Abandon all weakness, ye who enter here.

Isometrics vs. Plyometrics: The Great Debate pt.1

Isometrics vs. plyometrics. I've seen the two styles of exercises compared point for point in internet debate after debate, heard the two discussed in gyms, and had the discussion myself, albeit the ultimate goals of the two styles are different.

In fact, I had seen an article about the topic online and decided to post the article in one of my Facebook groups (Strength Is More Than Muscle) to stir up some discussion.

As a result, I was contacted by a trainer I respect and admire deeply: Stephen Santangelo, a world record holder and phenomenal trainer nutritionist, continuing to set world records at the ripe young age of 64.

Because every young 64 year old should aspire to grip train with 300lbs

From just a few messages between us spurned a conversation that lasted the course of many days about isometric training and plyometric training. 

As an isometric trainer, I naturally defended isometrics and stand by the points that I made, but my own horizons were broadened thanks to the insight that Stephen offered, and I hope that our conversation provides some insight into this long-standing great debate. We cover isometrics, plyometrics, P90X, Olympic athletes, martial arts training, and much more.

Let's begin!

Stephen: Why would anyone want to make this comparison? They are as different as night & day. All too often there are those who attempt to connect the 2. By the comments on your post, I can clearly see those individuals do not understand plyos, Especially, what some people are posting on you tube. OMG!

Me: Yes yes! To the initial point. The comparison initially came from a discussion that I had with a friend in terms of training isometric exercises for explosive power. I know that many people think of P90X when they think of plyos, but I find that to be a horribly misjudged representation of plyometrics in general.

Stephen: The neurological pathways & adaptations are not related.Yes, I understand that point & that's where too many internet gurus make it up as they go along. P90X is a hoax! Do you know why the 90 is in the name? Because after 90 days progress either comes to a halt or diminishes greatly. Notice the ads how it grantees results in less than 90 days. Also, it's nowhere close to developing neuromuscular responses as it claims to be. If so, every elite & Olympic athlete would be using it.

Me: That's why I wanted to stir up discussion, to cover the differences. Isometric exercises can be trained with maximum effort, showing an explosive force initially, but the exercise is still designed to strengthen the peripheral nervous system in terms of sustained effort. Plyometric exercises are powerful for speedy, explosive efforts neurologically, but I've found that the two can be compared in terms of connective tissue. 

This next remark is where the conversation began to get truly interesting for me.

Stephen: Same for isometrics. It's not meant to improve athletic performance.

Me: Yeah P90X is a marketing gimmick. And I disagree, I've found isometrics to be vital to improving my athletic performance in the way I train them.

Just as Stephen has found great progress in athleticism from plyometric training.

And thus began the great debate.

Stephen: You will receive an initial response in improvement because it is a new stimulus. However, it will diminish. You will invest a lot time with little returns.

As I mentioned earlier, elite athletes do not use isometrics in their programs. I have worked with many Olympic athletes, pro athletes in a variety of sports & plyometrics continue to improve performance, muscle response & connective tissue, year after year. 

I have also worked with some of the top T & F coaches in the world who have had numerous world record holders & national champions. None of them use isometrics. In my early year of T & F I had some of the nations tops coaches and learned much from as well. I'm not dissing isometrics. It's just folks need to truly understand what they are training for & whether it fits into their program.

Me: That's incredible, I've actually had the opposite effect. I don't invest a lot of time, no more than 10 minutes a day of training isometric exercises, and both my muscle mass and overall strength are increasing. Isometrics is also too broad of  an exercise style to imply that the same styles of isometrics apply to different athletic performances. My mentor has also worked with Olympic athletes, world record weight trainers, and SWAT members in training isometrics with the continued success that you've seen with plyometrics. How do you train isometrics?

This is one of many ways I personally train isometrics.

Stephen: I do not train specifically isometrics. My grip training is a form of iso, and that's it. I do not use them for clients either.

Isometrics for athletic performance is limiting. As for SWAT that's not athletic performance. Guys who bend steel, rip phone books etc are isometrically strong. That's very different than athletic performance. As previously mentioned, knowing what the purpose is defines the necessity. I've worked with SWAT as well & military Special Forces. Combat athlete such as MMA work isos into their programs too. Again its about specificity & what improves a particular response.

In nearly all of the Oly sports, winter & summer isos do not apply.

Isometrics make you strong in the position performed as when a weakness is identified. It has limiting factors since the body is designed to move, not be statically strong.  Again, we see specificity and if that's what's needed, by all means, introduce it into a training program.

Every application has a purpose; short term & long term (as in my case, decades). What is going to allow me the greatest returns & longevity?

MeThat is a sweeping underestimation of the basis of isometric exercises. When you pick up an object, whether you pick up a pencil or a dumbbell, the whole muscle contracts, so the limiting factor of isometrics is not in muscle strength when referring to athletic performance, but in the neural memory of the movements themselves. Training maximal strength exercises with isometrics, and then developing the specific movements with low weights can have an equally effective and inarguably safer carryover than simply training the movements with heavy weights. If longevity is what's argued, the overall connective tissue strength that isometrics develops is paramount, which would be important as opposed to plyometrics for training in old age.

The reason that strongmen have isometric strength is because they train specifically for bending metals, not for athletics. That's like Maxick losing to Edward Aston in a weightlifting competition, yes Maxick was incredibly powerful, and arguably stronger pound for pound, but if you want to be a good weightlifter, you have to lift weights, because you aren't just training your muscles.

You're training your peripheral nerve system to develop with the movements.

Meaning athleticism is not just about the strength you have, but also the muscle memory from repeated practice. Gungfu, if you will.

If you did a grease the groove system training the movements themselves while training the isometrics force your resistance and muscle strength, you'd find incredible benefit to your athletic performance.

Plus, you have to account for different styles: training isolation movements will be how you individually strengthen muscles maximally, but you would also need to incorporate isometric exercises with compound muscle groups  in order to have a stronger CNS response and increase the amount of HGH that the body produces.

There's also a matter of whether your isometric exercises are simply a matter of holding the weight, or of overcoming it. And whether your contraction is over or under 60% intensity, because they serve different purposes.

Furthermore, there's the matter of one's individual level of muscle control; your ability to contract your muscle can change the nature of your strength as well. I'm far from saying that isometrics are the end all and be all, but it's not even remotely close to being as limiting as people take it for.

For instance, using the static nature of isometrics to grant the mobility for something like a pistol squat.

Stephen: I read your post on plyo vs. iso in Pub Med (here's a link to the article). The excuse of plyos causing injury is a lame excuse. It's not the plyos. It's how they are integrated into a program.

Technique, volume & intensity must be monitored accordingly to be safe & effective. It all gets back to what we discussed earlier; what is the desired goal & how to properly apply its value.

We both agree very few trainers have any clue how to appropriately coach plyos. Isos are far easier to instruct. Very few trainees should ever do plyos. It is for the competitive athlete who has a history of high caliber training.

Don't misunderstand me. I do not think isos are not valuable. Comparing iso vs plyos is more of a philosophical discussion rather than practical development. We will still have our in depth discussion!

Me: You are correct, plyos, properly trained and not misdirecting the force of momentum and amount of intensity on the clients structure, can truly be a powerful force in developing one's structure.

I've trained with plyo's many times myself, and that critical difference can make you quite the powerhouse.

The discussion is philosophical indeed between the two, but the presence of the discussion itself allows for both sides to understand more of each other, as well as why there is no real victor.

It's like arguing which is better: GPP or SPP. But, the argument itself opens doors haha, and I love opening doors for those willing to step through and learn. Well, that and I have a bias toward isometrics that I wish to test in various fields.

Stephen: I understand the tests were very specific in how it measured power output. However, in athletics & every day life, we don't stand in one place and perform a specific task such as a vertical jump.

There are many movements, neurological impulses, muscle contractions which lead up to a vertical jump or any explosive movement such as a high jumper, long jumper, javelin thrower etc. This has considerably different demands than just standing in one place & executing a singular task.

Gymnasts use isometrics, plyos & skill acquisition to perform given tasks to complete specific exercises such as floor, rings uneven bars, parallel bars etc. It is a series of combined efforts to complete an entire performance.

Gotta get to bed! Waaay past my sleep time. I'll check your response in the morning! :)

In the morning I wrote quite the detailed response, and Stephen followed suit, continuing our in-depth, philosophical fitness discussion. Stay tuned for part two, and if you like what you've read here (or don't) comment below!

Questions, Comments, Feedback...

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