By Stephen Portee
When a new athlete enters our doors, regardless of previous training experience, they can find themselves executing Isometric exercise variations to some extent. In turn, this allows the athlete to spend time in very specific positions of a movement. We also utilize isometrics (in a somewhat different, but similar way) with some of our most elite athletes for a wide variety of benefits that they provide. Here is an article defining an isometric contraction as well as details of the many benefits we find by utilizing these exercises for every athlete, no matter of training experience.
Muscle contractions can be simply broken down into two different phases or types. Isotonic contractions involve muscular contractions with changes in the length of the muscle. The word isotonic indicating iso=same tonic=tone. During these types of contractions one can see both shortening (concentric) and lengthening (eccentric) of the muscle fiber. Isometric contractions are muscular contractions without changes in the muscle length. When training Isometrics, it allows us to challenge very specific positions of exercises or sports.
Before going into more detail, we must first distinguish two very important types of Isometrics. Overcoming isometrics involve applying maximal force to an immovable object (think trying to push into a building wall), while yielding isometrics involve holding a load at a specific position with the goal of resisting eccentric forces (examples of this would be holding oneself at the top of a pull up bar, or holding the bottom of a squat position). Overcoming isometrics involve recruiting the maximal amount of muscle fibers and involve a higher level of neurological demand. They are generally performed for short durations and are closely related to strength and power potential. I generally utilize overcoming isometrics with more experienced athletes who are preparing for a power and peaking phase of their training program.
1) Yielding isometrics are closely related to eccentric strength and are less neurologically demanding so they can be held for longer periods of time. Yielding isometrics can be used to teach proper technique/positions to beginner athletes with low training ages with minimal risk. Positional holds can be mentally and physically challenging, and gives the beginner athlete a modality where they can push to a great deal of exhaustion without the risk of high loads or complex movements that they are not prepared for. It allows me to prepare a beginner athlete both mentally and physically for higher volume training, as they are going to experience immediate fatigue, but will not experience extreme soreness in the days to come following their training session. Muscular soreness is generally caused by breakdown of muscle tissue during exercise. Isotonic exercises involve repeated changes in muscle length which lead to a greater amount of tissue breakdown. Isometric exercises generate maximal muscular contractions without the constant deformation of the tissue. Minimal tissue distortion leads to less tissue breakdown, which in turn prevents soreness. This is a very important concept when dealing with new athletes.
2) Yielding isometrics can also be utilized to train the Amortization phase of HIGHLY skilled and trained athletes. We train the amortization phase of movements to help to teach the athletes to absorb and transfer of force properly through the body. Imagine an athlete performing an overhead toss with a medicine ball. They will use what we call the “stretch shortening cycle” to stretch and load the muscle tissues then rapidly shorten and contract to produce force to throw the medicine ball as high as they can. Our objective in training the amortization phase of movement is to maximize that transfer of energy from the Stretch (Eccentric) to Shortening (Concentric) muscle action with maximal control.
3) Finally, I utilize isometric exercises at end ranges of motion, in order to create strength and stability through positions that lack active range of motion. Our bodies are capable of both active range of motion, defined as using muscular contraction to achieve positions (hip flexion), and passive range of motion, think static stretching. End range isometrics involve setting your position to the highest point then creating a concentric muscular contraction in attempt to go further into that range of motion. For example, if we take a general hamstring stretch where we will have the athlete lay supine (on their back), and use a band to pull their leg up into hip flexion (INSERT PICTURE), it’s commonly thought that this end range position is the weakest for that hamstring group. Now, if we take the hamstring to that same end range and then force the muscle to create an effortful isometric contraction, we can begin to build strength through the muscle’s weakest point.
5 Introductory ISOMETRICS that we utilize in on-boarding programs
There are a variety of educational exercises that we use in our onboarding program for athletes. Each exercise is used to teach proper positioning and muscle activation. We start with these exercises because they are easily coachable and display minimal risk to the athletes. All of these exercises generally begin with no external load, then as the athlete progresses and acclimates to training we can apply load.
Isometric Glute Bridge or Hip Thruster
Pushup Plus Plank
5 Elite Level ISOMETRICS that we utilize in Specific training phases of high level athletes.
Pin Hold Deadlift
Split Stance Unilateral Load Drop Landings
Long Duration Loaded Iso Lunge holds
Loaded Chin Up Isometric Holds
Two Major Improvements I can expect in my sport after doing a phase of Isometrics
- Increased strength and stability in less mechanically advantageous positions
- Increased muscular work capacity and rate of force development during athletic movements.
There are many applications for the use of isometrics in an athletes training program. We use them as tools of education, physical and neurological prep for a heavy lift, and ways to increase strength and stability in difficult positions. For the in season athlete, isometrics are a way we can still train hard without the same level of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that might occur with general isotonic training. End range isometric contractions are used to increase both muscular strength and range of motion.