Do you remember that episode of Seinfeld where Jerry starts training with Izzy Mandelbaum? He’s an 80 year old guy rocking a sweat band, track jacket and doing old school exercises on rusty equipment. When people hear the word “isometrics” that episode of Seinfeld is probably the first thing they picture.
For quite a while, isometric exercises have been the red headed stepchild of the fitness injury. About the only thing people have done that looks anything like an isometric movement in recent years is a plank. I’m not sure how or why this happened…maybe because they’re not as exciting as a HiiT class or throwing around heavy weight?
I’m here to shed some light on this forgotten powerhouse of exercises.
So what are they? An isometric contraction is a form of exercise in which the joint angle and muscle length do not change during a contraction. Typically, isometric contractions are performed for 10 or more seconds.
They’re great for recovering from injury, increasing ranges in mobility training and breaking through strength training plateaus. Since there’s a lot of info on the topic, today I’m going to dive into how isometrics can and should be used for dealing with everything from chronic injuries to brand new ones.
ISOMETRICS AND INJURY
Isometrics are essential for dealing with all levels of injury, from something sudden like rolling an ankle, to chronic shoulder pain that’s brutal to sleep on at night. Either way, you can use isometrics to begin recovering from your injury. Let’s take a look at this in more detail and I’ll give you steps you can take to work through your injury using isometric exercises.
GET STRONGER BELOW THE PAIN LINE
The pain line is where pain starts to set in when we move an injured body part. This pain line is usually what limits people from doing simple things like trying to put your jacket on to doing your favorite sport or activity. The beauty of isometrics is that they allow us to develop strength at a very specific angle just below where this pain starts to set in, eventually allowing you to increase your pain-free range of motion. This means you get to move further without pain which is exactly what we want.
Even if you’re injured, you can get stronger below where your pain line is by producing force on both sides of the joint just below where the pain sets in. This shows the nervous system that it’s ok to go higher with the pain threshold point.
How do we do this?
Imagine you have a shoulder injury. You’d find your pain line by lifting your arm toward the ceiling. The point where pain sets in is where the pain line is…the line you shouldn’t cross.
Just below the pain line, we start our first round of isometric contractions. Place your hand from the arm that is not hurt (or any stationary object), below your injured arm to create resistance. Then using your injured arm, push down for 10 seconds. It won't go anywhere but this activates tissue around the joint that is opening.
Pause for a second, and place your hand on top of the injured arm. Using your injured arm, try to push up for 10 seconds, activating tissue around the joint that is closing.
You can do this anywhere from one to three rounds each day and over time, you’ll noticed that the pain line gets higher and higher, meaning you can move the injured body part further and further while you’re getting stronger.
NO INFLAMMATION = GAINS
Isometrics allow us to develop strength without causing inflammation, which is crucial in rehabbing injured tissue. You may be asking, “Why can’t I just do regular exercise below the pain line to develop strength?” Great question! When you perform a concentric or eccentric contraction, tissue is shortening or lengthening, which causes inflammation to set in. Inflammation is totally normal but when you’re injured, we want to limit as much of this as possible.
With isometrics, there is no inflammation and that’s exactly what we want. Performing isometric contractions gives us a great tool to perform rehab. I’ve used this method over and over again and as long as you’re being honest about where the pain line is, you’re good to go!
PAVE THE WAY FOR RECOVERY
Isometrics show our body how to begin to heal itself by giving our fibroblasts (healing tissue), a specific way to be laid down to mitigate future injuries.
Has this ever happened to you...?
You’re out for a beautiful stroll, and whoops! You miss the side of the curb and roll your ankle. We’ve all done it at least one time in our lives. And if you’ve done it once, then guess what? You’re more likely going to roll that ankle again, and again and again….
No one goes to rehab or does anything when they roll an ankle except RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Unfortunately, this does absolutely no good in restoring normal ankle function and it actually makes it worse. I won’t bore you with all the science details, but just know that when an injury occurs, the body starts the healing process by laying down fibroblasts around the injured area to stabilize the joint. The body just starts throwing it down aimlessly, but if you start doing low level intensity isometrics, the fibroblasts will be laid down the right way returning the joint to normal function. This process is why I always tell my clients to call me the second they do anything bad. I can give them the tools to start fixing their issue before it gets much much worse.
Isometrics may not be sexy but damn, try holding a position of ANY exercise for 10 or more seconds and let me know how you did. Soon we’ll all be chanting “Mandelbaum! Mandelbaum! Mandelbaum!”
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ABOUT COACH MATT PIPPIN
Matt is a Strength and Conditioning Coach and Level 3 Fascial Stretch Therapist with over 15 years experience in his field. After years of playing sports as a child, Matt gained an interest in health and wellness and decided to pursue a career in strength and conditioning. He graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in Exercise Science in 2005. During college Matt played rugby and interned as a Strength and Conditioning Coach with the football team.
Post graduation, he worked with professional athletes as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for NFL Europe's Berlin Thunder. For 8 years, Matt worked in Chicago, IL at the East Bank Club as a Master Personal Trainer, Performance Coach and Fascial Stretch Therapist helping athletes and weekend warriors achieve their personal goals. Inspired by the overall quality and active lifestyle that California is known for, Matt and his wife Jennifer moved to San Diego in the summer of 2014 and haven’t looked back!
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Level 3: Fascial Stretch Specialist
Level 1: Institute of Motion Health Coach
Certified FRC Mobility Specialist (FRCms)
Level 1 Kinstretch Instructor