Isometric Exercise (Braking)
By Donny Shankle
An isometric exercise (or what I call braking) does not utilize a range of motion; instead, you are held in a fixed position for a determined length of time. There are two types of isometric exercises you can use in training to improve strength. They are overcoming isometrics and yielding isometrics. Overcoming isometrics is exerting force against an immovable object. Yielding isometrics would be pausing or putting the brakes on at a designated position of the lift. These exercises, especially yielding isometrics, are great for weightlifters still in the beginner to intermediate levels of training. Strength is still catching up with efficiency at this time and it is useful in the beginning to introduce these new challenges.
I have used a few overcoming isometric exercises during periods of injury. After recovering from a fractured vertebrae in my neck, I would have someone give me resistance with a towel wrapped around my head. A training partner would try and pull my head forward and I would try and pull him back. This same idea was applied to both sides of the head as well as me trying to pull him forward to strengthen my neck. After a dislocated shoulder, one way I brought some initial strength back into my arm was to stand in a doorway with the back of my hands on each side. Here I would push out feeling the muscles work. However, overcoming isometrics do not have to be strictly limited to intermediate level lifters or periods of injury. Arthur Drechsler (author of The Weightlifting Encyclopedia) showed me a great overcoming isometric exercise. In a power rack set the pins to the exact height where you receive a Clean. Then, set another pair of pins directly beneath this height with a bar resting on them. Get underneath the bar and try to squat it up as hard as you can. Hold your back straight, stay off your toes, and push the elbows up. This exercise will help you establish a straight back and better allow you to maintain the proper alignment throughout the duration of the Clean.
The more common variation of isometric exercise I have used would be yielding. There are three main ways I have brought this exercise into play. The first and most common type is pulling to a determined height from the floor and braking it there for a minimum of two seconds. This is followed with either completing the lift or bringing the bar back down to the floor. If the weightlifter is being pulled forward to the toes for example, have him or her practice this type of isometric exercise. There are multiple heights beneficial to pull to. I like to pull to just above mid shin, to the knee and to the hip. The chest and shoulders are still in front of the bar at any point you choose to brake. This keeps the tension on the back, increasing the stress, and eventually improving strength.
I am not a fan of using pause squats as an isometric exercise but I do see their value for advanced level weightlifters. Initially all concentration must be on mastering the stretch reflex with bar oscillation. Along with having strong legs this is how you stand up with heavy Cleans. An advanced level weightlifter should be able to Clean with a stretch reflex on every attempt. Since efficiency is at a point it can no longer improve then an increase in stress to improve strength using isometric variation is fine. A pause squat is holding the bottom of a squat for a minimum of two seconds before standing. The hips, back and legs are put under tremendous stress making them stronger.
Braking on a dip during a Jerk is the other most common isometric exercise I have used. Here the weightlifter moves into the dip of a Jerk but does not always drive out of it. A drive can follow after a minimum of a two second hold or you can return the bar to the floor. A Clean + Dip (2 seconds) + Jerk would be an example isometric exercise to help get the weightlifter off their toes during a Jerk. The straighter you are able to keep your dip and drive during a Jerk the better. Another way I have used isometrics during a dip would be when I go very heavy from the blocks. A pretty significant increase in weight is used here from what you can actually Jerk. The muscles and joints are put under tremendous stress preparing them later on for much lighter weights. Add a minimum of fifteen kilos to the bar going off your best Jerk. Pick the bar up from the blocks and dip holding it for at least two seconds. Fight to keep the chest up and back straight as you are braking during the dip. After you drive up return the weights back to the blocks. This isometric exercise can be performed from the five points and from behind the neck.
On a side note be sure to incorporate any variation gradually. Beginner level weightlifters are still learning how to move and the muscles are still adapting. Even advanced level weightlifters should move into isometric exercise slowly if they are not familiar with the variation. Yielding isometrics should be slowly assimilated and negatives should be trained alongside them. The combination keeps the weightlifter engaged and strengthens the lifter’s ability to find the correct positions to brake. All isometric variation should be completely dropped the closer competition approaches. During spans of training directly preceding competition your concentration shifts to making lifts perfectly and fast. In the four month paradigm I use leading into competition some isometric exercise is used three to four months out. This variation not only strengthens the body but improves self-esteem. You can either choose to black out or toughen up and turn the spotlights on. Once you are safely using very heavy weights during braking along with completing attempts confidence soars and new personal record lifts are not far away.