The static hold is an underused move in the gym, but it’s one that could help you improve every aspect of your training. Elite Trainer Tom Hall explains
On the gym floor reps reign supreme. Are you doing five sets of five? Three sets of 12? The number of times you pick something up and put it down again is one of the keys to reaching your body goals. But what happens when that progress slows down? Well, there’s another option. You just need to stop.
But before we go any further, some background is important. If you want to understand why exactly an isometric contraction is an effective new stimulus to your training plan, you need to know a little more about the standard rep. Knowledge is power, after all. And it’s time to get nerdy.
A rep is made up of two phases:
- The Eccentric Contraction — Muscle Actively Lengthening
Normally, muscles are active when they are lengthening. Classic examples of this are walking, when the quadriceps (knee extensors) are active, or setting an object down gently (the arm flexors must be active to control the fall of the object).
In the gym – It’s the “down” phase of a lift, when the chest is stretching as the weight is coming towards it during a bench press.
- The Concentric Contraction — Muscle Actively Shortening
When a muscle is activated and required to lift a weight that is less than its maximum load, the muscle begins to shorten. Contractions that permit the muscle to shorten are referred to as concentric contractions.
In the gym – It’s the “up” phase of a Lift, when your bicep raises a dumbbell during a curl.
Both contractions together create your standard rep pattern and combine to give you the strength and size gains you’re used to achieving in the gym. But there is one more all-important contraction that is criminally underused by the vast majority of the gym-going population.
- The Isometric Contraction—Muscle Actively Held at a Fixed Length
This third type of muscle contraction is one where the muscle is activated,
but instead of being allowed to lengthen or shorten, it is held at a constant length.
A day-to-day example would be carrying a baby in your arms or, if you’re looking for a real workout, a toddler that’s definitely too old for this right now… The weight pulls downward,
but your arms oppose the motion with equal force. And since your arms are neither raising or lowering, your biceps are therefore contracting isometrically.
In the gym – In the middle of your pain-staking journey back up from the bottom of a squat you “pause” and stop. But the muscle still needs tension to stop you sinking. This is a static isometric hold.
Science lesson over, it’s now time to reveal exactly why this is all so important to you and your progress in the gym. The case for isometric loading is threefold. It benefits your strength, hypertrophy and rehab. Here’s how.
Isometric contractions are regularly deployed to blast past a plateau in your lifting.
For example, when no matter how many International Chest Days you sweat through, you’re stuck at 45KG on the bench press and the 50KG milestone seems unobtainable.
Enter the pause. Pick a lighter weight, complete the lift and identify the weakest part of the rep. This is where you’re going to hold. Pause and maintain an isometric contraction for five seconds, then blast to the top of the rep. The weights in your hand may be lighter, but after six weeks, that 50KG PB will have been and gone, I guarantee it.
This pause means the muscle contracts for longer and a neural pathway has a better chance of being connected, which can recruit even more muscle fibres to maximize your strength.
Again, creating new neural pathways that help to recruit extra muscle fibres is hugely important for hypertrophy. The more muscle fibres in use, when combined with the extra time under tension from the pause, causes the extra micro tears needed to stimulate growth. More micro tears means more recovery, and more recovery means more inches added to your biceps and/or butt – depending on your disposition.
Give it a try during a hammer curl. Stop mid-way up or down the lift. Your bicep won’t stop working (you’ll feel it, trust me) and the added time under tension will increase so the muscle has a greater stress placed upon it. More stress equals more growth.
Get Back To Your Best
This is somewhat an area of expertise. After suffering several slipped, herniated discs and undergoing knee and ankle tendons rehabs from several surgeons, I have used isometrics A LOT.
Isometric exercise is usually utilised in the early phase of rehabilitation to minimise muscle wastage when injury prevents the movement of a joint. Studies have revealed up to a 41% decrease in isometric strength after immobilization of the upper extremity for 5 to 6 weeks. That’s not good.
If you’re suffering from lower back issues – as many people are – that prevent you from squatting or deadlifting, then the plank is a must-have in your exercise arsenal. A plank variation lasting 20 secs is gold, especially when combined with fully contracted glutes, abs and quads. This provides all the isometric contraction you need to stop your core strength wasting while you recover.
That’s three bonuses from one principle – a principle that, at its heart, requires you to do absolutely nothing. It’s the easiest and smartest addition to your training plan. We suggest you start now.