Q: Is isometric training of any value to bodybuilders and, if so, how can it be incorporated into a workout program?
A: Isometrics got a huge boost in the mid 20th Century through the mail order courses of a fellow named Charles Atlas. Nowadays, however, the vast majority of bodybuilders consider it to be little better than useless in terms of building muscle. As we all know, you can’t get big without getting strong. The problem with isometrics is that strength gains are only derived in the specific angles trained. For instance, if you do an isometric contraction with your arms at a 45 % angle, your strength will only be improved around this angle. To gain functional strength, then, you would have to do isometric contractions at a number of different points through a muscles range of motion.
Isometric training also tends to elevate one’s blood pressure. In addition, the repeated contraction of a muscle in a single position, can result in the shortening of that muscle. This can permanently affect a person’s posture.
Isometric training, however, does offer some distinct advantages. For starters, it allows for near maximum contraction over an extended time period. This is very hard to achieve with conventional weight training where maximum contraction may only be reached on the last rep of a set. Another interesting benefit of isometric training is that it appears to give an instant boost to specific strength. This was confirmed by a recent study out of the University of Connecticut (Storrs) in which researchers tested 14 track and field athletes on their leg strength 30 seconds after doing 3 isometric leg extensions – each one lasting for 3 seconds. The athletes displayed an average strength improvement of 6 % on the leg extension exercise. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why this happens, but it appears that the isometrics prime the muscle for maximum fiber activation.
Application of this finding to the gym is having amazing results. To try it yourself, simply perform 3 isometric contractions on the exercise you wish to boost your strength on before performing that exercise. The contraction should be at around the mid-point of the exercise and should be held for 3 seconds. Rest for 30 seconds after the last contraction, then go straight into your maximum lift. You should find yourself hoisting more poundage than you ever have. Don’t, however, overuse this technique. To keep the gains coming, restrict it’s use to once every four work-outs.