The fitness world is home to a subculture that runs deep. And as with all subcultures, debate often runs rampant from within.
A quick glance at Reddit can be revealing: yoga practitioners clashing with Pilates enthusiasts, bodybuilders criticizing how powerlifters squat, powerlifters criticizing anyone who can’t bench 300 pounds, runners throwing shade at lazy lifters.
Most of these conversations are good-natured, but tensions can indeed flare. This is especially true when discussing underrated or underappreciated exercises, a subject seemingly everyone with a gym membership has an opinion on.
My own take: The most underrated exercise isn’t really an exercise at all, but rather a training technique. It’s called isometrics.
Isometrics are exercises in which the targeted muscles produce force without any noticeable movement.
The wall squat provides a clear example of this: With your back pressed against a wall, lower your butt until there’s a 90-degree angle at the knees. Hold this position for a minute or so – and there you have it. Try a few sets and see how your legs feel afterward to understand the benefits.
How muscles – and isometrics – work
When muscle fibres are activated, they contract to generate the force required to accomplish the task at hand. This process starts with the brain, where the nervous system sends signals that travel through the body along pathways called motor neurons. These trigger the muscular contractions that produce movement.
When our bodies move through a complete range of motion, the muscles shift through phases of contraction. During the eccentric phase, the targeted muscle lengthens (think of the lowering phase of a pushup). During the concentric phase, the targeted muscle shortens (think of the rising phase of a pushup). Add a pause somewhere in between those two phases, and you have an isometric contraction.
During an isometric contraction, the muscles recruited by the motor neurons never get to relax. There is a constant and prolonged tension throughout the full duration of the exercise, and this tension is the magic that makes isometrics so effective.
Isometrics in action
With the right tools and techniques, isometrics can be manipulated to provide a training stimulus similar to that of traditional weight lifting. Isometrics offer a few additional and unique benefits, however, the biggest being that they target the exact muscle tissues in precise and limited ranges of motion. This makes them ideal for rehabbing injuries and training weak areas in specific lifts (such as the initial pulling stage of a deadlift or pushing the barbell off your chest during a bench press).
As with any other training method, in order to reap the greatest reward from isometrics, you need to use them properly. To maximize muscle-building adaptations, you’ll want to use what’s called “yielding isometrics.”
Essentially, you assume a static position while holding a weight (either free weights or your own body weight) in place for 45 to 90 seconds. Planks, holding the top portion of a chin-up or holding a pair of dumbbells with your arms outstretched laterally to 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 with full force against an immovable object for 10 to 20 seconds – an approach called “overcoming isometrics” – we’re training our nervous system to function more effectively by recruiting more muscle fibres. My favourite form of this type of training is the rack iso deadlift and Smith machine iso bench press.
Making the most of the method
As effective as isometrics can be, they can be a little, well, boring. Holding a deep squat isn’t exactly the most thrilling way to spend 60 seconds.
That’s why there are several variations within both categories of isometric techniques. There’s the stato-dynamic method, functional isometrics, isometronics, 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, pick 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 that you’ll discover a style that converts you to the isometrics club.
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.