Isometric Contraction

In the early 60’s, isometric contraction workouts became very popular, due in no small part to the well-publicized strength improvements enjoyed by Bill March and Lou Reicke. Many exercise experts made outrageous claims, such as that one ten second isometric contraction a day could yield significant strength benefits. The York Barbell Company sold thousands of isometric power racks. But not long after its rise to popularity, isometrics fell out of favor. Isometric workouts are based upon exerting against a fixed object. The thinking behind this is that one can exert a maximum force against an immovable object. Some lifters, such as Lou Reicke, used a pure isometric workout most of the time, only performing the lifts on weekend workouts. Others, such as Bill March, used isometric-isotonic exercises, and performed the lifts more frequently. Today some “exercise experts” claim that isometrics were just a fad. They say isometrics didn’t work, and that they were just a scheme to sell power racks. Prove them wrong! Please leave your isometrics success stories.

Overview:

Isometric contractions are a normal part of movement and training. There are a number of ways of reaching the contractions:

Isometric – What most people think of when saying it, i.e. the muscle flexes taking up its slack until it contracts statically against an unmoving resistance.

Positive Isometrics – The muscle flexes concentrically against resistance until it reaches static contraction.

Plyometric Isometrics – A ballistic movement wherein a rapid negative is followed by a brief static contraction followed by a rapid positive contraction.

Negative Isometrics – The muscle flexes eccentrically against resistance until it reaches static contraction.

Oscillometric – Agonist and antagonist muscles contract alternately to produce brief plyometric isometric bursts of each muscle.

Negative Plyometric – A ballistic movement wherein a rapid negative is followed by a brief static isometric contraction. I use the last 3 methods particularly for armwrestling but also use them when lifting weights.

A negative isometric is the strongest way to hold it. For example the photo right (29th August 2001) shows Russell’s inflated 17″ arm straining isometrically against Steve. Russell was pulled into this position from a flexed position – had he instead got into this position from a straight arm then he would not generate so much force.

The same principle can be used when lifting weights. For example when gripping onto a heavy barbell it is best to put the bar high in the hand so when lifting the bar settles into position, rather than simply gripping at the point where it would settle. Similarly if one were to do an isometric hold in the rack, say for a barbell curl, it would be best to flex the arms to a slightly more contracted state then let the weight pull the arms to the required position. If a deadlift is performed it is best to set the back and shoulders into a position which is more contracted than when actually lifting the weight, so that the body is pulled into position.

A negative isometric force is greatest when it is performed from a slightly more contracted position than the required position. Exaggerating the difference does not result in a greater force. A negative plyometric move is useful technique to get the muscles to fire in a simultaneous blast. Visualise what Tim Henman does after he wins a point. He clenches his fist in hammer like fashion and says ‘Yes!!’. If you do this yourself and look closely you will see that what happens is that the isometric hold of the arms and fist is preceded by a brief eccentric flick of the forearm which initiates a strong isometric contraction of the elbow flexors. This is very similar to what is done to initiate a strong contraction of the elbow flexors in armwrestling. It can be done as part of training or just prior to an armwrestling bout to get the muscles ready for a strong contraction.

An oscillometric contraction is simply a rapid ‘vibrating’ contraction of alternate muscle groups. It is most useful when trying to contract a muscle that one is not so good at contracting. For example I find it more difficult to flex my non-dominant right bicep, so to get it firing I’ll do the Tim Henman thing above but repeat it more and more quickly until my arm is vibrating and then goes into continuous contraction.