The Best Way to Lift Weights
Article originally published on t-nation.com on 02/13/15
Here's what you need to know...
- Eccentric isometrics (EI's) involve performing the negative phase of a lift in a controlled manner and holding the stretched position for a given duration.
- Each EI should be held between 2-7 seconds. They should be done with all seven basic human movement patterns.
- These should ideally be done with the eyes closed, as the body can sense movement deviations faster than the eye can relay them to the brain.
- EI's can eliminate the need for soft tissue work such as stretching, mobility work, foam rollers, and corrective exercises.
- EI's enhance quality of movement, thereby increasing performance and reducing inflammation and oxidative stress.
- Few, if any, techniques are more effective in increasing strength and hypertrophy than eccentric isometrics.
The Most Effective Way to Lift? Probably!
The idea is simple: perform the eccentric or negative phase of an exercise in a controlled manner, then pause in the stretched or bottom position for a few seconds before completing the actual lifting/concentric phase.
Here's what it looks like with a bench press variation:
They're called eccentric isometrics but go by many different names. I've found nothing more effective than EI's for enhancing strength, performance, and muscle function.
Pause reps are beneficial because they teach you to stay tight out of the bottom/hole, clean up technique issues, minimize the stretch reflex, build confidence in the bottom position, eliminate excessive momentum, and minimize the elasticity attributes of the muscle.
But there are deeper scientific explanations as to why eccentric isometrics are so effective. If you're interested in going full-nerd, see the end of the article. Let's cover the practical stuff first.
1. The Movements
When using this technique, focus on the seven basic human movement patterns. Three of these are lower body dominant and include variations of the squat, hinge, and lunge. The other four are upper body movements and include variations of horizontal pull, horizontal push, vertical pull, and vertical push.
2. Range of Motion
Each theory discussed here is predicated on the fundamental principle of remaining tight and using the optimal/natural range of motion. In other words, don't collapse! In fact, there's a relationship between muscle stiffness, range of motion, proprioception, and fatigue.
In essence, decreased muscle stiffness produced either from fatigue or conscientious relaxation of muscles (during exercise) leads to decreased muscle stiffness, thereby decreasing proprioception and ultimately producing movements with larger range of motion.
In short, poor proprioception and large or exaggerated range of motion are related, one often leading to the other.
3. Isometric Duration
Hold each eccentric isometric for 2-7 seconds. Less than this and you'll forego the benefits associated with the lengthened position. More than this and fatigue accumulation can cause technique to deteriorate, not to mention possible relaxation/collapsing during the stretched position.
4. Posture is Key
Proper execution of EI's includes keeping a neutral spine, which involves a natural but not excessive arch. If you focus on achieving the largest natural stretch/depth during movement while simultaneously locking your spine into position, you'll inevitably find the appropriate range of motion.
The proper posture for all EI's, starting from head to toe, involves keeping a tall and packed head, shoulders pulled down, back, and in towards the spine, chest out, stomach pulled in, and hips back.
5. Lift by Feel, Not by Sight
Don't use the mirror! 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.
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.
In other words, lift by feel not by sight because your body senses problems faster than your eyes. In fact, I often have my athletes close their eyes on many of their sets. You should be able to handle 95% of the same load with eyes closed that you can handle with your eyes open.
6. Foot Activation
For all standing exercises, wear either the most minimalist shoes you can find (preferably zero drop) or go barefoot. Heightened levels of somatosensory feedback start with the feet, toes, and ankles. Normal shoes tend to blunt this response.
Besides the fact the eccentric isometrics do wonders for correcting breathing patterns, there are several components of the respiration process that need to be addressed. During the hold, breathing will be kept to a minimum but is still vital.
Any deep breaths will be taken between reps or at the initiation of the eccentric motion. During the majority of the eccentric phase and EI you'll either be holding your breath or lightly breathing as if sipping air through a straw. Essentially it's a modified Valsalva maneuver.
8. Rep Range
Do low reps in the 1-5 rep range. Aim for quality over quantity. Since each rep lasts 2-4 times longer than normal repetitions, 3 reps will generally last as long as a traditional set of 8.
9. Intensity and Load
Go as heavy as you can for the target reps while reinforcing the proper movement patterns. Start off with 50% or less of your 1RM. You should eventually reach the point where you're performing EI's comfortably with 80-90% of your 1RM.
10. Take Your Time
Don't rush into subsequent reps. This is where you can catch your breath, regain tightness, and get mentally engaged for the next rep.
11. Less Gravity, More Squeezing
Try to feel tension building up within the muscles during the EI. Imagine your stretched muscles acting like a coiled spring with your antagonist muscles firing fiercely to pull the weight into proper position as opposed to letting gravity do all of the work.
Complete the concentric phase of the lift as powerfully as possible (release the spring) while maintaining tightness and control of the load. Co-contraction of reciprocal muscle groups is paramount during the eccentric isometric for maximizing proprioception, power, stability, and motor control.
12. Looks Aren't Everything
Just because a lift looked good doesn't mean it was good. Intramuscular and intermuscular coordination, as well as motor unit recruitment, are something only the lifter can inherently tune in to.
Your muscles can sense more than what any coach can see. The better you get at adhering to the subtle feedback and sensory information from your muscles, the quicker you'll master movement.
With eccentric isometrics you'll have an abundance of proprioceptive information to adhere to as the majority of the movement will be spent under stretch and tension.
The 7 Movement Patterns
When a lifter says he can't squat due to pain, it usually indicates that he's squatting incorrectly. Eccentric isometrics are 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. The focus should be more on how you perform them rather than the variation you choose. If you're having trouble finding perfect position, decrease the load, slow it down, and try closing your eyes for enhanced proprioception.
2. HORIZONTAL PULL
Any traditional rowing exercise will fit into this category. 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.
3. HORIZONTAL PUSH
The best options here will be bench press variations with dumbbells, push-ups (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.
Keep in mind that horizontal pulls and pushes should be almost mirror images of each other. Make sure the elbows don't flare out and focus on squeezing your lats throughout.
The worst mistake you can make is performing eccentric isometrics improperly as you'll simply be grooving faulty movement patterns into your CNS.
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.
Lock the spine in, allow a natural bend of the knees, pivot at the hip joint, and drive the butt back. Focus on getting a natural rather than excessive stretch in the glutes and hamstrings.
Performing hip hinge movements too stiff-legged will not only compromise the benefits, but will also engrain a faulty hinge pattern. Try performing eccentric isometrics with any type of Romanian deadlift, as well as single-leg variations. Good mornings, pull-throughs, and plate hinge isometrics are great options.
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 lifters 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 pull-up variation can do wonders for shoulder function and postural restoration.
6. VERTICAL PUSH
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. This should mimic and feel almost identical to pull-ups or pulldowns.
Most people 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 with dumbbells, trap-bar, kettlebells, or bottoms-up variations are ideal.
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.
Lunges also target aspects of stability and balance that other exercises lack, especially when performed as an EI. Lunges are nothing more than an isolated variation of the human gait as they directly mimic the cross-crawl method of movement. No other tool works better for correcting gait than eccentric isometric lunges.
Any lunge variation including barbell, dumbbell, overhead, front loaded/goblet, and Bulgarian squats will work.
How To Program It
The more efficient your motor programs and overall lifting techniques are, the less important exercise programming becomes.
I'm not saying programming isn't important. However, in comparison to using the correct movement patterns and engraining the appropriate neural blueprints, exercise programming places a distant second.
EI's can be done at a fairly high frequency and volume due to their therapeutic effects. Perform at least one set per movement pattern each time you train a particular muscle group. So, if an athlete trains chest (horizontal pressing pattern) twice per week, then he'd perform at least 1 EI during each workout.
You can also use them as neural primers during warm-up sets as you pyramid up in weight. For example, on squats, do 135 for 5 EI's, 225 for 4 EI's, 275 for 3 EI's, and 315 for 1 EI. Then do normal heavy working sets (no EI's) with 365 for 2 sets of 5.
Do them early in the workout to help reinforce proper movement mechanics into the CNS and groove the appropriate neural pathways/motor programs.
Additional Benefits of EI's
1. Correct vs. Corrective Exercise
When performed properly, eccentric isometrics are more corrective than actual "corrective exercises." In fact most movements 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, gradually mitigating the positive elements of the exercise.
EI's get to the heart of this vicious cycle and repair motor programs so as to restore the therapeutic-enhancing benefits of movement.
2. No More Soft Tissue Modalities
If you consistently have to perform soft tissue work, stretches, mobility drills, and corrective exercises, 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.
3. Increased Recovery and Training Frequency
There's an inverse correlation between technique and recovery. The better your 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.
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.
4. Neuromuscularly-Efficient Induced Muscle Growth
There are few 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 muscle growth.
Besides this direct effect, EI's also have an indirect impact on strength and hypertrophy. They help establish efficient movement patterns leading to greater ability to overload with the end result being tremendous gains in strength and size.
5. Enhanced Mobility
Spending greater time in the stretched position is one of the most effective methods for enhancing mobility. All mobility gained from EI's is purely functional.
In contrast, mobility gained from other traditional therapeutic modalities can produce dysfunctional mobility or hyper-mobility 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) oftentimes causes the body to prevent or hinder motion it can't safely stabilize. Eccentric isometrics allow the body to find the ideal balance of stiffness, stability, and mobility.
6. Decreased Inflammation
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 they also contribute to decreased insulin sensitivity, ultimately wreaking havoc on health, physique, and performance attributes.
The Really Geeky Stuff
Post Activation Potentiation
Overcoming isometrics (pushing or pulling against an immovable object) creates an even greater post activation potentiation (PAP) response than standard resistance movements. Unfortunately there's little research regarding yielding isometrics/EI's – lowering a load to a given position without allowing it to collapse further.
I examined this for my doctoral dissertation. The results of the study demonstrated a greater PAP response with EI's in both upper and lower body power than standard heavy resistance training (85-90% 1RM).
Concentric muscle actions produce greater metabolic fatigue and require more energy expenditure than eccentric muscle actions due to the greater ATP required for the excitation-contraction coupling process.
Increased Proprioception/Sensory Feedback
I also examined the effects of eccentric isometrics on stability and symmetrical loading (percent of loading on left vs. right side). Results demonstrated two significant findings.
First, eccentric isometrics enhanced stability and symmetry in both upper and lower body compared to the control. Just as interesting was the fact that traditional training caused slight yet significant deterioration in levels of symmetry and stability.
The latter results were most likely due to the fact that when allowed to perform standard lifting protocols, most trainees will inevitably reinforce pre-existing movement patterns, which often times are dysfunctional and flawed.
However, the improvements seen with the implementation of EI's was most likely related to the exaggerated eccentric/stretched component of the movement.