Bodyweight Isometrics For Strength
by Adam Vogel and Michael Campanella T-Nation
We already know what you're thinking.
"Bodyweight isometrics in my strength program? You've got to be kidding me!"
If we were trying to come up with an article topic that would simultaneously draw the ire of the entire strength and conditioning world, destroy our credibility, and raise the estrogen levels of anyone unfortunate enough to lay their eyes upon it, bodyweight isometrics would hit the bull's-eye.
Hear us out. We're not suggesting that you trade in your Chuck's for stretchy yoga pants and soy lattes. We're not even suggesting that you change a single repetition in your weight-training program at all.
This article is about leveraging the benefits of an extremely powerful training tool that's been used by bodybuilders, Russian power athletes, and Olympic gymnasts for centuries. So wipe out any preconceived notions you might have of what bodyweight training is all about.
Enter the World of Isometrics
Bodybuilding legend Charles Atlas first introduced isometrics to the fitness world in the 1920s under the term, "dynamic tension." Atlas seemingly did quite well for himself with isometrics, earning both a reputation for being the best-built man in the world and a small fortune from sales of his program detailing how to use them.
The popularity of isometrics surged again in the 1950s after a study by Hettinger and Mueller showed that a small dose of daily isometrics could increase strength by 5% per week for up to 10 weeks. But somewhere between the 1960s and today, isometrics seemingly disappeared from mass circulation.
Although isometrics have managed to maintain their popularity among power athletes, their role has been significantly downgraded to the rehabilitative setting and breast enhancement programs for flat-chested women.
The Way of the Isometric
Adequately defining isometrics can be problematic; the best we can do is to say that it's a movement. As such, it occurs when the force produced by a muscle is exactly equal to the external load imposed on it. But that's not to say that there's no movement at all.
I think the Bee Gee's said it best when they observed that when an "irresistible force meets an immovable object... blood starts to flow." And it does, as do nerve impulses, calcium ions, sliding actin, and myosin filaments, as well as all the other internal processes that must occur to produce a muscular contraction.
The carryover benefits of isometric training on dynamic lifts have been well documented. For decades, Russian coaches have advocated a strength regime that consists of 75% concentrics, 15% eccentrics, and 10% isometrics.
Why would the Russians devote so much time to this style of training?
Because they knew (and we know) that isometric exercises can be more effective than dynamic ones for building strength movements that require muscle contractions of large magnitude during particular stages.
Where would that fit into weight training? Perhaps at the bottom of a deadlift, the midpoint of a bench press, or the lock out in an overhead jerk?
During a dynamic exercise, the application of maximal force that can be achieved at any one joint angle is transient at best. Static contractions, on the other hand, allow you to focus on a specific joint angle and blast it with the type of sustained stress necessary for neuromuscular adaptations to occur.
As an additional benefit, many claim the strength that's produced at any particular joint angle has a 10-15% carryover above and below that position.
There are many different ways you can add isometrics into your program, depending on your goals. Powerlifters and strength athletes have used chopped-up versions of their competition lifts to perform static holds with maximal weight in a position of emphasis.
This is usually accomplished by performing overcoming isometrics, in which the bar is pushed or pulled against an immovable object like a squat rack, or yielding isometrics, where a maximal weight is prevented from falling to the ground.
While these methods can be an incredibly effective means for building strength and power for these particular patterns, the lack of a need for body awareness or strategic placement makes them less applicable for non-strength athletes like football players, MMA fighters, or for general physical preparedness.
One method to address this is to pair static gymnastics-based holds with our athlete's dynamic exercises. Using these types of holds allows for similar levels of muscle activation as standard isometric movements, but with the added benefit of improving overall body control, core activation, and body awareness.
If you have any doubts, spend two-minutes watching a collegiate level or higher gymnastic meet and you'll quickly come around. Not only do they look like bodybuilders, with well-defined muscles and incredibly low body fat levels, they're also some of the strongest pound-for-pound athletes in the world.
The weightroom exploits of gymnasts are legendary. Consider 140-pound gymnasts who could crush 300-pound + bench presses and triple-bodyweight deadlifts without ever having touched a weight in practice before. Conversely, there aren't many 300-pound bench-pressers rocking iron crosses their first time out.
Below are three gymnastics-based exercises that will give you the biggest bang for your buck.
L-Sits and Front Levers
The L-sit is a staple exercise in gymnastics core-conditioning programs, forming the basis for the more advanced parallel bar and ring maneuvers. It includes elements of active posterior chain flexibility, static abdominal strength, and a remarkable level of shoulder girdle and upper arm support strength.
L-sits are probably the most humbling abdominal exercise on the planet. No amount of sit-ups, bent-leg raises, or front planks can ever truly prepare you for the feelings of feebleness that accompanies most people's first attempt with this exercise.
The L-sit is pure badassery. Along with forging a set of Kevlar-coated abdominals, working the L-Sit position can do wonders for your front squat, deadlift, and any other exercise that relies on hip flexor and knee extensor strength.
Here's a great progression that will get you started on your journey toward building a strong and functional midsection:
Phase One: Tuck Hold
Support yourself between two benches with your arms straight, and torso in an upright position. Raise both legs (bent) to at least parallel, if not a little higher.
Phase Two: Low L-Sit
Using the same setup, raise both legs (straight) to a level just below parallel. This will pull the quadriceps more into the mix, setting you up for the next variation.
Phase Three: Full L-Sit
The full L-sit is usually performed from the floor. The goal here is to keep both your legs off the ground, at or above hip height for 5-10 seconds. Once you've mastered the L-sit, make sure to congratulate yourself as this is no small task – you've officially earned the privilege to refer to your abs as a "Situation."
Note on progressions: The goal is to accumulate 60 seconds in each hold. This could be 10 sets of 6 seconds, 6 sets of 10 seconds, or 3 sets of 20 seconds – it doesn't really matter. Once you can hold the position for 30 seconds straight, continue to the next progression.
The front lever is the gold standard in total body strength development, requiring upper body pulling power, core control, and the ability to subjugate the physical properties of the universe by sheer force of will.
It involves holding your entire body in a rigid horizontal plank on a pull-up bar, with your arms straight and your back parallel to the floor, giving you the Jedi-like appearance of floating on air. Achieving this position requires a Herculean effort from your lats, abdominals, hip flexors, and scapular stabilizers.
This is one of the hardest total body exercises out there, so a tight progression that works up to the final product is a must. Before you jump into hanging variations of the front lever, it's helpful to get a "feel" for the exercise by practicing the basic positions on a bench or the ground first.
Tucked Front Lever to Single-leg Lever
Beginning from an inverted hang position, slowly lower your body until your back is parallel to the floor. Consciously tense your armpits and pull downwards (towards the bar) while retracting your shoulder blades. Once you're able to maintain this position for at 5-10 seconds, begin to reach one leg out in an alternating fashion.
A word of caution, these are tough, demonstrating the power of disadvantageous leverages and bodyweight isometrics. If you can't get one leg out, follow the L-sit progression until you're comfortable in the tuck for 30 seconds straight and try again. At this point, you should have enough strength to attempt the movement.
Full Front Lever
Assuming you've already turned a few heads at the gym with your single-leg lever, get ready to start blowing people's minds by extending your other leg out straight to complete the full front lever position. This is an extremely difficult position to get into, and you only need to hold it for 1-2 seconds to officially claim it as yours.
As you can see, bodyweight isometrics aren't all wall squats and front planks borrowed from a geriatric training program. Applied correctly, they can be powerful training tools with multiple benefits that go well beyond increasing muscular endurance.
They may even be a more effective means of developing overall strength, power, and body control than traditional weight-based movements. Just don't tell anyone at the gym we said that, okay?