The fitness world is home to a subculture that runs deep. And as with all subcultures, the debate is often internal.
A quick look at Reddit might make it clear. yoga practitioners clash with pilates enthusiasts, bodybuilders criticize how powerlifters squat, powerlifters criticize those who can’t deadlift 300 pounds, runners throw shade at lazy lifters.
Most of these conversations are friendly, but tensions can really flare. This is especially true when discussing underrated or underrated exercises, a topic that everyone with a gym membership seems to have an opinion on.
My opinion. The most underrated exercise isn’t really an exercise at all, but rather a training technique. It’s called isometrics.
Isometrics are defined
Isometrics are exercises in which the target muscles produce force without any noticeable movement.
Wall squatting is a vivid example of this. With your back against the wall, lower your butt until your knees are at a 90-degree angle. Hold this position for a minute or so and there it is. Try a few sets and see how your feet feel afterwards to understand the benefits.
How Muscles and Isometrics Work
When muscle fibers are activated, they contract to produce the force needed to perform the task. This process begins in the brain, where the nervous system sends signals that travel through the body along pathways called motor neurons. They cause muscle contractions that cause movement.
As our bodies move through a full range of motion, muscles change through phases of contraction. During the eccentric phase, the target muscle is lengthened (think of the lowering phase of a push-up). During the concentric phase, the target muscle is shortened (think of the lifting phase of a push-up). Add a pause somewhere between those two phases and you have an isometric contraction.
During an isometric contraction, the muscles recruited by motor neurons never relax. There is constant and prolonged tension throughout the exercise, and this tension is the magic that makes isometrics so effective.
Isometrics in action
With the right tools and technique, isometrics can be manipulated to provide a training stimulus similar to a traditional barbell. Isometrics offer several additional and unique benefits, but the biggest one is that they target muscle tissues in a precise and limited range of motion. This makes them ideal for rehabilitating injuries and training weak areas in specific lifts (such as the initial phase of the deadlift or pushing the barbell off the chest during the bench press).
As with any other training method, to reap the greatest rewards from isometrics, you must use them correctly. To maximize muscle-building adaptations, you’ll want to use what’s called “yielding isometrics.”
Essentially, you assume a static position by holding a weight (either free or your own body weight) in place for 45 to 90 seconds. Planks, chin ups, or a pair of dumbbells with arms out by the side toward the floor are all examples of yielding isometrics.
With the help of some specialized equipment, isometrics can also be used to build strength. By pushing or pulling a stationary object with full force for 10 to 20 seconds (an approach called “overcoming isometrics”), we train our nervous system to work more efficiently by recruiting more muscle fibers. My favorite form of this type of training is the rack iso deadlift. is and Smith machine iso bench press.
Maximum use of the method
As effective as isometrics can be, they can be a little, well, boring. A deep squat isn’t the most exciting way to spend 60 seconds.
This is why there are several variations in both categories of isometric techniques. There’s the statodynamic method, functional isometrics, isometrics, loaded stretching, reactive isometrics—a whole world of programming parameters to help keep your training fresh and engaging.
If you choose to incorporate isometrics into your routine, choose one or two variations that serve to support your goals and learn how to make the most of them over the course of three to four weeks. After that, explore a new method and compare your results. Chances are you’ll discover a style that turns you into an isometric club.
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.
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