February 16, 2014

Why Lowering Builds More Strength AND Muscle Than Lifting! A MUST READ FOR ANYONE WHO WANTS RESULTS

Do you even lift?

It’s a safe assumption that fitness nowadays is more popular than it has ever been, and that building muscle, even for a female, is at a socially acceptable all-time high, while continuing to rise. Gone are the days in which it was frowned upon to be in good shape and have ‘muscles’, and where those who took care of themselves were labeled as ‘on steroids’, while receiving stares of envy and jealousy from those who were not, but wish they were. It’s no longer frowned upon for girls to lift weights, or for men to do yoga. Skinny is out, and fit is in. This is an exciting time for a fitness enthusiast, that’s for sure!

More and more people are joining gyms, running, biking, swimming, playing various sports, doing yoga/pilates or crossfit, competing in physical competitions like ‘tough mudder’, and just generally becoming more health conscious with their lifestyle choices. The ‘New Year’s’ crowd is lasting longer and longer, and in actuality, it doesn’t even appear that there is much of a New Year’s crowd anymore, as the gym feels as full, or busy, as it has for the past several months. This either means that most people are already members of the gym, of there are no ‘new’ enthusiasts anymore. Unfortunately, while the intent is always positive when one is trying to be more health conscious, the outcome for most is negative.

There is a mindset generally associated with ‘getting fit’, not sure where it came from, in which most associate ‘results’ with ‘hard work’, and that the harder one works, the more results there is to be had. While this may sound logical in theory (to the uneducated ear), in practice, this simply is not the case. If it were, all anyone would have to do to get ‘fit’, would be to use their vacation time and take a week or two off work (depending on their starting point, and desired end point), workout like a machine non-stop, transform into the superhuman that they wish to become, and get back to their everyday life as a ‘new you’.

Less is more

Getting fit, or building muscle, is about hard work, don’t get me wrong, but more than anything it’s about smart work. No program will work unless you do, but hard work can be anything, and anyone is capable of working hard. Doing what’s needed to get from A to Z is another thing.

After all, if all it took to get results was hard work, I would have wasted years of my life attempting to educate myself at something that simply requires effort, and you wouldn’t have stumbled upon this article right now and continued reading with the hopes of learning something beneficial that you can practically apply the next time you get into the gym (which is what you’re going to get, just bear with me for now).

The term ‘fitness’, for all intents and purposes, can be used interchangeably with ‘physical preparedness’. When someone wants to ‘get fit’, what they really want is to improve their level of physical preparedness (whatever that is to them), and there’s absolutely no better way to do this, than in a gym. A gym is a controlled environment, and as long as you learn how to execute the exercises you need to do to accomplish your goal (which are generally the same ones across the board for most people, given we are all humans, with the same muscles, in the same places, responsible for the same movements on any of our bodies) you don’t need to worry about an external factor ruining it for you like you do if you’re riding a bike on a busy city street and get hit by a car, or trip and fall or roll your ankle while running through a park, or getting pink eye in a dirty pool, or getting electrocuted on the tough mudder course, or passing out due to heat exhaustion during hot yoga (yeah, I went there)!

Aside from the slew of potential external factors that can take your positive intent and turn it into a negative outcome, are the internal factors that can make a good day and turn it into the beginning of several bad ones. The body is continuously adapting to current demands, and many of the common forms of activity (listed above) that those choose to do to improve their level of physical preparedness involve the same movement patterns over, and over again. This results in physical change, which results in neurological change (development of dysfunctional motor patterns), which results in further physical change, which results in... you get the picture. The gym is the one place where you can combat muscular imbalances, and reinforce proper movement patterns with new found muscle, and range of motion.

I’m sexy and I know it – I workout!

Just as ‘fitness’ can be used interchangeably with ‘physical preparedness’, ‘working out’ can be used interchangeably with ‘lifting weights’. After all, when someone says they ‘workout’, the first thing that likely comes to mind is that they ‘lift weights’. It’s no different than how when someone asks another to ‘flex’, they roll up their sleeve (if they have one), and contract their biceps. No one ever in history has turned around when asked to flex and performed a rear lat spread, I’ll put money on it.

So just like fitness is ones level of physical preparedness, working out (which one does to get fit) is usually lifting weights. But this is where things get tricky, because what most do not know, especially those who are taking an interest in working out to get fit, is that lifting weights is just one component of lifting weights, because after you lift them, you eventually have to put them back down. And aside from lifting them, you can also just hold them still, without actually doing any lifting at all. This is where working smart comes in, but to work smart, you have to be smart first (that’s deep)!

You had me at ‘Do you even lift?’

Lifting a weight requires the activation of muscles, some more than others, in synchronization to produce fluid movement. The actual lifting of a weight, in which your muscles start in a lengthened position, and finish in a shortened position, is when we are generally weakest. The body, and brain that controls it, is capable of generating more force when the muscles start and finish in the same position, basically there is no change in length during the contraction (isometric contraction), or start in a relatively shortened position, and finish in a relatively lengthened position (eccentric contraction).

To demonstrate, without actually demonstrating, let’s use the bench press as an example. To perform a bench press, you must first be strong enough to unhook the bar from the rack, and hold it above the chest. Just holding the bar there places the muscles under tension, even though there is no change in length. It’s safe to say, if you can’t even unhook the bar, there’s no way you can press it, although you may be able to lower it. Lowering it to your face with acceleration however, is not considered an eccentric contraction, but rather an epic fail (there are many videos which are easily accessible that demonstrate exactly what I mean, should you be interested). Should you be able to control it however, then it would be considered an eccentric contraction, which wouldn’t have been possible without first being strong enough to isometrically support the weight. Once the weight reaches the bottom, if it’s light enough, you would press it back up, your muscles shortening as they generate tension. But, just because you can lower a weight under control, or even hold it above your chest at lockout, does not mean you will be able to press it back up. This example demonstrates that we are strongest eccentrically, followed by isometrically, and then concentrically.

Now I’m listening, go on...

So what does this mean, you may be wondering, and how does it affect you, and how can you maximize your time? If you’re anything like me, the more you learn, the more questions you have. It’s as if learning more makes you feel as if you know less than you did before you learned anything.

So let’s take a look at the bigger picture here. If we are stronger eccentrically, and isometrically, then this essentially means that lifting weights in a traditional manner fails to provide enough tension to our muscles eccentrically and/or isometrically. To go one further, this means that our muscles will only receive one third of the stimulation they’re capable of if we stop after reaching concentric failure, resulting in one third of the results we could get for nearly the same amount of time, and a tiny bit more effort. If you’re not picking up what I’m putting down, let me rephrase it – lifting weights in a traditional manner, in which you (hopefully) focus on performing reps through a full range of motion, and stopping when you can no longer ‘lift’ results in gains being left on the table, and with just a tiny bit more effort, as it doesn’t take much after reaching concentric failure to reach isometric, and eccentric failure, you can double, or triple your results. Basically, you want to reach absolute failure, to get absolute results, without over working your body’s capacity to recover.

How much can you ... lower?

There are many benefits, and many ways to implement eccentric, and isometric training, regardless of your goal.

Benefits of eccentrics:

First off, there are a few ways to perform enhanced eccentrics:

Supramaximal eccentrics – the lowering of a greater weight than one would ever be able to lift concentrically. These are typically done with a barbell in the safety of a power rack, and are not generally suited for dumbells, but can be performed with the use of a machine with the help of a spotter. It is assumed, since the weight is so great, that only one (half) rep is going to be performed, unless a spotter is handy to assist with the concentric portion of the lift.

Submaximal eccentrics –the lowering of a weight that can be lifted multiple times concentrically but the focus is on lowering the weight as slow as possible to prolong the time under tension eccentrically, for repeated efforts. These can be applied just as easily with the use of barbells, dumbells, cables, or machines.

Hybrid eccentrics – with a little creativity you can combine the use of supramaximal loads with submaximal eccentrics. The two ways to do this are to perform the concentric repetition with a compound movement, and the eccentric repetition with an isolation movement (compound/iso), or to perform the concentric repetition with two limbs, and the eccentric repetition with one limb (2/1).

Hybrid examples:

Compound/iso (raise with the compound, lower with the isolation) – close-grip bench press/lying tricep extension, dumbell press/flye (any angle can be used), cheat curl/strict curl, clean/reverse curl

2/1 (raise with 2 arms/legs, lower with 1) – arm curl machine, leg curl machine (lying or seated), leg press, leg extension. You could also use any single arm exercise with a dumbell or a cable by simply using your opposite arm to help lift the weight, and then lower it without assistance.

Now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s go over the benefits for each, as they vary.

Supramaximal benefits:

Supramaximal eccentrics increase the nervous systems capacity to recruit high threshold motor units faster. Because a greater amount of fast twitch fibers are recruited during the eccentric, there are less total motor units recruited, resulting in the recruited motor units to undergo greater stress. The greatest benefit of this is the increased recruitment and stimulation of fast twitch muscle fibers (which is directly related to the amount of weight on the bar, as motor units are recruited as needed, therefore the heavier the weight, the greater level of recruitment).

TIP: Slowly lowering a submaximal weight does NOT overload the muscle, it just increases the volume by way of extending the time under tension (which is good for building muscle, but not for increasing strength). Because muscles are roughly 30% stronger eccentrically (some suggesting this number is actually between 50-100%), a weight that represents 90% of (concentric) max is only 60% of what you could handle eccentrically (eccentric max).

Because upwards of 50-100% more weight can be lifted, or lowered I should say, eccentrically, rather than concentrically, muscles aren’t stimulated eccentrically under normal conditions because the load is too light, as stated above. Remember, just because you can’t lift a weight, does not mean that you can’t lower it. A full repetition consists of both lifting a weight, and lowering it, and by neglecting to maximize tension throughout half of the repetition (the eccentric in this case), means that you are neglecting to fully stimulate your muscles and produce the greatest result. Because you can handle greater loads eccentrically, you can train your brain and body to become accustomed to lifting heavier weights, which is beneficial for those who want to get stronger. And just who would want to get stronger? Everyone, as strength is the single greatest limiting factor to attaining any result. The stronger you are, the broader your horizons become. Therefore, everyone can benefit from lowering weights, not just lifting them.

Submaximal benefits:

Stretching the muscle under load (performing a slow eccentric contraction w/60-70% of max) stimulates mTOR pathway (AKA turns on protein synthesis), but won’t damage or impair recovery as it would if there was muscle tearing from performing heavy eccentrics. High magnitudes of tension at longer muscle lengths, combined with a full range of motion (which prolongs the time under tension, produces greater metabolic waste exerting a swelling effect on the cell membrane) produce the greatest hypertrophic effect. And just who would want to produce the greatest hypertrophic effect? Anyone who wants to look better, feel better, or be healthier. Therefore, anyone can benefit from lowering weights, not just lifting them.

Hybrid benefits:

Naturally, because hybrid eccentrics combine the use of supramaximal loads being lowered for repeated efforts, they share the same benefits of both supramaximal and submaximal eccentrics. The heavy load used for hybrids place a super-adaptive stimulation on your muscles and nervous system.

TIP: finishing a workout, when the muscle is pumped, with a movement that places the greatest tension on a muscle at greater muscle lengths (lengthened) is ideal for growth. Therefore, starting a workout, or at any point between when you start and finish, performing movements that place the greatest tension on a muscle at shorter muscle lengths (contracted) will facilitate this effect, as more pressure is placed on the surrounding tissues (ex. fascia), the more pumped that they are when they are subjected to lengthened positions under load.

Benefits of isometrics:

First off, there are a few ways to perform isometrics:

Overcoming isometrics – attempting to lift an immovable object, and no matter how much force is applied, the weight does not move. These are typically done with a barbell in a power rack, not generally suited for dumbells, but can be done with some machines. The goal is to exert maximal tension.

Yielding isometrics – preventing a weight from being lowered. These can be applied just as easily with the use of barbells, dumbells, cables, or machines. Holding an actual weight in place (yielding), as opposed to trying to move an immovable object (overcoming) differs in that, with an actual weight progress can be quantified, whereas with trying to move an immovable object it’s all but impossible to measure how much force is being generated.

Functional isometrics – with a little creativity you can combine the use of exerting maximal tension in a way that can be quantified. To do this, simply add weight to the bar when performing overcoming isometrics. By doing so, records can be kept for how long a given weight could be held in place, as opposed to an empty bar, which likely could be held in place for a very long time, even as your ability to generate force diminishes.

Now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s go over the benefits for each, as they vary.

Overcoming benefits:

Strength is gained in the range it is trained. However, we are limited to the amount of weight we can use through a full range of motion, by how much we can lift at our weakest joint position. This means that our muscles aren’t fully stimulated for a large percentage of the range of motion. Therefore, should we want to improve our full range of motion strength, increasing our strength in our weakest position would be a good place to start. If we want to increase our strength at our weakest position, it makes sense that we need to subject our muscles to as much tension in that position as possible, as that’s what muscles respond to – tension.

Under normal conditions, a repetition does not generate maximal tension through a full range of motion, as joint angle, along with the type of movement being performed, and how much force is being applied, heavily determines how much tension is placed upon the muscles being contracted, and when. The traditional, full range rep, usually generates maximal tension for anywhere between ¼ and ½ of a second. Therefore, a set of 10 will generally result in 2 ½ to 5 seconds in which the muscle is generating maximal tension. This just isn’t optimal if one wants to increase their strength, as a weight that can be lifted 10 times is likely to light to generate maximal tension in the first place, and lifting heavier results in less total reps, meaning the time under maximal tension falls between ¼ to 5 seconds. Yes, you can make up for this by increasing the overall volume, but that still doesn’t mean that the muscles will be under maximal tension for the duration of the set.

Because more force can be produced isometrically than concentrically, isometrics enable you to increase the time under maximal tension at a specific joint position, for greater durations, and this will contribute to increased strength levels, and can also be used to acutely potentiate the nervous system for the work to come so that heavier loads can be used for your full range reps. On top of that, isometrics in which you try to move an immovable object result in minimal muscular damage at best, and are not energy expensive, because there is no dynamic (eccentric or concentric) component.

Yielding benefits:

Under normal conditions, a set generally ends when one can no longer perform a concentric repetition, and as stated earlier, muscles aren’t stimulated isometrically under normal conditions because the time under maximal tension is too low. But, just because you can’t continue ‘lifting’ a weight, doesn’t mean you can’t prolong the time the muscles are under tension for (which is what you want to do if you want to build muscle). Because force can still be generated isometrically after reaching concentric failure, one of the ways you can increase the effectiveness of the set is to pause while lowering the weight at 2-3 different joint angles, during your last eccentric rep (you could even perform sets in this manner, aiming for 3 reps in which you pause at 3 different ranges of motion for 3 seconds).

As stated above, a traditional, full range rep, consists of maximal tension being generated for anywhere between ¼, to ½ of a second, and if you break down the numbers of how much time a muscle is under maximal tension, a set of 10 will generally result in 2 ½ to 5 seconds of maximal tension. For most, a weight that can be lifted 10 times represents roughly 75% of their 1RM. Yielding isometrics enable you to use a heavier weight, since more force can be produced isometrically, for greater times under (maximal) tension. And what’s going to build more muscle – 75% of max which generates 2 ½ to 5 seconds of maximal tension, or a yielding isometric in which 80% (or more) of max is held in place for anywhere between 20-60 seconds? If you’re good with numbers, the answer is pretty clear. No matter how you cut it, the greater the time under tension with the greater the load, the more muscle that will be built.

Functional benefits:

Naturally, because functional isometrics are identical to overcoming isometrics, and also share a yielding component, as there is an actual weight being held in place, they share the benefits of both overcoming and yielding isometrics, along with the fact that progress can be quantified because an actual weight is being lifted.

Did ya get all that?

Before moving on, let’s have a quick review:

-          Under normal conditions, muscles are trained to concentric failure, not absolute failure. It’s not about whether or not ‘you lift’, bro.
-          Lifting heavy enough weights to stimulate the muscles eccentrically results in greater neural adaptation. Less motor units are recruited, resulting in a higher level of stress per recruited motor unit, which means the room for improvement could potentially be higher.
-          Stretching the muscle under load preferentially recruits fast twitch muscle fibers, and causes greater microtrauma (muscle tearing) which acts as a signal to start the muscle adaptation process. Also, when a muscle is stretched prior to contracting, more fast twitch fibers are recruited and it increases force production at high rates of acceleration (which also recruits fast twitch muscle fibers – double whammy!).
-          Trying to move an immovable object teaches the nervous system how to produce maximal intramuscular tension, and increases the time under MAXIMAL tension, while minimizing energy output and muscular damage. Time under tension doesn’t mean shit if the tension is minimal.
-          Pausing a movement while holding a weight ensures that the muscles involved have to do as much of the work as possible at the expense of the elastic component of the connective tissue, and allows for heavier weights to be used for greater time under tension at various joint positions than would otherwise be possible, while minimizing fatigue.

It ain’t all rainbows and sunshine

While it may sound all fine and dandy to simply start changing the way you ‘lift’, to ensure your muscles are stimulated and exhausted, not just concentrically, but isometrically and eccentrically, the fact of the matter is there’s a reason you haven’t ‘seen it this way’, or ‘thought of it like that’, before. After all, none of this information is really all that new. Anyone with the ability to ‘step outside the box’, and take a look at the bigger picture can recognize that there’s more going on than just the ‘lifting’ of a weight/your body when performing an exercise. Aside from practicality issues (you need to rely on certain equipment being available, or it’s a no go), enhanced eccentrics, and isometrics, come with their own specific respective drawbacks, which is why they lack the mainstream popularity that ‘lifting’ is currently experiencing, and there’s a few points worth considering before you try to ‘reinvent the wheel’ of your own training.

While the benefits of eccentric enhanced training are great and all, there is significant risk involved in attempting to lower a weight that you damn well know can’t lift, and can easily crush you. Should you miscalculate, and attempt to lower a weight you have no business handling, the result could be irreversible and catastrophic. Soft tissue (in the form of strains and tears) and structural damage (in the form of bruised/broken bones, internal damage/hemorrhaging) come to mind.

TIP: Even though eccentrics provide the most powerful growth stimulus, the damage results in reduce maximal force, muscle recruitment during intense contraction, and coordination for up to 7 days. This limits the amount of frequency with which you can train. This isn’t entirely bad though, because even though the capacity to produce force during the acute recovery period (6-7 days) is reduced, the ability to maintain a moderate force output is longer (your endurance is better) because the slow twitch fibers contribute more as the fast twitch fibers repair themselves. Therefore, performing low intensity concentric work, which doesn’t further increase muscle damage or recovery time, the day after heavy eccentric work may improve recovery from eccentric training, just avoid going to failure.

As for isometric training, it’s a little bit of a catch .22 in that, the same reason which makes isometric training beneficial also happens to be the only major drawback. Because strength gained in one joint position will only carry over to roughly 15 degrees in either direction, not through the entire range of motion that the joint is capable of, isometrics should be used concurrently with a similar dynamic exercise of a high speed nature (preferably in the same workout) to ensure that you do a thorough job of placing the muscles under maximal tension at various joint positions so you don’t lose strength. For this same reason, only 10% of a program should consist of isometric work (measured in terms of time under tension – seconds). Also worth noting is that it is next to impossible to quantify progress when performing overcoming isometrics, as it is impossible to measure the amount of force being expressed in a gym setting.

Now that you know what you’re getting yourself into, we can move on to the fun stuff!

Should the benefits outweigh the respective drawbacks, as they should, at least in my opinion, then it’s likely that the next question is ‘how and/or when can I practically apply this information to my current training’? As for when, the answer is immediately. As for how, well, that’s another story.

Play by the rules

As with any type of training, there are ‘rules’, or rather parameters, that one should adhere to, in order to get the most return per investment of time and effort. The parameters are different for both eccentric, and isometric, training, but variables are constant – those being:

Intensity (amount of weight in relation to your 1 rep concentric maximum – 1RM)

Each of those variables parameters are dictated by one’s goal, as they can be adjusted for those geared towards either increasing their strength levels, or improving body composition by way of increasing muscle mass, and therefore metabolic demand.

Show me the money!

Eccentric parameters:

For those looking to increase muscle mass, a submaximal load in which you can maximize time under tension (generally by performing more than one rep) is best, but you don’t want the weight to be too light, or the tension will not be great enough. Therefore, it’s best to use a weight that’s no lighter than your 20 rep max, which equates to roughly 60% of 1RM for most.

Starting at 60% with a 14 second eccentric, for hopefully 3 reps (equalling at least 42 seconds of tension), the rules are as such:

For every 5% increase in weight, there is a reduction in eccentric duration by 2 seconds

For every 10% increase in weight, there is a reduction in reps by 1

Ex. 60% 14 second eccentrics X 3 reps
65% 12 second X 3
70% 10 second X 2
75% 8 second X 2
80% 6 second X 1
85% 4 second X 1

If you go over 85%, you’re starting to get into strength development, which is just fine, it just means that you can’t expect to get the time under tension needed for building muscle.

For those looking to increase strength, a supramaximal load which maximizes the amount of intramuscular tension (the heavier the weight, the more force required) is best, but proceed with caution or there could be severe consequences. Therefore, it’s best to use a weight that’s no heavier than 130% of 1 RM (unless using weight releasers), and more than 1 rep should never be performed per set (aiming for 3-10 total reps, AKA sets, over the course of the workout – 3 being suffice, and they do not need to be performed on consecutive sets, but can be performed every other set – sets 1, 3, and 5 for example). This type of work is best suited for strength phases, or to potentiate the nervous system prior to explosive work, due to the positive effect it has on recruiting fast twitch muscle fibers. 90-110% of max is ideal for supramaximal eccentrics, and should be at least 10% greater than the weight you’re working with on your scheduled sets (if using 90% for scheduled sets, than eccentrics should be performed with 100%).

Starting at 110-115% with a 10 second eccentric, the rules are as such:

For every 5% increase in weight, there is a reduction in eccentric duration by 2 seconds

Ex. 110-115% 10 second eccentric
115-120% 8 second eccentric
120-125% 6 second eccentric
125-130% 4 second eccentric

Should you want to test your luck and go over 130%, the use of weight releasers (a device that removes itself after touching the floor, leaving a fraction of weight on the bar so that you can safely lift the bar concentrically and finish the rep) is ideal for safety purposes, and the rules for weight releasers is that you want to have a greater percentage of weight being released, the heavier the weight is that you choose to lower.

Starting at 100%, you would want 80% to remain on the bar after the weight is released, and the eccentric duration to last for 10 seconds, the rules are as such:

For every 10% increase in weight, there is a 5% reduction in the percentage of weight that remains on the bar after the release

After the first 20% increase in weight, there is a reduction in eccentric duration by 4 seconds, and then 2 seconds after the second 20%

Ex. 100% w/80% on the bar, 10 second eccentric
110% w/75% on the bar, 10 second eccentric
120% w/70% on the bar, 6 second eccentric
130% w/65% on the bar, 6 second eccentric
140% w/60% on the bar, 4 second eccentric
150% w/55% on the bar, 4 second eccentric

As for hybrid eccentric enhanced movements, the rules are as such:

Compound/Isolation – use 90-110% of your 1RM for the ISOLATION movement (up to 115% if you have a spotter to assist with the concentric)

2/1 – use 70-80% of your 1RM for the BILATERAL movement

Ideally you would pick a weight that’s light enough to accelerate concentrically, as the concentric should be of a high speed nature to favor fast twitch recruitment.

5-7 sets is ideal to provide the volume necessary to not just recruit, but fatigue the muscles eccentrically

3-5 reps (per arm – 6-10 total for the 2/1 method)

5-8 second eccentric, explosive concentric (there is an inverse relationship between the desired amount of reps, and eccentric duration. The longer the eccentric, the less total reps you will be able to perform safely. The shorter the eccentric, the more total reps you can aim for)

1-3 minutes rest (there is an inverse relationship between the amount of weight used, and amount of rest needed. If the goal is to overload, and exhaust the muscles eccentrically, for hypertrophy purposes, then 1 minute of rest is preferred. If the goal is to lift as heavy as possible in which one rep is performed for a greater eccentric duration, then 3 minutes of rest if preferred)

72 hours minimum between workouts for the same muscle group to allow for adequate rest and repair, unless performing light concentric work

Accentuated eccentric training follows a hierarchy based on intensity – ALWAYS perform the work that requires the heaviest loads first. Use the intensity parameters above to determine when exactly to implement a certain type of eccentric overload into your routine. Also, there is an inverse relationship with eccentrics in that, the heavier the weight used at the beginning, the lighter the following methods should be. For example, if supramaximal loads (over 100% of 1RM) are used (the beginning of the workout being the only appropriate time), the next exercise, and each one after that, should be below 90% (85% or under being ideal). Finishing a densely eccentric workout with speed reps with 50-60% for time (density work), 40 seconds, 2 minutes rest, 3 sets, is a good way to gorge the muscle with blood and enhance the training effect, as well as recovery.

Isometric parameters:

Regardless of your purpose for implementing isometrics, it is the time under tension that will dictate the training effect, and it is the load that will dictate the time under tension. This doesn’t apply for overcoming isometrics however, as no weight is added to the bar.

If the goal is to increase strength, maximal tension must be applied for 3-6 seconds, or up to 20 at the most. This can be done using either overcoming/functional isometrics in which you attempt to push/pull the bar through the pins in a power rack as hard as you can, or yielding isometrics in which you attempt to hold a supramaximal load (100-110% of 1RM), AKA supramaximal hold, in the most advantageous joint position (ex. un-racking the bar, holding it just below lockout for as long as possible, then re-racking the bar) for as long as you can. The rest to work ratio in either case is 10:1, so for every second of tension applied, there is ten times as many seconds rest before the next set, whether it be another isometric effort, or a full range movement.

Using overcoming or functional isometrics at the ‘sticking point’, or weakest part of the range of motion will help make that part of the movement less problematic, while using them at the strongest part of the range of motion will have a maximal potentiating effect on the whole movement. An equal amount of volume should be performed for a few different joint positions (strongest, weakest, and mid-range are suffice), since the strength gained will only carry over 15 degrees in either direction of the range of motion. By only working through the strongest part of the range of motion, you will not increase your full range strength, and when you lower the weight to where you are weakest, you’ll be screwed (we’ve all seen someone who puts on so much weight and only performs the top ¼ of the range of motion so that they look stronger than they are, and should they go any further than ¼ of the range, that weight is coming down fast, and will likely cause serious injury). Should you only work on the weakest part of the range, you will miss out on the opportunity to handle greater loads at more advantageous joint positions, therefore leaving gains to be had, behind. The rules for overcoming isometrics are as such:

1-5 sets of 3-6 seconds of maximal tension in which you try to maximize your rate of force development, AKA starting strength, by applying as much force as possible in the shortest amount of time (pressing the bar into the pins explosively and holding for 1-2 seconds), for 3 different ranges of motion (starting point, mid-range, finishing point) = 3-15 total sets

30-60 seconds rest (10:1 ratio), since no weight is being used for overcoming isometrics

Perform all sets for one specific range (generally going from your weakest point to your strongest position, to address your sticking point when you are freshest) before moving on to the next.

TIP: Functional isometrics can be used as a standalone exercise (primarily to overload top range/lockout) in which you perform 3 sets for 4-6 reps (to enhance the effect, aim to hold against pins on last rep for 6-8 seconds, and try for one more rep after).

If using for an immediate potentiating effect, alternate between efforts of overcoming/functional or yielding isometrics, with full range of motion work (generally of a high speed nature, but heavy is beneficial as well). The rules for functional or yielding isometrics for the purpose of potentiating the nervous system are as such:

With functional, you can either start heavy, with 6RM for the full range movement, rest 2-3 minutes and use 10-15% more for the functional isometric (applying no less than 5, but up to 10 seconds of tension), and continue to add weight each set until you cannot perform 3 of the full range reps (should get to that point in 6 sets or less, or you started too low), while keeping the rest time consistent

Or you can start light, starting @ 50-60% 1RM (applying 6 seconds of tension – anywhere between 5-8 is suffice), rest 60-90 seconds before performing full range movement for 3-5, or 4-6 reps, then rest 2 min before performing next functional isometric set, 4-5 sets in which you try to maximize your rate of force development by applying as much force as possible in the shortest amount of time (pressing the bar into the pins explosively and holding for 1-2 seconds)

TIP: If training with a partner, there’s a little trick you can do to instantly increase your strength. Set up to perform an overcoming isometric in a power rack, with the pins set so only the beginning of the range of motion can be performed, and apply maximal tension as usual. Instruct your partner ‘punch’ the bar down as you continue to lift the bar into the pins after roughly 8 seconds of applying maximal tension. This causes the contracting muscles to stretch rapidly under load, causing ‘survival fibers’ (the ones we cannot voluntarily recruit, but become available during life or death situations) to be recruited to protect the body from damage. The survival fibers should remain active for a few minutes, and you can take advantage of this by then setting up to perform your full range movement, while expecting to be able to use 2-5% more weight while getting the same amount of reps.

If using yielding isometrics for the purpose of increasing strength the same rules apply, only the weight should be 100-110% of 1RM (125-140% for the elite), and should be held for at least 5, but up to 10 seconds, rest 30 seconds before performing partials (top range of the movement), or 60-90 seconds before performing full range movement for 3-5, or 4-6 reps, then rest 2 min before performing next functional isometric set, 4-5 sets

If the goal is to build muscle, the load needs to be light enough that tension can be applied for as little as 20 seconds, but heavy enough that tension cannot be applied for more than 60 seconds (less than 20 seconds is generally too heavy, while more than 60 is generally too light to generate enough tension to stimulate a positive hypertrophy training effect). This is best accomplished with yielding isometrics using a load between 50-80% of full range 1RM. The yielding isometric can consist of holding the weight in one joint position for the entire duration, or three separate positions (starting range, mid range, end range) in which you start in the most disadvantageous joint position, then move to a more advantageous joint position as fatigue sets in, finishing in the strongest joint position, which ensures the muscle is stimulated throughout its entirety, and also allows for a heavier weight to be used in most cases (the exception being, holding the weight in the most advantageous joint position for the duration of the set). While overcoming and functional isometrics can be used for hypertrophic purposes, they’re not all that practical, as generating maximal tension cannot be sustained long enough to create an optimal hypertrophic effect. After all, if maximal tension can be applied to an immovable object for 20 seconds or more, it can’t be considered ‘maximal’ tension, can it?

There are a few ways in which isometrics can be used to increase the time under tension with the purpose of building muscle: as an exercise performed by itself, or as part of a superset (pre/post-fatigue).

If performing isometrics as an exercise by itself, the rules are as such:

When using yielding isometrics (preferred compared to overcoming and functional) it is crucial that an equal amount of volume be performed for a few different joint positions (ex. 2 sets at mid range, 2 at peak contraction, 2 at near extension – depending on the movement) to ensure as many muscle fibers are recruited and fatigued as possible throughout the entirety of the muscle. Perform all sets (1-5 per position) of 20-60 seconds at one position before moving on, using 70-80% of full range 1RM, resting for 60 seconds between sets.

If performing isometrics as part of a pre-exhaust superset, the rules are as such:

Use isolation exercises for small muscles only, as pre-exhausting a muscle hampers strength gains (unless you don’t care about strength). The principles are the same as if performing an isometric as its own separate exercise, only you follow that set with a full range of motion movement. For the isometric, hold at the most disadvantageous joint position (generally mid-range) for 20-60 seconds.

As part of a tri-set, aim for 30-45 seconds, then move onto a full range of motion movement using an 8RM, perform a drop set and get another 4 reps, then move on to one final full range movement for 12-15. Rest 90 seconds, aim for 3 sets.

If performing isometrics as part of a post-exhaust superset, the rules are as such:

Only use isolation exercises to locally exhaust all muscle fibers and provide a growth stimulus by holding mid range position at the end of a set for 20-60 seconds with a 3RM load. Do this for either all sets of one exercise, or one set (the last set) of all exercises during the workout, not both. Pausing at three different positions (ex. 2 sets at mid range, 2 at peak contraction, 2 at near extension), for a total of 45-60 seconds divided between each position is effective as well.

Worth noting is that the same exercise can be used for both the isometric exercise, as well as the dynamic exercise. For the post-fatigue variation you would simply hold the weight in place after performing the desired number of reps for the dynamic exercise. For the pre-fatigue however, you may need to drop the weight, since you should be reaching failure during the isometric contraction within the desired timeframe.

Should you want to use overcoming or functional isometrics for building muscle, attempt to generate as much tension as humanly possible for 10-15 seconds (use the maximum amount of weight possible for functional isometrics) for 4-6 sets, with 30-45 seconds of rest (which is ideal since overcoming and functional isometrics are not all that energy expensive, there’s minimal muscle damage occurring, and the goal is to build muscle). The constant tension restricts blood flow and oxygen to the muscle, and when you relax blood entry resumes. The longer the muscle is deprived of oxygen, the greater you stimulate the release of growth factors.

To review, yielding isometrics (ex. pausing at 3 positions) followed by a full range of motion movement (perform as a superset) are preferred for hypertrophy, as they naturally have a motor activation pattern that closely resembles that of an eccentric contraction, meaning they activate more fast twitch muscle fibers (which is preferred for hypertrophy). Overcoming or functional isometrics followed by a full range of motion movement to potentiate motor unit activation are preferred for strength, as their motor activation pattern closely resembles that of a concentric contraction, but this isn’t to say that each type of isometric is limited to those specific goals. In either case, these are referred to as ‘iso-dynamic contrast’ sets, because dynamic sets are alternated with isometric sets.

But that’s not all

Isometric pauses can be combined with traditional repetitions (dynamic) during the same set to further increase the time under tension and enhance the training effect. There are a few ways to implement isometric pauses with dynamic (concentric/eccentric) repetitions, regardless of your goal:

Isomiometric, AKA iso-dynamic, means there is an isometric pause between dynamic repetitions. These are great because you can increase time under tension in the weakest position (typically starting point for extension oriented movements, which helps build starting strength/rate of force development, and end point for flexion oriented movements, which helps maximize peak contraction) while still exhausting as many muscle fibers as possible, and preventing losses in strength, by performing a full range of motion.

Isoballistic, which is the same as isomiometric, it just means the weight is light enough to be lifted explosively following an isometric pause.

Ballistic isometrics can only be done with overcoming isometrics, and means the weight is lifted as fast as humanly possible, the purpose being to develop the rate of force development. I only mention this here to prevent confusion since the term is almost identical, and can easily be mistaken.

There are a few ways to implement isometric pauses with dynamic (concentric/eccentric) repetitions, regardless of your goal, and the rules are as such:

Isomiometric (pausing between reps)

Intensity – 85-45%

Over 85% is likely too heavy for most to hold isometrically for any significant amount of time and perform more than one rep (which is needed to accumulate enough time under tension to promote a hypertrophic response).

Under 45% is simply too light, and therefore should be classified as isoballistic, since the weight is light enough to launch balistically (which develops explosive power/starting strength – the more explosive you are at the beginning, the more likely you blast through any sticking points and complete the lift).

For every 10% decrease in weight, there is a 2 second increase in isometric duration and an increase of reps by 1
Starting at 75-85% pausing for 2 seconds X 2-3 reps
65-75% pausing for 4 seconds X 3-4 reps
55-65% pausing for 6 seconds X 4-5 reps
45-55% pausing for 8 seconds X 5-6 reps


For every 10% decrease in weight, there is a 2 second increase in isometric duration, while the rep bracket remains constant between 2-5 (generally there is no point in performing more than 5 reps, as the nervous system is only capable of maximally recruiting for so long before fatigue alters performance, thus negating any positive effect there is to have by performing isoballistics. The set should end when the bar speed begins to slow down).

35-45% pausing for 10 seconds
25-35% pausing for 12 seconds
15-25% pausing for 14 seconds

Iso-dynamic contrast reps

Iso-dynamic contrast reps consist of performing an isometric hold (yielding) at either the peak contraction, or mid-range, to prolong the time under tension, as well as time under maximal tension, since greater recruitment is possible during an isometric contraction than a concentric one.

It is for this same reason that you should always perform the isometric pause DURING the concentric repetition, not the eccentric. The point of the isometric is to maximize the amount of intramuscular tension, and it’s a lot harder to pause during the concentric, which negates any stored elastic energy from assisting as you restart to complete the rep, than to pause during the eccentric. Pausing during the eccentric still enables you to utilize stored elastic energy to generate momentum and push through the concentric, not as a result of the muscles generating the tension necessary. If fatigue becomes a limiting factor and is negatively affecting how many reps you can complete, you could perform as many of your pauses as possible during the concentric, and then switch to performing the pauses during the eccentric, to enable you to finish the rest of your set(s).

Start with 6 isodynamic reps, and a 12 second pause for hypertrophy, or 6 second pause for strength, decrease pause by 2 seconds each rep for hypertrophy, and 1 second per rep for strength as the set progresses.

Rep 1 – 12 second pause hypertrophy, 6 second pause strength
Rep 2 – 9-10 second pause hypertrophy, 5 second pause strength
Rep 3 – 7-8 second pause hypertrophy, 4 second pause strength
Rep 4 – 5-6 second pause hypertrophy, 3 second pause strength
Rep 5 – 3-4 second pause hypertrophy, 2 second pause strength
Rep 6 – 1-2 second pause hypertrophy, 1 second pause strength
Rep 7 or more – no pause

*don’t bother pausing for more than 2 seconds if using deadlifts, and only pause during the concentric, as form typically breaks down during the eccentric, and the last thing anyone wants is to prolong the time under tension in a compromised position

**option to drop 20-30% and perform AMRAP at the end of the set (Japanese drop set)

***perform 1-2 sets total to prevent neural overtraining if performing the drop set variation, otherwise go for 3-4 sets

If performing 6 isodynamic reps is too challenging due to the excess time under tension, 5 is also an effective option, but any less than 5 defeats the purpose if hypertrophy is the goal.

Rep 1 – 10 second pause
Rep 2 – 7 seconds pause
Rep 3 – 5 second pause
Rep 4 – 3 second pause
Rep 5 – 1 second pause
Rep 6 or more – no pause

If the extended pause during the first rep in either case negatively affects performance for each and every following rep, then another option would be to simply make the isometric pause consistent (ex. pause each rep for 5 seconds, aiming for 3-5 reps). This way is easiest to quantify progress, as each rep is identical, whereas it’s a little harder to quantify progress when each and every rep is held for varying durations.

Elvis has left the building

While I’m thoroughly ecstatic with the current trend that is ‘fitness’, I feel many are set up to fail, not for lack of will, or lack of effort, but for lack of understanding, and lack of knowledge to channel that will and effort towards achieving goals of significance. As humans, we are results oriented, and the moment we feel that our efforts are not being met with some kind of a return, our motivation plummets, and we divert our attention elsewhere. Therefore, if people fail to achieve their goals, not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t, it’s likely that this fitness trend will soon be a thing of the past. The reason I do what I do, is to prevent this from happening, as fitness is something I am extremely passionate about, and the last thing I want to see is it to lose its social appeal that it took decades to build. Because of what I know, and what I’ve seen, I urge those who are reading this to share it with those who may not have a clear understanding of what to do, to get them where they want to go, because I know that the most direct path is in the gym, not in any of the other popular activities that appeal to people because of their ‘fun factor’. That’s not to say that activities like crossfit, yoga, pilates, or any other physical activity won’t produce results, they just won’t produce the results that lifting weights, as well as controlling, and lowering them will.

If you have any questions about any of the content in this article, or how to apply any of the ideas presented, feel free to contact me at ben@paramounttraining.ca. I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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