While very few positives came from the year of 2020, one thing the global pandemic did was force us to find alternative solutions to many of our every-day activities. Fitness and training were no exceptions, as gyms closed during lock-down periods all around the world.
Unless you had access to a home gym, you most likely had to ask yourself at some point in 2020, how am I going to gain or maintain strength and power without heavy weight?
While we are starting move past the pandemic it seems, many of the lessons that could have been learned in an effort to answer that question above — how to get or stay strong and powerful with less resources — are widely still applicable in many circumstances today.
- Training with an injury
- Training with minimal time (such as a cyclist who already spends hours per week training, just on the bike)
- Training with minimal equipment or coaching
- Training as an aging athlete
In instances like these, there are several great options for gaining or — in the very least — maintaining strength without large doses of traditional strength-training. Today, we will begin to dive into several methods, starting with Isometrics.
- Part I — Isometrics
- Part II — Unilateral Training (Coming Soon)
- Part III — Plyometrics and Sprinting (Coming Soon)
For a deeper dive, check out the e-book I wrote during the pandemic, How to Maintain While Training From Home: a guide for creating adaptation with limited resources
What Are Isometrics?
There are 3 types of actions that a muscle can perform:
- Concentric action: when force is applied by the muscle and it shortens in length — think the upward phase of a biceps curl
- Eccentric action: when force is applied by the muscle, but it lengthens — think about what happens at the biceps muscle as you lower the weight in a curl; it is still taught and working hard, but it is getting longer
- Isometric action: when force is applied by the muscle, but its length stays constant — think about what happens when you hold a curl with your elbows bent at 90*
Isometrics, then, are what happens when we ask our muscles to apply force, but the weight or resistance does not move.
The Science of Getting Stronger
When most people consider strength-training, the first thing that often comes to mind is heavy weights. And, while using substantial loads is an effective means of increasing the ability to produce force (i.e. build strength), it is not the only way — you can find other ways to improve strength, as long as you understand and apply the underlying principles behind building strength.
Maximum strength is the most amount of voluntary force that can be applied to overcome a resistance. Resistance can come in the form of gravity (just standing upright), your body weight (doing air squats), or external resistance (weights on a barbell).
Strength is built by applying the principle of progressive overload, whereby the body needs incrementally stronger stimuli over time to continue to see progress and adapt. This is how all adaptation works within the body: a system is stressed, and then the body responds with adaptation.
When it comes to building strength, we are predominantly focused on stressing two systems: the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Musculoskeletal System. The latter is what most people tend to think of when they consider weight training; we load the muscles to make them bigger and stronger. And, while tearing down muscle tissue with weight training does in fact force the body to adapt by growing bigger muscles over time, the muscles are only part of the equation.
Consider an Olympic Weightlifter in the 61kg (134 lbs) weight class. These athletes can still lift loads heavier than 99.9% of the gym-goers at your local fitness center, despite having much less muscle mass than many many that do attend your gym. Now consider elite cyclists — many of whom are sub-70kg themselves — who can throw down unbelievable sprinting power of 1,500W+.
It can be easy to forget the force-component in cycling power…
Watts are an expression of Power, and Power is the product of FORCE x Velocity (i.e. when sprinting, cyclists are applying huge amounts of FORCE very quickly)
So, without the seemingly requisite muscle mass to be strong and powerful, how are these athletes doing such incredible work? In large part, we can attribute it to their Central Nervous System. The CNS is composed of the Brain, Brain Stem, and Spinal Cord, and they work together to tell your Musculoskeletal System what to do and how to go about doing it. The nerves that run from the Spinal Cord to the muscles transfer the “instructions” from the CNS (via electrical impulses) directly to the muscles.
Now that we got the jargon out of the way, let’s use an analogy to help explain why the nervous system is so important to developing strength:
Consider a giant warehouse or airplane hanger, and think about the hundreds of lights that are hung up from the rafters to illuminate the building. The lights themselves are our muscles; the light switches and electrical wiring (and the person flipping the switches) are our nervous system.
If we wanted to light up the building quickly and effectively (i.e. be strong), of course we would want a lot of lights (a good amount of muscle). If you have very few lights (muscles), you will of course be limited to a certain extent. But, with a decent number (whatever is required to light the building // whatever is required to play your sport), we can light up the space pretty easily.
However, no matter how many lights are hanging, if the electrical job is faulty, it is all for not: imagine if the electricity is simply not working, or if the wiring is so flimsy that the lights flicker dimly. What if we don’t have enough electrical current to turn on every light at once (without shorting the system) so only half the room gets lit? What if it took several minutes for the lights to heat up and shine at their brightest after they are switched on? What if every single light (and there are hundreds) needed their own individual switch, so turning them all on took a lot of time? Think about how much money and time it took to put this system together with hundreds of lights, only to barely get any bang for the buck out of it.
That is strength-training purely for the development of the Musculoskeletal System — a large, robust system that may or may not be all that strong or effective, just a lot of potential.
However, imagine the same warehouse, now with half as many lights. But, with an electrical system capable of pumping out maximum wattage to all lights at once, immediately, consistently, in a coordinated fashion, all with the flip of one switch.
That… is a finely tuned Central Nervous System that governs a strong body. Sure, could more lights//muscles be better in this case? Maybe. A football lineman needs to be as big and strong as possible. However, a cyclist has to worry about relative strength and power (the most amount of punch for their size), therefore a strong nervous system is key to being a powerful cyclist, and this supports the fact that “traditional” strength-training as many view it — where increasing muscle mass with heavy loads and lots of muscle damage — just isn’t always necessary.
Alternative Methods to Developing the CNS
So, what does this all have to do with Isometrics? If you will recall, Isometrics are when a force is applied by a muscle/muscle-group but there is no change in muscle-length. There are two types of Isometrics — Overcoming Isometrics and Yielding Isometrics.
Yielding Isometrics are when you hold a position but can overcome the resistance if you wanted to. For example, doing a body weight squat but holding the bottom position for several seconds. You could stand back up, but are choosing to apply only enough force to hold the bottom position.
Overcoming Isometrics, on the other hand, are when you apply maximal force but still can’t overcome the resistance. For example, attempting to lift up the front end of a truck by its bumper. Apply as much force as you want, but most of us will not be getting the tires off of the ground. While the Yielding Iso’ is a valuable tool, it is the Overcoming Iso that can be a tremendous substitute for heavily loaded strength-training exercises.
The reason for this is because we are able to apply the same, if not more force in these instances as compared to, say, a heavy Deadlift. Think about it: in order to complete a Deadlift near your one-repitition max (1RM), you need to be able to just overcome that load so that the weight moves vertically to the top position. Performing an Overcoming Iso is akin to trying to pick up a car (which is similar to a Deadlift) as it will require the maximum force you are capable of; tje only difference is that you are just not able to overcome the resistance. Thus — providing you attack the overcoming isometric with all the vigor and intent that you can muster — the CNS is required to fire rapidly with an incredibly strong “message” to the musculoskeletal system as it calls your body into action.
The pros of the Overcoming Isometric include very little muscle damage (thus less muscle soreness, and faster muscular recovery).
The cons are worth mentioning however: research shows that Isometrics, in general, tend to most effectively strengthen the position in which you are in performing the exercise (+/- a small range of motion in either direct). Thus, performing an isometric at 90* of knee extension will predominantly increase strength in a small range of motion about 90* of knee extension. And, this makes sense: traditional strength training exercises like a Deadlift will require a lot of force to be produced by the CNS and Musculoskeletal system over great ranges of motion (and at all different muscle lengths); isometrics require the same, but only allow for this to occur in one position, as we can not overcome the resistance.
But, consider the ranges of motion experienced in cycling and mountain biking: they are much more limited than other sports, such as basketball, baseball, or football. For example, cyclists tend to stay in relatively deep hip flexion, whether riding in the saddle or standing up to descend. So, transfer of training when it comes to strength may still be impactful with the strategic use of overcoming isometrics.
Traditional strength-training through full ranges with moderate-to-heavy loads and low-to-moderate volumes are a staple of most sports’ physical preparation for a reason: it is effective. But, with strength-training, like anything else, there is a cost involved, and oftentimes that cost does not always make sense to take on.
Whether it be the age of an athlete, the time of year, the training and injury history of the athlete, the travel schedule, the resources available… there are a host of reasons by the cost of traditional strength-training might be a bit too high to take on. However, the value of maintaining or gaining strength relative to body weight can’t be overstated. Thus, alternative methods should always be in a coach or athlete’s tool-box.
Isometrics can certainly be one of those tools, and an effective one at that. Due to the minimal muscle fatigue and damage accrued with overcoming isometrics, they are a great option to stimulate strength adaptations with little cost. While highly specific to the joint range-of-motion used in the exercise, they can in fact impose a significant demand on the Central Nervous System, which is a huge component when it comes to force application. Thus, if there is ever a time when we are willing to make a slight compromise on strength-training stimuli in order to mitigate the cost of it, overcoming isometrics are a terrific method to incorporate into the training plan.
Ryan J. Faer