the load. In other words it teaches the lifter to rely more on kinesthetic awareness rather than sight. Instead of watching your way through the movement, feel your way through the movement.
Here are two examples of applying eyes-closed training to eccentric isometric squats and lunges.
Although much of the eyes closed training I have my athletes perform involves eccentric isometric variations on squats, hinges, lunges, presses, pulls, and core stabilization drills I also employ eyes-closed training on explosive movements such as jumps and Olympic lifts.
Here’s one of my NFL Combine athletes Ike Onike performing eyes closed hang cleans.
You’ll also notice he uses a very controlled eccentric phase as he moves into his coiled power position with his hips. Many athletes lack appropriate motor control on Olympic lifts and other explosive movements. They often times rely more on pure brute force and aberrant movement patterns rather than sound technique and proper body alignment.
One of the single most effective techniques I’ve found for cleaning up these issues is to incorporate eyes closed variations. Wasted body motion, faulty alignment, and poor postural positioning is immediately punished as it disrupts the athlete’s equilibrium and state of balance. In other words they’re forced to control their power as anything less will result in the athlete feeling semi-disoriented and unstable.
Once they’ve learned to harness their motor control on explosive movements such as jumps and Olympic lifts, taking them back to eyes-open variations almost always results in significantly higher PR’s and improved mechanics. That’s because the proper mechanics required during the eyes closed variations transfers into their movement patterns as it re-educates their CNS on how to properly move. If an athlete is having trouble using their hips, keeping the bar close to their body, catching the bar in the proper racked position, or pulling with their upper body too early in the movement, eyes-closed training is a sure-fire way to improve their Olympic lifts.
Here’s another one of my athletes Kyle Daniel’s performing eyes-closed snatches as we work on improving his motor control, power output, and body awareness.
Unstable Movements with Eyes-Closed Technique
Performing unstable exercises such as bottoms up movements and hanging band drills with the eyes closed is an incredibly effective way to clean up your technique and movement patterns. Combined with eccentric isometrics this kicks up the level of somatosensory feedback and kinesthetic awareness several notches. In addition it truly forces the lifter to master their body mechanics as anything but perfect technique will be immediately punished with uncontrollable levels of instability. Just be prepared physically and mentally, as these are some of the most challenging yet effective variations you’ll ever attempt.
Jumps and Explosive Movements
Most athletes lack the ability to properly activate their feet and ankles when jumping and landing. This can compromise force production and force absorption not to mention placing the athletes at greater risk for injury. Performing jumps, hops, depth drops, leaps, and skips with the eyes closed is highly effective method for resolving this issue. That’s because the feet and ankles must work overtime to lock the athlete in and control their body. In other words, the visual feedback they’ve relied upon to compensate for their neuromuscular deficiencies is no longer something they can use as a crutch. Instead their somatosensory system must work overtime to provide feedback and motor control.
Even when my athletes keep their eyes open, using the mirror is off limits except for vary occasional glancing and coaching illustrations. In fact consistent use of the mirror represents one of the more destructive training tools you could use when it comes to adhering to somatosensory feedback and proprioception. Whenever you use the mirror, the image from the mirror reflects back to your retina and gets processed by your occipital lobe before the brain cognitively compares this image with the desired outcome, which requires further processing.
Cerebellar coordination of movement modification in response to the visual and cognitive processing steps described above can take 200-500 milliseconds, which is roughly 8-10x longer than it takes proprioceptive mechanisms such as muscle spindles to respond (30-50ms). If you use the mirror to make corrections, by the time you’ve made the adjustments, the error has already transpired whereas muscle sensory receptors can detect these potential errors before significant movement deviations occur. The visual system can often act as a distraction keeping lifters from attending to other more important inherent sensory information. In other words lift by feel not by sight.
What About Loading?
You should be able to handle at least 80-90% of the load you typically handle for the eyes-open variation of that lift. Because most athletes severely lack the proper motor control, stability, and sensory feedback from their muscles spindles, this can oftentimes overwhelms their nervous system making it feel impossible until they are properly trained. If you’re unable to do this then your proprioceptors may need to be re-sensitized or your form may need to be adjusted. If this describes you then its time to start using properly executed eccentric isometrics and learn to control the load and most importantly your body.