Isometric is no new term to the strength and conditioning realm. There are different applications of isometrics in fitness, rehabilitation, and training. You’ll see the planks and pillars in fitness, connecting the muscle action with mostly trunk work. Dr. Matt Zanis wrote an amazing piece I have linked below highlighting the benefits of isometric training in rehabilitation of injuries including pain relief, increasing neural drive, and gauging tendon capacity.
Isometric training includes load resisted isometrics which have a very quick increase in tension and fight to hold a position. An example here would be a heavy back squat with a quick descent and hold at or near parallel. There are also push/pull isometrics which have a longer duration fighting against an immovable object or holding a position like a Dead Bug. A difference here, you begin in the desired joint angle rather than loading into it.
Applying targeted isometrics in training will yield similar benefits as rehabilitation. Applying heavier loads than rehab and asking healthy athletes to do more challenging movement can accelerate gains in strength, athleticism, and mental toughness. Holding near maximal loads in a position and counting to “eight-one-thousand” for yourself might take you farther mentally than physiologically 😂.
Targeted Isometrics in Field Strong
The French Contrast cycles on Field Strong target eccentric, isometric, and finally concentric muscle contractions with their own two-week blocks. The isometric blocks primarily use load resisted isometrics mentioned above. We’re targeting isometrics in positions where an athlete comes to a complete stop in a movement before accelerating in a new direction, the energy transfer of muscular action, where eccentric energy that is absorbed and redirected into explosive, concentric action. Using both the barbell and dumbbells, athletes load up into a depth/position where the force they are using to drive into the weight exactly matches the resistance of that weight. There is no relaxing in these positions, athletes fight to maintain the position the weight and gravity are trying to take away.
Through specific sets, reps, and times we can target two neuromuscular processes and the structural adaptations (which are coincidentally discussed in great detail in our Power Athlete Methodology – Level One course linked below). For heavy movements we have athletes hit 2 consecutive reps of a 4-6 second count and the lighter movements will have higher rep ranges and longer time fighting for position. While reps and times may differ, we do ask the athlete to finish each isometric rep at the top position and ALWAYS follow these movements with an explosive or reactive movement such as a Tuck Jump or Explosive Push Up.
Here are some coaching tips and components to focus to maximize the efficacy of targeting isometrics with your training.
Load Into Position
The goal is to teach you how to absorb force in an instant and increase your body’s capacity of forces you’ll face on the field. To accomplish this you need to load into position versus get into a position. Avoid simply relaxing into the end of your range of motion. Imagine laying down on the bench press, taking the 405 lb bar off the rack, bringing the bar down to touch your chest and relaxing with the entire load resting there. This is a fault we’ve seen with athletes relaxing at the bottom of their Squat or Bulgarian Split Squats and failing to fight their way back to the top.
Descend into each position rapidly with intent and control, finding your stopping point at a weak or familiar sticking point you need to target in your ROM. Squats will be at or just above parallel and the bench should never touch the chest.
Do Not Yield
Once you find your position, the count (and the fight) begin. Become a statue for the prescribed 4-6 “one-thousand”. We expect uncontrollable shaking in the body, but damned if you give in to the load. If at all during the fight the weight begins to take you down farther than your majestic, statuesque position, then the muscle action has changed and you’re no longer targeting our purpose. This is not a full collapse under the stress, it is an action known as a yielding isometric, or true-eccentric action.
The resistance is no longer matching, but is overpowering the force applied against it. While we admire your fight to not give up, yielding changes the adaptation away from our purpose. If this is occurring for you, we need you to either lighten the load or shorten the time. Aim for the “four one-thousand” and progress to the sixer the next opportunity.
Once your count is complete, FIRE back up and complete each rep. Following a heavy 6-count, it is much easier to relax for an instant and then transition up on a rep. A common example would be underneath a barbell during the squat. Following an isometric hold in a parallel position, an athlete drops down just a bit below parallel and then stands up the rep. This is no bueno. The expectation of execution we’re looking for under that bar is complete the stoic, six one-thousand count then (without dip, duck, dive, or dodging) fire straight up with all your might and finish that rep fast.
During normal lifting patterns and dynamic movements on the field, all isometric muscle action should be immediately followed by concentric contraction. To aid in the coordination carry over from targeted isometric training, this flow must be followed. No yielding, relaxing, or bouncing here. Those ill-timed actions can be costly in performance leaving you a step behind or potentially lead to injury in a contact sport when relaxing under a force can cause a lot of structural damage like an ACL tear.
Empower Your Performance: Project Yourself
All of Power Athlete’s programs utilize push/pull isometric training, most commonly in dynamic movement prep before weight training. When load resisted isometrics are introduced to training, you must be prepared to protect yourself. This is a different monster than standard barbell, concentric action training. Be cautious going into a session assuming training loads based off former RM’s and then jamming into a heavy iso-hold. This means utilizing a spotter, or safety arms, pins, blocks, or straps to catch a bar and using dumbbells you can throw or bail safely if they come crashing down.
Protecting yourself can also mean preserving the training stimulus and increasing your athleticism. Why? Because the quicker, faster, more explosive, better looking, and more athletic you are, the better position you’ll be in the sporting arena to avoid injury and to create more opportunities, and to look good doing it! Expect any heavy ISO’s in our training will ALWAYS be followed by an explosive and a fast movement to empower your performance.
More About Field Strong
Field Strong is a performance based training program for field and court sport athletes, fighters and anyone who is looking to put pinnacle performance in front of anything else. John Welbourn, 10-Year NFL Veteran and Founder of Power Athlete, exposes members of Field Strong to the advanced training techniques that contributed to his career playing professional football.
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EDU: Power Athlete Methodology – Level One
PODCAST: Power Athlete Radio Ep. 274 w/ Cal Dietz – Strong Feet, Strong Butt
PODCAST: Power Athlete Radio Ep. 352 w/ Dr. Keith Barr – The Future of Muscle Tissue
BLOG: Triphasic Training on Field Strong’s French Contrast Cycle by Tex McQuilkin
BLOG: Tendinopathy – Isotonics Rehab by Dr. Matt Zanis
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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