Practical Applications for Isometric Training Methods
Isometric training means are one of the most misunderstood and under-utilized training tools in the physical preparation coaches’ toolbox. I can speak for myself that when I first began my own training, the only form of isometric training that you would find in my program is a pause at end range trying to stimulate a hypertrophy response (because I was an uninformed meathead), or some plank variation to address stabilization competency (because my understanding was very narrow and undeveloped). Not that either one of these practices is dangerous or wrong necessarily, but it is missing quite a few pieces of the puzzle. With that said, I am also not advocating that my classification system is the end-all-be-all, or even that it addresses all of the various ways that isometrics can be applied to enhance athletic performance. This is simply the system that I currently use, and it is defined to the best of my ability as a result of my knowledge, biases, and experiences up until this point. I do not get deep into a bunch of science-related principles and mechanisms here, but try to give a thorough explanation with practical implications. As stated by George E. P. Box: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
Variables to Consider
Before getting into the categorical details of the isometric methods I employ in training, I feel it is appropriate to give some background as to what variables I use to create a classification system in general. For isometric training methods, I tend to think about:
3) Movement Pattern
5) Loading Parameters
For intent I am referring to the emphasis or goal of the training method. More specifically, I am referring to the mindset, focus, or goal from the perspective of the individual who is performing the task. For example, if I am looking to enhance motor learning and teach a specific position or activation sequence, then I will typically opt for less “intense” and longer duration options. However, if I am looking to create a short-term effect that will influence a vertical jump immediately afterwards (PAP, or post-activation potentiation), then I will ordinarily choose a very intense but short method. This is a spectrum, and there are near-infinite options as long as you apply intelligent creativity.
Regarding angle and movement pattern, this could also be looked at as “exercise selection,” as it is typically referred to. I traditionally utilize angles that emphasize either long muscle lengths, or short muscle lengths, but depending on the goal any angle is viable as long as you have a reason for doing what you are doing. Additionally, I have a specific way that I categorize movement patterns as well, but do not plan on getting into that here. I will post about that in the future, but for the purpose of understanding here just think about multi-joint movements such as squats, split-stance positions, single-leg stance positions, push-ups, bodyweight rows, pull-ups, and hip bridges. These are examples of the patterns I traditionally use, however, the possibilities are endless.
Lastly, for equipment and loading parameters I am thinking about whether I need additional implements to create the environment I am looking for. This can include anything from barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells to bands, machines, or bars to hang from. Again, the choices are only limited by creativity and the desired adaptive response.
Once again, these are the variables I considered to create this classification system in theory, but now I will get into what the system actually looks like in practice.
3) Movement Pattern
5) Loading Parameters
Isometric Classification System Progressions
Below is a list of the general categorical model I use to break down various methods of isometric training. These are not necessarily black-and-white classifications, but more of a spectrum with some overlap and the general outline I use to progress or regress based on the population and individual needs. Additionally, many of these are isometric in the sense of maintaining specific joint positions, but oftentimes there are still eccentric and concentric muscle actions occurring beneath our visual capabilities. In short, they are classified as “isometrics,” but may not actually be isometrics by textbook definition. Many of these are also adapted from other training systems and classifications, and may have different names here. This is simply the thought process I use to break things down to allow for more organized applications, but there is nothing wrong with doing it in a different way. Generally speaking, this is how I break things up:
1) End Range Pauses
2) Durational Holds
3) Tensional Holds
4) Maximal Tension Holds
5) Maximal Push/Pull
6) Oscillatory and Fast Switches
Again, I like to look at these areas as more of a spectrum than absolute boundaries, but I will get into more detail on how to define each of these, and what makes each category what it is.
End Range Pause
As stated above, some of the vocabulary are terms I came up with or adopted from other individuals who have made similar classification systems, but this one is fairly universal. An end range pause is exactly what it sounds like. It is any movement pattern with a pause at both the top and/or bottom of the movement. Many coaches and trainers apply this concept in congruence with tempo-driven lifting. For example, a squat with a tempo of 2 seconds eccentrically, or on the way down, a 1 second pause at the bottom, or during the isometric phase, and a normal-paced movement on the way up concentrically. The tempo can include any combination of numbers depending on the goal, but this strategy is often used early on in a training phase or with athletes that have a younger training age to teach proper mechanics, techniques, and positions. Additionally, you do not necessarily have to pause at end-ranges only. You can have an individual pause at any angle during safe movements as long as the quality of the technique is high. I simply like to start at end ranges because it provides reference points, and forces athletes or trainees to get comfortable in challenging joint-ranges. It also will more than likely have a positive effect on motor control and active mobility due to the need for precision and control at hard-to-control angles. This is the earliest progression because it is the easiest to control and maintain, and allows the individual to reset after each repetition to focus on high-quality technique rather than simply looking to get the task over with as quickly as possible. It also encourages additional strengthening at longer muscle lengths, which are often the most difficult for trainees to control and feel comfortable with. There is no set number of repetitions, no perfect time to pause, or a necessary tempo, it is simply up to the trainer and trainee, and is dependent upon the environment and individual needs and goals. You can progress this method by increasing time-under tension (pausing longer or applying slower tempos), increasing volume (adding more sets or reps, or increasing density), or increasing intensity (adding load, or increasing difficulty or complexity).
Durational holds are exactly what they sounds like: a specific position held for an allotted duration of time. During this specific method the goal is to fight against gravity, or hold a certain position with high-quality joint-angles for a certain quantity of time. You can be as creative with this as you want by changing angles, movement patterns, equipment, loads, or environments. I typically progress durational holds by adding time until I reach between 3 and 5 minutes. You could also choose to progress by moving on to the next progression of isometrics, adding load, adding complexity, increasing density, changing the position, or adding volume. I like to use these at the beginning of training periods with more experienced athletes, and with younger or less experienced trainees as well; however, they are good for any individual depending on the goal. I also like using them for more advanced trainees on recovery days or “reload/deload” weeks to promote nervous system regeneration and promote quality activation and sequencing patterns. They are an excellent tool for motor learning and motor control, and have helped me personally a tremendous amount when it comes to understanding quality positions and firing the correct muscles depending on the task. They also teach you to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and promote strength in difficult joint-ranges. Traditionally speaking, I utilize end ranges at either longer muscle lengths or shorter muscles lengths, and my personal favorites are: owning a single-leg position, push-up plank, hanging from a bar, lunge, single leg hip bridge, and hamstring-dominant patterns like Nordic hamstring curls, glute-ham raises, and back extensions. I use many other positions and patterns as well, but initially these are usually my go-to for general physical preparation. Many of these go-to patterns have been adapted from Dr. Tommy John, a chiropractor out of San Diego, who is doing awesome work to educate society on the catastrophic direction the youth sports industry is headed. Give credit where credit is due.
Tensional holds are similar to durational holds, but the primary difference is that rather than simply fighting against gravity and holding a particular position without any true intention, tensional holds require that you create a maximal contraction in specific positions. For instance, in a split-stance lunge position I would instruct an individual to think about pulling their front foot back towards their back leg and pushing their back foot forward, towards their front leg. By doing this, you should feel your posterior chain muscles on your front leg and anterior chain muscles on you back leg firing on all cylinders. You can also have the individual think about pushing the back leg away to emphasize the posterior hips as opposed to the anterior hips depending on the goal. Another example would be to hold a push-up position plank and pull your ribcage up and back towards the ceiling while simultaneously thinking about pushing your feet towards your hands and pulling your hands towards your feet. This will make your core engage unlike anything you have probably ever done before. It is very challenging and not for the faint of heart. Similarly to durational holds, I often prescribe these for a certain duration of time, but for hard-working and advanced trainees you can simply have them go until they fail and cannot create maximal tension in high-quality positions any longer. The goal here is to teach appropriate sequencing and muscle firing patterns, and teach individuals how to activate specific muscles in specific positions; in other words, you are teaching your body how to appropriately create tension and internal force utilizing the correct patterns and sequences. You can start with as little as 5 to 10 seconds when first introducing these, and can build up until you feel it is appropriate. The key here is to add intent behind the movements, rather than simply learning how to stabilize and hold quality posture.
Maximal Tension Holds
Maximal tension holds are very similar to tensional holds, hence the similarity in nomenclature. The only primary difference is rather than creating localized tension in specific regions and muscles, the goal is to create as much full body tension and pressure as possible. This includes, but is not limited to the: torso, jaw, face, feet, fists, and whatever area is being challenged most during the movement. For example, in a lunge I would instruct someone to feel a tripod in their foot on the ball of the foot by the first and fifth toes in addition to the heel, pretend somebody is about to punch you in the stomach and brace up, squeeze both of your fists together, put your tongue on the roof of your mouth and create suction, and fire every muscle in your legs that you can focus on without losing everything else. This is definitely a lot of details to handle at first, but this as an example of all of the cues I would use in a perfect world. In an imperfect world, like the one we live in, I would prioritize in this order: muscles being targeted, feet, core, face, and then fists. A very high amount of sensory awareness is needed to pull this off with adequate focus, hence why it is further down the list of progressions. I would only use this strategy with very high level athletes who are very aware of their body and how to manage force, tension, and pressure. It is an excellent teaching tool for facilitating max effort outputs in my opinion, and can definitely be used as a potentiation stimulus for high intensity movements. This variation of isometrics would be an excellent warm-up activity prior to max effort training such as strength training, sprinting, jumping, medicine-ball work, or plyometric activities. It could also be utilized as a training stimulus during an advanced training phase, or in contrast with a max effort task to enhance performance. It would be a great alternative when equipment is limited to get a fairly high intensity output if limited in space or time, or if on a vacation, as well.
Maximal push or pull isometrics have been defined by other physical preparation coaches or sports performance trainers as “overcoming isometrics.” This variation of isometric training is when you push or pull with as much effort as possible into an immoveable object. An example would be to get into a squat depth of choice on a Smith Machine and try to stand up with as much effort and intention as possible without removing the pins. Another example would be to get into a deadlift position with weight that is above your strength potential, and perform the task as if you are going to lift it concentrically. The variations of this type of isometric strategy are endless, it is simply up to the creativity, environment, and goals of the trainer and trainee. The goal of this particular method is to teach someone how to apply maximal force and intent in a specific position, at a specific angle, using specific sequencing strategies, in a specific direction. This is also a great strategy to use as a precursor, or potentiator of high intensity tasks to enhance performance. It can also be used as a warm-up activity prior to specific high intensity activities to teach max effort recruitment in certain movement patterns. It can be utilized as a training stimulus as well to enhance neurological characteristics of athletic performance.
Oscillatory and Fast Switches
Last but not least, I classify oscillatory and fast switches as isometrics in nature because they require a quick activation and relaxation phase sometimes followed by a position held for a duration of time. These are both methods that I adopted from Coach Calvin Dietz, from the University of Minnesota, and Russian Sports Scientists. I took the principles that I learned from them and fit it into my own categorical model. Based on how I classify and characterize things, oscillatory isometrics are when you rapidly activate and relax a certain muscle as quickly as possible. Fast switches are when you change position as quickly as possible and then hold a certain posture for a duration of time. An example of an oscillatory isometric would be to hold a split-stance lunge position and rapidly pull your front leg up and off of the ground by activating your hip flexors. Similarly, a fast switch example would be to hold a split-stance lunge position, and rapidly switch the front and the back leg as quickly as possible while trying to minimize vertical displacement of the hips. Although different in actuality, the goal of these two methods is very similar: teach the nervous system how to efficiently and quickly turn on and off muscles to optimize speed, deceleration, change-of-direction, and/or velocity. Many individuals are excellent at producing force and power, but are seemingly still slow and non-elite performers during athletic tasks. The best athletes can not only create ridiculous amounts of force in a small amount of time, but also know how to relax and turn muscles off more efficiently than their less-athletic counterparts. Great examples of this in sports are: Roger Federer, James Harden, Antonio Brown, and Saquon Barkley. These athletes all have a ton of great athletic characteristics, that is why they are all elite at what they do, but what separates them from the rest, in my opinion, is their ability to decelerate and change direction on a dime, often resulting in elite performances and highlight-reel plays. Ultimately, that is the goal of oscillatory and fast switch isometrics: to improve efficiency of the neuromuscular system.
Wrapping it All Up
There is a lot of information throughout these pages that may not all be digestible and easy to understand. Never do something you do not understand to the fullest extent and feel comfortable doing. The purpose of this post is to elaborate on my personal classification system for isometric training methods and how I look to progress or challenge individuals based on the goals, needs, and state of that person. A few overriding themes are that as you go through the progressions: the intensity rises and the volume decreases; it takes more sensory awareness and understanding of how to control your body in space as you get to the more advanced variations; the frequency is lower and the intention behind the movements are higher. In simpler terms, the further you get, the harder it is and the more likely it is reserved for high level athletes. All in all, the system is made to create categories along a spectrum such that you can understand what separates the various strategies, and understand why one method may be more challenging or physiologically stimulating than another method. And lastly, remember, “all models are wrong, but some are useful,” so don’t forget this is an imperfect system that can always be refined and improved upon with appropriate education and understanding!