Hold Still, Move Better

Let's talk about what it means to hold strong and hold still. Let's talk about how isometric stabilization is a skill in and of itself. It is a skill required for most complex/challenging/extreme movements in which you must stabilize some parts of your body while moving others, yet it tends to sometimes be overlooked or undertrained.

Isometrics: Defined

From Merriam Webster's website: :

Isometric adjective  iso·met·ric \ˌī-sə-ˈme-trik\ of, relating to, involving, or being muscular contraction (as in isometrics) against resistance, without significant shortening of muscle fibers, and with marked increase in muscle tone

Huh? Basically isometrics are sustained contractions of muscle that do not require much lengthening or shortening of the muscle. Holding a plank is a common (but complex) isometric exercise. Resisting someone trying to push you over is a isometric exercise. This is in contrast to concentric muscle contraction (active shortening of muscle fibers) and eccentric muscle contraction (active lengthening of muscle fibers).

When You Use Them Part 1

In FRC, Isometrics are primarily used in two different applications. One, is the concept of "Irradiation", which is the full body tension held during CARs, that keeps you from defaulting to compensatory patterns during the joint isolations.

Example, if you tend to let your ribs flare open when you lift your arm overhead, irradiation is the plank-like tension you hold while lifting your arm in the CAR so that the CAR targets the shoulder joint specifically. Without irradiating, you might lift your arm overhead, but that action wouldn't be occurring in your shoulder joint, thus it wouldn't be a shoulder isolation. 

Another isometric application is used in progressions from CARs that establish and increase the amount of neural connection you have to specific joints at specific angles. The FRC jargon for the exercises that train this are PAILs (Progressive Angular Isometric Loading) and RAILs (Regressive Angular Isometric Loading).

Example: if you are looking to build stronger shoulder flexion (lifting your arm straight up by your ear while maintaining strong connection through the ribcage and pelvis), your PAIL exercise would be pushing IN to your maximum angle of shoulder flexion and isometrically contracting your shoulder stabilizers at that angle of pushing IN to flexion, and your RAIL would be pulling AWAY from your maximum angle of shoulder flexion  (without modifying the rest of your body position). These exercises help build stability at increased joint angles over time.

PAILs and RAILs are AWESOME (not an acronym). Ok wait, let's try to make it one: Amazing Way Each Stabilizer Owns (its) Maximum Effort. Wow! There ya go. But seriously, PAILs and RAILs are what build control in increased ranges of joint motion.as we work to create more range in our joints. They help us own our muscle activation at our end-ranges so that we can hold stable there. This is important, because we have to hold stable before we can do dynamic or loaded things at our joints.

When You Use Them Part 2

Targeted isometrics are a great way to specifically train movements or skills that require extreme joint motion.

Example: I'm working on active square splits. Splits are about more than just flexible hamstrings and hip flexors. They are actually a super complex coordination of  squaring the entire leg in the hip socket, while the femur is in an extreme relationship to the pelvis, while also stabilizing the pelvis in relation to the spine. So much going on! So rather than try only the splits over and over to improve the splits, I've been working on smaller sections that needs isometric strength first. Since ankle and hip mobility is deeply related (I can only squat as deep as whichever of those joints is least mobile),  I've been training my ankles and hips isometrically in flexion and extension first, so that I have more muscle-firing capacity of each joint told hold me in the full split. When I put weight on my ankles in the splits, I need to be able to isometrically fire my lower leg to help keep my leg actively square in the relationship to the hip. How often in life do we train putting active load on our the front and back sides of the lower leg? Not that much, so by training these specific positions isometrically, I'm able to work more effectively in the split.

Moral of the Story

Whether you're working on splits, pushups, box jumps, or whatever, it's helpful to have isometric control of the joints you are challenging before going for the extreme skill. If you tend to noodle out in a pushup, work on holding a super solid plank first. If your hips collapse open when trying to hold a square split (like mine), work on isometric activations at whatever angle your square split maxes out. Isometrics are essential building blocks for control in dynamic movements, and they can really speed up your progress if you apply them well.