Back to the Rack
Bill StarrIso Magic Part 5
A brief moment to review the topic of this series. An isometric contraction occurs when the resistance to the muscle is so intense that the muscle cannot move the weight or object. Then the muscle stiffens and does not shorten. At that point, all of the energy in the muscle is used in tension and none in the form of movement. That’s how it develops the maximum amount of muscle tension.
With this system of strength training, you perform only a single maximum contraction in each exercise. Compared to a typical free-weight or machine workout, isos require very little energy. One of the main selling points for doing isos was that they weren’t fatiguing and could be done more frequently than conventional workouts. You didn’t have to rest a day between sessions, which enabled you to train six days a week if you wanted to.
The maximum contractions involve the tendons and ligaments much more than multiple reps on free weights, and they also force the nervous system to be more active. Stimulating the nervous system is of particular interest to any athlete engaging in a high-skill activity, such as Olympic weightlifting and the field events in track. Enhancing the ability of your nervous system to respond more rapidly is a great asset in any sport.
Studies have concluded that moving a loaded barbell a short distance, isotonically, before locking it in an isometric contraction is more productive than doing isometrics without movement. That’s not to say that pure isometrics don’t work because they’ve been proven to add strength. It’s just that isotonic-isometric exercise is better, and that’s my focus here.
There are a number of ways to incorporate isos into your current program. The best approach is usually to insert some isos into your regular routine so that there’s not much overall change right away. When I first used isometrics, I did them on my nonlifting days—Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday—and trained with free weights Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I was able to recover from the six-day regime for two reasons: The iso sessions were short and sweet—15 minutes tops—and I always paid close attention to the heavy, light and medium concept on my lifting days. The short, condensed iso sessions didn’t tire me at all but instilled a pleasant stimulation that carried over to the following day and benefited me in the weight room.
Unless you have easy access to a power rack, however, that idea isn’t very feasible. At York the weight room was always available, and I did a variation of that routine: I lifted four days and did a couple of isos two other days a week. I concentrated on my weaker areas in the power rack—almost always my squats. When I felt I was getting stale on them, I’d switch over and do pulls or presses for a few weeks. On occasion I’d work all three bodyparts. Generally that was in the off-season, when I didn’t have to worry about pushing my numbers up on the three competitive lifts. The change was healthy because when I cut back on the isos I had more juice for the press, snatch, and clean and jerk. Using the relatively lighter weights for a length of time also let me pay closer attention to my technique. That had long-range positive benefits.
Some situations may prompt you to give isos priority for a month or six weeks. Maybe you’re feeling burnt out with your present program, want some sort of drastic change or are simply pressed for time. Switching to an iso routine can revive your enthusiasm: Isos are new stuff and demand a type of concentration different from what you need in conventional workouts.
When Tommy Suggs was still a tax accountant, he’d drop his regular weight workouts and do an almost exclusive iso routine during tax season. He’d get up at 6 a.m., go into his garage, zip through a 15- or 20-minute session in the power rack, shower and go to his office. That permitted him to maintain his consistency of training and prepared him for the mental stress of the day. When he went back to his free-weight routine, he always felt stronger and found that the rack work had helped him get rid of some nagging injuries.