One of the most under utilised training and rehabilitation methods is isometric contractions (and eccentrics for that matter but I’ll focus on them in another post). Isometrics are an extremely versatile tool that can have a positive impact on a number of physiological traits ranging from building strength to improving motor control to reducing pain levels.
The traditional use of isometric training within a training programme is through the use of pause reps at the bottom of a squat or bench press for example. The reason being to train in ‘sticking points’ of a lift and subsequently increase your strength during these phases to enable progressions in load. As I sought out a further understanding of the role of isometric training I discovered Max Schmarzo & Matt Van Dyke’s Book on Isometrics For Performance and Cal Dietz’s Triphasic Training Model both of which have positively impacted my understanding and application of isometric training.
As my understanding evolved, the use of isometrics has spread across my practice both during rehabilitation and athletic development.
Isometrics & Pain
The primary goal with any injury is pain reduction. The identification and correction of the cause of somebody’s pain/injury is of course a high priority, but the time taken to reduce somebody’s pain experience has a huge impact on the time it will take for somebody to return to their sport or activity. Interestingly, this can be regardless of the injury incurred including whether any physical tissue damage occurred.
Isometrics have been shown to be effective in the management of patellar tendinopathy pain. These reductions in pain were consistent both immediately after the isometrics and 45 minutes following. These isometrics were performed for 5 sets of 45s with 2 minutes rest between each set. The isometrics were completed at 70% of each individuals Maximum Voluntary Contraction (MVC).
Isometrics & Motor Control
Isometrics are also a very useful tool in developing motor control. Motor control describes how your brain and nervous system co-ordinates and controls a particular movement. Traditional strengthening exercises are performed very rapidly and although proper form is discussed it is rarely the primary focus of the movement. When proper form is sacrificed over time, this is when movements become less efficient which can limit performance and may lead to injury.
Isometrics can be used in two ways to develop motor control. They can be used to isolate particular areas of the body which somebody struggles to control / activate – their glutes for example. They can also be used to develop control and stability of a movement pattern somebody cannot complete efficiently. For example, a number of people struggle squatting to depth because they cannot control the end of range.
Side Lying Glute Activation and Squat Isometrics are two examples of how to isolate the glutes and also how to develop motor control in the squat.
Isometrics are also an effective way to develop strength within a training programme, and also maintain strength during the early stages of a rehabilitation programme. A key determinant in strength is the central nervous system meaning that strength can be built without a traditional concentric-eccentric (isotonic) muscle contraction. Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky, supposed that a six second isometric contraction is equivalent to numerous dynamic contractions. This makes sense if you consider the time spent under tension in a particular movement pattern.
This has a huge advantage within a rehabilitation programme and also for somebody who is in pain. Typically, during rehab and those in pain, there can be range of motion restrictions (range of motion may be limited by pain). Isometrics provide an opportunity to train for strength development around range of motion restrictions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex Morrell (MSc, BSc (Hons), MCSP) is a Sports Physiotherapist working in international and professional rugby alongside private practice. He has a keen interest in all things training & performance from his sports science/S&C background. (@theonlinephysiocoach)