A deep dive into the world of isometry

The fitness world is home to a subculture that runs deep. And as with all subcultures, the debate is often rampant from within.

A quick look at Reddit can be revealing: yoga practitioners clash with Pilates enthusiasts, bodybuilders criticizing how powerlifters squat, powerlifters criticizing someone who can’t deadlift 300 pounds, runners throwing shade at lazy

Most of these conversations are good natured, but tensions can really flare. This is especially true when discussing underrated or underrated exercises, a subject that seemingly everyone with a gym membership has an opinion on.

My own: The most underrated exercise is not really an exercise at all, but a training technique. It is called isometric.

Defined isometric

Isometrics are exercises in which the targeted muscles produce force without any noticeable movement.

The wall squat provides a clear example of this: With your back pressed against a wall, lower your butt until there is a 90 degree angle at the knees. Hold this position for a minute or so – and there you have it. Try a few sets and see how your legs feel afterwards to understand the benefits.

How muscles – and isometric – work

When muscle fibers are activated, they contract to generate the force needed to accomplish the task at hand. This process begins with the brain, where the nervous system sends signals that travel through the body via pathways called motor neurons. These activate the muscle contractions that produce movement.

As our bodies move through a full range of motion, the muscles go through phases of contraction. During the eccentric phase, the targeted muscle lengthens (think of the lowering phase of a pushup). During the concentric phase, the targeted muscle shortens (think of the growing phase of a pushup). Add a pause somewhere between the two phases, and you have an isometric contraction.

During an isometric contraction, the muscles recruited by the motor neurons never relax. There is constant and prolonged tension throughout the duration of the exercise, and this tension is the magic that makes isometrics so effective.

Isometric in action

With the right tools and techniques, isometrics can be manipulated to provide a training stimulus similar to that of traditional weight lifting. Isometrics offer a few additional and unique benefits, however, the biggest one being that it targets precise muscle tissues in precise, limited ranges of motion. This makes them ideal for rehabilitating injuries and training weak areas in specific lifts (such as the initial pulling phase of a deadlift or pushing the barbell off your chest during a bench press).

As with any other training method, to get the greatest reward from isometrics, you need to use them properly. To maximize the adaptation of the muscle, you will want to use what is called “isometric yield”.

Essentially, you assume a static position while holding a weight (either free weights or your own body weight) in place for 45 to 90 seconds. Planks, holding the upper part of a chin-up or holding a pair of dumbbells with your arms extended sideways on the floor are all examples of doing isometrics.

With the help of some specialized equipment, isometrics can also be used to build strength. By pushing or pulling with full force against an immovable object for 10 to 20 seconds—an approach called “overcoming isometrics”—we train our nervous system to function more efficiently by recruiting more muscle fibers. My favorite form of this type of training is the rack iso deadlift and Smith machine iso bench press.

Making the most of the method

As effective as isometrics can be, they can be a little, well, boring. Holding a deep squat isn’t exactly the most exciting way to spend 60 seconds.

This is why there are many variations in both categories of isometric techniques. There is the stato-dynamic method, functional isometrics, isometrics, loaded stretching, reactive isometrics – a whole world of programming parameters to help keep your training fresh and engaging.

If you choose to incorporate isometrics into your routine, choose one or two variations that will support your goals and learn how to make the most of them over the course of three to four weeks. After that, discover a new method and compare your results. Chances are you’ll discover a style that will convert you to the isometrics club.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.

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