The hammer is a great tool. Got a nail and want to put it in a block of wood? The hammer is your tool of choice. Got a screw and want to put it into a block of wood? Consider a screwdriver. And just as more tools will enable you to do more things, and do them faster and more effectively, combining different training methods enables you to stimulate more muscle strength and growth.
This is the theory behind static contraction training.
Static contraction training combines two methods of training: the isotonic (conventional) method and isometric training. Simply stated, you will pre-fatigue the muscle with a conventional (or partial-range movement) before performing an isometric contraction. Static contraction training is a powerful training tool, but it’s seldom used – partly because of a lack of understanding of isometrics and partly because of bad press.
Isometrics is commonly associated with the Charles Atlas Dynamic-Tension method. Atlas, whose birth name was Angelo Siciliano, won the title “America’s Most Perfectly Developed Man” in a competition held at Madison Square Garden in 1922. This led to Atlas promoting a mail order bodybuilding course called “Dynamic-Tension” that involved isometric movements. One of the most famous advertisements for the course could be found on the back pages of comic books. The ad featured a comic strip involving a skinny man getting sand kicked in his face by a bully; embarrassed, he bought the course and came back to the beach with his big, bulging muscles and punched the bully senseless. The last panel, which is titled “Hero of the Beach,” shows his girlfriend hanging onto his amazing new body and saying, “Oh Mac! You ARE a real man after all!”
The popularity of this system could not be denied, and it resulted in York Barbell’s Bob Hoffman trying through his publications to discredit Atlas – and there were accusations that Atlas actually built his body with conventional barbell training. However, in 1961 Hoffman wrote an article for his Strength and Health magazine called “Revealing the New Power System,” which discussed a revolutionary training method that was supposedly responsible for the remarkable improvement of several weightlifters at his York Barbell Club. Hoffman called this method functional isometrics.
Functional isometrics involved performing static contractions at specific points within a lifter’s range of motion in key strength training exercises such as squats and overhead presses. In his book Functional Isometric Contraction Hoffman discussed the incredible progress his weightlifters were making, and claimed that functional isometrics “will bring superior results faster, with far less effort, in a great deal less time. It will be a body saver, because its scientific methods built the maximum of strength and development with a minimum strain upon the muscles, tendons and ligaments.” In truth, much of the success of the York Barbell Club was later attributed to the use of anabolic steroids. In one interview of a former world record holder, the lifter said the pills he was given by the late John Bosley Ziegler were methandrostenolone (also known as Dianabol). One lifter whose success Hoffmann attributed to functional isometrics, who was quoted in an article that appeared five years ago in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said of the pills, “I thought it was just another vitamin.”
One of the criticisms of isometrics is that it only develops strength at the point worked. Generally speaking, isometrics produces the strength gain in plus or minus 15 degrees of the angle worked. In other words, if you do heavy isometric holds at 130 degrees of elbow flexion, your strength will only go up between 115 and 145 degrees of elbow flexion. Therefore, the first 115 degrees of elbow flexion will remain untrained. However, much of the training effect depends upon the joint angle. A greater training effect at the specific angle worked, and the overall strength training effect at other points of the strength curve, is highest when the muscle is in the stretched position versus the shortened. But the idea is not to use isometrics as the sole method of training, as Atlas was recommending, but as just another training tool to stimulate greater gains.
These controversies developed an attitude of skepticism in the iron game sports about the value of isometrics, and for that matter any exercises performed through a partial range of motion. And this is a shame.
From Theory to Practice
Over 30 years ago, players of the iron game were introduced to this training method under the term isometronics, which was a contraction of the term isometrics and isotonics. German strength experts (look up references such as Letzelter and Letzelter, and Hartmann and Tünnemann) prefer to use the term auxotonics to describe it. US sport scientists Steve Fleck, William Kraemer and Pat O’Shea like to call it “functional isometric contractions.” The philosophy behind this method is to use the best of what the isometric method can offer and combine it with isotonics.
Here is I like to perform “isometronics” It consists of doing:
1. Perform four to six partial reps in the normal fashion on a 20XO tempo. Those partial reps are done from the bottom pin to the top pin.
2. When you come to the end of the last concentric repetition, make contact with the bar against the top pins. Apply as much force as hard as possible for 6-8 seconds, trying to blast through the pins! Do not hold your breath during the isometric contraction; instead, use a very brief cycle of breathing, alternating rapidly between short inhaling and short exhaling.
3. If you've performed this set properly, you should not be able to perform another concentric repetition after lower the barbell-if you still can, the weight you used was simply too light.
Another method of static contraction training I’ve found responsible for breaking through training plateaus involves interspersing 8 seconds of heavy isometric holds (i.e., heavy supports) between regular sets. Using percentages for initial guidance in weight selection, my approach to making use of the “heavy supports” in your bench press routine might look like this:
Set 1: Bench press 5 RM @ 85 percent of 1RM (repetition maximum)
Set 2: Heavy supports of 8 seconds @ 120 percent of max; basically it is 1/16th of the range. You just unrack the weight and hold with your elbows just short of lockout. The weight should be heavy enough so that your upper extremities shake as though they are suffering from a severe Parkinson’s attack.
Set 3: Bench press 5 RM @ 85 percent of 1RM
Set 4: Heavy supports 8 seconds @ 125 percent of 1RM
Set 5: Bench press 5 RM @ 85 percent of 1RM
Set 6: Heavy supports 8 seconds @ 130 percent of 1RM
Make certain that you train in a power rack for this routine, and set the safety support bars 23 inches below your lockout position to prevent any free instant plastic surgery! The weights you can use for heavy supports often increases dramatically, so don’t be shy about using even greater percentages for the heavy supports than the ones suggested. If you use heavy supports, I would not be surprised if your best bench press performance goes up 20-25 pounds in only four workouts.
Although static contraction training is not commonly used by most individuals who strength train, the fact is it can be used as a valuable adjunct to your regular training to increase strength and muscle mass, improve athletic performance and even help you overcome injuries. Unlike the scams by many self-proclaimed fitness gurus of the past, static isometric training is a tool of choice for developing physical superiority.
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