Are isometrics the “lost” art of training for sports performance coaches? They aren’t common these days, and tend to go in and out of practice over the years. As long as I’ve been in training and coaching, there has been one “wave” in when Inno-sport came out, everyone was talking about them, and a few years later, you didn’t hear much of anything anymore.
Isometrics are tough for a lot of coaches and athletes, because they:
- Aren’t something S&C coaches can brag as much about (my running back pushed into a bar with 1565N of force at the parallel squat position last Friday!).
- Aren’t things many coaches are familiar with, or can reference with the Anchoring effect (mentally referencing the time you were successful as an athlete, or had a group of athletes who were very successful)
- If you don’t have force plates, or a good way of monitoring output, they are hard to quantify, and we live in an era of quantification (for good or bad)
I’ve been learning a lot about isometrics lately, and just wrote an article for Train Heroic on the exact topic, which was based on the value of isometric training and then practical implementation styles, such as functional overcoming isometrics, as well as extreme isometrics which were made popular by Jay Schroeder.
In reading about, and utilizing this in my own training, I’m in the early stages, but for today’s article, I’d like to highlight how I’ve used isometrics to improve my strength and explosive power in the last 6 weeks (and this is coming in being well trained).
Early results have been:
- 25lb on bench press
- 20lb increase on trap-bar deadlift
- +1” on VJ (somewhat limited due to Achilles)
- +.30m/s on clean pull with 115lb
- +5% throw height on 30lb vertical med ball throw
I’d like to say I had more results from the jump and sprint realm, but due to some lingering Achilles tendon issues I’ve had over the last year, I haven’t been able to do the sprinting volume and plyometrics I’d like. In a great way, however, the isometrics have allowed me to charge my nervous system the way I would by getting a great depth jump and bounding workout in.
I love talking about research and theory, but even more than that, I love talking about training structure and results! At the end of the day, the coach that knows how to get results has the winning team, not the one who has read the most books or research papers.
That being said, in the realm of isometrics, I’ve been particularly working with 2 methods:
- Functional Overcoming Isometrics
- Extreme Isometrics
Before I talk about functional overcoming ISO’s, let me quickly talk about the predecessor, which is regular overcoming isometrics. Regular overcoming isometrics are the Bob Hoffman method, which is simply pressing a bar into a set of pins maximally for 3 to 10 seconds. Each movement is done no longer than 10 total seconds, lest an athlete “blast” their nervous system too hard. The key for the isometrics is getting in good position, and then ripping a true, maximal effort for the time allotted.
Isometrics have a 6% muscle recruitment advantage over concentric and even eccentric work, and they accomplish this with less muscular fatigue and soreness. Many people would refer to this as “winning” in the game of physical preparation. This 6%, for many athletes, is going to be the motor-units that remain untapped in their sprinting, jumping and throwing. Isometrics are a key to that access.
So “functional” isometrics are based off of Christian Thibaudeau’s great work on the topic in his book “Theory and Application of Modern Strength and Power Methods”, which is in my opinion, one of the best books ever written in terms of getting athletes more powerful and explosive.
A “functional” isometric is simply an overcoming isometric that is quantifiable. If you have force plates to stand on when doing an overcoming squat or deadlift, that’s great! Unfortunately, many people don’t have access to this from a financial standpoint. The next best thing is to create a “functional” setup. In this scenario, an athlete will either A. put weight on a bar that is heavy to the point where they will barely be able to move it, and lift it off that bar by 1-2 inches and hold it there for the set duration, or B. put a weighted bar on a rack, with a set of pins 1-2 inches above, and lift the weighted bar into the second set of pins, pulling as hard as possible.
Here is a video of option A.
Here is a video of option B (although I would have only 1-3” of space between liftoff and the pins in my setup instead of a foot).
Extreme isometrics, on the other hand, involve bodyweight forces only, and utilizing maximal muscle tension to create not only strength in position, but also neurological efficiency. Where overcoming isometrics can create strength at both long and short muscle lengths (which is important from a point of specificity), extreme isometrics train a muscle only in the longest position. They also involve contracting muscles as hard as possible in order to lengthen antagonist muscles, and have an element of recovery to them due to high firing and frequency rates.
Take a lunge for example, an extreme isometric lunge is performed by maximally engaging the front hamstrings and hip flexor, as well as the rear glute and quad. Each of the antagonists in this scenario will stretch and lengthen. This is done while keeping the front shin vertical and the heel off of the ground. The extreme-ISO lunge can really only be performed to a true max for 25-40 seconds in many cases, so breaks can be taken to accumulate a total training time that is usually between 2 and 5 minutes which is needed for a maximal benefit. Extreme ISO’s are becoming a new favorite of mine for building strength, mobility and neural efficiency into athletes, all at the same time.
Putting it Together
The way I’ve put the isometric work together has been fairly simple, my weekly setup has been as follows:
- Monday: AM Extended metabolic power: Hurdling, stadium sprints, bodybuilding circuits. PM Extreme ISO’s
- Tuesday: Olympic pull variations (VBT), Sled Sprints, Isometric Training
- Wednesday: Swimming
- Thursday: AM Extended metabolic power: Hurdling, stadium sprints, bodybuilding circuits. PM Extreme ISO’s
- Friday: Olympic pull variations (VBT), Sled Sprints, Isometric Training
- Saturday: 1-2×5 barbell back squat, random traditional strength exercises
Each day might not shake out 100% the same way, but this is pretty darn close. For example, one Friday, I might ditch the sled sprints, and throw on my track spikes and go outside and do 6x30m after the Olympic and isometric session is over to catch some potentiation. On a metabolic day, I might do some hurdles if I’m feeling good, otherwise I’ll do some repeats pushups into a barefoot stadium sprint, or into barefoot strides on a grass field.
Also, you may wonder how hurdling can be metabolic, but try doing this series 3-4x without rest, and you’ll remember how much you hated doing “suicides” during basketball practice.
You’ll notice that Saturday is a day to do some traditional “lifting”. In reading Bob Hoffman’s book, “Functional Isometric Contraction”, I noticed that some of his champion weightlifters would do isometrics all week, then take 1 day on Saturday to do their traditional weightlifting, and made incredible gains. It IS necessary to train your sport in the midst of isometrics, as those extra recruited motor units need to be directed into the skill being trained! This was stressed in Hoffman’s book, and also represents the complimentary nature of every “physical preparation” means available.
From a block setup, I’m not on the yearly grand plan, so I’ve kept things simple. The last 6-7 weeks have looked like this:
- Week 1: Neural/Isometric Based
- Week 2: Neural/Isometric Based
- Week 3: Structure Based (Back to traditional “up and down” lifting)
- Week 4: Neural/Isometric Based
- Week 5: Neural/Isometric Based
- Week 6: Structure Based (Back to traditional “up and down” lifting)
I’ve had great results in this manner. In each neural/isometric week, just a small infusion of traditional lifting exists, and in each cycle, one week is devoted to regular lifting to offer a “neural” recharge, but tax my body from a muscular perspective, as there are two types of fatigue. You can use isometrics to recover from muscular work, and you can use muscular work to recover from isometrics!
I’ve never benched over 250lb in my life, no matter the training program (The Cube, 2×5 system, Husker Power, Westside, etc. etc.), yet, on this system, I’m almost positive I’ll crush that weight with the rapid progress (+25lb on my recent best) I’ve made in the last 6 weeks. As an athlete, I’m highly neural, and higher rep based programs, or very “muscular” programs tend to crush me, and I have a hard time recovering from them, or feeling like I adequately trained my nervous system. The best I’ve ever done in terms of upper body strength to bodyweight (170lb strict standing press and 245lb bench at 185lb) was on Dan John/Pavel’s 2×5 system, which is very neural, and not muscle driven.
Ultimately, what I care about most is “does this type of work help make you faster”, and based on what I’ve seen in my hip extension power as manifested in high pulls (went from 2.8 to 3.1 m/s), as well as being able to improve my vertical medicine ball throw height (comparable to an overhead back throw with a shot), I’d say I’m on the right track. Results from some dunkers I’ve been training have shown similar gains, although I’ve found it doesn’t work for everyone so far. Neural driven athletes have the most to gain here.
I’ve also used this type of work, in conjunction with trap bar deadlifts and specific foot training to get a senior tennis player a 26.5” vertical jump after spending the last 3 years between 20 and 24 inches doing mostly traditional “up and down” strength work, that I now see much of as fairly meaningless for that population beyond a particular point. It’s not that I train tennis guys for vertical jump, but I do like testing it every now and then to see if we are generally moving better and getting more powerful.
I’ve found for me, and other highly neural athletes, that getting caught in the traditional “up and down” lifting world, especially if we are not maximally sprinting and jumping regularly, that our bodies easily forget what “maximal” is. No doubt, when we go maximal in up and down lifts for too long, our joints and nervous systems revolt, and muscular compensations abound! Isometrics make it much more “cool” as far as speed and power is concerned, to go harder much more often, and might even justify that extra scoop of pre-workout (which is actually a joke, since I have been abstaining from pre-workout the last few years, and encourage all athletes to do the same).
With some rest in my Achilles I hope to report back further details on what this great training method has to offer speed-seeking athletes.
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