Current thoughts re this approach, skeleton of a phamphlet minus example pics of some of the holds. Good info for the interested, still a WIP:
Most people are aware that “isometrics” refers to muscular contraction where the muscle does not change length, as opposed to “isotonic” where the muscle IS changing length. There are many ways to apply isometrics but primarily I will be referring to “overcoming isometrics”. This is a voluntary, self generated contraction where one exerts against an immovable resistance, or one that only moves a slight amount. Specifically, most of what I am detailing involves the use of an MVC, or “ Maximal Voluntary Contraction”, basically the most force one can coax from one’s muscles.
Research in this field has been around for decades, and its use by old time strongmen is well documented although many of the details are not. Its popularity seems to follow an ebb and flow, being rediscovered every 8-10 years. Many elements of the adaptive response are well established in peer-reviewed scientic literature, and this provides a solid jump-off point for effective use. Lack of standardized application and hardware may be a major reason why this approach is not more widely used outside of gymnastics or a minor supplement to isotonic training.
Added to this I will include other close cousins of overcoming isometrics that are known as “Dynamic Tension”. This refers to maximal voluntary contraction, applied while moving a joint or joints and causing the muscle(s) to shorten and lengthen under self-generated tension. The best known variant of this is Charles Atlas mail order program.
Back to the question of “why”. Generally a comprehensive program of isometrics requires very little in the way of equipment expense. Later in this article I detail a solution for a whole body isometric training unit that costs no more than a good pair of running shoes.
By its very nature, the trainee has complete control over :
-magnitude of exertion
-speed of exertion
-angle of exertion.
These variables can be exploited to train a number of attributes more safely than can be done with external resistance.
Isometrics Biochemical change in joint fluid after isometric quadriceps exercise for patients with osteoarthritis of the knee
improve pain tolerance and mobility for a number of joint ailments, primarily arthritis and tendonitis. The effect on joint health, mobility, and pain reduction is well established and impressive. They increase tendon stiffness, improving strength and power transfer.
Muscle performance during maximal isometric and dynamic contractions is influenced by the stiffness of the tendinous structures - PubMed
Its is far easier to learn and demonstrate good lifting mechanics for the beginner, and to tailor the range of motion to accommodate the elderly and those dealing with injury or compromised function.
Added to the above it is possible to trigger hypertrophy and increase strength through the entire dynamic range, so long as the muscles are exercised at long length.
Changes in Torque and Electromyographic Activity of the Quadriceps Femoris Muscles Following Isometric Training
Myoelectrical and mechanical changes linked to length specificity during isometric training, Journal of Applied Physiology | DeepDyve
Isometrics do not require incremental loading to trigger progress, a “Maximal Voluntary Contraction” will increase force production over time simply due to adaptive response. Research indicates a value of anywhere from 50% up to a maximal effort can be effective.
They do not program strength via repetitive movement patterns, as such they interfere less with sport or job specific movement patterns.
They generate less metabolic stress and heat loss through movement compared to isotonics.
Trained at long muscle length they increase muscle fascicle length, increasing power output and decreasing energy cost of movement.
They can be used in combination with relatively light loads as the high tension component of a traditional resistance program, reducing the need to maintain a lot of heavy weight equipment.
Now for the “Why not”? If the muscle is not exercised at long length, strength gains will be limited to a few degrees around the trained angle. Hypertrophy will likewise suffer.
Isometrics can be difficult to measure progress without testing against known isotonic exercise values or using a crane scale of some sort.
They can trigger large spikes in blood pressure if one is not careful to continue breathing through longer holds.
There is no widely recognized standard equipment for training isometrics, and no widely recognized organization structure equivalent to the sets and repetitions used in external resistance programming.
Informal methods of applying isometrics tend to result in mediocre outcomes, mostly due to exertion at shorter muscle length, use of body weight as an anchor, or balancing muscle exertion instead of applying maximum force.
They burn less energy, are less metabolically stressful in use, so not as useful for controlling body composition or rapidly gaining muscle mass.
Isometrics should train the muscle at longer length or even slightly stretched. For the beginner and elderly this is maybe not so important and definitely not for someone recovering from injury. In those cases it is far more important to learn good structural form, improve one’s ability to control contraction speed and magnitude of force, and slowly increase the duration of hold.
Overcoming Isometric holds should not use body mass as an anchor or pit relatively equal non symmetrical muscle groups directly against each other. There will be a tendency to reach an equilibrium of posture rather than the muscles exerting at close to their peak. Again, this is not so important for a beginner and might never be an issue if used for injury recovery or part of a program to improve strength in the elderly or functionally compromised. For everyone else this will become a serious impediment to making progress beyond a superficial level.
It is also recommended to use a means that allow some slight give such as textile, rope or canvas over chain or steel cable, etc. This creates a bit of elastic feedback that serves as a gauge of force production. Lacking this, the brain can quickly lose track of how much force the muscles are generating. Again, this is a secondary consideration but becomes more important the further one goes with this. There are also training strategies that employ sharp jolts, these could be impractical with a form of resistance that has zero elastic qualities.
It is very important to breathe through the entire hold. An easy way to enforce this is to adopt an exertion pattern similar to isotonics - exert maximally on the exhale, maintain or slightly reduce tension on the inhale.
Generally, one will get the best results using barbell, dumbbell, and machine exercise analogs, with the hold executed at the initial or lowest portion of the lifting range of motion. This is possibly the best single bit of advice one can make use of re the application of maximal contraction overcoming isometrics. It can save a lot of wasted training time. Not all “good” isometric holds will follow this principle, but one should be very careful when putting those into a regimen. Is also important to realize that the hold might only superficially resemble its cast iron analog when taken out of context. Nearly identical postures can look very dissimilar when canvas is substituted for barbell.
In practice this results in most lower body squat and hinge movements working against an absolute resistance, and most upper body movements working against the lower body bracing in a shallow squat or hinge posture.
Generally speaking, overcoming isometric application follows that of conventional resistance training. Longer holds taken close to failure tend to increase hypertrophy, shorter holds done with maximum force tend to increase limit strength, brief forceful jolts tend to increase speed and power. Holds applying greater than 50% of a maximal effort will recruit primarily fast twitch fibers, holds above 70% held for > 5 seconds will increase tendon stiffness.
How long, how hard, how much volume?
For the beginner I recommend about 8-10 second efforts. If one does not have a timer, estimate the number of exhales per time and count breathing cycles. This will also ensure continuous breathing throughout. Consider each inhale/exhale as an isotonic equivalent “repetition” and each 8-10 second effort as a “set”.
With familiarity, longer holds can be used up to a maximum perhaps of 30 seconds or so at a full effort. Force output tends to require about 2-3 seconds to fully develop, and declines from about 10 seconds at a maximal effort.
Isometrics do not require anywhere near the inter set recovery time of isotonic resistance training. Work to rest ratios as low as 1:1 can be used. A good starting point is 10 seconds work to 60 seconds of rest. Longer breaks of several minutes can be used between exercises.
Number of maximal effort sets can be anywhere from 2-5. Generally the shorter the effort duration the more sets you will want to use. 5(sets)x5(seconds), 3x10, 2x20. One can also use effort/relax “pulses” going between approximately 10% and 60% at very brief intervals, a second or less per. 20-30 repetitions will constitute a set. Breathing pattern will not track with the effort as the interval is too rapid, but remember to continue breathing throughout.
A simple recommendation is to do 2 or 3 sets of 10, finishing with a single long set of 25 pulses. Rest 3 minutes and on to the next exercise. This format can be plugged into each exercise from chapt 5, in exact order.
Remember, when starting out with these one should get into the starting posture and slowly increase force to a level that one is confortable with. Take stock of how everything feels and lengthen or shorten the muscle and apply more or less force accordingly. Do not lose track of the goal, to train these with a maximal effort at long muscle length. This is the goal but one need not start out aggressively pushing it.
Getting started using rope, strapping, textile. It is possible to use improvised means for isometric training and get good results. The more advanced the athlete, the less effective this will be over strategies that are better tailored. The quality of the outcome for various individual holds is determined far more by the mechanical specifics than by effort expended. You can feel as though you are working very hard and get a mediocre response at best if the basics are not adhered to.
Regardless of current fitness status, it can take several weeks of training before one is liable to feel that they are able to effectively apply isometric force with good posture and breathing.
You will need at least 2x your height in length of material, 3x or more is better, esp if one is taking a few turns of material instead of using something with handles. I highly recommend using an adjustable cargo strap 14-16 feet in length with handles fashioned from rope or canvas loops passed through the hook hardware (pics below). The strap can be run under a board without making it unstable.
Is a good idea to train these using bare feet, socks, or flat bottomed shoes. Almost every hold you train will be executed while standing on the middle point of the strap. Use of a board to stand on and run the strap under, greatly facilitates the ability to use a maximal effort. As force production increases, the sensation of the strap etc biting into and pulling against the feet will cause a decrease in full effort. Again, for the beginner, elderly etc it is a secondary consideration. For an already conditioned individual it will cause problems from the get go.
These are examples of strap and board configurations. At the least a 12in by 3ft board can be used. Many hardware outlets sell plywood in 2x4 ft project pieces and is ideal with either divots cut into the edge or holes cut through the board to secure the strapping. The larger surface area of the plywood allows one to change their orientation to the strap anchor points. Being able to lean a little into or away from the anchor points allows one to pre-load the muscles being trained, this cannot be done with a more narrow board.
Rope or canvas handles facilitate use of a bar or dowel passed through the handles to help mimic barbell lifts. A simple length of galvanized or black pipe is an effective stand in for a barbell.
A large military style duffel bag crammed with old clothes, a light weight 40lb heavy bag, even a rolled up area rug are good stand ins for a lifting bench. A regular flat bench can likewise be used so long as the feet sit firmly on the training board. It is possible to make do with nothing more than a handful of old towels or padded exercise mat. Something that elevates the body a little is more versatile and creates more of a stretch with some of the holds. It is worth the extra effort but don’t let the lack of it prevent you from getting started, one can get good results working right off the board.
Push, Pull, Hinge, Squat.
These four basic movement patterns cover 90% of what needs to be accomplished of resistance training for general fitness (and arguably more advanced fitness as well). The following are my recommendations for construction of a simple and effective exercise regimen.
Generally all my basic programs are constructed around primary push, pull, hinge, squat with accessory exercises as compliment. In most cases this equals 8 exercises (4 primary, 4 accessory) with a few additional abdominal, bicep, tricep thrown in at the end. Alternate primary and accessory, upper body and lower. This gives every primary lift pattern a break every other session, while maintaining consistent volume to the prime moving muscles. The selection of specific exercises can be swapped out periodically but should be readily identifiable by classification (push, pull, hinge, squat) and role (primary, accessory).
In practice the exercises are arranged over two days, performed 3 times per week, run ABA one week, BAB the next. In practice it looks like this:
- Primary Squat, back squat
- Accessory Push, Overhead Press
- Accessory Hinge, Hamstring Curl
- Primary Pull, Bent Row
- Tricep Extensions
- Primary Hinge, Deadlift
- Accessory Pull, Upright Row
- Accessory Squat, Hamstring Extension
- Primary Push, Benchpress
- Bicep Curl
Abs and calves can be done every day as a finisher or not at all. Is a good idea to include some walking, jogging or interval training on off days commensurate with fitness level.
The following are illustrative of some of the options available by class and role.
Additional training options:
One should begin isometric training with nothing more involved than static holds for time, this includes pulse training.
With more familiarity one can begin to shift the pulses from a casual ramp up to a more explosive effort. An intent to fire as rapidly as possible from a largely relaxed hold can trigger very worthwhile response in increased movement speed.
Potential variables include level/depth of relaxtion between efforts, amount of slack allowed/distance from start to cold stop, added contribution from leg or hip drive, and number of repeats. I recommend keeping the distance fairly short, ideally the strapping halts movement while the muscle is fully activated. Force drops off as velocity increases, don’t outrun the tension you’re developing.
Another avenue for further usage is Dynamic Tension. This likewise should not be used until one is VERY comfortable generating maximal contraction and holding it for at least several breaths.
Using dynamic, self-generated tension involves another layer of awareness on top of isometrics. It can be thought of as “isometrics in motion”, and negative opportunities abound for dropping off tension as the lines of resistance shift relative to joint angle and muscle length; it is easy to waste one’s time on these. Due to this tendency one should not attempt dynamic work until one has a well developed skill and understanding of isometric effort. At this stage, one can generate very solid return on effort in terms of increased hypertrophy, benefit of training varied joint angles, and decreasing post exercise muscle soreness from longer duration exhaustive efforts.
As with static isometrics, it is important to use long muscle length, avoid a balancing act with dissimilar muscles and avoid bracing against bodyweight.
The amount of length change/total joint movement does not need to be very large. An equivalent of movement to approx 1/4 to 1/2 the range of motion of a comparable isotonic exercise is plenty, in some cases even less can be used.
Again, it is important to maintain tension on inhale, increase on exhale, work upper body vs lower, lower body vs lateral movement or overwhelming leverage.
In use it is important to think of this as “isometrics in motion”. One wants to apply a maximal effort through a variable range of motion. Generally as the movement opens up and the muscles shorten, the amount of posture supplied tension will decrease, and as the movement forces the muscle to lengthen the posture supplied tension will increase. It is helpful to maintain focus on muscular tension first, and concentrate on postural movement as a secondary consideration.
To illustrate the above stated principle, take an overhead press as an example. From a standing braced posture with knees slightly bent, you will drop into a shallow squat, “pressing the hands up”. Postural supplied tension drops off and it is the trainee’s job to press hard through that drop off. Coming back up, postural tension increases and can be used to overload the self supplied tension as the trainee resists lengthening of the muscle.
Is important to maintain an inhale/exhale rhythm throughout.
Here is an example of lateral movement generated dynamic tension. From a low squat, plant the feet wider than shoulder width. At commencement of exertion begin to shift to one side, taking care to continue driving upward the entire time. Shift all the way over one leg, bending the knee forward, then shift back to the other side. This changes the angle at the hips and knees throughout, changing muscle length of glutes and quads. Only a small amount of muscle length/joint angle change is needed to generate a very solid adaptive response.
This mirrors recent research with isotonic exercise that demonstrates the bulk of training benefit is produced training the muscle at longer lengths.
Partial range of motion training elicits favorable improvements in muscular adaptations when carried out at long muscle lengths - PubMed
Comparable (or superior!) strength and hypertrophy are achieved relative to full range of motion. A component of this outcome is believed to be due to the constant tension produced, combined with training at longer muscle length, an approach very comparable to the application of dynamic tension as outlined above.