Abandon all weakness, ye who enter here.

Isometrics vs. Plyometrics: The Great Debate pt. 2

Maxick, my personal favorite strongman, showing the strength that he developed from training muscle control, a component of isometrics, by performing a full planche on his fingertips

After a night's rest, the isometrics vs. plyometrics debate continued between me and Stephen Santangelo.

As it stood, I had seemed to underestimate the effectiveness of plyometric exercises, but Stephen had presented to me the biggest criticism of isometric exercises, which is that it only strengthens you up to 20 degrees from the angle of contraction, and doesn't strengthen the whole muscle or translate to dynamic strength.

My rebuttal? Here goes nothing:

Me: Whew, I do pray that your sleep was invigorating, because I seem to have accidentally written an essay that I hope doesn't bore you haha.  

The complete package makes the complete athlete! Olympic judoka, wrestlers, taekwondo-ka, swimmers etc. have been known to incorporate isometrics.

However it is also ridiculous to assume this is the only form of training they do. Many use traditional lifting methods obviously, and a great number use plyometrics to much success.

A key aspect of isometrics is the development of strength in our stabilizers to secure the joints and structures - this is why skiers use it, for instance.

As for the assertion that isometrics only improve strength in the angle they are being trained at, this is categorically untrue. And belies a lack of understanding of muscle physiology. It's true many reports show that isometrics dramatically increase the strength of the joint within 20 degrees either side of the angle trained, however isometrics increase strength though the whole muscle by the nature of how a muscle works.

The concern about isometrics simply increasing strength at the point it's trained at is a common one. And it doesn't make any sense whatsoever if looked at logically and with an understanding of anatomy and physiology. Let me explain.

When a muscle is activated, it either contracts or it doesn't. It's on or off. It adjusts the amount of strength used through a phenomenon called the GIC (Gradual Increments of Contraction). This is a misleading name as it implies partial contraction of a muscle, which isn't the case.

Instead, the muscle is composed of several bundles of muscle fibers which are connected to one nerve each. To lift a pencil, say 4 nerves are activated and the WHOLE group of muscle muscle fibers connected to those 4 nerves contract and low and behold we can lift a pencil.

To lift 100lbs, we'll say 150 say nerves would be activated and all the attached muscle bundles would contract completely, thus giving you more power. It has NOTHING to do with the position of the arm - just the tension being applied to it and how many bundles are stimulated.

Strength is uniform, all fibers in a bundle contract. The number of bundles contracted is not dictated by position but by the intensity of resistance. As such, if you get stimulate the muscles and get stronger, you get stronger in the WHOLE muscle, not just in a specific area of movement.

Intensity is the SOLE dictator of whether you get stronger or weaker, bigger or smaller. And that intensity can be applied not just to an isolated muscle, but to a compound muscle group, let alone the entire muscular system at more advanced levels of muscle control. 

Now, whether you have the specific neural patterns for your movements requires training the movement itself, such as doing specific high or long jump training to acclimate your nerves specifically to the movements needed for that skill. 

Training plyometrics can help develop those nerves well for those specific movements, and will ingrain the movements much quicker than attempting to do an isometric at every possible angle of the jump form. 

However, the foundational strength development from the increased blood flow to your connective tissue, increased muscle growth, and overall improvement of muscle contraction strength that you develop with isometric training is phenomenal.

I find isometrics accessible because, since there is no necessity to account for momentum, you can train a client at maximum intensity whether at the basic or Olympic level, whereas plyometrics offer intensity only at advanced levels of training.

Stephen: I agree with you on nearly all accounts & understand all the physiological points as I have been involved with this for many years.

However, there is still the point of specific strength, general strength & neural response.

Plyos are more about developing CNS response with faster contractual activation and has greater eccentric/concentric abilities over isos. Isos are more about muscular response & do not provide as great of range for eccentric/concentric actions.

Plyos are not designed for developing absolute strength, they are for amortization time, which isos are not. As I have stated often, when we get into the specifics of training & individual needs, generalities do not apply.

Every application has its pros & cons. Its all about what is priority for a given individual. Plyos are useless for increasing grip strength, isos are superior for grip strength. Initially, my point of comparing plyos to isos is not a valid discussion unless one dissects each application for a particular use.

As you so clearly stated, an all round training system is optimum & as I have clearly stated every program must emphasize developing the body to perform at its best, regardless of chosen methods. To say one is better than the other in general terms is not  valid without specificity. So, both of us agree on most aspects & we disagree on others such as your concluding comment "whereas plyometrics offer intensity only at advanced levels of training."

There are numerous plyos which a novice can use without any danger of injury. It's the lack of knowledge of a trainer who is the dangerous one. :) We shall continue my friend!

The trainer can make or break the program. When you truly care about the client and the art of your training, as Chris Rider does here, the results truly show.

Me: I agree with your points as well, especially the plyos in reference to range for concentric and eccentric movements, because they do trump isos in that regard, and again the goals of the trainings vary, as isos fit more of a general physical preparedness program and plyos fit more of a specific physical preparedness program.

Nevertheless, as you said the trainers who can successfully cater plyometrics to a novice level are few and far between. For instance, I've seen trainers taking overweight clients with knee problems and training a box jump. I suppose if that level of incompetence is a nonfactor (box jumps don't even translate well for a vertical jump) then they can indeed be trained.

I've seen it done well, I'm just uncomfortable with the rarity haha.

Then again, that was for general weight loss personal training as opposed to athletics; the few times I have seen them correctly used at both novice and advanced levels were by a wrestling coach.

Alas, we've ended up where many good arguments do, at the beginning, where plyos and isos complement each other rather than combat, because the goals of each training style is generally, fundamentally different.

Stephen:  Agreed!

Yes, so many trainers do more harm than good because they want people/clients to think they are cutting edge PTs.

AND it is unbelievable how some, as you mention, use it for weight loss. Box jumps were never meant to increase vertical development, but, those who are self absorbed into being cutting edge are linear thinkers (no pun intended).

Plyos have been misused for years. I saw this back in the late 80's & early 90's before they became the rage. Very unfortunate our industry is driven by money & popularity rather than by passion & concern for those who need the help.

Me: I suppose it all comes down to your purpose in the physical culture.

The passionate will grow the culture, exploring every way to genuinely help their client's goals rather than to get the best bang for their buck.

Physical culture is definitely a community that needs more unity in growth than division. I suppose I should address that to the initiates in the group as well.

and...so I did. I communicated the importance of understanding the truth of physical culture rather than the window dressing.

For one, every client is an individual. Address their individual goals and process separately from others.

Furthermore, they are a person, not a paycheck. You don't need to appear revolutionary in order to be cutting edge. In fact, some of the best ways to address fitness can be discovered at the foundation of where it all began, rather than attempting a new twist.

But, most importantly, be a human. Be a person with as many gaps as you have knowledge. Your cup always has more room than you think, so allow it to be filled. You can learn from trainers, from clients, from athletes, and from laymen. 

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless - like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” - Bruce Lee

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