Increasing athleticism is all about learning how to move optimally. This involves acquiring sufficient range of motion within the joints, as well as possessing strength, stability, and a sense of control throughout different movement patterns. Teaching these patterns is a long term process, but they are the foundation of what we as strength coaches do to develop our athletes. One method I use to teach novel movement patterns and attempt to make the process quicker is to introduce isometric and eccentric tempo work with various exercises. The goal of using eccentrics and isometrics is to get the athletes to feel and control their movements in the weight room, and then use that on the field.
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Isometric exercises involve having the athlete hold a specific position (e.g., the top of a Push-Up or the bottom of a Squat) while resisting gravity and other forces pulling him out of position. Isometric movements offer a huge nervous system training effect, challenging the brain to get comfortable in an uncomfortable position. Because of the CNS response, using isometrics are a great way to train control and stability, as well as to increase strength through improved neural drive.
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We incorporate isometric exercises into many of our programs, and into almost every program for new and younger athletes. Changing where the isometric is held, varying the time of the hold, and adding load to the exercise creates a greater training effect to carry over to their sport.
We start our athletes with a simple bodyweight hold at the bottom of a Squat or Split Squat, or at the top of a Push-Up. The goal of our progressions is to challenge the stability requirements in the positions by removing a point of contact to the ground, adding a load to force the athlete off-balance and having them overcome that force.
Eccentric exercises involve controlling movement patterns through the eccentric, or lowering, phase of a lift, fighting the gravitational force pulling the athlete down. The eccentric phase puts greater stress on tissue, which is why, apart from improving body awareness and stability, eccentrics are great for eliciting gains in strength and size. In terms of athletic performance, eccentric loading of a movement is critical to large force outputs through force production and muscle spindle activation. And teaching proper loading techniques through a movement ensures athletes are moving optimally, engaging the right muscles to be as powerful and efficient as possible, and reducing the risk of injury.
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We have our athletes start with bodyweight exercises such as Squats, Lunges, Push-Ups, Pull-Ups and Hip Hinges, where they control the descent through a specified count, typically 3 seconds down. As they progress, we start adding external loads to the exercises, increasing the time down and adding an explosive component to the concentric muscle action out of the eccentric to promote a greater transfer to their sport. Whichever way we progress, we have to make sure the athlete is successful with the movement patterns, understands how his body is moving, and can feel the load in the right areas before we increase the challenge of the exercises.
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Having an athlete control himself through different movement patterns, and then having him hold specific positions, sends great feedback to the CNS. The subsequent neural and muscular response teaches athletes to learn body awareness, patterning and stability in multiple positions. These traits are what allow the athletes to move optimally and efficiently in their sport and reach a higher level of athletic performance.