When a muscle activation techniques practitioner contacted me in 2014, promoting his isometric training device, I was skeptical. Before I finish this story, let me backtrack.
Thinking about the way we train, I notice something: 95% of the strength and conditioning world spends 95% of their time focused on sagittal plane movements, and isotonic training.
In English, that means, most movements don’t involve too much lateral or side-to-side action, and they’re performed in a traditional set-rep scheme that involves flexing muscles to full contraction through a range of motion that incorporates a force curve.
This is weight training.
That’s been the gold standard of training for decades upon decades – and I’m not here trying to say that there’s something inherently wrong with this either.
If you’re looking for results – strength or physique related – the use of isotonic training methods is going to be your ticket. That means doing sets and reps of important movements like squats, deadlifts, presses, lunges, rows, and chin ups.
This will also have the most application to real world scenarios that require compound movement, strength, and mobility.
The Problem with Isotonic Training
Beyond a certain point, it’s worth re-examining the risk/reward of many of our actions in the gym. Especially where strength training is concerned.
For a weak person, the benefits of strength training far outweigh the disadvantages. Same for someone who has a clean bill of health and no history of injury. This is the very “clean slate” that most strength training manuals, books, and articles cater to the most.
The reality is, many lifters don’t fall under the exact category I’ve just listed. If they’re not already decently strong and conditioned with a foundation, they’ve got a laundry list of injuries and contraindications.
This truth puts continued heavy loading into more question than most people are willing to acknowledge. A 600 pound deadlift isn’t worth a thing if you’re narrowly escaping injury with every rep performed. It’s only a matter of time before things go south.
There needs to be a way to get the benefits of maximal exertions without the added risk – and there is.
Enter Isometric Training
Back to my story. When I was contacted to do a 1 hour workout on an isometric fitness machine, I was arrogant and skeptical.
I didn’t think they would provide benefits and mimic a strength training workout the way I was used to training. The truth was, it was just as challenging, if not more.
The good thing about using isometrics is the fact that you’re truly able to use the most force you can apply to an object – and that’s something you can’t even do with your 1 rep max. Why? Because the object at some point will be in motion.
Your heaviest lift still involves dynamic movement and kinetic energy, which means a few things for your body:
- You have the capacity to actually work harder
- You’re at greater risk for injury since the body is changing in position (as the rep progresses)
- Your time under tension (especially max tension) won’t be as high as it could be
Using isometric training – which is basically applying maximal forces against immovable objects – you’re solving each of these problems, and getting a tremendous workout at the same time.
How to Apply Isometric Training
Let’s use the simple example of a deadlift. Instead of only dealing with the heaviest part of the lift traditionally (where the bar is lying on the ground, the instant before it is lifted), why not make the heaviest part every single segment of the move?
Setting immovable points to pull from at shin, knee, lower thigh, and upper thigh level allows you to create a maximal effort in parts of your lift that you’d never have been able to before.
Applying this to the gym, it could be something as simple as setting pins up in a squat cage at a certain height, and pulling the bar up against those pins. Or setting a 150% of your RM deadlift on blocks at various heights, and pulling as hard as possible against it.
One More Thing about Isometrics
As mentioned earlier, part of the game changing component of isometrics is time under tension. Being able to apply a max force for 10-15 seconds is sure to use all your creatine stores and zap your ATP – and that’s exactly the point if you’re looking for a stronger body.
Take this example of the 15 second back plank for the postural muscles:
The muscles of the upper back and neck are geared towards muscular endurance, due to their role of postural maintenance in the body. Muscles like these can benefit most from isometrics for that very reason.
Supplement Your Workouts with Isometrics – It's Not a Substitute
Remember, the bread and butter of training for results is traditional weight training. But as we get older, endure injuries, or get stronger, it serves us well to start thinking about reducing the amount of exposure we have to heavy weight lifting on a regular basis.
Replacing some of your heavy strength training for heavy isometric work instead can deliver the same training effects without the risk for injury and wear and tear that moving weights in the traditional sense can.
If you can lower your yearly volume by even a quarter using this simple programming modification, you’re going to be in a much better place for it – and probably more capable of setting PRs.
In my experience, a month prioritizing isometrics made me lifetime PR in my deadlift (550lbs). So the benefits are real.
Last but not least, don’t just think of the big lifts. Remember what I said at the beginning of the article about lateral plane movements being neglected? Well this sets the perfect stage for you to work on it.
Isometric lateral raises, adductions, abductions, trunk rotations and more against walls, doorways, bars, and training machines are a great way to have a solid workout (or even activate dormant tissue between or before sets).
Pepper isometrics into your workouts smartly, and you’ll be a much better functioning machine for it.
Treat your strength training with weights as your entrée, but include isometrics as your side, and you’ll be a happy camper. And you’ll also be humbled at just how hard you have to work to manipulate your bodyweight, your positioning, and in some cases, your stability.
The best part: Since the “weight lifted” is intangible, the only person you’ll have to beat is yourself.