Isometrics have been the forsaken warrior of strength training. They have been used for decades but hardly receive the recognition they truly deserve. While they’ve been around within the practical world they’ve also been highly researched. If one is trying to improve strength, speed and rehabilitation outcomes installing isometrics may be a good idea. Below I’ll get into what isometrics are and how they can improve your outcomes.
The definition of an isometric is a muscle contraction where no change in length occurs but tension is still created. An easy way to think of this is to imagine you’re at the bottom of a push-up and you hold your nose just above the ground. You aren’t lengthening or shortening the muscles being used but tension is still being created because you’re fighting gravity by hovering over the ground.
Two Types of Isometrics
- Yielding Isometrics: This type of isometric can be illustrated by a person trying to fight for a given position and resisting the urge to move. A plank is a good example of a yielding isometric exercise.
- Overcoming Isometrics: This type of isometric is not for newbies or those that are injured. Overcoming isometrics can be extremely taxing and should be used fairly sparingly. That being said, a way to incorporate these would be to do exercises such as pin presses. where you push a barbell into a set of pins that are anchored and immovable for a certain duration of time.
For the purposes of this article I’ll be describing the benefits of yielding isometrics due to the fact that they are easier to implement and require a lesser degree of skill.
- Increased muscle fiber recruitment: when one performs an isometric contraction muscle fibers are stimulated. Depending on how long the contraction is held will dictate how much motor unit recruitment is done. It is suggested in the literature that if an isometric contraction is held for a certain amount of time the motor units being worked will be fully stimulated.
- Improved joint stability: When our muscles contract they pull on their adjacent tendons that are anchored to bones. We just discussed how implementing isometrics can increase motor unit recruitment. Turns out that this additional motor unit recruitment can provide added stability to the joint itself. Picture a piece of rope that is attached to an immovable pillar. The rope is the tendon and the pillar is the bone and you are acting as the muscle itself. When you aren’t pulling on the rope the rope is loose. But when you pull on the rope it becomes taut and tense. The rope (joint) now becomes more difficult to move because it is more stable.
- Rehabilitation Protocol: When coming back from an injury or if you’re currently nursing an injury isometrics can help. When we experience an injury our pain threshold goes down, in other words the area becomes more sensitive. Say you hurt your knee snowboarding the subsequent damage done to that knee elicits a pain response. This pain response is a byproduct of our bodies natural defenses. Your body is telling you to avoid getting into positions that hurt. Makes sense right? Well, isometrics can be used to allow someone to get into the position with little to no pain which is referred to as an analgesic effect (inability to feel pain.) Using our rope example, when the rope is taut it provides stability to the joint. This added joint stability basically gives the nervous system permission to downregulate. In addition, if you’ve ever done isometric exercises before you’ll experience a serious “pump.” This swelling sensation is a result of blood being siphoned into the area. Blood is filled with nutrients that help to repair damage and clear out metabolic debris.
- Practice In Mechanically Disadvantages Positions: Another way to use isometrics is to pause in the most mechanically disadvantaged position of a movement like the bottom of a bench press. Forcing yourself to pause in these less than ideal positions forces the body to adapt to the load placed on it in a slightly different manner. This goes along with our S-A-I-D principle which stands for specific adaptation to imposed demands. Essentially, you place a new stimulus on the body and then subsequently your body must adapt to the stimulus/stress being placed on it. It’s a great way to attack weaknesses.
How To Implement
There are a number of ways you can implement isometrics into your training. An important thing to remember is that isometrics are merely a tool in your tool box that you can utilize. It’s important to understand that there is a time and place for everything and not every tool is appropriate for every task. You wouldn’t use a drill to patch a flat tire right? Don’t start now.
What I mean specifically is that you shouldn’t just forgo every other method of training and only utilize isometrics. Isometrics should be a part of a well balanced training program.
- Pre-recruitment of muscle fibers: Before squatting, doing a set of wall sits for 20-30 seconds can be a way to groove the gears in preparation for squatting itself. This way we start to activate appropriate muscle fibers to prepare for the task of squatting but there is the added benefit of not loading the movement just yet. You can use this strategy as part of a complete warm-up
- Intra-Workout: I highlighted earlier that placing your body in mechanically disadvantageous positions can teach the body to cope with a different type of stress. Doing so will aid in strength gains. For instance, doing a cycle of pause bench press can help sure up your bench press strength if you’re weak pressing the bar off your chest. There is some evidence to suggest that doing an isometric contraction can yield some strength gains at adjacent joint angles as well. Stopping at different positions along the movement can also be a strategy as well however, that is a much more imposing task than stopping at one joint angle. Start with one joint angle (your weakest one) and the progress to multiple stops along the movement continuum.
- Finisher: Finishing a movement will an isometric contraction can be a sure fire way to give yourself a sleeve busting pump. One way I particularly enjoy doing this is when I’m doing 1-arm dumbbell bent over rows. I’ll do my sets as normal but on the last rep I’ll hold the dumbbell close to my body for time. That is an economical way of training that won’t add to much time to the overall session. You can do this for each set on the last rep or you can wait till the very last set and add it in their. If you’re a beginner I’d recommend the ladder option.
*Make note that these are ways to implement yielding isometrics specifically.
So there you have it, isometrics in a nutshell. In a later post I’ll go into more detail about overcoming isometrics because I believe they deserve a deep dive as well. Implement these strategies and reap the benefits.
- Ty Curtis