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We all know that there are three basic types of muscular contractions: concentric, eccentric and isometric. The first two are utilized daily by lifters seeking bigger, stronger muscles. The third kind, isometric, is kind of like the redheaded stepchild you leave locked in the attic when you have friends over. Only this overplayed clichéd stepchild holds the key to bigger, stronger muscles. Maybe you should consider letting him out more often?
Concentric contraction is a muscular contraction occurring in conjunction with a shortening of the muscle. The bicep is concentrically contracted during the up phase of a bicep curl. The eccentric contraction is defined as a muscular contraction with a simultaneous lengthening of the muscle. This can be seen when lowering the dumbbell during a bicep curl.
The third type of contraction, isometric, is a muscular contraction with the muscle in a static position – no lengthening or shortening. An example of this would be your quads contracting during a wall sit.
While concentric and eccentric contractions should be your bread and butter and account for most of your workload, adding in some isometric exercises can help you break through those pesky sticking points and reach your lifting goals.
The biggest benefit of including isometric contractions in your training is that the amount of activation (muscle fiber recruitment) during an isometric hold is greater than both eccentric and concentric. A 2001 study by Nicholas Babault et al. found that, “The mean activation levels during maximal eccentric and maximal concentric contractions were 88.3 and 89.7%, respectively, and were significantly lower with respect to maximal isometric contractions (95.2%).”
Isometric holds allow the lifter to push maximally for a greater amount of time at a specified point in the lift. For example, a complete bench press will maybe take a few seconds, tops. But with isometric training you can push the bar up into the pins in any position you want and contract maximally in that particular position or angle for 5-10 seconds – contraction central for starving muscles.
This not only gets you stronger at the position you did your isometric contractions, but also at surrounding angles. A study performed by Kitai and Sale found that although strength gains were greatest at the angle where the exercise transpired, strength gains were also seen at angles close to the one worked isometrically (+/-5 degrees). So, basically, isometric contractions can help you get through sticking points, but they also get you stronger at angles before and after your sticking point.
Another great benefit of isometric training is that is allows you to recruit fibers without all the wear and tear on your joints. You can work your sticking points without going through the entire range of motion, this can save your shoulders and elbows from some stress.
So now that we know what isometric contractions are and the benefits they can provide, how can you use them to gain strength?
Let’s look at the bench press as an example. All of us have a sticking point in the bench press. This usually occurs about mid-range, after the explosion off the chest and before the lockout of the triceps. So, to work on this sticking point we do our normal bench press routine and once that is finished we then add in some isometric contractions at the sticking point. This is called maximal effort isometrics.
You can do this by heading over to the squat rack and putting the safety pins at the sticking point level and pushing the bar up as hard as you can against the pins. Make sure the squat rack is bolted down.
Another interesting way to utilize isometrics is called static-dynamic isometric training. This is characterized by doing a 3-6-second isometric hold and then right after doing a dynamic full range of motion set. Static-dynamic isometrics have been proven to be more effective than doing only dynamic effort lifts.
Here is an easy way to add isometrics to your routine. After you get done with normal working sets of bench press, set up a bench in the squat rack with the pins 3-5 inches of your chest. Push the empty bar up into the pins as hard as you can for six seconds. Put the bar down and immediately go over to the bench press and do three reps of 65% of your max, making sure to move the bar as fast as you can, which further engages your growth-prone fast-twitch muscle fibers. Take a two-minute rest and repeat it for a total of four sets. Follow this with the rest of your chest assistance work for the day.
On your close-grip bench day, you can do maximal-effort isometrics. After your close-grip working sets, set the squat rack pins so that the bar is 3-5 inches from your lockout point. Press the bar maximally for eight seconds into the pins. Do this for four sets with two minutes of rest in between. Follow this with the rest of your triceps accessory work for the day.
Isometrics should never be your meat and potatoes for the training day but they should be used as an assistance exercise 2-3 times per week. They are very taxing on the central nervous system and should be utilized sparingly and judiciously.
Noah Bryant, CSCS, is a two-time NCAA Champion and four-time All-American in the shot put, with a personal record of 20.80 meters. He holds the school record in the shot put at the University of Southern California. Noah represented the United States in the 2007 World Track and Field Championships and the 2011 Pan-American Games. He was regarded as one of the strongest shot putters in the world, with a 210 kg. clean and a 150 kg. snatch. Noah provides online and in person training specializing in Olympic lifting and sport performance. Visit his website at www.noahstrength.com.