If you’re looking for a way to increase your muscle strength as much as possible, then isometric training might be the missing piece of your training puzzle.
Isometric training is training that involves holding a position against resistance rather than moving through a ‘range of motion’. Range of motion refers to the movement that you go through with any exercise – the arc of a bicep curl for instance, or the up and down movement of a bench press. With isometric training conversely however, you are simply holding a single position – keeping a barbell just above your chest for example, or holding a dumbbell at ninety degrees. You would then hold the weight at this position until you could no longer keep it in place. Alternatively, you can train using isometrics by pulling or pushing against an immovable force: for instance pushing against a barbell heavier than you can lift.
Training through the full range of motion is very important in order to build functional strength and to avoid leaving any weaknesses in your own movement. However, for building pure strength and possibly muscle size, there are considerable advantages to be gained from relying more on isometric training.
Why Isometric Training Is so Effective
Isometric training is highly effective for building muscle size and strength because it requires your maximum effort and force. This in turn means you’re engaging as many muscle fibers as possible and particularly the fast twitch muscle fibers that are most important for building explosive strength.
Our muscles are made up of two types of fibers: type 1 and type 2. Type two muscle fibers are the type that are most explosive and powerful in the short term, though they lack the endurance of type 1.
Normally when we lift weights, our muscles engage mostly type 2 fiber. It’s only once we get up to 100% of our maximum effort that we are forced to engage the fast-twitch muscle fibers that would otherwise get neglected. When these are trained, this in turn results in greater strength gains as we create microtears in these most powerful cells in our muscle.
In order to use 100% effort, there are only two techniques we can use: either we have to lift 100% of our one rep maximum, or we have to lift about 85% of our maximum but with much more speed and explosiveness than we normally would (lifting heavy weights and using explosive speed both require us to generate more force which is really what our muscle strength is all about).
Holding a weight in place until complete failure is another way to utilize our fast twitch muscle fibers, as is pulling or pushing against something that you just can’t move. In layman’s terms: push against a force that you can’t move often enough and eventually your body will begin to adapt to be able to push it.
Furthermore, this also helps to create a stronger ‘neural drive’ between your brain and your muscle. Because you are commanding your body to use all of your muscle, you are thereby increasing your ability to recruit muscle fiber at will. You also get a very direct feedback as you can really feel the muscles working.
Oh and because fast twitch muscle fibers are the bulkiest type, this is also a great way to increase hypertrophy and muscle size.
Great Examples of Isometric Training
If you’re still not convinced about isometric training, then consider that it has been the cornerstone of some of the strongest people in the world.
Bruce Lee for instance used to use isometric training by nailing a steel chain to the floor and attaching it to a bar. He’d then try with all his might to ‘curl’ the immovable bar. Other exercises he used regularly included holding himself in the gymnastic ‘V-sit’ position and hanging from a bar with his legs raised.
Bruce also believed strongly in the importance of that ‘neural drive’ we mentioned. He trained this using static contractions – tensing his muscles. He always made sure to tense his entire body throughout all of his exercises in order to plug energy leaks (this is how he was able to perform his one finger push up) and he would use contractions at the end of each muscle to increase the mind-muscle connection and to increase his ‘time under tension’.
So isometric training was a huge part of Bruce’s training and he used it to build his incredible strength and power. And just to remind you of how strong Bruce Lee was – this is a guy who could hold a 40kg barbell out at arm’s length and hold it for multiple seconds.
The Great Gama
The Great Gama was a wrestler who was famous in his time for his incredible strength. He would toss his opponents around the ring like rag dolls and won over 5,000 fights with not one loss. He was also known for accomplishing incredible displays of power and endurance.
Apparently, Gama attributed much of this incredible power to his use of isometric training. One of his most famous workouts involved tying a rope or belt around a tree and then trying with all his might to pull the tree down. Not only did this help him to develop his incredible strength, but it is also just about the coolest training technique you’ve likely ever heard of…
There are many others who have used isometrics successfully in their training with remarkable results. For instance, the old-time strongmen would often perform for their audiences by bending steel in their bare hands. This was an incredibly popular act and one that no doubt helped them to develop the super-human power that they were famous for.
Meanwhile, you can also turn to some athletes and sportsmen and women for examples. Take ballet dancers for instance who are constantly holding themselves on tip-toes and who have some of the most developed calves that you’re likely to see – and any gym rat will know how difficult is to build size in the calves. Likewise gymnasts have fantastic biceps, which comes from their use of controlled positions on the bars.
How to Use Isometric Training
If you’re interested in building real strength, size and power then, you really should be interested in using isometric strength. The question is how you go about it…
There are numerous isometric exercises we’ve looked at already, but just to recap you can try using any of the following:
• Holding a position using bodyweight
• Holding a weight in position during a bicep curl or a bench press
• Pulling or pushing against something that won’t move
• Bending steel
• Contract all your muscles following each exercise
Here are some more alternative options:
• Trying to rip a rope in half
• ‘Rolling’ a sauce pan
• Trying to rip in half a giant book
• Trying to crush a can of beans (also great for forearm and grip training)
• Trying to burst a basketball by squeezing it
• Trying to lift a car
Maintain your maximum power in each exercise for about 10-20 seconds, rest for no more than a minute and repeat for sets and reps.
In order to make these exercises effective you should use them independently of your main workout while your muscles are at full strength and before you’ve used any other exercises to fatigue your muscle fibers. You can use isometrics right at the start of a workout, or you can use it as a quick separate workout.
Finally, remember to breathe during isometrics. Otherwise you can end up bursting a blood vessel or becoming lightheaded.
Breathing while using isometric training or tensing at all is very difficult and requires a lot of control. In fact though, it’s also very important and a great way to improve your strength and endurance. Far from being a downside of isometric training, this is actually a great opportunity to train in this often-neglected aspect of strength. While holding your position and maintaining the contraction, concentrate on breathing in and out and imagine that as you do, you are filling your muscles with oxygen and fuel. It may take practice, but the result will be strength, speed and power like you’ve never experienced before!