Isometrics, isometric training, static exercises, – these words are used more and more frequently nowadays, however, very few people truly know the real facts about such types of training. Due to the lack of real understanding of not only the theory of isometric training, but also the proper way implementing isometrics, the strategy drove many athletes away. Currently it is only used in yoga and pilates. If you start researching the topic on the Internet, you will, unfortunately, not find much useful information about the isometric exercises. All you will find is the definition of isometrics, and a general idea about the exercises, if that.
In many articles writers seem to mislead readers due to their own misunderstanding of the concept. Always being a huge fan of combining static and dynamic strength training, I spent a lot of time researching the subject and translated some material from Russian in order to shed some light on isometric training. Therefore here is the isometric training exposed!
History of Isometric Training – Alexander Zass
So many articles claim different ways of development of isometric training, such as being brought from India to Tibet, or ancient China, or Medieval Europe …etc. The truth is that elements of isometric training have always been used in combination with dynamic exercises even over a thousand years ago. Asking where isometric training came from is like asking who invented swords, or bows. Isometric training was not defined as such until the late nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. The true father of isometric training was Alexander Ivanovich Zass, 1888-1962 (The Great Samson), a Russian strongman of Polish origin that was a member of a Russian Circus group. “I do not believe in large muscles, if there is no real strength of tendons!”, – proclaimed Alexander. He was and still is the strongest man the world has ever known! Zass was born in Vilna, Poland in 1888, but lived most of his early years in Russia and after 1924 in Britain. He lifted a 500 pound girder with his teeth, his was known for catching cannon balls (200lbs steel cannon balls were caught by Zass standing 8 meters away from the shooting cannon), catching a person shot out a specifically constructed “human cannon”, carrying a horse on his shoulders, carrying a piano with a pianist and a dancer on it, doing back flips with 54.1lbs in his hands, doing 200 pushups in 4 minutes and finally tearing chains with his fingers.
During the World War I, Alexander was captured by Austrian troops three times, and three times escaped (at least once by pulling the prison cell door steel bars out). After the third break out, Alexander was able to escape Austria and moved to England, where he lived the rest of his life.
The most amazing thing about Alexander was his body size: height – 5’ 6-7”, weight – no more than 176lbs, chest measured 47in and biceps 16.1 inches. Alexander said he had to increase the size of the biceps from 15 inches, as the public liked to see big muscles; however, he always used to say – “big biceps do not stand for strong arms, as big stomach does not stand for good digesting system”. This is not one of Ripley’s Believe it or Not history tricks, go ahead and research Alexander Zass, see what other of his tricks I missed.
The amazing strength of the Great Samson reached the United States, where athletes started adopting Alexander’s training methods, including falsely claimed to be a father of such Charles Atlas. It is only due to such training Alexander was able to reach such levels of physical strength. Zass was not a born superman; he stated that the sources of his strength were “strong tendons, will power, and mastering muscle control”. So what is the secret behind the isometric training? What does it have to do with tendon strength? …and why does it allow developing such astonishing levels of physical strength?
Isometric Training Defined
Isometric exercise or isometrics are a type of strength training in which the joint angle and muscle length do not change during contraction (compared to concentric or eccentric contractions, called dynamic/isotonic movements). Isometrics are done in static positions, rather than being dynamic through a range of motion. The joint and muscle are either worked against an immovable force (overcoming isometric) or are held in a static position while opposed by resistance (yielding isometric). Iso – same, metric – distance.
Forms of Isometric Training
The types of isometrics we utilize are isometric holds, isometric presses, isometric contrasts, oscillatory isometrics, and impact absorption isometrics. Below is a brief overview of each.
Isometric Hold: An isometric hold is a static exercise in which an athlete is required to hold a particular position with or without resistance for a required period of time. The athlete is trying to disallow any movement, while trying to recruit the correct muscle fibers to perform this movement. This type of isometric is used to educate the body to properly recruit and stabilize the kinetic chain.
Isometric Press: An isometric press is a static exercise in which the athlete pushes or pulls against an immovable object for a required time. The athlete is trying to generate as much force as possible, trying to actually move the immovable object. This method of isometric teaches the CNS (central nervous system) to recruit more muscle fibers to perform a movement, so when the similar movement is performed dynamically, these “extra” muscle fibers will be readily activated.
Isometric Contrast: By putting the muscles in the least mechanically advantageous position (stretched position) and requiring those muscles to fire maximally from this position, an athlete is asking his CNS to work overtime. As the CNS allow the recruitment of more muscle fibers to perform this movement, the force being generated is increased. Once the athlete stops the isometric exercise they will then perform a power movement for low repetitions with minimal rest. The theory behind the contrast is based on the fact that the athlete will readily activate more muscle fibers to perform the ballistic movement, when preceded by an isometric exercise.
Oscillatory Isometrics: Immediately following an isometric exercise (release all tension), the athlete will perform a single or series of powerful micro-contractions in the same mechanical position as the isometric contraction was performed. Basically all tension will be released from the isometric exercise and the dynamic form of the exercise will be performed with minimal range of motion occurring.
Impact Absorption Isometrics: A Form of isometric in which an athlete will absorb a force or impact and immediately perform an isometric contraction for a required time. Upon properly absorbing the impact, the athlete will minimize any change in the joint angle and hold this position.
Advantages of Isometric Training
- A single workout does not usually exceed 15 minutes of your time
- No special equipment needed
- Can be performed virtually anywhere and anytime
- Isometric exercises are the best way to train tendon strength, the true human strength
- Variety of isometric exercises allows you to train for certain activities
- Anyone can perform isometric exercises of some sort, therefore, such trainings are used starting with injury rehabilitation all the way to special forces and strongman competition preparations
- There are isometric exercises for any part of a human body
- The energy is only spent on tension increase without being wasted on the motion causing fatigue, therefore, making it possible to reach maximum levels of strength
- Isometrics increase flexibility
- Isometrics decrease injuries
Disadvantages of Isometric Training
- Danger of serious injury, and blood pressure problems, if implemented incorrectly
- Takes time to learn how to properly implement the techniques
- Isometrics are not a brainless and dumb push or pull of a static object, your mindset is very important. It takes time to learn to properly control your body, muscles, and breathing.
Concept of Isometric Training
As I have mentioned before, many people, athletes, and writers fail to completely understand the meaning of isometric training. Isometrics are targeted on developing tendon strength, which is very hard to understand at first, as we are all fed by the pictures of bodybuilders, giving us an illusion of strength. Just as Zass used to say “big muscles without strong tendons are just that and is an illusion of strength”. Let’s break down the concept of isometric s to better understand its function, you must forget the illusion of “big muscles = strength” and simply follow this logic of isometrics:
- Tendons are what attaches muscles to the bones and makes them move during muscle contractions or extensions
- The way muscles grow is they create new muscle tissue, not by thickening the existing ones
- In order to fully engage the new bigger muscle we created by working out, we need to grow tendons, since tendons must attach itself to the new muscle tissue and connect it to the bone
- Muscles grow through their tear, by healing and increasing the size as the result, however, tendons grow through continuous tension
- Muscle tissue is a lot weaker than tendons, thus takes less time and pressure to tear.
- Tendons take more time to grow than muscles
- Dynamic/isotonic training is targeted on implementing multiple sets of repetitions; this type of training mostly tears muscles, as the tension in such exercises is not enough to train tendons
- Tendons need a continuous type of tension in training to grow
- Isometric training provides continuous type of tension to the muscles and tendons without their contraction at an angle and level chosen by the athlete, therefore, training tendons more
Here we go, this is the logic that many athletes seem to not know or ignore. Let’s take pro bodybuilders – mean looking machines with veins popping out. Yes they have a lot of muscle tissue; however, they do not have large and strong enough tendons to help engage all of that power and connect it to the bone, which only creates an illusion of strength. Bodybuilders focus on muscle isolation and sometimes linear strength; therefore, their exercises completely ignore true functional strength with tendon strengthening exercises. Just imagine how much strength bodybuilders would have, if they also implemented isometrics to support all that muscle! But it is called bodybuilding, not bodystrengthening…
Is isometric training the answer to all the strength training questions?
Another biggest misconception floating around the Internet is that writers and athletes seem to think that isometrics on their own should be able to fulfill all their strength training needs. As I have mentioned before, isometrics mostly work tendon strength; therefore, increasing their size (it also tears muscle, yet not as much as the isotonic exercises). It is still muscles that make things move; it is still bones that are able to hold large amounts of weight and pressure; it is still our cardiovascular system that supplies oxygen to our muscles; and yes it is still our mind that makes it all happen.
Here is a breakdown of isometric training, how Alexander Zass saw it:
- Strong will power
- Ability to control your muscles
- Tendon strength
- Breathing right
Strength training must be a part of any athlete’s workout =>there is no true strength without tendon strength =>isometrics must be a part of every athlete’s workout.
Isometrics Myth 1: Isometric training does not help in functional strength training.
This is a misconception born by the strictly muscle focused perspective. Yes, from such angle it seems as we are training only a certain part of the muscle from a certain angle (the dynamic perspective). As functional strength training focuses on movement and completion of certain types of activities, training your muscle does seem insufficient from only one position. If you read the material above, you can now see where this takes a wrong turn – isometrics are mainly focused on tendon strengthening and growth, not so much of a muscle; therefore, isometrics are essential to functional strength training!
Isometrics Myth 2: You will lose weight by doing isometrics.
With weight loss being the main New Year’s resolution for Americans in 2010, this rumor spread like a virus. You lose weight by burning more calories and eating right, plus flushing out dead cells through the cardiovascular exercises. While isometrics will make you stronger, they are not the best exercises for calorie burning. Isometrics do help indirectly by increasing strength, therefore, allowing you to intensify your dynamic workouts; however, saying that isometric training directly impacts weight loss is unfair and deceptive.
How to Properly Train Isometrics
There are infinite types of isometric exercises; therefore, you should choose whatever is important for you specifically. The best thing is that isometric training does not require purchasing expensive equipment; in fact you can implement isometric training without any equipment in the right setting. Alexander Zass only used a chain for almost all of his isometric exercises. Due to a large number of available isometric exercises, I will not waste your reading time by giving you samples, as Google is a click away, but rather would like to stress the importance of the following rules and directions of proper isometric training. I call them the 20 Golden Rules of Isometric Training:
- Your whole body is your main subject not particular muscles; respect it and listen to it.
- Always start implementing isometric exercises on a breath in, not out!
- Create a flexible wave of power, with a smooth natural entrance, leaving stress and goals out of you mind (do not focus on breaking the chain, once you learn the isometrics and train properly for long enough – it will break when it’s time to break), while focusing on the process and the volume of the body power.
- Breathe steadily and calmly. If breathing becomes deeper or more frequent, your heart will start rushing, breaking the power wave – stop immediately. Rest, calm down, repeat. Try to feel trough the exercise.
- The power wave must involve the whole body, only this way you will be able to strengthen the muscle-tendon-bone relationship.
- Always stretch your muscles thoroughly before training, using static and dynamic stretching to avoid serious muscle and joint injuries
- Start exercise with zero amount of strength and start slowly and steadily increasing it.
- Do not hurry, let the overall exercise and reaching the level of maximum strength appear naturally, start with 2-5 second exercises and increase the time over time.
- Listen to your body during the whole process, feel the flow of power and strength, feel the release, listen to the recovery with a feeling of uncertainty followed by the new inflow of strength. Only this way one learns to have full control of the muscles.
- Implement exercises properly the first time, as statistically it takes roughly ten times longer to change a habit then to get it. Get used to doing exercises properly the first time; for instance, on squads, you must feel it in your quads more than anywhere, otherwise, you have a problem.
- Use natural biomechanical exercises and positions, do not try to twist your joints the way they are not meant to be twisted.
- Properly use muscle imbalances, teach the CNS to recruit proper muscles, increase strength and power
- Isometric hold time range should be less than 2-3 minutes
- Isometric press time range should be less than 9 seconds
- Impact Absorption Isometrics can be held for up to 5 seconds
- As an athlete, use isometrics as a supplement to training, as sport is dynamic and thus your training needs to be dynamic as well
- If you feel sharp pain in your muscles or joints, stop immediately, rest more than usual, stretch, repeat the exercise with low pressure; feel what is causing the pain. If pain continues, stop and give it a day or a few to heal, only then try again (or pay for negligence later). If pains persist, consult your physician.
- Prepare yourself mentally; imagine a continuous movement, whatever it may be. Chains and walls only exist physically, not mentally.
- Only set time limits on your sets, not rests. Allow your muscles to recover from the previous exercise, but do not slack off between sets. Listen to your body, feel your muscles, use only enough time for them to recover according to your personal assessment, not more no less. Every person is different.
- Once a week implement a checkpoint. Grab a chain or a stick and try to stretch it with hand down, with about 95% of intensity for around 8-9 seconds, then drop it and relax. Listen to your body, feel your arms rise a little in front of you or to the sides. They will then start slowly lowering down. The length of time of your arms staying up is defined as an amount of “tonic activity”. You should notice an increase of tonic activity every week, if you do not, you must be doing isometrics improperly.
This information should give you a good start in the right direction with isometrics. Now you know what isometric training is really all about and what its true purpose is. Go ahead and look up Alexander Zass and his chain training techniques if you are an athlete, join a yoga class, or simply find some exercises you can do in your own personal setting. No matter if you are a fighter, wrestler, firefighter, police officer, strongman, or a housewife; we can all benefit from isometric training in one way or another!