Welcome to this week’s edition of Athletic training for average Joes: isometric training. If you are new to this series, here is the introduction. In this weeks addition to the series, we will introduce you to isometric training as well as the top 5 isometric bodyweight exercises you can use at home.
How would you like to learn a method of training where you could do the following?
- Become stronger without lifting a weight.
- Run faster without taking a step.
- Complete a full-body workout without ‘moving a muscle’.
It sounds like a cryptic riddle, but I promise you, all three are very much possible with the inclusion of isometric training. Isometrics work with just bodyweight exercises. So, while you may not have access to weights during this lockdown period, isometrics are an excellent intensity method to increase your training difficulty.
What are isometrics?
Isometric training, or isometrics, is where you place maximal strain on a muscle to exhaust the fibres, without shortening or lengthening it. Let me explain by using a comparison. If we take a biceps curl, you move the weight through a full range of motion. You shorten and lengthen your biceps muscle to create the exhaustion of the muscle fibres. Remember, the idea of resistance training is to exhaust and damage muscle fibres so that, during the recovery process, they adapt to become bigger, stronger or faster.
Although this is the ‘technique’ of the biceps curl, the ‘execution’ can have many varying factors. There can be differences in the weight used, the tempo of the movement, the number of repetitions, number of sets performed, or total time to complete the session. There is also the issue of form breakdown as you fatigue. Fatigue can lead to other muscles adding assistance or even taking over. If you take compound movements such as the bench press or squat, there is a higher risk of injury as you increase load to generate fatigue. One of the benefits of isometrics is that you can perform them either with or without equipment.
Isometrics, on the other hand, have you hold one or multiple positions within a technique’s range of motion for as long as you can. Once you reach fibre fatigue, where you can no longer hold the position, the attempt ends.
I will introduce you to several variations of isometrics in this article.
History of isometrics: the way of the warrior
I am going to take you back to 1993. I am six years old, stood in the local village hall. I’m lined up with several other youngsters, and we are all wearing our ‘new fancy pyjamas’. I am referring to my first karate gi, the traditional clothing worn by karateka (the name for people who practise karate). Karate is a traditional Japanese martial arts form. It includes a series of blocks, holds and attacking movements designed to promote self-preservation and defence.
During a typical karate session, much like a workout, you conduct warm-up exercises, technical work in the form of movement patterns or sparring drills, as well as performing lots of conditioning exercises. There were two main drills we would perform each session. One was ‘horse stance’, which is a two-thirds squat with a wide stance. Second was a plank position, resting on your elbows or with arms locked out. You would have to hold these positions for a time count or while someone else in the group completed a task. They were also commonly used as punishment during the sessions for not listening or not doing as you were told.
As the years progressed and I raised in rank from white belt to black, there was more use of these conditioning drills. These drills were used not just for conditioning but also to teach you to concentrate under stress. I noticed that the other students who could perform these holds the longest were generally the better fighters. They would be faster and were able to hit harder than those who were slack in their physical development.
The journey continues
As time passed and my love for martial arts grew, I started to train in different styles. These martial arts all originated in different parts of the world and involved very different methods, techniques and tactics. However, there was one constant similarity: they would rely on different variations of these hold positions for conditioning. One example would be ‘holding a technique’ for as long as possible. For example, this would include maintaining a leg out in a kick or an extended arm at the end of a punch.
Another example would be using a weight, such as a medicine ball. We had to hold the ball out at arm’s length for as long as possible or until told to change position. There were also partner work variations. The worst one I can recall is ‘the monkey drill’ in which one of you is the tree, and one of you is the monkey. As the tree, you had to hold a standing position with wide feet and arms out at shoulder height. Your job was to stay still as the ‘monkey’ had to cling onto your body and move around you, front to back without touching the floor. It wasn’t until I began my education into physical training that I learned these holds are known as ‘isometrics’.
All these martial arts are old, some predating Christianity. In all of them, isometric training is the mainstay conditioning tool. As mentioned here, ancient artwork from 4000 years ago depicts martial artists holding poses. It is the general understanding that the originators of these martial arts introduced the practice of isometric training to condition its practitioners. With a lack of equipment, holding positions for extended periods was one of the only options for physical development.
Other than martial artists, there was only one other group that would use isometric style methods. Gymnasts shared the application of isometrics to help in their training. Rather than just a conditioning drill, gymnasts would adopt the positions they found hardest and practise holding them to make them stronger at it. You can see this in several different gymnastic disciplines. For example, during floor routines, you can see movements such as a planche, which is a push up performed without the feet on the floor. The bar routines include the use of levers, which is where you hold your whole body horizontal in the air.
The most impressive use of isometrics is in the rings. Gymnasts use a mix of isometric holds to transition between movements on the rings. One of the most challenging isometric positions is ‘the iron cross’. For this, you suspend your body in a ‘T’ position with arms out straight at shoulder height. This gymnastic style training was one of the cornerstone principles in ‘Physical Culture’.
The birth of P.E.
Created in the early 1840s, Physical Culture was created by German immigrants in America as a training method, believed to be the precursor to bodybuilding. Physical Culture uses a mix of gymnastics and martial arts drills to help develop strength and health for its practitioners. By the late 19th century, there were growing concerns for the lack of activity in the general public and the rise of ‘diseases of affluence’. The medical profession used this term to describe the conditions brought on by lack of activity such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and early mortality rates. It was at this point that Physical Culture was introduced in schools and colleges, making it the original form of P.E. It’s a reflection of our modern lifestyles that the diseases of affluence are something we still suffer from at a growing rate.
Isometrics and athletic development
With isometrics being the cornerstone for most physical development programmes, it’s only natural to include them in athletic development. From the outside, there may not be any apparent reasons for their inclusion. When you look at most sports, none require you to hold set positions for long periods. The closest would be the Hercules hold in strongman, where athletes hold an object out at arm’s length for maximum time. So, why would you include isometrics to help you in your athletic performance?
Muscle fibre recruitment
Correctly performing an isometric hold has been shown to recruit up to 92.5% of the muscle’s fibres. When you look at other forms of training, none can boast those numbers. So why don’t we exclusively train with just isometrics? Well, just because isometrics recruit the most fibres, it does not mean they alone will allow you to achieve all physical goals.
Improve power output
In our previous articles on plyometrics and the barbell clean, we discussed the relationship between strength, power and performance. One of the issues with developing power is that it requires skill-based techniques such as the clean or snatch. With plyometrics, we have the problem of repetitive impact stress, which can cause injury or joint degeneration. Both these methods need your time to master to allow for maximal fibre recruitment and development.
Our muscles contain mainly two types of fibre. Type 1 fibres are known as slow-twitch. These are your endurance fibres, which can contract for extended periods. Type 2 fibres are fast-twitch, which require much higher stress to activate, and fatigue quicker than the slow-twitch fibres.
Isometrics allow you to generate the intensity required to activate the fast-twitch fibres without the impact stress or technical risks.
Improve plyometric performance
This links to the previous post on plyometrics. I want to show you that isometrics can help improve your plyometric performance. For this, I want you to conduct a quick experiment. All you need is a chair and some space. You will want to film yourself doing this test to see the results.
You are going to perform a single squat jump to start. Sit down into a squat and jump up as high as possible. Make sure to land in a squat position to limit impact stress. Immediately after, you’re going to sit on a chair. Raise your left leg, so your foot is two inches off the floor. Place both hands on the knee and drive your leg into your hands as hard as you can. At the same time, try to push the leg down with your hands. Perform this for up to 30 seconds and then repeat on the other leg. Once completed on both legs, perform another squat jump. You will notice a marked improvement in your jump height. This is because more of the fast-twitch fibres are now activated.
This simple experiment shows that isometrics can make the perfect addition to plyometrics for developing strength and power.
Increase sprint speed
Sprinting is a common element in most sports. Football, basketball, rugby and track athletics will include sprinting as a skill requirement. For the athlete, improving their sprint ability could make an essential difference to their performance. As mentioned above, combining plyometrics and isometrics will increase fast-twitch fibre activation. But, you will still need to practise the technique of sprinting to improve your performance.
Reduce impact stress
Plyometrics is the go-to technique for power development. Regular or over-use of plyometrics increases the amount of impact stress placed on your body. Isometrics allow you to reduce the amount of plyometrics you need to perform to increase your power. The inclusion of isometrics can help you prolong your ability to train without degenerative issues occurring.
Assist in rehab
Isometrics are commonly used in rehabilitation programmes to allow injured individuals to train muscles around any limiting issues. If you have a debilitating injury, you may not be able to perform full ranges of movement. Using isometrics allows you to identify parts of the movement you can perform.
The use of isometrics can also help you activate supporting muscle groups to aid in recovery. Isometrics give you the ability to develop stability in certain movements.
Isometrics can also be an excellent option for people who have arthritis. Some movements can aggravate joints due to their range of motion. Training with isometrics can help improve strength in different ranges and help provide support to joints by conditioning the surrounding muscles.
How to use isometrics: top 5 isometric bodyweight exercises
As mentioned, two types of isometrics can be used: either with or without equipment. Equipped isometrics will require you to have access to a barbell, resistance bands and a power rack. They are also more technical than bodyweight isometrics to perform. To allow you to start using isometrics today, I will talk you through some bodyweight variations you can perform at home, right now. I have included the top 5 isometric bodyweight exercises to complete a full-body isometric routine.
The plank hold
You will no doubt know about the plank hold. The plank is an isometric exercise. You are contracting the core muscles to keep you in a set position for as long as possible. There are several variations you can choose to make the plank easier or harder. For the inclusion of isometric training, I want to introduce you to the RKC Plank. Created by Russian conditioning expert Pavel Tsatsouline, the RKC plank requires full-body tension. To perform this variation, you get into a regular plank position. You want to try and crush the floor under you, pulling down with your elbows towards your centre and contracting your quads to pull your feet up to your centre. You will also contract your abs as if performing a crunch. Although you will not physically move, your goal is to pull your elbows and toes together without shifting position.
Performed correctly, because of the whole-body maximal tension, you will max out at 10-15 seconds per RKC plank.
For this, you will sit with your back against a wall. To change the stress point and muscle activation, you can choose what degree of knee bend you adopt. You need to wedge your body to the wall with your feet. Make sure that your shins are vertical, maintaining knees over ankles, regardless of knee bend. You can increase the difficulty by sitting weights on top of your legs to add more resistance. Alternatively, perform the same exercise free-standing, as explained previously in the ‘horse stance’ exercise.
You can also perform a similar technique with lunges. Holding a static lunge position for each leg will give you the same result.
For the push-up hold, you can choose from multiple arm positions to generate a stress point to hold. The mid-way point – elbows in line with shoulders – is the main variation. You can also perform the hold by keeping the body just off the floor or with only a slight bend in the arms. And you have the option of changing the push-up variation depending on your strength levels and abilities.
You will need to focus on keeping your core tight, maintaining a straight line from shoulder to foot, like a plank. You can also perform these with a weight on your back or wearing a weighted vest.
Doorway lateral raises
This exercise, as the name suggests, will require a doorway for you to perform them. Stand in the doorway and keep your arms locked straight, making fists with your hands. Place either the back of your hand or the blade of your hand against the door frame. Begin to press your fists into the doorframe as if trying to widen the doorway. Using the back of your hand will activate your medial deltoid, which is the middle of your shoulder. If you use the blade of your hand, you will recruit your rear deltoid, which is the small muscle at the back of your shoulder.
Doorway towel pulls
Trying to find an exercise to train your back at home, without any equipment, requires some creativity. For this, you will need two hand towels. Tie a knot at one end in both. Open the door, place the towels at the top, knots on the other side of the door and shut the door with the towels in place. Place your toes and knees against the door, holding the ends of the towels, and sit back slightly. From here, you are going to pull on the towels as hard as you can, as if performing a lat pull down. If you have a slight gap at the bottom of your door, you can place the towels under the door and perform the pull from a row position.
Before performing this exercise, please check the integrity of the door and frame that you are using. Make sure it is a heavy-duty door and not a thin budget style door and frame.
Application of isometrics
The above exercises can be performed in one session or spaced out across a training programme. Ensure you have completed a thorough warm-up drill that wakes up the muscles and raises your heart rate. The best way to utilise these exercises is to perform three to five attempts, while recording the time you can hold each attempt. Have a one-minute rest per attempt and aim to match your previous time or beat it.
If you are combining isometrics into your athletic programme, you will want to place them alongside your plyometrics. I prefer super-setting the two. This means performing one set of plyometrics, followed by a complementary isometric hold. For example, perform a set of 5 vertical jumps followed by a wall sit with knees in line with hips. Rest for three minutes and repeat for a total of 3 rounds.
You can use isometrics to improve a technical sticking point. Take the bench press as an example. If you train bench press regularly, and you find that your failure point is halfway to arm lockout. You may practise isometrics, holding a push up mimicking the point of failure and holding it for as long as possible. You will want to add weight either in the form of a weighted vest or placing a weight between your shoulder blades.
Are you trying to build muscle? Performing an isometric hold before a set of reps is a great way to increase muscle-mind connection and cause fibre fatigue. You want to fatigue and stress the fibres to help create Hypertrophy. In your next leg session, perform the following: hold a bodyweight squat at the point you feel the most tension in the target muscles. You hold this for 30-60 seconds, then perform as many air squats as you possibly can. You can use the isometric as a pre-fatigue method as explained here, or as a finisher at the end of a set.
Isometrics are about as old school as it gets when it comes to exercise: originally used to condition the body and the mind of martial arts practitioners as far back as 4000BC. Isometrics are an excellent training method that can be used by all groups to help them improve their physical performance and health. Not only are isometrics an excellent option for improving muscle recruitment and power output, but they can also be used to help recover from injury and surgery. Isometrics do not increase impact stress, making them a healthy addition to any plan without having to remove other elements of the current programme.
There is no requirement for equipment for most isometrics. You can complete our top 5 isometric bodyweight exercises as an additional session to your current training programme or pick the ones you feel suit you best. You will, however, require the mental fortitude to hold a stress point to technical failure, which can make them a rather uncomfortable method. Start using isometrics in your training from today, and you’ll quickly see a massive improvement in all aspects of your performance.