One of the more common omissions from people's workout programs is standing still to train while producing force, AKA isometrics. If more people kept in mind our bodies will only let us put out the amount of power our joint stability allows, they'd see the value of static contractions to build total body stability.
Its a pretty simple equation:
Stable Joints + Moving Loads = SWOLE.
Or in non Bro-Science-en-ese, if you want to move a lot better, you better have a stable movement platform from which to do it. This means to move our best, you need to OWN force production around the joints standing still.
However, when you write the equation this way things change a bit:
Moving loads - Stable joints = Fitness Fail and potential injury.
Want to do pushups? You better master the regular vanilla flavored plank. Want to nail a pullup? You better be able to isometrically anchor your ribs to your hips with your abdominal wall to stabilize your spine so your shoulders can move safely.
Want to pull double bodyweight from the floor in a deadlift? See pullup requirements.
Isometrics help you "Own" Your Positions
There are two kinds of posture that we move from. We have static posture, body position of our joint angles before we move, and dynamic posture, or our joint angles/body position as we move. If you can stand still with control, strength and stability, your chances of moving well go up. Static joint dysfunction anywhere in your movement chain will affect the way you move dynamically and can eventually lead to an injury from overloading tissues with improper movement patterns (1).
"If you can't generate power in a position then you don't own it," says southern California strength trainer and Strong Camps Founder, Daniel Murakami. "Many people will have a 'sticking point,' the angle where they are least stable. This weak position along a movement can limit strength and lead to a plateau."
If you've got one of these, Murakami recommends using isometrics at the point your movement is "stuck" to unlock more performance.
"When it comes to the squat, one of my favorite isometric exercises is the Dunphy Squat, where you actively pull yourself to the bottom and hold without losing tension. In the (Instagram) video we strengthened the bottom of the squat by contracting at different angles, which not only strengthens the position but allowed more range."
Click here to head over to Daniel's Instagram page to see an example of how to unlock a squat.
Keep in mind, our bodies don't know muscles, only movements. Meaning, your body doesn't care where your muscle/strength imbalance are, it only knows you need it to move regardless of what that looks like (or how much it hurts).
Here's what I'm getting at. Have you ever had an injured leg and limped as result? Your body didn't care about being injured or the resulting joint angles (let alone being able to own them), it only knew you had to get from point A to point B. You couldn't really own that position, but you got movement from your body anyway. Same idea.
With the proper use of isometrics, you've got a better chance of creating better muscle balance in your body so you can stabilize yourself from head to toe to move your best as often as possible.
The two "planks" in the video below are a good example of force application through properly stabilized joints. Alison Corcoran from Goldilocks Training has to absolutely own her ribs (as well shoulder position) to get the full benefit of each exercise. We use the first one to prime the second one to give the body an idea of what is needed for the second plank variation.
In the second exercise, in addition to everything she's doing in the first position, Alison is required to have complete control of her shoulder girdle as she activates her hip muscles to stabilize her low back. This is very advanced and she nails it.
"Isometric contraction is the foundation of core stability. When we want to keep our bodies stable or segments of our body stable we have to create isometric tension," says Marcel Linza, founder of 3Fit Training. "For example, when you pick up your groceries with one arm while you unlock your front door and push it open with your other arm, you core is engaging in a complex sequence of contractions to prevent you from toppling over to the grocery bag side and twisting away from the opening the door side."
He also says being able to turn on our deep core muscles is one of the most critical components to minimizing joint pain throughout the body and I agree 100%.
"Those deep core muscles that are almost always isometrically engaged in some fashion and are the foundation upon which all other movements are built upon."
Here's a great example of what Linza is talking about.
Can isometrics build size? You Bet Your Sweet Glutes They Can!
"During The Springfield Study of 1920, researches wanted to determine the degenerative effects of an immobilized limb so they tethered a single leg of test frogs in order to completely restrict it's movement," says southern California strength trainer and Strong Camps Founder, Daniel Murakami. "After two weeks they freed the frog's bound leg and were shocked to discover that the immobilized leg was LARGER and STRONGER than the free leg, so much so that it even jumped lopsided."
Murakami said "The study showed that he frogs had unknowingly been performing Overcoming Isometric Contractions by straining to escape the brace, and in doing so, maximally activating their muscle fibers."
Does something that worked for amphibians work for homosapiens too? Yes.
"A benefit of isometrics is you are able to sustain a high level of tension for a longer time than a dynamic movement," says Murakami. "A great way to take advantage of this increased time under tension in your own training is to add pauses and holds to your loaded movements. Also placing isometrics prior to lifts can help increase motor unit activation so you not only recruit more muscle during the lift but increase your performance."
1) "Movement That Matters," Paul Check