So, I’ve already touched on isometrics in a previous blog entry. In that blog entry, I decided to pick “aerobic isometrics” (as Steve Justa dubbed them) to show my readers that isometrics, in spite of their lack of movement, have a valid place in anyone’s strength training arsenal and that they can provide the necessary level of difficulty to challenge anyone.
Frankly, I took the low-hanging fruit to prove my point. All of those isometrics use gravity, poor leverage, and instability to provide you with resistance. Even without movement, they still use the same, fundamental elements to create muscle tension that most BW, and weight training, exercises do. So, that gives them an air of legitimacy. There a whole other breed of isometric training and those are the isometrics that leave many skeptical about the effectiveness of isometrics as a whole.
I can see why Steve Justa coined aerobic isometrics. Even though it may not be biochemically correct to use the term aerobic when describing such isometrics, the concept is correct: a lighter contraction over a longer period of time, just like aerobic exercise. There are, of course, “anaerobic” isometrics: much more intense, shorter duration contractions. They’re done at nearly full-strength contractions, lasting only about 10 seconds. These are the isometric contractions that leave some doubtful and in disbelief. It doesn’t help that Bob Hoffman used them as a cover story for his athletes's steroid use either.
Don’t let that deter you from doubting their usefulness and effectiveness.
These isometrics are performed in three ways:
1. Using a foreign objects (towels, ropes, straps, walls) to resist against or to link together opposite limbs, forcing them to resist one-another.
2. Direct contact between two limbs attempting to move in opposite directions.
3. Using antagonist muscles to provide resistance. The most controversial, since it looks like glorified posing.
There’s some variation and disagreement about how to perform these full-strength, anaerobic isometrics. One school of thought follows the most famous study of isometric effectiveness: the Hettinger Study. He found that the most effective way of doing isometrics was a gradual build-up of tension while inhaling. Once 70% of maximum tension achieved, the athlete should exhale, holding the contraction for 7-12 seconds. How he expected anyone to gauge 70% of maximum tension seems like a mystery to many, including Ross Enamait. I doubt he was the first to question this, but he was the first that I had heard of who just suggested to go for full tension without a gradual build-up in tension.
This ties into another myth about isometrics: that they’re much safer on the joints than any other form of strength training. I assume that this goes back to the lack of movement. After all, if there’s no movement, then there’s much less of a chance of injuring yourself. The truth of the matter is that you can certainly walk away from a session of isometric training with achy joints. It’s entirely possible to contract your muscles so powerfully that you can feel it around your joints. That, as far as I’m concerned, is the practical difference between 70% and 100% contraction. You should contract only to the point where you feel it in your muscles, not in your joints. That’s also hard to gauge without a slow build-up in tension. So, I side with Hettinger on this one.
So, if you can contract hard enough to cause joint pain and damage, you bet your ass that you can contract hard enough to strengthen your muscles! If you’re not contracting hard enough to see some veins popping and some serious muscle definition, then you’re just not trying hard enough! You have got to put some power into these movements! You should feel like you’ve just jumped to the last repetition of a brutally-hard set. If you’re not feeling that, then you need to shut up with the complaints that these don’t work and work harder!
That’s the reason why many people don’t like these: they don’t believe in them. If you don’t believe in them, then of course you’re not going to get results from them. These are very different from calisthenics because they’re more dependant on your mind delivering a powerful message to contract powerfully to provide the work. If the mind doesn’t force it, the body doesn’t get it.
Mental imagery really helps with this. If memory serves me, I believe that Greg Mangan of VRT Training fame favors mental images similar to boxing and striking arts. Just like you punch through a target and not at it, don’t think of pushing against a wall. PUSH THROUGH THE WALL! PULL THE PULL-UP BAR DOWN! TEAR THE TOWEL APART! While you’re doing that, focus on the muscle that you’re trying to work. Think about your biceps contracting powerfully. Ultimately, these isometrics can work for you, you just have to want them to work. Just because there isn’t a foreign force working on your body doesn’t mean that you can’t create strength within it. This kind of training is mind-body connection and nerve force at its best.