Abandon all weakness, ye who enter here.

Maximal Tension Isometrics

The history of fitness is as rooted to our identities as the existence of life itself. It is a testament to our society that we have the luxury of fitness for aesthetics, displaying ultimate mass or symmetry over all.

But fitness, as a heritage, was a matter of survival. There was little room for error. If you did not have the ability both to think quickly enough and physically act on your thoughts, you were the dinner of some wild beast. That is the nature of - well, nature.

We no longer face that constant threat, but we still seek the quickest and most effective ways to reach our peak levels of fitness, and developing muscle control through maximal tension isometrics will do just that. It will cut your workout time, increase your intensity, and create a progressive method of training for you, no matter your strength level or equipment availability. Even better, maximal tension isometrics can be used at any age, as the basis for it is still used by 70 year old karate masters and 80 year old swordsmen today with much fitter physiques than some of the most famous fitness professionals today.

Shinyu Gushi Sensei, over 70 years old here, with a physique built by developing his ability to produce tension

Isometrics - workout in mere minutes!

Then, why you? Why would an RKC, a personal trainer, a basketball player, or the average layman want to train like a warrior in this day and age? Simply, we live in a world that is fast paced, and we can rarely afford to be off guard because we deal with tens, some of us hundreds of issues simultaneously. It may be too much for some people to give even an hour a day to work out.

So having a workout that you can complete in literally 18 minutes a week total, including rest times can free up so much time on your schedule, and increase your mind-muscle connection to the point that it benefits every workout you do afterwards, whether with weights or not. Plus, your only training tool is your body, so even while travelling, you can perform a maximal workout using this method.

In fact, I transformed my own physique in only eight weeks of working out for 18 minutes a week. That means that in a total of about 2 hours of working out, my muscle shape, strength, and control skyrocketed, boosting my ability to do the things I love like metal bending and hand balancing. This was while being a camp counselor for 9 weeks of the summer, with no way to prepare my own meals or train with sufficient equipment.

Myself, Week 1 of my training
Myself, Week 8 of my training

Old School Strength

The true design of an organic body is to maximize the fitness of that organism for the highest grade of utility, or natural selection if you will. Your body is an ever evolving organism, prepared to take incredible punishment and grow as a result. Knowing this, our ancestors created entire systems that allowed us to physically express that diverse growth, whether through athletics or the art of war. In times when incredible physical change was needed for survival, martial arts emerged as the pinnacle of physical training. And our brains enabled us to create tools that made survival against animals simple, but survival against ourselves much more difficult. 

Thus, entire systems were dedicated to fighting other people in war. But training with weapons still left the inevitable question, “What if you needed to survive without a weapon? How would you adapt?”

Physical training became a true art in those times, with whole schools dedicated to training warriors who carried hundreds of pounds of weaponry to march for miles a day. Finding ways to keep them incredibly fit daily without fatiguing them was essential. But somewhere along the path, we've convinced ourselves that new-age training styles are always better for fitness because we have better technology, better nutrition, and more knowledge of the human body.

Yet, The Great Gama, Alexander Zass, Yasuke, Mas Oyama, Li Shu Wen, Milo of Croton, and other titans of the past had legendary strength that has rarely if ever been matched since. An increase in technological prowess and nutrition should make that kind of strength the norm, and the strength threshold even higher.

That isn't nearly the case, but why?

A group of karateka training with hojo undo, or old school karate weight training elements

The Power of Mind-Muscle Connection

Adaptation requires cognizance, so the concept of muscle confusion is set in error. We're told that we need to confuse our muscles, that certain parts of our body aren't meant to sustain weight, that the bigger you are, the better you are. But none of these concepts were even considered by many of the strongest men in history, so why are they factors for us?

Profit, in short. Being told to confuse your muscles or to seek purely size will encourage you to follow the latest fitness craze to get and stay fit. But no program that isn't based in the fundamental concepts of strength training is worth your time or money.

Your training program should build upon the mind-muscle connection, not weaken it. Any program that intends to “confuse the muscles” and keep them guessing in order to strengthen them is not developing the connection between your nervous system and your muscles. And it the program is not progressive, it won’t even develop your muscles at all. These workouts just feels progressive because they involve movement patterns that are unfamiliar to your nervous system.

Your program should include progressive resistance, not just switching the program every few weeks. Plain and simple, if the movements you do are constantly changing, but the amount of weight or resistance used is not, the program will not bring you maximum fitness.

Your program should integrate the strength of the body as a whole, not just mirror muscles. Any exercise program that develops the chest and biceps and rarely much else will develop little but an imbalance in your system, and overall weaknesses will be the result of your training - unless injury strikes first. 

The Workout

This maximal tension training is a combination of isometric exercise and muscle control. Isometric exercises allow you to push against something immovable with maximum force without it moving. The muscle control, or mind muscle connection, is learning to shift from how much weight you are moving to how much work your muscles are doing to move the weight. Even if you’re moving more weight, if it’s only through momentum or uses less time under tension, you aren’t benefitting as much from the added weight. With maximal tension, you’ll be able to not only produce maximal force, but also do so with complete control and connection to your muscle, allowing increase in tendon strength, endurance, muscle and nerve strength, and a host of other benefits. 

I’ll break down the basic concept here. First, if you have ever flexed a muscle voluntarily, you already have half the workout. If you already know how to voluntarily flex every muscle in your body, I’m quite impressed and this will be simple for you. Still, if you can flex even one muscle in its strongest range, you will feel the incredible benefits almost immediately.

Let’s take a muscle that almost all people in the pursuit of fitness can flex- the biceps. The image of a mountainous peak on the arm is one that many pursue, as it’s the image of strength in bodybuilding and popular culture. Many dream of having Superman sized arms, but being told that you can build Herculean arms with a 20lbs dumbbell is blasphemy to most. I’ll go a step further; you can develop a Superman physique, from head to toe, in 18 minutes a week with no weights at all. Right now I'll walk you through the method that you can apply to your training right now, but you can click here if you would like to see the full routine I used to train.

First, using your left arm, I want you to flex your biceps. Pretty simple, right? Now flex it harder than before, as hard as you can, to the point your arm is shaking. That’s it for now. You’re already halfway there.

Me, fully contracting my biceps

Next, try doing this simple exercise:

Curl your right arm at the halfway point, so your forearm is ninety degrees to your body. Firmly grasp below your wrist with your left hand. Now try to pull your right arm upward as hard as you can, as though trying to curl it, while keeping it there with your left hand. Do this for about seven seconds.

How did that feel? Probably a bit difficult, but perhaps not a life-changing workout for you.

I’ll try to change that now by combining the two steps. Return your attention to your left arm. Try to do the same exercise with your left arm (curl your left arm up hard while keeping it there with your right), but also flex your left arm as hard as you did before, so that it is shaking. Do this for 7-12 seconds, and feel the difference when both are combined.

Me, combining isometrics and maximal tension

The difference is in the maximal tension; developing full body maximal tension will give you the strength to turn any workout into an incredibly powerful and progressive one, whether performing a max lift or using a 5lbs dumbbell. This is an age old key to fitness that can make all the difference in your training.

The real power in isometric training is being able to reach the last rep first. If you perform that biceps exercise, for example, with your biceps in its strongest range and THEN contracted the muscle while doing that isometric hold for 7-12 seconds, you would be able to maximally strengthen your muscles in little time with the least risk of injury. This is a similar theory that world record holding weightlifters use during heavy partial lift training - load a lot of weight in the strong range of the muscle, and train the strength to go further beyond the competition.

However, with muscle control, you won't even have to have your muscle in its strongest range to get a powerful contraction -- you'll be able to powerfully contract your muscles even in their most stretched position. This is the power of maximal tension.