Ok so for quite a while now, I have been interested in how isometrics or iso-kinetic training could benefit me and other amateur bodybuilders – Does it cause and increase in muscle mass? Does it cause a reduction in body fat? Does it cause an increase in both static and dynamic, or full-range, strength?
But before I get to all these questions one may ask what ‘isometrics’ is. Well if one goes by the dictionary definition, isometrics is; An exercise or a system of exercises in which isometric muscular contraction is used to strengthen and tone muscles, performed by the exertion of effort against resistance, usually of a stationary object. Great definition, huh? Well to put it in layman’s terms: isometrics is an exercise or list of exercises performed without any movement.
Now, if we apply progressive overload to isometric training maybe then we will be able to see some physiological changes in our tiny bodies. A study was conducted in which 12 subjects volunteered to participate in research involving 10 weeks of static contraction (holding the weight statically in the strongest range of movement and then increasing it as one becomes stronger). These subjects would perform no other strength training during this time and would make no changes to their diets, supplementation, or aerobic exercise patterns.
Subjects who were chemically modified (a gentle euphemism, perhaps) were not allowed to participate. At the beginning of the study data was recorded from each and every subject: age, weight, bodyfat percentage, chest, waist shoulder, biceps, and forearm, wrist, thigh and calf measurements. Moreover the individuals were asked to characterize their own muscular development on a scale from 1-10, with 1 of course representing “terrible muscular condition, very weak” (a pussy), and 10 representing “top of genetic muscular limit, could not be stronger” (although I haven’t meet anyone that could not become just a little stronger).
Next they had the subjects take the following three measurements of strength for 17 specific exercises:
- a conventional full-range 1-rep maximum.
- a conventional full-range 10-rep maximum.
- static hold, in the strongest range of movement, of maximum weight possible for 15 seconds; that is a weight sufficiently heavy that after 15 seconds the subject can no longer hold it and it begins to descend.
The exercises included the deadlift, bench press, squat, weighted crunch, barbell shrug, lat pulldown, preacher curl, leg press, calf raise, toe press, cable curl, cable pushdown, standing barbell curl, leg extension, and leg curl. Performance in all exercises was measured pre and post the test. Subjects were divided into groups that used three major protocols: one set, two sets, three sets. Each set consisted of one static contraction repetition, which is very different from a conventional repetition. In this study a repetition consisted of holding the weight slightly out of the locked position or in the strongest range of movement for a period of 15 seconds.
Three training frequencies were used: this is very important as you will see later, because it confirms what I have been saying for a couple of months now – train harder and smarter, not more!!! Frequencies used:
- 3 times per week
- 2 times per week
- Variable schedule that began as 3 times per week but decreased as study progressed.
All individuals used programs that consisted of 10 compound exercises divided into two workouts of 5 exercises, each performed on alternate training days. Thus, it took two different workouts to exercises all major group muscles. I actually train like this when I’m off the juice. I usually separate the pulling with the pressing movements, and perform all pulling movements on one day, and then perform all pressing movements on another day with adequate rest; although I like to have the weekends off, so I usually pick days like Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday.
Here is how they performed the static hold. Using the bench press as an example, they lifted the weight from a resting position at the top of their reach, lowered from the point of lockout to two or three inches below lockout – the strongest range – and held it there without any up or down motion.
The sets in this study followed the principle of progressive resistance. The subjects selected a beginning weight that was sufficiently heavy that they could only hold it statically for 15 seconds. After 15 seconds the weight would begin to either descend (if we are talking about the bench press) or descend (if we are talking about lat pulldowns). At subsequent workouts the subjects achieved progression of intensity by holding the weight for longer periods of time, such as 21 seconds, and then progressively, working up to 30 seconds. When they became strong enough to hold the weight for 30 seconds, the weight would be increased.
The subjects picked for this study were male bodybuilders who had been training for a couple of years. Most of them had already seen some impressive gains, and some even considered themselves to be near the upper limits of the genetic potential. Also, just to point out, their average age was 38.4, which is about 20 years older than the test subjects in most training studies. Keeping in mind no subject was ‘chemically juiced’, at this average age their endogenous test levels have also declined. If this training theory works for these subjects, them most likely it will work better for a younger athlete and perhaps even better for a chemically juiced one.
To briefly give you an idea of how this training pans out in real life, here is a summary of the results of those subjects after 10 weeks of training on static contraction training: There were substantial increases in static strength; dynamic, full-range strength; lean mass; and muscle size. THE FACT IS, 100 PERCENT OF THE SUBJECTS GOT STRONGER!!! The average static strength, measured on all exercises, increased 51.3 percent, and, in what will be a major surprise to some people, dynamic strength – over a conventional full range of motion – also increased.
Bodybuilding has many myths. Here is one that seems to be a myth upon the completion of this study, “When you exercise a muscle statically at only one point, you only get stronger at that limited range…” Ask anyone with a degree in exercise physiology if static strength transfers to full-range strength. You will most likely get a “NO WAY!!!” answer.
Again in this study the fact is 100 PERCENT of the subjects had a positive, significant transference to full-range strength from gains that they made in static strength. The transference averaged 60 percent.
How Important is Range of Motion?
Here is another interesting myth, or at least it looks like it after looking at this study: you need a full range of motion in the muscle in order to stimulate growth. Guess what? The importance of range of motion is somewhere between little to none. Every gain in mass, strength and size achieved by every subject in the static contraction training research study was achieved with no range of motion. The fact is that one could make some gains with no movement (static training), some movement (partials), and full movement (conventional training). Therefore I would like to safely concluded range of motion contrary to popular belief has little to no significance.
Now Let’s Move onto My Favorite Part: Frequency of Training!
As I stated before I was going to talk more about the frequency of training. Looking at the figures I quoted before, you will note that the subjects averaged just 2.1 workouts a week! And as I said before, at the beginning of the study, one group was required to train 3 days per week. What happened to them? That’s right you guessed it. Approximately three weeks into the study, they began to report classic symptoms of overtraining. Some could not continue. Their training schedules had to be altered due to the increase demands put on their bodies. Growth is systemic, and so is recovery. The stronger your muscle get, the longer it takes your supporting organs to clean up the waste by-products of your workout. I have to say we are all to blind by the Weider training principles. People, once and for all; just because Arnold was able to grow training five and six times per week does not mean you will. Chances are you are one of the 85% with just average genetics and that you will only need about half or less of what Arnold did.
I also found this very interesting: if we compare the top six subjects with the bottom six subjects, as ranked by lean gains, we see further corroboration of this trend. The top six subjects worked out, on an average, 1.8 times per week. The bottom six worked out 2.4 times per week – 33 percent more frequently – BUT ACHIEVED POORER RESULTS!!! Now I’m not condoning anyone to train 1.8 times per week, but this study also strengthens the theory that the higher the intensity, the more rest and recuperation the body needs.
More on Isometric Training
Aside from the physical aspect, isometric training is also alleged to having effects on parts of the neuromuscular system. An increase in MVC (maximal voluntary contraction) in an untrained limb is sometimes observed after training the contra lateral limb. This suggests that there are changes in the control system that makes it possible to activate the muscle to a greater extent.
As I usually say, an athlete or individual has to firstly acquire strength; and only then will that person experience. Increases in strength are reported largest at the angle at which training takes place and tend to decrease as the muscle lengthens or shortens. Also, increases in strength have been reported only after a few days or training!!! However the time in which adaptation occurs is rapid, so one needs to be very careful and no allow the body to adapt and eventually stagnate!
Moreover, from the cardiovascular stand point, isometric training also has its superior benefits: heart rate responses to isometric contractions were not of the same enormity as they are of dynamic exercise (Joint movement resulting from muscular exertion i.e. concentric or eccentric, positive or negative), nor were they as large as the changes normally seen in arterial blood pressure from dynamic exercise.
In fact, even chronic static exercise may decrease the chances of developing hypertension. In Canada, people who worked in jobs requiring them to perform static muscle contractions had a lower incidence of the disease. I’ve even seen studies where electrical stimulation (which induces muscular contraction) was used to induce hypertrophy in rodents (5). So clearly, moving a weight isn’t a necessary component for hypertrophy. In fact, it isn’t even a sufficient condition!
The fact that the individuals in this particular study achieved such tremendous increases in mass, strength and size in only 10 weeks of training is quite possible without precedent in exercise physiology. Unprecedented is the fact that these subjects achieved such results without zero range of motion. Moreover, the study unequivocally proved that, contrary to popular belief, static contraction strength training does make a very significant contribution to dynamic, full-range strength; and that the range of motion has no role in the stimulation of new muscle growth, increased muscle size, or increase in strength. But you may think; why exercise statically if it only yields a 60 percent increase in dynamic transference? Well, the 60 percent of transference yielded the average subject a 27.6 percent increase in his 1-rep max and a 34.3 percent increase in their 10-rep max in 17 different types of lifts.
Although isometric training needs more research, it is without a doubt a productive form of exercising, especially, when we one reaches a plateau. It seems to be more superior than the conventional concentric/eccentric exercise from a healthier cardiovascular standpoint.
The bottom line is that any person who wants more size and mass shouldn’t care what technique they use – if it works then use it. So the big question is: has your conventional training given you the same or better increases in full-range strength over the past 10 weeks?
1. Static contraction Training, NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc.: ISBN 0-8092-2907-2
2. Isometric Exercise: Physiology And Description. E. Cafarelli. Sportscience.org
3. Sale, D. Neural adaptation to endurance training. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 20(Suppl.):S135-s135, 1988.
4. Gandevia, S. and S. Hobbs. Cardiovascular responses to static exercise in man. J. Physiol. (London). 430:105-117, 1990.
5. Androgen receptor antagonist suppresses exercise-induced hypertrophy of skeletal muscle.Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1994;69(1):88-91.