By William J. Kraemer, Ph.D.
For those worried about strength, one way to get muscles activated that require heavy loads is to try some maximal “isometrics.” Now, we see our body using isometric actions all the time when lifting or doing “planks,” as that is how our body stabilizes itself when performing movements or holding a position in space. But they may not be done with maximal force in these situations. Most of us recognize this when we are at the end of a set, and we fail as we cannot move the weight any further or “stick” at that point in the exercise.
Different from dynamic muscle actions, which we call concentric or eccentric movements that we typically use in all of our lifts, isometrics is when the muscle does not shorten or move an object. In the 1950s, it was very popular as space travel was on the minds of everyone as the astronauts would be in these tiny capsules. how did they keep their muscles fit, the answer was, perform isometrics? Well, while that idea passed by somewhat quickly, it can be used here to help maintain maximal strength.
Again, when the muscle is called on to produce more force, more motor units are recruited. So lifting goes from light weights to heavy weights, and every program has a variety of such loads over the training program. The same with isometrics, one can go easy or go all out in a movement. Now the popularity of isometrics faded when we learned it took a lot more time to train a muscle.
Ok then, a few things to remember. By the way, using social distancing, it is always good to have a workout partner, right? Do not do exercises that require real safety spotting in a strength training workout (such as a bench press). So now, back to isometrics. The benefits of isometrics are that you can get at some maximal effort loadings by pushing or pulling against an IMMOVABLE object or self-opposed limb, such as using one arm to resist the other. Also, DO NOT hold your breath when exerting in the exercise, breath out and in as you would when doing any weight training exercise. When going for a maximal push, pull, or press, do what is called a “ramp up” of a few seconds to a maximal effort that you will try to hold for about 2 to 4 seconds, then relax and go to the next angle or repeat. Thus, isometrics can be used to augment your strength training program and help different exercise movements maintain maximal strength. But again with any adaptation, be smart and wise. Another cautionary tale was a friend of mine wanted to perform an isometric “Chest Wall Push” but used the back railing of his deck, all of a sudden the back railing started to detach as he pushed and started to fall off, again he was not hurt. So, one has to pick objects that one’s strength cannot move.
Here is an example program for use within your conditioning program to help maintain your maximal strength. Always remember if you have not weight trained before make sure your physician approves such a conditioning program related to strength development.
- Never hold your breath while you push, pull, or exert with an isometric exercise as this cuts off oxygen to your body,
- Use a slow ramp-up to maximal exertion and try to hold it for 2 to 4 seconds,
- Maintain the proper form and stop if you find yourself out of position. Remember, no movement should occur with only oscillation of the muscle observed due to force production that is going nowhere
- Take whatever time you need to recover before the next effort, as this is strength training, not circuit training.
- As with any weight training exercise, do not use an injured limb in the exercise,
- Progress slowing with the number of efforts for each exercise and joint angle, and remember it is just part of your larger conditioning program,
- Fit these exercises into your program at the beginning of the workout. It can be performed as two times a week for strength.
- Start with one repetition at each angle with no more than three angles per exercise.
Chest Wall Pushes
Find a wall that can withstand the force you will exert on it. Lean forward into the wall. You can use a staggered foot stance with one foot out in front of the other. Alternate right and left foot positions on each repetition. Chose an arm-elbow angle position similar to different levels of a push up from arms not fully extended to partially bent at different angles.
Back Row Pull
Find an immovable bar or an object that you can grip using an overhand or underhand grip. From the seated position, as in a seated row, grab the bar and again start at an arm-elbow angle almost fully extended to bent at different angles.
In a seated or standing position, pull your abdomen in as far as possible and hold.
Bicep/Tricep Curl and Push Down
Using one hand on top of the other, curl one arm and push down with the other in the opposite direction at a given elbow angle and alternate arms.
Wall Squat and Flex
With your back against a solid wall, bend from a half to quarter to a half squat holding yourself up against the wall. Push down on the floor.
Other Plank holds can be used to round out the maximal isometric training segment of your workout.
Dr. William J. Kraemer, Ph.D. is a member of the AdvoCare Scientific and Medical Advisory Board Member and is compensated for his role. Check with your health care provider before beginning any fitness program.
William Kraemer Ph.D., FACSM, FNSCA, FISSN, FACN
- More than 450 peer-reviewed scientific manuscripts related to sports medicine, exercise, sports science and sports nutrition
- Over 100 book chapters, author of ten books
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