Just think about a normal Saturday and eight hours of time just for yourself – how will you spend them? Will you go shopping, read a bit and do a small workout? Well, there are people who prefer writing history on a Saturday. They write their own history, and they write it in the guinness book of records, to be exact. It was Saturday, the 14th of may 2016, when the Chinese Mao Weidong did this in Beijing. How he did it? Well, actually he didn’t move at all for 8 hours and 1 minute. But before you say that you can do that even longer… wait a second! Mao Weidong set a new world record in holding an elbow plank! (Here’s the video).
Of course you can perfectly debate on how useful it is to hold a plank position for more than 8 hours, but that is not the point on this topic. The elbow plank is an isometrical exercise. Why is it a good idea to model oneself on Mao Weidong and do isometrical exercises? What is the difference to regular strength training? And how to include it best in your own workout routines?
A muscle doesn’t always work the same way
Let’s take a look at our muscles first. They are constantly in motion. My skeleton muscles, the so-called striated musculature, can be moved wittingly by myself: It helps me guiding my fingers over the keyboard while typing this text. When I stand up and go for a cup of coffee, a great plenty of all 639 muscles of my body need to work together: thighs, glutes, trunk… Besides there is the smooth musculature which does its job without consciously controlled motion impulses like intestine, airways or blood vessels.
When I raise my cup of coffee and guide it to my mouth, my muscles of my upper arm thus contract: They shorten and therefore gain in extent, right? That’s exactly what I do when I train with dumbbells. It is an isotonic contraction. The word already contains its meaning: “iso” signifies “equal” and “tonic” comes from “tonos” = tension. In translation it is nothing else than that the tension of the muscle stays the same during the movement, while the length of the muscle changes with contraction. To use the same metaphor: While I raise my cup of coffee to my mouth, the force effect on the muscle constantly stays the same, while the length of the muscle changes with the movement.
On the contrary, in isometrical contractions the length of the muscle stays the same, but the tension changes. Just pull on a closed door and you will see that it doesn’t move, right? But even if you didn’t get a nice biceps hill like Popeye during this motion, you needed some strength. The tension of the muscle thus changed while pulling. And that’s the important point: During the static position the muscle can develop more strength than during an isotonic contraction, because the level of activation is and will be at a max over a longer period of time. To put it plainly, I train much shorter, but at the same time I develop more muscular strength!
Isometrical Exercises – a plus for the muscles
Done deal! – Is that what you think now? Why the hell should I suffer during long hours of arduous HIIT-workouts or strength training if I can have the same effect with just a bit of planking? Well, like always there is a small twist. First of all I return to the two kinds of muscle contraction. In real life beyond training there’s a third one, called the auxotonic contraction. That’s nothing else than a mixed form of both. Whatever I do in everyday life: Most movements influence both the tension AND the length of the muscle. Like always in life it doesn’t make much sense to look at one thing isolated, but in its entirety. I have the best and greatest possible effect when I train BOTH factors specifically.
The advantage of isometrical training is not only a higher level of activity of the muscle and therefore a significant improvement of muscular strength, but also a very specific training of one point. The strength gains are limited on about 15 degrees around the working angle. This is great for many parts of the body: It strengthens tendons and ligaments. Even if the trained spot is under high tension, sensitive parts are not overburdened because there is no movement. The musculature can be bulked up very targeted, which has a lasting effect on protecting parts that are especially at risk of injury, like e.g. a runner’s knee. The endurance of tendons and ligaments increases and their flexibility improves, which in turn positively influences movement coordination and balance. As isometrical training isn’t cardiovascular training, it is definitely recommended to combine it with more arduous workouts.
Put it into practice: It’s all about the combination!
The most popular isometrical exercises are for sure all versions of planking (e.g. the elbow plank), Superman Hold, Wallsit, V-Hold and Pushup Hold, furthermore different holding position on bars (Dip and Pullup Hold variations). And how do I integrate the isometrical training into my workout routine? Here we have two possibilities.
First possibility: The different exercises are incorporated isolated in the training schedule. You can build a workout with your favourite isometricals and hold each position for at least 30 seconds to generate the maximal strength growth. With 4-5 sets of the chosen exercises you’ll have completed a nice training session in a short period of time (and yes, it is exhausting, too!).
Second possibility: You wear the muscle with normal training and add an isometrical exercise after your set. The combination of both approaches stimulates the muscles at their max – in my opinion the best, most effective (and enjoyable) kind of integrating isometricals in your workouts and to train both strength AND cardio optimally. Just go for a Plank or a Wallsit in your exercise sequence next time! It’s rather good fun if you use isontonic and isometricals contractions to specifically focus on a single muscle group. How to do it? Easy: Use the song “Bring Sally up” (you can find a video at the bottom). In this way you can generate a great workout not only with pushups, but with all other exercises, which can be hold: Lunges, Bridges, Squats, Planks, Pullups, Dips… just use your imagination. Have fun!