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5 Major Isometrics Myths

Isometrics exercises are a highly misunderstood, critical aspect to reaching a level of strength beyond the competition. Isometric exercises have been used for thousands of years, even when Shaolin monks would train stances and holds that were isometric in nature. Any martial art that includes holding a stance is isometric in nature, although those stances don't always fatigue the muscle, which we'll get into a bit later. 7 Seconds to a Perfect Body is an isometric program that WILL fatigue the muscle, guaranteed.

Isometrics didn't gain true popularity until a man named Alexander Zass, recognized as the father of Isometrics, brought his system of training to England in the early 20th century. Alexander Zass didn't create isometrics, but he popularized it; he actually learned the training methods while exercising in a jail cell.

Already a rather powerful, performing circus strongman, Alexander Zass was locked in a jail cell in Prussia during World War I. After being too strong to be confined like most prisoners, he was chained to a wall to restrain him. Leave it to a man under incredible stress to turn a vice into a virtue, because Alexander Zass developed his strength further than he ever had by pulling and struggling against the chains that held him.

By struggling against these immovable chains day in and out, Alexander Zass got so strong that he not only broke the chains, but also escaped his prison by bending the bars on the prison cells with his new-found strength, and scaling the prison walls using the bent bars as hooks.   

Looks pretty functional to me!

Incredible as that was, you think you'd see isometric exercises being performed in every gym and training facility in the world. Nevertheless, it's highly uncommon to hear the word 'isometrics' outside of a Pilates class. Why the change?

In the 1960's, there was a man named Bob Hoffman, who ran the York Barbell Club, an elite fitness group that competed in many impressive bodybuilding competitions. As the story goes, Hoffman had learned of two things that Russian bodybuilders were adding to their training to dominate the competition: isometrics and steroids.

Being a man of opportunity, Hoffman had his bodybuilders train using both methods, with phenomenal results. However, once it was discovered that Hoffman's bodybuilders used steroids, there was a general assumption that isometrics could hold little value in training unless coupled with steroids.  

Furthermore, Bruce Lee was an avid trainer in various styles of exercise, and included isometrics heartily into his workouts, with incredible strength results. He went on to say, however, that isometrics weren't ideal for building muscle in comparison to conventional weight lifting methods.

Are these claims valid, or are isometrics one of the most misunderstood training methods available?

Let's look at the most common claims and answer individually.

1. Isometrics cause high blood pressure.

Isometric exercises usually involve either pushing or pulling an immovable object or holding a weight for a certain amount of time. This static tension causes blood to build up behind the muscle you're working, and rush into it once you release the contraction. As long as you keep breathing properly and don't try to hold your breath during the contraction, there should be no reason that the isometric blood pump should be anymore stressful than a pump from conventional weight training. Train hard, but train smart.

2. You only increase strength at the angle that you work, or 15 degrees above and below.

In order for this to be true, your muscle would have to contract in sections, which simply doesn't happen. Whether your muscle contracts at its strongest or weakest point, the whole muscle contracts. Doing a full range movement or an isometric contraction will both contract the whole muscle.

The difference comes with the way that each exercise affects your nervous system. When you do a full range motion, your nervous system tries to make your movements more efficient, so the full range movement FEELS like you're building more strength than the isometric movement. Meanwhile, a lot of people have issues with plateauing, but it's generally because of this neural efficiency being mistaken for overall strength gain.

Isometrics will improve your overall muscle strength, and will also max out your nervous system so you get all around strength improvements, without really plateauing. You don't feel the same kind of burn after an isometric exercise as you do with conventional weightlifting, so some people assume that it doesn't really fatigue the muscle, but studies have been done to show how isometrics in fact does fatigue the muscle.

3. Isometrics don't build muscle, only strength.

Isometrics increases muscle size AND strength; the two aren't mutually exclusive. When you increase strength, you increase muscle mass and connective tissue strength, but the way that the muscle grows will be different for each case. There is myofibrillar growth, in which the muscle itself actually increases in size and protein density. This reinforces the muscle, making it much stronger. The dense muscle of martial artists, powerlifters, and the like is often indicative of myofibrillar growth.

There is also sarcoplasmic growth, which increases the amount of water and glucose around the muscle cells; because of the extra water and sugar, the muscle make have more endurance, but its overall contractile strength doesn't improve. Bodybuilders are usually a prime example of sarcoplasmic growth. (Granted, you have to have some myofibrillar growth to achieve sufficient sarcoplasmic growth.)

4. You can't get big with isometrics.

This ties a bit onto the point above. When it's said that isometrics don't build muscle, it's that traditional isometrics don't contribute to this sarcoplasmic pump in muscles. What creates that muscle pump? The constant reps used in weight training.

Because isometrics are traditionally trained with time, they don't accomplish sarcoplasmic growth; however, the Maximetrics system has incorporated isometrics for reps with other training concepts to achieve incredible strength in addition to building mass not normally seen with isometric exercises.

In addition, the best contribution you can make to increasing muscle size is eating big, not just training hard. The Maximetrics system can work wonders for size and strength, but as with any mass building program, you won't build as much as you'd like if you don't eat the right food, and lots of it.

5. You can't develop functional strength with isometrics.

Refer to the picture of Zass holding a HORSE, while walking through water.  The problem with this theory is that it relates to the manner in which isometrics is used currently. Today, unless you're into physical therapy or in a Pilates class, you may not have even heard of isometrics because that's all they're used for. Do a little isometric hold for a bit, hold longer as you increase your strength, and forever and ever amen.

No, just stop. If you're using isometrics this way, you aren't using the isometrics that forged the strength of Shaolin monks and built Alexander Zass into the powerhouse he was known to be. You're instead using some cute knock off that'll leave you with a huge strength gap if you decide to join your friends in the weight room. Now if it the cutesy isometrics are working for you, don't stop what you're doing, and don't let me tell you off, because everyone's goals are different.

But if you want to build functional strength with isometrics, you need to put great intensity into your workouts. How much? Research say that you only need to put about 60% of your muscle strength into an isometric contraction to improve strength overall. But it has to be progressive; 60% for you last week won't be the same this week, and improving the time will only take you to a certain level.

Furthermore, how do you measure 60% of a muscle contraction? Let's make things simple here: go 100% every time. Unless you've some ungodly mathematical understanding of your body, you won't be able to measure 60%, but if you go all out every time, you might not hit 100% but you'll definitely fatigue the muscle enough for great strength and muscle gains.

This is what I mean in terms of the isometrics incorporated into martial arts stances; if you trained the same stance every day of your life for years, you'd get quite the durable level of strength, but you can really cut that time by a huge margin if you incorporate maximal contractions, essentially flexing harder, into your training.

Honestly, one of the best ways to increase functional strength is with maximal weight training. If you train your body to move maximal weights constantly, your overall strength takes leaps and bounds, hence small powerlifters moving whale-sized weights. But technically, if you can actually lift the weight, it's not entirely maximal, even if you lift it just once. What is TRULY MAXIMAL is a weight that you can't lift, that you can put your maximum strength into, which is how an isometric exercise operates.

Even if you do bodyweight isometrics, as with many Pilates classes where planks are popular, flex those muscles as hard as you can flex them. You may only be able to hold it for a few seconds by flexing it that hard, and that's good; that means you're putting maximum force in.

Your bodyweight isn't immovable (although some people would have you believe it is), but by flexing your muscles as hard as possible, you “trick” them into believing that the weight is maximal. This means maximum strength, maximum fat loss (with a good diet), maximum muscle mass (with a good diet), and a happy trainer.

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Rehab Not rated yet
I use isometric exercises on my clients in rehab. ..

ballistic Not rated yet
Isometric are great as are true ballistics

Isometrics Not rated yet
I believe that isometric exercises at this point deserved more attention and study. I am 52 years old and am only isometric exercise 15 minutes a day. …

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