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Thursday, February 25, 2016 8:19 PM

What, When, Why & How of Isometrics

Health & Wellness

Earlier this week while I was working out in the Employee Fitness Center I had a member approach me and ask me about isometrics.  They had heard about isometrics but had no idea what they were, much less how to apply them in a workout.  I am guessing if one person is wondering, then there are most likely more people with the same question out there.  So let’s see if we can break it down for you.

Before we talk about isometrics, we need to establish a basic understanding of skeletal muscles and their role in human movement.  Muscles ONLY shorten and pull.  Yes, you can perform many different pushing motions, but that force is generated by muscles attached to two different bones. When a muscle is activated, it shortens and pulls the bone ends together.  A good example would be the triceps on the back of your upper arm.  This is the muscle that is one of the prime movers when you push open a door.  In this example, as the triceps contract or shorten it will extend your arm at the elbow, which is seen as a pushing motion.  Seems easy enough, but you would be surprised by the  number of folks that get confused on that. 

Now that we have that established, we need talk about what exactly isometrics are. Isometric refers to a type of muscle contraction.  There are three types of muscle contractions we work with constantly in the gym to build strength: isometric, concentric and eccentric.  A concentric muscle contraction is a muscle that is contracting while it is shortening at the same time.  Imagine doing a dumbbell curl.  The concentric muscle contraction is taking place when you are lifting that dumbbell.  An eccentric muscle contraction is the opposite of concentric.  Eccentric is when you would be lowering the dumbbell in control.  I stress the word lowering, not dropping here. Dropping requires no control or muscle contraction. The bicep, at this point, is still under tension and contracting but is lengthening at the same time.  An isometric muscle contraction is when the muscle is contracted but its length is not changing, so you are holding the joint angle between the two bones being acted upon the same. So in that dumbbell curl example it would be as if you were holding the dumbbell in a static position mid way through the curl movement. 

Now that we have identified that an isometric muscle contraction is a static muscle contraction, we can ask when or why we would incorporate them into a lifting routine.  Let’s start with why.  Studies have shown that the use of isometrics increases recruitment of muscle units and is more effective at improving muscle function than dynamic training alone.  Studies have also shown an increase in muscle hypertrophy, i.e. size.  Isometrics may also be performed with submaximal effort and no movement of the joint angle, making it very useful in the physical therapy/rehab world. 

Once we have established why we would want to add isometrics to our workout routine, we can look at when we would want to do so.  Be aware there are lots of opinions on this subject out there.  Yes, I am about to add mine to that long list of opinions.  I am falling back on my own personal experience here with not only my personal workouts, but in working with personal training clients as well.  I have found two great uses for isometrics.  One is for what I call ‘plateau busting’ and the other is to improve or strengthen the ‘hitch’ or ‘dead spot’ in a movement pattern.  I don’t want to give the impression that these two occasions are the only time to use an isometric exercise.  They can be done anytime, but they are a handy trick to use in these two instances. 

Let’s begin with ‘plateau busting’.  A lot of you are new to the gym and maybe you haven’t hit your plateau yet.  It seems like you are seeing improvement each and every week.  Your weights are going up consistently, little by little, and then suddenly that improvement doesn’t just slow…it comes to a stop.  No matter what you do, you can’t seem to add just five more pounds to that bench or squat.  Even more frustrating…this trend goes on for a couple of months.  Welcome to your first plateau!  It happens.  It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’.  I have been there more times than I can count.  Sorry to break the news to you, it’s not a one time thing either.  Don’t lose hope or get discouraged!  There are a few tricks to pushing through a plateau.

All a plateau means is that your body has adapted to the type of demand you have placed on it.  There are times that doing the same thing over and over with slowly increasing weight just doesn’t seem to cut it anymore.  So it’s time to stimulate the system in a new way.  This is where tricks like forced reps, super sets, negatives, drop sets, etc., come into play (Hmmm…sounds like a good blog topic for another time right there).  Isometrics would be another tool in your toolbox to try and work through a plateau.  Be aware though, you need to perform isometrics at several spots in the range of motion for a given movement pattern to be effective for this application.  This is because isometrics are VERY effective at improving strength in a specific point in your range of motion.

Some of you have probably watched me use isometrics in my own workouts to try and strengthen a ‘hitch’ in a movement pattern and not even known it. I take advantage of this all the time in my workouts.  The best example I can think of is that I am chronically plagued by a ‘dead spot’ when my upper arms are at about a 45 degree angle when I perform dumbbell shoulder presses.  So obviously that is the weakest part of that range of motion for me.  What you might have witnessed me do a time or two on the last rep in a set of dumbbell shoulder presses is pause the eccentric phase of the movement, ie., lowering the dumbbells at that weak point and try to hold it isometrically in that position for 3-5 seconds or so. Simply put, I am taking advantage of the principle that isometrics emphasize a specific point in your range of motion and targeting that specific weak spot in my range of motion.      

I am guessing a lot of you have already used isometrics in your workout and weren’t even aware you were doing it at  the time!  Ever heard of a ‘Plank’?  I am betting you have probably given it a go a time or two yourself.  If you have, you are fully aware of how a ‘plank’ will isometrically work your deltoids, abs, obliques, quads, etc.  Have you ever taken a yoga class?  A yoga class is pretty much just a series of isometrically held poses in sequence.  For those of you that might write yoga off as a one hour, new age, relaxing, nirvana inducing, group kumbaya session, I promise you it is not!  Every yoga class I have been in I have strained, struggled and dripped with sweat.  I promise you it is a legit workout!

If you are curious about isometrics and want to know more, drop a comment here or feel free to come into the Employee Fitness Center and let us show you a couple of tricks to ramp up your workout a little bit!