January 19, 2010

Dynamic Tension; or, Must Be Hard Work: Making Yourself Miserable Without Moving a Muscle!

Atilla had a new set of exercises for me today. Let me tell you about them. Misery shared is misery halved, right?


She brought in the usual light weights to use with my heavier set, her yoga mat, the step, all the normal torture devices. She then proceeded to do something completely different with them.

It's called "isometrics". It's also known as "static action exercise" or "Dynamic Tension," a la Chuck Atlas.

Isometrics involves keeping a muscle under strain in one position only. Sometimes, as in a plank or side-plank, you can stress multiple muscles at once (abs, shoulders, triceps). Other times, as in an isometric bicep curl, you stress only one muscle.

So what's the benefit to isometric exercise? Do they work? How can I, (you ask) the faithful Cranky Fitness reader, reap the benefits of standing and doing what seems like nothing, or lying and doing what seems like nothing?

Isometric exercise is nice because it changes things up. Let's face it: unless you have the weirdest job in the world, you're probably not going to have much use for strengthening a muscle only in one position. That's what an isometric exercise does: it strengthens the muscles used in the position in which those muscles are held. However, that sort of bizarre (from your muscles' point of view) demand can shake 'em up, make 'em wake up, and help push you through a strength plateau.

As for whether or not they work, consider this: Charles Atlas built an empire (which continues to this day) on isometrics. Yoga and Pilates have isometric components. An acquaintance of mine, an honest-to-Frog Olympic gymnast, tells stories of the Russians in the 1970's and 1980's doing their isometric insanities on the sidelines of the world championships. Isometrics alone won't make you the strongest man or woman in the world, but they can sure help you hold heavy things in one position for a long time.

So: how to manage an isometric exercise? Easy. Grab your five pound barbell and lie down on the floor. Put the barbell between your ankles and lie back down. Ready?

Sit up in a V-shape, steadying yourself with your hands if necessary (and boy do I find it necessary), and hold that position for, oh, forty-five seconds. Or fifteen. Or five. Whatever you can manage is fine; this is tough at first.

Or, grab an eight-pound weight. Hold it out straight from your shoulder (don't lock your elbow) for thirty seconds or so.

For real, true morning-after misery, assume the squat position. Hold it without moving for as long as you can.

If you're an advanced adherent of static action exercise, you can try this: (NOTE: I am not recommending that anybody try this exercise without a spotter, a mat, and an ambulance standing by. I've done it a few times and have always fallen flat on my face. Cranky Fitness, LLC, assumes no responsibility for plastic surgery bills, uproarious laughter, or public humiliation incurred by performing the following move. Always exercise with a buddy. Check with your health-care provider before doing anything this dumb.)

Face away from a wall. Put your hands on the floor. Walk your feet up the wall until they form an angle that doesn't kill you. Hold that position until you either fall over or somebody comes to rescue you.

Advanced version: Bend your arms slightly at the elbows.

Super-Advanced version: Have a cat jump up on to your back at a critical moment.

It's easy! It's fun! It's a strength-increasing, plateau-busting, muscle-building extravaganza! It's isometrics! And the best thing about the whole deal is that it's very, very difficult to trip over anything in the gym when you're not actually moving.


    Im all in favor of anything lately that will help me BUSTBURSTBREAK out of my muscle adding plateau :)

    three cheers for Atilla.
    you soresoresore?

  2. So much ouch. We used to have to do wall-sits for crew. It was pretty much punishment. I'm sure we did them at non-punishment times, but, in memory, punishment is where they reside.

  3. UMMMM How you place barbells between your ankles AND sit up in a V??

  4. Ahhh, one of Tim Curry's finest moments...

    Isometrics sound painful. But then again, everything Attila makes you do sounds painful.


  5. It sounds tough, but it reminds me of how holding yoga poses can really work the muscles even though you're not moving. As for that V exercise: Are you holding the dumbbell between your ankles while balancing? That's a whole other level of coordination, Jo.

  6. ah ha! another rower! :) Amy.. ever have to do jumpies at the slowest pace you could imagine?

  7. Rocky Horror! These exercises would be great done to the tune of "I Will Make You a Man." Wish I had one of those vault horses.

  8. Finally after all these years--and viewings of "Rocky Horror"--I know what dynamic tension is.

  9. I like. I got some resistance bands and push up bars for christmas. I'm trying to switch up my muscle workouts. This is defeinitely soemt hing to add...

  10. That bit about the cat jumping on your back at a critical moment made me laugh! Mine are always doing that. The laughter is good for you though, right?

  11. Love it! I'll add one cat plus one 3 year old jumping on your back. My boy loves to make my planks into his trampoline and my downward facing dog into a slide. Oy vey. The cat is particularly fond of the time I spend doing ab work on my big ball.

    Does this count as isometrics? Because I remember it as a particularly horrid torture from my volleyball days. Get yourself a round stick about 24" long. Drill a hole in the middle. Tie rope through hole. Tie other end of rope to something heavy (gallon of water, couple bricks, what have you). Hold the stick out in front of you, arms parallel to the ground. Now, keeping arms straight and elbows slightly bent, use your wrists to twist the stick and roll the rope up until the weight reaches the stick. Then reverse. Makes my arms ache just thinking about it.

    Uh-oh. Hope I didn't just give Atilla a new idea for your torture!

  12. If you are laughing so hard at a Cranky post that you have to pee and you hold it in is that dynamic tension?

  13. Another Rocky Horror fan checking in. Let's all Do The Time Warp Again, shall we?

    I don't know why I loathe isometric exercise, but the fact that I do probably means it's good for me. And I'm totally with Amy in the wall sits = torture camp.

    I used to be jealous that I don't have an Atilla but now I think I'm pretty much just grateful.


  14. Very great post. Although, the super hard for me would be having my doggies in my face and still stay up (er, upside down? Is that right?) without falling with laughter. Or having the doggies jump up on me.

    Sounds like torture. She's not called Atilla for nothing, right? I will try it as soon as I get to a plateau! lol.

  15. I secretly think that personal trainers invented isometrics for the pleasure of watching others do things to make them look foolish. I always feel like I'm being Punk'd when I have to do one of these.

  16. I am not sure I am getting this correct, "Face away from the wall. Then put hands on floor and then walk feet up wall." Correct? and then you are doing a handstand that maybe is leaning a bit??? Thanks for the motivating post!

  17. Isometrics are great, but be careful because your primary mover such as the quadriceps will get exhausted and you will transfer the stress into and undesirable area.

    Other suggested uses of static holds are after you complete your set. Lets say you did 12 lunges, once completed hold the lung for 10- 45 seconds. You will never experience a burn like this.

  18. I remember reading somewhere that Houdini used isometrics.

    If it was good enough for him, it should be worth trying.

  19. Love the post & changing it up is always good! It is amazing how hard that stuff can be! OK, now I want to try that wall thing! I am going to!!!! I will not hold you responsible but maybe Attila! :-)

  20. Love the super-advanced move... :)

  21. Will try, but I am sure you'll hear my screams from NY!

  22. I really like isometrics. They never fail to challenge me when I do them. I just several more seconds and I bring more misery to my self. Teehee!

  23. Isometrics, Static Contraction Training... all the same sh*t. Still, if peppered into your routines, they do have their place. For the dudes, it's also fun because you can push some SERIOUS weights with these methods.

  24. My cat loves to do yoga with me...or at least lie under me so if I fall, I will crush him. Makes for interesting contortions sometimes. Love the RHPS!

  25. Great post, JO!

    I've added isometric "dips" to my shoulder rehab. LOVE Them.

    (I hold the straight arm full press position until every muscle in the shoulder girdle speak up and complains.)

    I hate me my wall sit days. (oh, joy it's today.) Unless I can reward myself with something too much fun afterward. Also today? agility ladder...


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