ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joel Smith, MS, CSCS is a NCAA Division I Strength Coach working in the PAC12 conference. He has been a track and field jumper and javelin thrower, track coach, strength coach, personal trainer, researcher, writer and lecturer in his 8 years in the professional field. You can connect with Joel on his website.
Are we right to think that full-range “up-and-down” lifts against resistance are the only way to train for athletic speed, power, and even muscle endurance?
Granted, many powerful athletes have a great ability to execute big time traditional lifts. But is this because they worked their tails off to hit those numbers…or because they were athletically gifted in the power department?
Probably a mixture of both, with a lean toward the latter.
// The Forgotten Training Method?
When we see athletes get stronger in moving a barbell eccentrically than concentrically from point A to point B, yet not always gain commensurate speed on the field of play, we should start to look at the dynamics of lifting itself and determine exactly which mechanisms are at play in the pursuit of strength.
As far as the brain is concerned, the concentric phase of movement is different from the eccentric and isometric phases of lifting, yet we all measure strength by how much an athlete could concentrically move! Great coaches have been questioning this yardstick for some time.
Building eccentric strength has been of importance for ages via the medians of plyometrics. We have seen this type of exercise’s capacity to yield amazing results (such as 6” vertical jump gains in 10 weeks of training time) by optimizing this phase of muscle contraction.
The isometric phase remains a bit ambiguous, however, and its pendulum swings back and forth in the industry. People emerge praising the results of isometric training, and then fade into the background, only to reappear again. Why?
The answer is two-fold.
- Unlike plyometrics, isometrics are more related to the maximal strength and activation capabilities of the athlete, and therefore must be performed in the proper complementary manner to other forms of training.
- Isometrics can take a few weeks (or even months) before athletes get to the point where they are seeing great results, and we are in an industry where marketing has us expecting the miraculous in a week. This isn’t to say that isometrics can’t yield immediate results when performed properly (as we’ll get into later), but most people don’t have the patience or proper follow-through to see the amazing results.
My own history with isometrics is an interesting one. Ever since my youth, I’ve been obsessed with jumping higher. At age 10, I had to do wall sits for gym class, and I associated muscle burn with stronger legs, and stronger legs, to me, meant jumping higher. You probably wouldn’t see too many 10 to 12-year-olds straining to keep their back on the wall in a squat position on their own accord, but I did.
And I remember they worked, I was jumping higher with each week!
It’s funny though… because isn’t this type of thing endurance training? Of course, for a 10 or 12-year-old, you can do virtually anything and get results. But my early memories of jump training show me this was getting me higher in my leaps towards the rim.
23 years later, after generally ignoring isometric work for decades, the stars of isometric training aligned and I came across a slew of information from different ends of the field. These came from talks with chiropractic neurologists, training with Jay Schroeder’s former athletes, and reading Bob Hoffman’s classic work in the 1960s on overcoming isometrics and his incredible results.
Not only this, but Aspire academy strength coach Alex Natera wrote an amazing article for my website on how he is using specific overcoming isometrics to improve elusive top-end speed in high level sprinters, something I formerly thought was difficult, if not impossible, to assist through non-sprint means.
Before I get to the “how” of isometrics, a brief history and science lesson will prove important, as this wildly simple training method has a lot more to it than straining against a door frame or a 800lb barbell on the floor.
// A Quick History of Isometric Training
As mentioned before, isometric training can be referred to, in many ways, as the ultimate pendulum. People get into it as hardcore and then swing right into more traditional training means. Why is there this wishy-washiness, and where are the results?
First off, isometric has a very long history, from ancient yoga masters and the Knights Templar to the strongmen of the early 1900s such as Eugen Sandow, Max Sick, and Alexander Zass. Zass, notably, utilized an isometric routine while incarcerated and got strong enough with it to bend his bars and escape!
“Body built by tension”
In the 1950s and 1960s Bob Hoffman popularized the method, using it heavily with Olympic weightlifters, team sport athletes, and track and field competitors to what would seem other-worldly results and gains in strength.
If we simply look at the physique of a gymnast, the writing is on the wall: they are the modern masters of tension. The old school strength masters, many of whom produced feats of strength not even touched today, swore by this work, so why did we become so quick to discard it?
As mentioned before, marketing rules. What do marketers of isometric training have to gain financially except on eBook sales? They can’t sell nautilus machines or anything else. The ad copy associated with these types of books is also a huge turn-away to many strength seekers.
In today’s age, they also seem just a bit too simple to work. So let’s talk science, and isometric training.
// The Science Behind Isometrics
Let’s start with a Russian research study from the 1970s by Alabin and Ushkevich on a big portion of what made elite sprinters fast. Outside of technique, or anything else, was strength. Before the heavy squat mob starts getting itchy Twitter fingers to self-validate, hold onto your keyboard for just a moment.
Isometrics and RFD
Strength can mean different things (hence the whole point of this article). The strength that makes the most elite sprinters faster than their counterparts was the ability to produce more isometric force in one tenth of a second, against an isometric resistance in the hip, knee, and ankle joint, through flexion and extension.
Better sprinters produce more force faster in relevant joints in an isometric test. Why is an isometric test so useful? Because isometrics not only yield great muscular tension and activation, but they can also accept great rates of creating muscular tension in a specific position.
Isometrics and Recruitment
Christian Thibaudeau has literally written the book on modern applications of isometric training: “Theory and Application of Modern Strength Methods.” Thibaudeau states that one of the most important benefits of isometric training is it leads to the highest activation level of all exercise modes, concentric or eccentric. Activation here is referring to the total motor unit involvement of muscle. One can recruit 5% more motor units, 95.2% vs. 88-89% for other phases.
You can recruit almost all muscle fibers/motor units in a maximal isometric contraction. No wonder the legend, Bob Hoffman, talked about isometric training in terms of “nerve power,” as there is a massive neural drive to activate every muscle fiber in an all-out isometric!
Isometrics teach athletes how to produce tension, and they also teach them how to do so in the proper position.
In the video below, see how the Supertraining guys are working with Josh Bryant (the youngest man ever to bench press over 600lbs) to utilize the power of maximal overcoming holds to give them an immediate boost to their AMRAP ability in their bench press session.
In this video, specific potentiation was utilized, as maximal tension could be sustained for five times longer in key points versus just doing the regular “up-and-down” version of the lifts.
I’ve learned over time that the best methodology will yield immediate and tangible results when performed properly. There is some merit to the “grind now, glory later” mentality in terms of structural development, and yes, cortisol must be elevated at points in the season to allow for supercompensation later.
However, in terms of in-session work, when we treat the brain-muscle connection properly, we will see instant results.
I mentioned above that isometrics has been a pendulum due to lack of quick results, but this is more in terms of not seeing gains in strength by either moving against an immovable object or utilizing barbell lifts in separate sessions, where it might take more time to really see that the isometrics are making a substantial impact.
Due to activation trends, although mostly neural, isometric exercises can build some muscle size, but they are not nearly good at this as traditional “up-and-down” reps to this end. If you want big biceps, run the rack a few times and incorporate a few peak tension isometric movements, rather than looking to go full isometrics on your arms.
Knowledge of biomechanics in terms of lifting and athletic movements is important here since we know that, generally, an isometric exercise will build strength in a range around 15 degrees each direction where the isometric is performed.
So practically speaking, athletes will want to utilize isometrics in ranges close to their most important joint angles on the field.
If lifting a heavier weight (or getting more out of lifting that heavy weight for the sake of athleticism) is your goal, then utilizing isometrics to help break sticking points and create more full-spectrum strength in your barbell work can be a great strategy by simply working the range of the lift you get stuck at. More time under maximal tension can be applied here, so for getting lift 1RMs up, this is a viable option.
Some coaches believe doing isometric work in the most difficult range, or a range where the muscle is fully lengthened, will create strength in all ranges. But I believe this is unsubstantiated when done by itself (like only deep squatting) without ever training the higher portions of the squat range, either through explosive means, such as altitude drops or even the dreaded half/quarter squats.
It has been hypothesized that by training one extreme end range, and then the other (for example: rock bottom in a squat and then 1/8 pin squats) the brain will be able to “fill in” strength for every range in between. This was a common tenant in Jay Schroeder’s methods.
Soreness, Recovery and Firing Frequency
Isometrics are a great tool for potentiation without residual soreness or muscle damage, which may be their biggest pull with athletes, particularly in populations that have a high need to feel “fresh” regularly – like in-season athletes.
On the neurology side of isometrics training, isometrics also have significance on the neurological level, since they are theoretically the “fastest” type of muscle contraction. This seems contradictory, since isometrics are fairly static in nature, but in stabilizing the joint, muscles can alternate the flexor and extensor at rates of 15hz, which is theoretically the fastest movement that a person can create.
This speed gives another dimension to the way body weight isometric can assist the athlete when looking at the stabilization and recovery aspects of this type of work.
// Isometric Prescriptions of Past and Present
Now let’s talk about how to actually prescribe this type of work for athletic performance.
Before we get into specifics, we know that isometrics must be complementary, just as any form of training. Nobody prescribes isometrics alone for a set period of time without doing complementary lifting/running, etc.
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1. Hoffman Methodology
Let’s start with the legend of isometric training himself, Bob Hoffman. Hoffman got amazing results with one simple protocol:
Performing one set of 10 second maximal overcoming holds (pressing as hard as possible against an immovable resistance). Maximal is absolutely the key with these.
For the method, you will do a 10-second pull, squat, and press for each lift. You can just work the middle of each movement, or work 3 positions for each “lift.”
Also recommended in Hoffman’s program for athletes is a maximal overcoming calf raise. The calves are capable of a ton of force, so it makes sense to develop them for athletics, harnessing this force will assist with results.
Bob Hoffman style maximal 10 second pulls
Overcoming isometrics from the low, medium, and high squat positions. These are performed for 1 set (and only 1 set) of 10 in Hoffman’s program.
With this in mind, a Bob Hoffman routine would look like the following:
- 10 second maximal pull, squat low position
- 10 second maximal pull, deadlift low position
- 10 second maximal pull, deadlift high position (shown above)
- 10 second maximal overhead press, chin level position
- 10 second maximal isometric calf raise
Yes, this is only 50 seconds of work! This type of work is very potent. Hoffman made a point of less being more, so nobody overdoes their nervous system.
2. Inno-sport and Jay Schroder: Extreme ISOs
With isometrics in the Inno-Sport realm, the most famous was the “extreme isometrics,” which drew a lot of attention and interest back in the day and are still being talked about and used now.
An “extreme-iso” is an isometric hold held for an extended period of time, the recommended of which was up to 5 minutes. Athletes may or may not get breaks to make up this 5 minutes (although to do the holds maximally, there is no way anyone could get close to 5 minutes), and common holds included lunges, push-ups, dips, and wall sits.
A common prescription in this type of isometric training could be:
- Isometric lunge, 3-5 total minutes each leg (one leg at a time)
- Isometric push-up, 3-5 total minutes
- Isometric standing hamstring, 3-5 minutes total
Extreme isometrics are done to improve neural efficiency, agonist and antagonist interaction, as well as allow for a high muscle firing frequency, and therefore “recovery” (although it doesn’t feel like it at the time). In such, they must be performed maximally.
Take a lunge for example. In this scenario, an athlete will maximally pull with the front hamstring/hip flexor and rear leg quadriceps/glute to literally make it feel like one is “ripping themselves apart.” Again, maximal effort is key.
This type of work can bring up energy systems, make the body more efficient (particularly in loadingsprints, jumps, and similar movements), and prime an athlete neurologically for further work… or serve as a good finisher on a session.
3. Functional and Sprint Specific Isometrics
In the field of isometric training, Alex Natera and Christian Thibaudeau have greatly influenced me. Let me share some of what I’ve picked up from them that I’ve found extremely effective:
- Functional Isometrics
- Sprint Position Isometrics
Let’s talk functional isometrics. I found these in “Theory and Application of Modern Strength Methods.” To me, they solve the motivational issue of simple overcoming isometrics against an immovable object. Athletes get dopamine hits by seeing progress, and functional ISOs allow tangible progress.
To perform a functional isometric, simply load up a bar with close-to-limit or limit weight in the desired position, lift it just an inch or two off the pins or catches, and hold it there for 3-10 seconds.
The functional ISO pull above is a great general test of overall strength, as the mid-thigh pull on force plates is a common research tool for the same measurement of high-tensile ability.
These are awesome for in-session potentiation, and I enjoy using them to prime a barbell lift done afterwards, or as a part of French Contrast or Potentiation Cluster work. I’ve seen athletes who have made little progress in months instantly gain inches on their jump by utilizing this type of work as part of a French Contrast set.
Here is a simple contrast complex I find very effective:
- Overcoming pin ¼ squat x 5 second hold
- Depth jump over barrier off 18-30” box x 2
- Speed half-squat or speed-deep squat with foot anchors 40% 1RM x 3
- Assisted jumps x 3
The second type of athletic isometric is sprint-specific isometrics, which will utilize maximal isometrics performed against an immovable resistance. If you happen to have force plates, this takes care of the motivational factor. But otherwise, creative use of functional isometrics can also prove highly beneficial.
High intensity alternating ankle isometrics
// Final Thoughts on Isometrics
Although not exhaustive, as there are a multitude of uses for isometrics in the scope of strength, I hope this article has served you well in terms of understanding how this ancient training method can be leveraged for fantastic gains in athletic power.
May the force tension be with you!
- Theory and Application of Modern Strength and Power Methods: Christian Thibaudeau
- Bob Hoffman: “Functional Isometric Contraction”
- “The Greatest Sports Training Book Ever” (Discontinued eBook)
- Modern Speed Training with Alex Natera