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“Use full range of motion.” That phrase captures one of our major philosophies of resistance training so well that it bears repeating. Use a full ROM. Use a full ROM.
Good. Now that’s hopefully out of your system, because another major philosophy of muscle-building that we preach is: “Frequent change is good.” Repeat it if you feel the urge. This philosophy pertains to exercise selection, sets, reps, weight, frequency, and, yes, even your ROM.
It may seem like a contradiction, but occasionally breaking the full range of motion rule does a body good. One way to do this is with partial reps. Another way is with the approach we present here: static contractions.
The term static means lack of movement. And as this term implies, with static training you take a weight and hold it in a fixed position for several seconds. This concept is based on the idea that by forcing the muscle to work only when it is maximally contracted and using the heaviest weight possible, you can optimize its growth potential. You have to admit that it makes sense. The question is, does it work?
The answer is yes; it does work when used properly. This is due mainly to the overload that’s involved, as well as to the unique stimulus with which it jolts the muscle.
When you train using a full ROM, the amount of weight you can use is limited by your sticking point—the point in the exercise ROM where you’re weakest. You can only use as much weight as you can lift through that sticking point. With static contractions, you eliminate the sticking point, so you can overload the muscle fibers with as much weight as you can hold for at least 10 seconds in a particular muscle’s strongest position.
Static contraction training may seem like a new concept, but it’s hardly a radical, untested training philosophy.
Bob Hoffman, founder of The York Barbell Company and former USA Olympic Weightlifting coach, had members of the team use a similar training system back in the early 1960s with incredible success. And the late Mike Mentzer, professional bodybuilder and past editor of Muscle & Fitness, also touted the effectiveness of static contractions for building size and strength. Now you can put them to work for you.
One point we should stress is that training with static contractions isn’t the same as training with isometrics—where you simply apply force to an immovable object. For example, you push with all your might against a wall; your muscles flex, but the wall doesn’t move (and if it does, you may want to talk to your contractor).
True, there are similarities between the two training modalities, as both are static in nature. But with static contraction training, you have movement in the beginning, as you get the weight in the contraction range for the particular exercise, and you have movement at the end, as you fatigue and the weight drops (this negative movement stresses the muscle fibers significantly, in a good way).
In addition, with isometric contractions you can cheat, because actual muscle contraction depends on how hard you decide to apply force. You can push or pull lightly, or you can push or pull with all your might. With static contraction training, you have to apply the maximum force possible or the weight will fall. Using actual weights—barbells, dumbbells, and machines—allows you to follow a methodical progression that’s impossible with isometrics.
Static contractions are best used with exercises that allow max resistance in the muscles’ strongest point of contraction while limiting help from assisting muscle groups.
That means you want to choose isolation and machine exercises. Machine exercises are actually a good bet because they provide constant tension on the muscle at any point in the ROM; their one drawback is the fact that a weight-stack machine may not provide enough resistance for stronger lifters.
Poor choices would be multijoint exercises like squats and bench presses, because they don’t isolate one muscle group. But if overall strength rather than hypertrophy is your goal, you can use static training to get stronger on these lifts.
Now that you’re sold, here’s the three-step method for incorporating static training into your own program.
Begin each workout by warming up. Start out with 10-15 minutes of light cardio to give your body a general warm-up. Then do two light 10-rep sets of each exercise you’re training statically. On each rep, stop and hold for a three-count at the end of the contraction. Hit a third warm-up set with a weight you can do for six reps, but do only one rep, holding it for a three-count before ending the set. Now you’re ready for a true static contraction set.
Next up are your working sets. Have a training partner move the weight to the static position; he should apply only enough force as is needed to help you get there. That will help prepare your muscles for when they’re suddenly on their own. When your partner lets go, he needs to watch the clock, as you’re now counting time, not reps. The weight should be light enough to allow you to hold it statically for at least 10 seconds, but heavy enough that you can’t hold it for more than 20. Once you can hold a weight for more than 20 seconds, it’s time to increase the weight. Your partner also can help you bump up the intensity by forcing you to hold the contraction longer—similar to forced reps.
Do 1-2 static contraction sets. If you feel one set is enough—and it should be for beginners—immediately go into two drop sets of full ROM reps at the end of that one set. If you go for two static contraction sets, rest about two minutes between sets. After the second set, drop the weight and immediately do one set of full ROM reps.
Following this exercise, move on to three straight sets of a compound move for that muscle group using full ROM reps. Warning: You probably won’t be able to do much on the compound exercise because you have pre-exhausted the muscle with the static isolation exercise.
Or, to concentrate on hitting your compound moves with heavy weight, do the static contraction sets last in your workouts.
After three sets of one compound move, finish with the static contraction sets. Do 1-2 static contraction sets and immediately go into 1-2 full ROM sets to finish. Switch the order of exercise progression every other week.
The first week, perform the static contractions first, and the next week, perform them last. Continue in this fashion for up to eight weeks before returning to full ROM training.
Like most great training techniques, the static contraction method can really give your growth a jolt. The key is to not make it a predictable, permanent part of your routine, and to progress to heavier weights over time when you do use it. Stick to those rules, and you’ll see you can make progress—by standing still.