Most athletes never give a second thought to training tempo.
They think about things like load and reps and maybe even exercise selection, but rarely about the speed at which they perform an exercise.
With that being the case, most athletes never consider how eccentric or isometric-focused training could help them.
When programmed correctly, I believe eccentric and isometrics can be an absolute game-changer for any athlete. The important part is knowing how and when to use them. Just like any training variable, too much of any one thing can be bad. We're looking for the right dose.
If you implement these exercises and respect these guidelines throughout your yearly training cycle around your sport(s), I believe you'll achieve better results and become a more resilient athlete than you would without them. That last part is key. You can't be a stud athlete if you spend most of the season standing on the sidelines nursing an injury.
What Is Eccentric and Isometric Training?
Most people focus almost entirely on the concentric portion of exercise. This is the portion of the movement we think of as the actual "lift," and it's where we tend to devote a lot of our energy. How much weight can you push off your chest? How many times can you pull your chin over that bar? How heavy of a barbell can you pick up off the floor?
The eccentric action tends to be the "lowering" portion of the lift of the exercise. It's where the muscles are lengthening and people let gravity do most of the work. Think about the lowering portion of a Squat or a Push-Up or a Chin-Up. Eccentric training is simply training in a way that makes the eccentric portion a priority, usually by slowing it down or performing it without a corresponding concentric. Muscles are stronger during eccentric contractions than they are during concentric or isometric contractions.
An isometric contraction is a static contraction that involves no lengthening or shortening of the involved muscles, and thus no visible movement. If an exercise has an eccentric and concentric portion, as most do, it therefore must also have an isometric portion. The thing is, the isometric portion is usually very short. Isometric training is simply training in a way that makes the isometric portion of a movement a priority. Planks and Wall Sits are popular examples, but the vast majority of exercises can be tweaked to be made more isometric in nature.
Why Use Eccentric and Isometric Training?
Here are some of what I see as the biggest potential benefits of performing eccentric and isometric training:
- Reduces mechanical stress (amount of weight you put on your joins).
- Improves form and technique on lifts.
- Stimulates muscle growth.
- Improves tendon health (especially for chronic injuries like tendonitis.)
- Reveals and corrects dysfunction in movement.
- Improves deceleration capabilities.
- Strengthens join angles and positions.
For athletes, one would think slowing down movement may be disadvantageous because they play their sport at high velocities.
While high-velocity training has its time and place, so does training at slow velocities. For me, one obvious time is during the early part of the offseason where overuse injuries and asymmetries are prevalent. Eccentric and isometric training can be a good choice during this time to help correct movement patterns, increase strength and hypertrophy, and help to improve issues such as tendinitis.
How Slow Should My Eccentrics Be?
When implementing eccentric training with my athletes, I like to start with a 3- to 6-second count during the eccentric phase of certain exercises. This will be a significantly slower eccentric than they normally use for these movements.
You can also perform maximum eccentrics for bodyweight exercises like Chin-Ups or Push-Ups. The idea here is to lower yourself as slowly as possible, but never allowing yourself to come to a complete stop!
Here are some eccentric training staples I use with my athletes (video hyperlinks attached):
- 6-Second Eccentric Bulgarian Split Squats
- 4-Second Eccentric Trap Bar Deadlift with a Pause
- 6-Second Eccentric Goblet Squat
- 6-Second Eccentric Barbell Push-Ups
- 6-Second Eccentric Chain-Loaded Push-Ups
- Max Eccentric Chin-Up
How Long Should Your Isometrics Be?
When implementing isometric training with my athletes, I like to start with a 2- to 5-second hold while performing repetitions of certain exercises. However, if we're performing isometrics where we're not doing "reps" but just holding one position, that isometric hold can be 30 seconds or longer.
My general rule of thumb is that the heavier the weight and the more direct the load on the spine, the shorter the isometric holds.
Here are some isometric training staples I use with my athletes (video hyperlinks attached):
- Zercher Squat with a 3-Second Pause at Bottom
- Dumbbell Split Stance Squat Iso Hold
- Bulgarian Split Squat with a 5-Second Iso Hold
- Flexed Arm Hangs
- Suitcase Iso Hold
- YTW Iso Hold
- Dumbbell Press with a 5-Second Pause Above Chest
How Do You Use Them?
I'm going to break down the guidelines for how we use eccentric and isometric training during each block of our training (in-season, postseason, offseason and preseason).
Our main focus during this block is to correct poor movement and asymmetries brought on by a season of the athletes' sport to position them for a successful offseason.
- Every main lift exercise for the workout has an eccentric or isometric element to it and a lower level of progression. For example: Kettlebell Deadlift with a 4-second pause just above the floor, a Zercher Squat to a box with a 5-second eccentric, or a Chain-Loaded Push-Up with a 6-second eccentric.
- Limited sprint and power work.
- 1-2 accessory exercises per workout have an eccentric or isometric focus, as well, with relatively high volume (rep range: 8-12 reps).
Our main focus during this block is to continue to correct poor movement and asymmetries, become more generally prepared, increase strength and build a foundation for speed and power to be developed. The foundation of every good preseason is built in the offseason.
- For at least the first half of the offseason, there will still be an eccentric or isometric element to the main lifts, but they will become more advanced and the duration will generally be shorter. For example: Trap Bar Deadlift with a 3-second eccentric, Front Squat with a 2-second pause in the bottom, or Bench Press with a 2-second pause just above the chest.
- About halfway through the offseason, we typically remove the eccentric and isometric focuses on the main lifts and return to a more traditional tempo. This allows athletes to lift a little heavier.
- A systematic increase in speed and power training occurs. We base this on how long the athlete's offseason is. For example, we increase in speed and power training will happen faster if they have only three months off compared to six months off.
- 1-2 accessory exercises per workout will have an eccentric or isometric focus, as well.
Our main focus during the preseason is the development of speed, power and special strength exercises that are more closely related to the athlete's sport.
- Eccentric and isometric work is predominantly reserved for accessory work only.
- At least one day a week for both lower-body and upper-body is dedicated to dynamic work.
- Main lift exercises are predominantly unilateral. The use of bands and chains are recommended for accommodating resistance.
Our main focus is maintaining all the physical qualities the athlete developed in the postseason, offseason and preseason training cycles. Overall training volumes are much lower and overall durations of workouts is much lower.
- Main lift incorporates a controlled eccentric about 3-4 seconds long. Main lift performed for only 3-4 sets.
- Accessory work is light and mainly unilateral, including an isometric component for 2-5 seconds. Accessory moves only performed for 1-2 sets each.
- Speed and power work is performed inside the athlete's sport.
Photo Credit: CasarsaGuru/iStock
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