What Really Happens In The Gym

When you go to the gym, you see primarily two things happening: people pulling weights off the floor, and people pushing weights into the air. These two actions pretty much govern the entirety of someone’s training regime in the gym. There is of course nothing wrong with this, after all, pulling and pushing things around means that you are utilizing your muscles and taxing your body. For you, this all means continuous gains in size and strength. But, what if there was a third way?

That’s a bit of a head scratcher! I mean, what else would you do in the gym apart from picking things up and putting them back down? Well, you could always just hold the weight. I know, it sounds a little far-fetched when you think about it, everyone in the gym just holding the weights. Imagine, walking into the gym and seeing everyone doing just that. It would make for a very weird sight! The truth is, there is actually lots of hidden value in this manner of training. It’s just that I have never, in my experience, seen anyone else utilize this type of training. But, it’s supposed to be awesome for size and strength gains.

Muscle Action: What Is Happening In The Background

When you pick things up, and put things back down, your joints are moving. This movement translates into changes in the length of your muscles. The changes in muscle length, means your muscles are always switching between shortened and lengthened states. A muscle in a shortened state is contracted, while a muscle in a lengthened state is relaxed. When a muscle contracts (a concentric action), certain things within that muscle occur that allow it to produce force (don’t worry about the tricky details!). If a muscle is relaxed (an eccentric), then it’s not producing force, but rather, its internal machinery is storing energy and preparing for when it is required to contract. Essentially, it is this constant interplay between contracted and relaxed muscle states that allow you to do work in and out of the gym. Pretty simple!

“Your muscles are always switching between shortened and lengthened states”.

When considering a muscle, many people forget about a third state. To be honest, this is understandable, as it’s not very obvious! This third state occurs when the muscle is producing force, but its length is not actually changing. That is usually why it is sometimes hard to spot, the muscle is doing something, but there is no observable change in its length. This nice little third state is known as isometric muscle action. In an isometric muscle action, you would think that on the surface, your muscles are just being lazy. But inside the muscle, there is actually a lot of activity going on. Activity you can take advantage of, to make more gains in size and strength.

Meet Isometric Stretching For Strength And Size

If you are looking to make new gains in size and strength, then isometric stretching seems to be gaining significant ground as a new method of weight training. The good thing is, the idea around isometric stretch training is actually very simple. In a nutshell, the process involves lowering a weight to a point (eccentric muscle action) in which you can feel a stretch. Subsequently, you will then contract certain muscles to hold the weight in this position for a desired period of time (isometric muscle action). The completion of the movement then involves bringing the weight back up to its original starting position (concentric muscle action). The fundamental aspect here is the isometric stretch part of the movement. It is this maintained stretch of the muscle (s), which will lead to an array of positive performance outcomes that will serve to further enhance your size and strength gains.

“Isometric stretching seems to be gaining significant ground as a new method of weight training”.

So what can I expect through isometric stretch training? Well, you can expect a whole range of benefits! When it comes to lowering and holding the weight in a stretched position, you are actually enhancing a number of areas, more so than if you were to stick to conventional weight training. A major benefit is an enhancement in the responsiveness and excitability of your neuromuscular system (essentially, that is the interplay between your muscles and your nervous system, which in turn allow your muscles to function optimally). This heightened responsiveness can arise through a number of changes; such as increased recruitment and synchronization of motor neurons, enhanced muscle excitability, reduced muscle inhibition, more optimal force transmission through bones, tendons and muscles and, enhanced functioning of the contractile machinery in your muscles themselves. Simply put, there is better communication between and within your muscles leading to greater muscular force production. The good thing for you is, this greater force production means higher levels of strength. Strength you can utilize to further overload and tax your muscles to a greater extent. As well as this, isometric stretching can elicit positive effects such as increased protein synthesis and hormonal responses that together, act to increase muscle tissue size. The good thing is, you can then use this increased muscle size to further increase your maximum strength output. This again means more chance for you to overload and stress your body over time. Seems pretty good, right? The use of isometric stretching to increase both muscular strength and size!

Does Isometric Stretching Have A Place In Your Training?

When you look at isometric stretching, it’s clear that it can play an important role in helping you to improve both your muscular strength and size. If you at some point run into training barriers, then isometric stretch training could be a nice addition to your weightlifting. Since your goal is to gain size and strength, it then seems logical to add in isometric stretch training to elicit some of the adaptations needed to achieve this. I will be honest, when you read about isometric stretch training online, it does seem like most of it is geared primarily to helping athletes improve their performance in particular sports. However, given the benefits in terms of improved force production and protein synthesis capabilities, I would say it also deserves a chance in general size and strength training programs.

“It’s clear that it can play an important role in helping you to improve both your muscular strength and size”.

Since reading about isometric stretch training, I have been playing around with it in my own weightlifting. Although it’s not the only thing in my training routine, it does play a significant role in certain exercises that I do, particular those where I am pulling the weight, rather than pushing it. Why do I only utilize isometric stretching for some pulling exercises? A combination of reasons (mainly practical and safety): with pushing exercises, sometimes you need a spotter (not always available), if you a working in a reduced ROM with very heavy weight, again, it can be pretty risky if you don’t have a spotter. With pulling exercises, if you sense your going to fail, you can just drop the weight. On a push exercise, it’s likely you crush yourself if you’re not careful! When it comes to my isometric training, I focus mainly on rack pulls, barbell rows and barbell shrugs – all great compound exercises for back, shoulders, core and arms. The benefit of these exercises is that I can easily use a partial ROM, and thus a lot more weight! In my opinion, the degree of stretch (provided you keep yourself tight) and thus the benefits from it, are a lot more pronounced when the weight you can use is higher. In fact, when you try these exercises, you will find that the ROM doesn’t have to be large to significantly stretch the target muscle (s). The added benefit however, is that the smaller ROM, allows you to use more weight. This means, a greater stretch and, more overload!

“Your focus should be on lowering the weight (eccentric phase) and holding it at the bottom to feel the stretch (isometric phase)”.

Down below I have drawn an illustration of a typical barbell shrug and T-bar row exercise. These are probably some of the best exercises you can do for overall back thickness and, some shoulder/arm development. Most of the time, when it comes to these exercises, people will tend to stick to low weight (even less what they can comfortably handle!) and focus on bringing the barbell down, then all the way back up (full ROM). For most people, the priority is actually bringing the barbell back up and squeezing the target muscle (s) at the top! (Concentric phase). Although you will get strength and size benefits from this concentric activity, after all, you are working your muscles! You will actually get better results, focusing in the other direction. In other words, your focus should be on lowering the weight (eccentric phase) and holding it at the bottom to feel the stretch (isometric phase). In fact, the evidence currently out there suggests that the neuromuscular benefits gained from isometric training are greater than those provided through standard resistance training. In other words, isometric training seems like a nice addition to your training if you want to increase your ability to overload over time. That’s only good news for your gains!

t-bar-isometric-stretch        drawing-of-traps

When I do these exercises, I always aim for a very heavy weight, somewhere in the range of 1-3 reps, yes only 1-3 reps! Everytime I do these exercises, I always feel an immense stretch at the lower part of the exercise range (nearer the direction of the floor). The time I usually hold the stretch is about 2-3 seconds (depending on how tight I can keep myself and how much weight I am using). In fact, you won’t ever know what it feels like to activate a target muscle until you feel this kind of stretch. It’s a really great feeling! So far during my weightlifting journey, I have found some of my best gains (especially in my back) to come from purely isometric stretch training. Surprisingly, I have also found that after doing this sort of training, similar exercises that work the same muscle groups sometimes seem easier to do! (I feel stronger on them). By using heavy weight and really focusing on stretching that muscle at the lower end of the eccentric phase, you’re really activating those size and strength building pathways that will give you so much more overloading power. Not only that, but this increased neuromuscular efficiency will also translate into the ability to overload more on similar exercises. That can only be good for your size and strength gains, right?

“You’re really activating those size and strength building pathways that will give you so much more overloading power”.

You might also be wondering now, what happens if you use a heavy weight, and you can’t complete the concentric phase of the movement? In other words, you lower the bar, feel the stretch and now you need to bring the weight back up to complete the movement path. Good question! Well simply put, it doesn’t matter. Your focus here is not on peak contraction or achieving full ROM, but simply using just enough ROM, with a heavy enough weight, to really activate the stretch of the muscle and the subsequent size and strength adaptations that follow. It’s important that you use enough heavy weight to really activate the stretch, but not too much so that you can’t control the weight safely through the ROM. The trick is to make sure that at the isometric-stretch and hold phase of the exercise, you can maintain sufficient tightness of the stretched target muscle. If the weight is too much, or you increase it too quickly, then you risk loosing tightness and control over the stretch and gravity will just act to pull you down to the ground. Muscle stretching through gravity, without any actively controlled tightness on your part, is likely to result in nothing more than injury! The trick with isometric stretching is to achieve a balance between your chosen ROM, amount of weight used and, the level of tightness you can maintain during the exercise. That takes a little trial and error!

My Recommendations For Isometric Stretch Training

So far, I am feeling pretty optimistic about isometric stretch training. With the potential size and strength adaptations that can arise from such training, it seems that isometric stretching could play an important role in your general size and strength-training program. Although most of what is written on isometric stretch training focuses more on increasing athletic performance, it’s definitively something, I think, could be applied to the everyday weightlifter looking to make gains. I will be honest; I do find isometric stretch training to be a slightly more advanced manner of weightlifting. That means, it’s not something you should jump into straight away: small steps first! With isometric stretch training, I believe the best results are going to come from using compound-based exercises that allow for small ROMs, and heavy weights. This means you have to exercise really good control over your body in order to prevent something from becoming, overstretched. Stretch is good, but not to the point where you end up pulling something apart! In this case, actively controlling the stretch of your muscles against the forces of gravity. It’s important that you are able to keep tight throughout the entire exercise, and to control the weight in a smooth enough manner so that it doesn’t end up controlling you.

“It’s definitively something, I think, could be applied to the everyday weightlifter looking to make gains”.

The best time to start incorporating this style of training is after you have passed the beginner stage of weightlifting. First, learn the basic compound exercises, learn how to best engage and stabilize your body and, build up a sufficient strength base. All this together will set you up in a better, and safer position for later on, if you decide to incorporate isometric stretch training into your program. The results are great, but only if you can engage your body in the correct way. In terms of exercises, this is still an area I am investigating myself. As I build up, I will definitely be putting up more articles on the subject! For now, I definitely recommend compound based exercises for ultimate size and strength gains: rack pulls above the knee (any variation), dumbbell/barbell rows, and barbell/dumbbell shrugs. So far, I have used isometric stretching with these exercises and I have had nothing more than great results. They have really given me a boost in my size and strength gains.

If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss further some of the topics mentioned, then please feel free to leave comments down below. Whats your opinion on isometric stretch training? Do you think it would be a nice addition to your training? Let me know!