Some of you may remember a (brief) craze back in the 60’s where isometric exercise was introduced and pushed as a way to get stronger without moving. The way you do this is to contract a muscle or a bunch of muscles, but you don’t move them! Examples would be holding a weight out in front of you without moving it, gripping something as hard as you can, or pushing down on a countertop with all your might.
Seemed like a good idea at the time, but it soon became apparent that there were some down sides. Isometric muscle contraction did not strengthen muscles as well as traditional strength training. In addition, many doctors precaution against it because straining to hold the contraction without remembering to breathe could be dangerous in terms of raising blood pressure. Perhaps most daunting was that real results did not happen unless each contraction was held repeatedly, sometimes for as much as a couple of minutes.
So the isometric “craze” didn’t last very long. In spite of that, there actually are a bunch of upsides to isometric training. (We will get to a few more downsides later).
THE PLUS SIDE
For one thing, contracting a muscle without moving it has been used in physical therapy for a long time. It is a great way to keep a muscle working without having to move a nearby joint that may be painful. This also can work in the case of a limb that is broken and casted. It is well known that muscles that are immobilized atrophy very quickly. Contracting a muscle that is immobilized can help to attenuate that downhill process.
Taking it a step further, some studies have shown that doing more all-encompassing isometric moves like PLANKS or WALL SITS can have all sorts of benefits. In particular, a couple of studies using WALL SITS (see graphic below) found improvements in heart function, reduced resting heart rate, and even lowered blood pressure after as little as four weeks. NOTE: Subjects were holding the wall sit for 2 minutes several times, 3 times a week. Not an easy thing to do, but the results were pretty impressive.
Those of you that are paying attention to fitness will undoubtedly have seen PLANKS presented as one of the greatest exercises on the planet! PLANKS involve holding one position (see graphic below) for up to a minute, and then hopefully repeating that a couple of times. What’s up with this one? Well, PLANKS recruit a boatload of muscles all at once in order to keep you in the correct position. Shoulders, arms, core, legs. PLANKS in particular are great for training your whole body to protect your spine by creating stability in your core. This is why it is often presented as an important way to can keep our bodies in great shape.
Another benefit: both of these exercises can be great for getting you to be aware of and practice good alignment and posture. Once you get good at these, you have plenty of time while executing these positions to get it right. Here it works the best if you have someone spotting you to make sure your form is correct.
THE (SORT OF) DOWNSIDES
As with most things, it’s not all music and roses. As indicated above, there is the chance that you can strain your circulatory system with a sustained muscle contraction. This is particularly true if you have a tendency to hold your breath while you do them. On the other hand, if you are aware of this, you can groove the breathing habit while holding the position. This can transfer over to remembering to breathe when doing regular strength training.
When you are not moving, you don’t end up training your coordination OR your stabilizing muscles very well. This has to do with your nervous system. At the end of the day, it is your brain, spinal cord, and nerves that determine how well you move.
Without geeking out too much here, there are a couple of things you should know. The muscles that protect your joints are your stabilizers. It is paramount that they respond MORE QUICKLY than the muscles that move you in order to set up the protection you need. This has to do with creating priority in your nervous system, a.k.a. recruitment. In other words, stabilizers are trained when we MOVE. And, MOVEMENT is trained when we move. May seem obvious, but there it is.
You can use muscle contraction without movement (isometrics) to gain strength, check your alignment, and even get benefits for your heart and circulatory systems. You just need to remember that BREATHING is very important here. Last but not least, it is MOVEMENT that gives you more of what your body needs for strength, performance, and health.
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