The Ultimate Way to Strength Train
- Part 2 -
By Dr. Joel Seedman, PhD
Read Part I HERE
- ENFORCES FORM OVER PROGRAMMING: Exercise technique, body mechanics, and form are infinitely more important than exercise programming.
- INSTILLS SUPERIOR MOVEMENT MECHANICS: Properly executed eccentric isometrics are perhaps the single most effective modality for enhancing movement mechanics and mastering muscle function.
- ELIMINATES THE NEED TO PERFORM SOFT TISSUE WORK: With properly performed eccentric isometrics, it becomes unnecessary to perform soft tissue work, therapeutic modalities, corrective exercise, stretching, foam rolling, mobility drills, and corrective exercise. In fact these can be counterproductive.
- MITIGATES COMPLEXITY (i.e., exercise programming paralysis): While eccentric Isometrics can be applied to most lifts however they are particularly useful when applied to seven basic movement patterns including, squat, hinge, lunge, upper body horizontal push and pull, and upper body vertical push and pull.
In this article I won’t spend much time discussing exercise programming or talking extensively about how to implement eccentric isometrics into your routine. Here’s why: the more efficient your motor programs and overall lifting technique, are the less important exercise programming becomes. I’m not saying programming isn’t important as it definitely has its place. However in comparison to using the correct movement patterns and engraining the appropriate neural blueprints, exercise programming places a distant second.
You can take the world’s worst lifting routine and actually achieve incredible results as long as the proper technique and form are followed on the basic exercises. However, you could also take the world’s greatest training program and if technique is not proper then results will be marginal at best. Many of today’s strength coaches place too great of focus on programming, periodization, tapering, and deloading, having turned strength training into a numbers game that would confuse even the most sophisticated mathematician. Instead they would be better off focusing their attention on how to move correctly by ingraining the proper neural blueprints into their’ athletes’ nervous systems. Eccentric Isometrics are perhaps the single most effective stimulus for promoting this.
Before we examine further application of eccentric isometrics, its important to emphasize that proper movement mechanics be incorporated into these protocols. If not, then dysfunctional movement patterns will be engrained into the CNS. In fact performing any type of isometric particularly in the stretched position reinforces whatever movement pattern is being incorporated whether good or bad. Therefore ensuring that proper technique is used is of the utmost importance here.
In other words whatever movement strategy you use with EI’s will be even more permanently etched into your CNS and will become your body’s go to movement strategy. With this in mind performing these with precision and proper execution are essential to say the least. In essence eccentric isometrics create some of the strongest neuromuscular (neural) blueprints for human movement therefore it’s of the utmost importance they’re the right blueprints and not filled with flaws. With that said EI’s are perhaps the best training strategy to iron out the kinks for any lift or motor program.
COMMON QUESTION AND ANSWER
On a similar note, I’m periodically asked a unique question pertaining to this topic. Here’s a recent example from one of my pro level athletes.
- Question: “Even when I try with all my effort to use perfect form on EI’s on a movement such as squat I can tell they’re not perfect although in comparison to my normal squats they feel significantly more refined. Should I still perform them in this manner since as you mentioned these reinforce whatever movement pattern you are using and if I am still not quite able to have the perfect movement pattern am I setting myself up for reinforcing an improper neural blueprint?”
- Answer: If the movement technique you are using for the EI is an improvement relative to your normal movement strategies then this represents a positive trend in the right direction in terms of correcting muscle dysfunction even if the new strategy is not perfect. The key is each time you perform them try to hone in on technique more and more and use the inherent feedback from your sensory receptors to make steady improvements in form. Most individuals will not demonstrate perfect form the first few times performing EI’s although more than likely it will be far superior to whatever type of squat/movement they had been previously performing in their routine. As long as the individual approaches each session with the mindset of building upon their previous movement improvements then eventually perfect or near perfect form will be attained which will ultimately be your body’s default motor program. At that point the goal will simply be to make this movement strategy more and more automated so that no matter the circumstance, the body only knows how to move with proper mechanics. In other words, all traces of muscular dysfunction related to that general motor program will have been eliminated.
7 Overarching BENEFITS
Benefit #1: Correct vs. Corrective Exercise
When performed properly, eccentric isometrics are more corrective than “Corrective Exercise”. In fact most movement should be corrective in nature. However, when dysfunctional movement patterns become the go-to movement strategy, physical activity begins to generate more and more negative effects (in proportion to the degree of muscular dysfunction) while gradually mitigating the positive elements of movement. EI’s get to the heart of this viscous cycle and repair motor programs so as to restore the therapeutic-enhancing benefits of movement. In essence, eccentric isometrics act as natural chiropractic adjustment and body re-alignment mechanism through enhanced proprioceptive feedback and neuromuscular re-programing.
Benefit #2: No More Soft Tissue Modalities
Although I’m going to spark some heavy controversy by saying this, if you consistently have to perform soft tissue work, foam rolling, stretches, mobility drills, and corrective exercises then your movement patterns are flawed and your lifting technique is incorrect to varying degrees. Don’t accept tightness, aches, and pain as part of the training norm. This is your body’s way of telling you you’re moving improperly as movement should inevitably be therapeutic. Get to the root of the issue which is dysfunctional movement patterns. Treat the cause not the symptoms.
If your goal is to foam roll and stretch in order to be able to achieve a larger range of motion during your training, chances are you are actually collapsing as the muscle spindles have become de-sensitized from excessive use of the aforementioned self-treatment/soft tissue modalities.
Benefit #3: Increased Recovery /Training Frequency
There is an inverse correlation between technique and recovery. The better the technique, the less recovery time your body needs as the exercise will essentially be therapeutic and corrective. Poor technique demands greater recovery time to handle the negative ramifications produced from dysfunctional movement patterns.
Besides serving as an excellent diagnostic tool, properly performed eccentric isometrics allow higher frequency of training for any movement pattern as technique can be more easily emphasized. EI’s not only directly help recovery due to spending so much time in the lengthened position but they also teach proper arthrokinematics which can have a tremendous mitigating effect on joint and muscle inflammation.
Benefit #4: Neuromuscularly-Efficient-Induced-Hypertrophy
Having experimented with nearly every training modality possible over the last 13 years, I’ve found few if any techniques more effective for strength and hypertrophy than eccentric isometrics. The combination of an occluded stretch, increased time under tension, and the high degree of motor unit recruitment, is a highly potent stimulus for hypertrophy.
This is not to say that I do not use other training methods but simply that none contribute more to the success of my clients’ improvements in strength, power, and hypertrophy than eccentric isometrics.
Besides this direct effect, EI’s also have an indirect impact on strength and size as they help establish incredibly strong and efficient motor programs and efficient movement patterns. Grooving the proper neural pathways leads to greater ability to overload with the end result being tremendous gains in strength and size.
Benefit #5: Mental Concentration and Cognition
-Eccentric isometrics are not just a physiological and biomechanical process. It’s a very psychological and cognitively demanding experience that requires the individual to be highly mentally engaged and focused on what the purpose of the EI’s are. Man individuals believe that just because they perform a slow eccentric movements and hold the bottoms position that they’ve accomplished the goal of using EI’s. However, if they are not tuning into the sensory feedback from their muscles and other proprioceptive mechanisms and conscientiously trying to fine-tune their body mechanics then eccentric isometrics are not only ineffective but can be counterproductive. In other words, autopilot is not an option.
As an added benefit I’ve had many athletes and clients tell me how EI’s have positively impacted their ability to focus and concentrate not only during workouts but on other cognitive tasks involved in everyday life.
Benefit #6: Enhanced Mobility
This is somewhat obvious but spending greater time in the stretched position while staying tight and learning how to co-contract reciprocal muscle groups (during eccentric lengthening) is one of the most effective methods for enhancing mobility. Furthermore all mobility gained from EI’s is purely functional. In contrast, mobility gained from other traditional therapeutic modalities can produce dysfunctional mobility or hypermobility as the body has often times been overly treated or contorted into unnatural positions.
Similarly, optimal levels of stiffness are essential for proper mobility as low levels of stiffness (which in turn produces instability) often times causes the body to prevent or hinder motion it cannot safely stabilize. Eccentric isometrics allow the body to find the ideal balance of stiffness, stability, and mobility.
It should also be noted that the term “muscle stiffness” used in this article to describe optimal muscle tone or tension is different than what is typically considered “stiff”. Most individuals use the term “stiff” to describe lack of mobility, lack of rhythmic motion, inability to produce full ROM, and spastic muscles that are essentially knotted up as a result of dysfunctional movement. In this article the term “muscle stiffness” is different and is generally considered to be a favorable characteristic describing a high functioning muscle with enhanced rigidity.
Benefit #7: Decreased Inflammation
As previously mentioned, eccentric isometrics program the body to move in the most biomechanically efficient positions inevitably leading to enhanced performance as well as decreased joint and muscle inflammation. Not only is excessive inflammation and oxidative stress linked to nearly all known physical maladies but it also contributes to decreased insulin sensitivity ultimately wreaking havoc on health, physique, and performance attributes.
Ironically much of the research looking at the relationship between increased inflammation, resistance training, and insulin resistance, points to eccentric actions as being the key culprit. However, much if not most of this eccentric-induced inflammation is simply a byproduct of not knowing how to absorb force properly and performing eccentric movements with poor technique and flawed movement patterns.
In other words eccentric-induced inflammation should not be the standard norm that is unavoidable. The issue is more about the manner in which eccentric actions are performed. Done with improper movement patterns they undoubtedly produce excessive inflammation and in fact probably produce more inflammation than any form of movement. However, when performed correctly the byproduct is decreased inflammation and increased insulin sensitivity not to mention a host of other health benefits. Simply put, EI’s teach you how to deal with eccentric loads properly and efficiently.
Furthermore a majority of all inflammation can be traced back to the muscles as they are technically the largest endocrine tissue of the body. Simply put if the muscles are healthy the whole body is healthy. Unfortunately the opposite is true. If the muscles are not functioning properly or are hypertonic/spastic they are actually producing a host of negative byproducts directly from the muscles themselves as well as through crosstalk to other endocrine tissues via mechanisms related to cytokine/myokine function.
Fortunately, through physiological rewiring and neuromuscular re-education, eccentric isometrics help restore and repair the body’s optimal physiology by addressing the root cause of disease and inflammation, namely muscular dysfunction.
I’m not saying eccentric isometrics can cure cancer or reverse fatal diseases however the benefits of knowing how to minimize oxidative stress and free-radical accumulation throughout the musculoskeletal system is something that should not be undervalued.
Application: The Seven Movement Patterns
MOVEMENT #1: Squat
When a trainee says they cannot squat due to pain or aches in various regions of the body this usually indicates is that he or she is squatting incorrectly. Although there are numerous tools that can assist this I believe eccentric isometrics represent the most efficient modality for correcting squat mechanics as well as reinforcing proper technique. Simply slowing down the movement pattern, focusing on sensory information from your muscles, and not trying to exceed your body’s natural range of motion will offer more benefit than any corrective exercise or soft tissue procedure.
Any squat variation can be used including Barbell Squats, Safety Bar Squats, Goblet Squats, Overhead Squats, Front Squats, Deadlift Squats, Zercher Squats, Kettlebell Squats, etc. The focus should be more on how you perform these rather than the variation you choose. If your having trouble finding perfect position, decrease the load, slow it down, and even try closing your eyes for enhanced proprioception.
Movement #2: Horizontal Pull
Any traditional rowing exercise performed with proper technique will fit into this category. Seated cable rows, bent over barbell rows, inverted rows, one arm dumbbell rows, incline dumbbell rows, T-bar rows and even certain machine rows are all great options. The key is spinal alignment. When you perform the eccentric phase, stretch the muscles as far as possible without letting the shoulders round or the spine move out of position. In other words keep military-style posture throughout while letting the elbows full straighten without hyperextending.
Because most cable rows or machine rows allow you to begin the exercise in the stretched position this provides a conducive scenario for combining supramaximal holds (heavier than your 1RM) with eccentric isometrics. If you’re really looking for a protocol to stimulate back growth, try merging these into a modified drop set as demonstrated in this video.
Movement #3: Horizontal Push
The best options here will be Bench Press variations with dumbbells (flat, incline or Decline), pushups (on handles or rings), dips (standard or rings), or cambered bar bench press. All of these variations allow for your body’s natural full range of motion without your chest obstructing the movement. However, it should be noted that for many lifters (with the exception of heavier large-chested athletes) the ideal stopping point on standard eccentric isometric barbell chest presses will typically be 1-3cm away from their torso. Therefore, performing eccentric isometric bench press variations with a traditional Olympic barbell is appropriate for most athletes.
Keep in mind, the horizontal pull and horizontal push should essentially be mirror images of each other. If this is not the case then the technique for one or potentially both lifts is incorrect. Make sure the elbows don’t flare out and focus on squeezing your lats throughout. Again this should mimic and feel almost identical to a row. Performing chest movements in this fashion greatly enhances recovery time and growth.
For example when the elbows flare on bench press this can induce soreness of the pectoral muscles (particularly near the tendon insertion) that can last multiple days. This is rarely beneficial and can often induce muscular atrophy due to compromised structural recovery. However, when the shoulders and elbows are manipulated into their proper position (tucked), the degree of DOMS is exponentially reduced if not all but eliminated. As a result the lifter will experience much quicker recovery with greater strength and hypertrophy gains.
Remember, the worst mistake you can make is performing eccentric isometrics improperly as you’ll simply be grooving faulty movement patterns into your CNS not to mention greater potential for injury.
Movement #4: Hinge
Proper hip function is essential for performance, strength, and daily living. Knowing how to hinge from the hips rather than bending at the spine is something any human being should be capable of. Similar the movements, lock the spine in, then allow a natural bend of the knees, pivot at the hip joint, and drive the butt back. Focus on getting a natural stretch in the glutes and hamstrings not excessive. Performing these too stiff-legged will not only compromise the benefits associated with this movement but will also engrain a faulty hinge pattern. Remember a hinge is a natural, functional movement strategy not a contorted manipulation of your body’s ideal mechanics.
Performing eccentric isometrics with any type of Romanian Deadlift (RDL) using a barbell or dumbbells, as well as single leg variations are perfect. Good mornings, cable pull-throughs, and plate hinge isometrics are also excellent choices.
Movement #5: Vertical Pull
Of all the upper body movements the vertical pull can be one of the most difficult to master. Much of this has to do with the shoulders and scapula being directly pulled on by forces applied vertically to the arms.
This is where most athletes let the shoulders essentially get yanked out of position by allowing the scapula to pull up, over, and out rather than back, down, and in. With that said mastering EI’s applied to any lat pulldown or pullup variation can do wonders for shoulder function and postural restoration.
Movement #6: Vertical Push
Once you nail proper technique for vertical pulling, understanding and applying those cues to overhead pressing movements will make more sense. Thoracic spine mobility and scapular positioning are two of the most important factors here. Keep the chest out, pack the head tall, don’t let your hips collapse, and keep your core incredibly tight throughout.
Similar to horizontal pressing and pulling this should mimic and feel almost identical to pullups or pulldowns. Make sure to drive the elbows more in front of the body rather than the sides. Also, most individuals try to stay too upright during overhead pressing. Allowing the top third of your upper torso to slightly lean back while maintaining proper lumbopelvic alignment represents the epitome of T-spine mobility. Any overhead press variation particularly with dumbbells, trap-bar, kettlebells, or bottoms up variations are ideal. However, similar to the bench press, a standard barbell will also suffice.
Movement #7: Lunge/Stride
I’ve often been asked why I include the lunge pattern in my list of recommended eccentric isometrics particularly when there is so much overlap with squats and hinges. In reality the lunge pattern is perhaps the most important of any movement category I include in this article for several reasons.
First the squat and hinge are invaluable lower body functions however they both involve repeated hip flexion with very little stretching of the hip flexors. Lunge patterns represent the best method for eccentrically targeting the hip flexors of the back leg (something squats and hinges don’t provide) while simultaneously stretching the glutes of the front leg. Consistently performing such a movement is critical for lower body function especially with the majority of society sitting in chairs throughout the day with shortened hip flexors.
Secondly lunges especially when performed as an EI, directly target aspects of stability and balance that other exercises lack.
Finally, lunges are nothing more than an isolated variation of the human gait as it directly mimics the cross-crawl method of movement. No other tool works better for correcting gait (walking and running) and lower body movement mechanics than eccentric isometric lunges. Any lunge variation including barbell, dumbbell, overhead, front loaded/goblet, and Bulgarian squats will work effectively.
Olympic lifts performed with an eccentric isometric hang protocol are also incredibly effective for improving clean and snatch mechanics. In fact nearly all hang variations of Olympic lifts I use with my athletes involve an eccentric isometric hang protocol.
Eccentric isometrics can be applied to a majority of movements. Exercises that involve significant eccentric stretch or muscle lengthening are particularly effective. Some of these include pullover variations, tricep extension, skull crushers, bicep curls, abdominal rollouts, chest flies, back extensions, and more.
14 Reasons You need to do ECcentric Isometrics
Reason #1: Mitigates Inflammation
Muscle spasticity and hypertonicity is linked to a variety of physical conditions all of which are associated with oxidative stress and inflammation. EI’s may be a highly effective tool for minimizing various physical issues associated with inflammation.
REASON #2: Corrects Technique
When it comes to lifting as well as basic movement, most humans simply reinforce their pre-existing level of movement and unless you’re a genetic specimen you most likely move incorrectly to some degree or another. However eccentric isometrics build upon movement by correcting movement patterns rather than reinforcing it or even worse, degrading it.
Reason #3: Reinforces Correct Motor Recruitment
All movement transfers be that good or bad. If you lift with any type of flawed patterns this will gradually trickle into other aspects of movement, daily living, or performance. Whether its throwing, jumping, hitting, running or walking, proper movement patterns and efficient motor control are paramount. EI’s address this and establish ideal motor programs not just for lifting but for movement in general.
Reason #4: Eliminates Muscular Dysfunction
The best thing you can do for mobility is to move correctly. Besides the fact that eccentric isometrics when performed properly improve mobility almost immediately, more importantly they teach the body to move correctly via neuromuscular re-education. As a result this enhances mobility through the elimination of dysfunctional movement patterns and muscular spasticity.
Reason #5: Improves Recovery Time
When I first began implementing EI’s into my athletes’ training routines there was an obvious increase in recovery ability. In fact I noticed clients who could previously only train each muscle group once every 5-7 days, gradually became capable of training at much greater frequency. Most of my athletes and clients now successfully train full body 3-6x per week.
Reason #6: Increases Neuro-Sensitivity
Pain is an indicator that you’re not in the ideal position and not using your muscles to adequately absorb force. Even with significant injuries, individuals can often perform intense movements that involve the injured site. As long as technique and intramuscular/intermuscular coordination are precise, the tension is taken off the injured site and transferred to the muscles. In addition this provides therapeutic and healing effects as proper movement promotes restoration and repair. There are obviously extreme circumstances where such a scenario would be impractical but this is typically not the case for a majority of injuries. In summary, if it hurts you’re doing it wrong.
Reason #7: Corrects Concentric Movements
Proper eccentric positioning helps ensure correct concentric movement. When appropriate mechanics are achieved during eccentric muscle lengthening the proper groove has been established ultimately promoting refined mechanics on the subsequent concentric phase. With efficient eccentric isometrics, focusing on concentric positioning is almost unnecessary as the muscles have been properly activated on the lengthening phase and will stay so throughout the rest of the movement/shortening phase.
Reason #8: Creates High Impact Force Absorption Capabilities
EI’s teach the body how to deal with eccentric forces as well as how to absorb high impact force properly and efficiently. That’s because they teach the body how to move correctly using the most biomechanically sound positions and ideal arthrokinematics.
Reason #9: INcreases Proprioceptive Feedback
Eccentric isometrics emphasize the stretched position so as to increase the proprioceptive feedback coming through the muscles. This enhances technique, and movement patterns, while simultaneously providing a highly effective and therapeutic modality of strength training. Essentially when performing EI’s you use all of the heightened sensory information produced from muscles to master movement and perfect motor programs/movement patterns. This inevitably effects how you move ultimately impacting your overall health. The healthier your muscles are, the healthier you are in general
REASON #10: Replaces Foam Rolling
If your body consistently needs soft tissue work to loosen up and release tension and inflammation, this is key indicator that you have dysfunctional movement patterns and are lifting incorrectly. These should be addressed ASAP and the best way to do this is with EI’s. Few if any my clients and athletes ever foam roll or utilize soft tissue work on a consistent basis as they simply don’t have a need for it.
REASON #11: Teaches Jedi Level Muscle-Mind Connection
When training an athlete or client my goal is not for them to simply listen to every word I tell them to in terms of correcting a movement pattern. Instead the ultimate objective is coach them and get them to the point they can tune into and attend to the inherent sensory feedback coming from their own body and use that to fine tune their own movement. This teaches them to master their body.
REASON #12: Produces Optimal Range of Motion
Many individuals mistakenly think eccentric isometrics are all about going as deep as possible and holding the bottom position. Instead the goal is to go to produce the most natural range of motion while staying as tight as possible. In reality this does not produce a large range of motion but instead produces a biomechanically sound range of motion which is often times more abbreviated than what most individuals are accustomed to.
REASON #13: Maximizes Power, Hypertrophy, & Movement
Significant enhancements in power, torque, potentiation, stability, symmetrical loading, mobility, hypertrophy, and overall movement efficiency can be accrued through properly executed eccentric isometrics. If you’re unable to produce similar results with them then you’re performing them incorrectly.
REASON #14: PRODUCES FLAWLESS TECHNIQUE
Oh yeah - and not to sound like a broken record - but to reiterate Reason #1, nothing is more adapt at producing gains than perfect technique and when used properly, EI is the grandmaster at making this happen. Simply, eccentric isometrics are one of if not the best diagnostic tool when it comes to assessing, analyzing, and adjusting technique and body positioning. Anytime movement mechanics need tweaking, EI’s are a surefire method to correct this.
Whether your in need of technique adjustments, looking for increased strength and movement efficiency, or simply in need of adding something new and unique to your training program, eccentric isometrics will fit the bill on all levels. Just make sure you perform them methodically with uncompromised levels of focus, attention, and concentration. Once you master these concepts and experience their impact, don’t be surprised if you decide to make EI’s a consistent part of your training program.
Note: For more videos and tutorials on eccentric isometrics check out my YouTube channel HERE. Although there is a specific playlist devoted to eccentric isometrics, you’ll notice that nearly every movement I have on my channel incorporates eccentric isometric to varying degrees.