I stumbled onto isometric training purely by accident. I’m primarily a martial artist and was looking at ways of increasing my strength so that I could dominate larger opponents. I had tried various exercises involving barbells and dumbbells. However, despite numerous months of training, I felt my grappling strength hadn’t necessarily increased. It was after reading a random website article on the internet that I came across isometrics. Before long I had fallen in love with this type of training: it was intense, quick and blasted the muscle being worked. I quickly realized that in order to make significant progress I would need to look at using specialized isometric training equipment.
I appreciate some of you may be in a rush, so here are the tools I currently use:
How I discovered isometric training
I had been weight training for many years. When I was a teenager and in my early 20’s, I was mainly focused on trying to build muscle. I suspect this is what most young men focus on. However, as I got increasingly into my martial arts, my focus changed to become more performance related. I wanted to be stronger on the BJJ mat and not just look strong.
However, I found that whilst I was getting stronger in the gym and able to shift more weight on the barbell, this wasn’t translating into greater success in the dojo. It was then that I realised that the body adapts very specifically to the training it is subjected to. Over time I could curl more weight in the gym because that is what I was training my body to do. However, in the dojo whilst grappling I wasn’t required to curl anything. The bicep curl did not translate into the real world of the dojo.
The same was true for the other exercises I was doing in the gym. The progress I was making on my bench press did not mean that I could throw off opponents with greater ease. I was becoming increasingly frustrated and this led me to scouring the internet to find out what I was doing wrong. I was then that I came across an article on Alexander Zass – a strongman from the early 20th century.
Alexander performed numerous displays of strength on stage including lifting a 12 foot iron girder using a strap with he gripped with his teeth. He would also routinely bend thick strips of metal into ornate shapes using only his hands.
When I researched into how he had gained this strength it transpired that he had not really used barbells or weights at all. Rather he had focused on a technique called isometrics.
What are isometrics?
In regular weight training, the trainer attempts to move the barbell, dumbell or weight stack up and down against the force of gravity.
Each up and down movement is called a repetition (rep) and each rep has three phases: The concentric phase where the muscle shortens or contracts; the eccentric phase where the muscle lengthens and the peak contraction, where the muscle is at its shortest. A number of reps are performed in sequence to form what is called a ‘set’.
Weight lifters will use different set and rep combinations to achieve different results. According to convention, lower reps (less than 5) mainly result in strength gains. Higher reps (8-15) tend to bring gains in muscle mass (hypertrophy). Any more repetitions per set tend to bring endurance gains.
In contrast, in isometrics, the muscle stays at a fixed length. The term “isometric” combines the Greek words “Isos” (equal) and “metria” (measuring). There are two types of isometric:
Yielding Isometric – in this scenario you are trying to prevent an object from moving by resisting the force that is acting on it (usually gravity). For instance, it might involve holding a weighted barbell in a fixed bicep curl position. In this exercise, your lower arms will be at right angles to your body and you’ll be trying to prevent gravity from pulling the weight down. With sufficient weight, after a short period of time your biceps will tire and you’ll have to work hard to keep the bar in a fixed position.
Overcoming Isometric – in this alternative isometric, you pull or push against an immovable object. This is the type of training that Alexander Zass performed. He used a length of chain with handles attached at each end. Using different positions, he would try to pull the chain apart. He used different lengths of chain in order to complete a number of exercises for the entire body. The picture below shows Alexander performing a number of these movements.
Whilst Alexander’s strength was impressive, I did wonder if this could be applied to my grappling training. It was then when I came across ‘the Great Gama’ (1878 – 1960), an Indian and Pakistani wrestling legend.
When a boy asked how he got his great strength he responded as follows:
“It’s really quite simple,” the Indian said good-naturedly. “In the Punjab, where I lived there was a large tree behind my house. Each morning I would rise up early, tie my belt around it, and try to throw it down.”
“A tree?” the boy marveled.
“For twenty years.”
“And you did it?”
“No, little one,” Gama smiled, “but after a tree…a man is easy.”
After reading that article, I was determined to incorporate isometrics into my own training program.
How I started isometric exercise training
My first step was to try to replicate the training equipment used by Alexander Zass. To this end I purchased the WorldFit ISO Trainer.
It consists of two ergonomic handles which are connected by a non-stretch, military grade webbing. The advantage that this system has over the chains used by Alexander Zass, is that the length of the webbing can easily be adjusted. This allows you to perform all the exercises performed by Alexander Zass without having to swap to a different piece of equipment.
I train each muscle by intensely contracting it for 8 – 10 seconds. For example, suppose I wanted to train my biceps. I would lengthen the webbing so that I was able to stand on it at the half-way point, whilst holding the handles so that my arms were bent at right angles. This would look similar to the mid-point on a bicep curl. Standing in this position, I would ensure the webbing was taut, before contracting my muscles in an attempt to raise the handles. Obviously any movement would not be possible but I would try intensely for up to 10 seconds. I would know that I was working at the right intensity because my arms would quiver at the effort.
Throughout the contraction, I would focus my mind on really being able to feel the contraction in the bicep. I felt that this type of technique is so intense, you only really need to do one isometric hold per muscle group. Once I’d worked on my biceps, I then moved onto another body part.
I recall that the WorldFit ISO Trainer did come with an instructional booklet that can help people get started, but I found it quite easy to come up with my own exercises.
Overcoming a problem with isometric training
In researching the benefits of isometric training, I also discovered some of its potential weaknesses. One criticism is that this style of training produces considerable strength increases but only at the muscle angle being trained. The idea being that there is little cross over to other muscle lengths. (Kitai & Sale, 1989; Lindh, 1979; Thepaut-Mathieuet al., 1988; Weir et al., 1995).
In regular weight training involving concentric and eccentric movements, smaller strength increases occur throughout the range of the movement (Graves,Pollock, Jones, Colvin, & Leggett, 1989).
The answer is therefore to train the muscle isometrically but at a number of angles.
As reported by one study:
“In conclusion, training isometrically at four angles produced signiﬁcantly greater gains in isometric strength across a range of angles (assessed with two dynamometers), but similar gains in isokinetic(dynamic) strength in comparison to dynamic training.”
The beauty of the WorldFit ISO Trainer is that you can easy increase or decrease the length of the webbing in order to change the angle of the muscle being worked.
I would therefore train each muscle using three/four different angles. Again, using biceps as an example, I would start with the webbing quite short so that my elbows were almost fully extended. This would look like a barbell bicep curl just above its lowest point. I would then contract fully for 10 seconds before lengthening the webbing so that my arms were at right angles to my body. I’d then contract again before finally lengthening the webbing so that I could contract my biceps at their peak contraction point. My biceps would be toast at the end of this routine and I’d then move on to another body part.
Using isometric training equipment to overcome lagging body parts
I suspect like most men, I’ve always struggled to gain muscular mass on certain body parts. For me, it’s been the inner pec region and my forearms.
No matter what technique I tried for my inner chest – flyes, pullovers, pec-deck – I could never really develop this area. I also tried a multitude of set/rep combinations for this body part including drop sets, pre-exhausts, pyramiding. Nothing seemed to work.
After I had been using isometrics for some months, I began to wonder if I could use this technique to target my inner pec region and try to overcome this weak point.
To target this area you really need find a peak contraction movement where your pectoral muscles is contracted to its fullest extent. Given this muscle’s role is to bring the arms together in front of the body, the exercise needs to mimic this movement as far as is possible.
It was quite difficult to use the ‘Zass straps’ (as I call the WordFit ISO Trainer) to get them in the right position to be able to hit this chest peak contraction. I therefore started to look for other types of isometric training equipment to be able to target this problem area.
It was then that I came across the GoFitness Super Push Down Bar.
This is a simple looking device which involves pushing two handles against a pair of springs.
I saw that it could be purchased at different strength levels (70,90,110lb) and opted for the 110lb version thinking I’d be strong enough.
It’s an extremely well made piece of kit with stainless steel springs and solid plastic plastic handles. I certainly think it has that well made feeling to it.
The device can be used to provide an entire upper body workout but I just wanted to target my lagging inner pecs. The instructions that came with it also give details on the different exercises for each muscle group and these are performed by compressing and decompressing the springs for a set number of reps.
I wanted to use the device isometrically. I therefore held the handles out in front of me and squeezed the handles together as hard as possible. I tried to stay in this position for as long as possible.
Despite many months of training in this way, my pecs immediately start to quiver the moment they reach their peak contraction. My whole upper body literally begins to shake after only a few seconds.
In time I noticed that the whole of my pec region developed significantly including that inner pec region.
I have to admit that this element of my training was purely for vanity and wasn’t performance related but it was good for me to realize that I could use isometrics to target lagging body parts in this way.
Once I had developed my chest to my satisfaction, I then looked to develop my forearms. I knew from the training I’d done with the ‘Zass Straps’ that they were strong but they weren’t as developed as I would have liked. Again this was purely down to my vanity: I wanted them to look a bit more muscular and defined.
Again I started to research the isometric training equipment that I could use to really target this area.
After looking at numerous products, I decided to purchase the Heavy Grips Hand Exerciser.
These are like those old fashion hand grippers that I’d seen tennis players use to improve their grip strength. However, instead of being made of cheap plastic, the ‘Heavy Grips’ version is designed to drastically improve hand and forearm strength and are actually used by professional Strongmen.
There are different models of ‘Heavy Grips’ grippers, providing a range of resistance from 100 – 350 lbs. I purchased mine on Amazon for about $30 (you can check the price here). It came in a bundle consisting of three grippers at different levels of resistance. This allows you to progress between grippers as you increase strength or you want to increase the number of reps you can do.
I’m currently on the 200lbs pair. I can just about squeeze the two handles together. Once in this position, I try to hold it as long as possible before switching to the other hand. I usually switch hands two or three times, and by the end my hands and forearms have an amazing pump. As the isometric contraction continues you can really feel every muscle in your lower arm working.
Here’s a photo of me mid-squeeze:
Be warned, your hands will be fried at the end of this routine so don’t do anything that requires grip strength immediately after.
Isometrics are an awesome way to train and bring real world strength results. You can magnify your results by using the correct equipment. Hopefully you’ve picked up some tips from my experience.