How long can you hold a plank? In case you missed it, an athlete from Canada recently broke the world record. She held her plank for four hours and twenty minutes.
Like me, you may be asking yourself why? And…how is that even humanly possible?
The why is beyond me.
But there are some obvious how’s. A lot of dedicated time and hard training to prepare. And a tremendous amount of willpower to hold still for so long.
What’s not obvious is what’s happening beneath her skin during the plank. That impressive feat was possible because of a group of isometric muscular contractions (IMCs).
An IMC is when a muscle neither shortens (concentric) or lengthens (eccentric). Thus, no movement occurs at your joint(s).
The plank is a great example of an exercise you can use to train your isometric strength.
And there are plenty of good reasons to develop this quality. Because your body uses and needs IMCs to function in sports and in everyday activities.
In sports, the more you gain control over your body, the less limitation you will have in your performance. IMC strength is the main contributor allowing you to control your movement. Especially your ability to dissociate one joint from another.
In daily life, IMCs are what help you to keep good posture when you sit, and stand. And ensures that you won’t collapse to the ground with each step you take as you walk or when picking up groceries.
Depending on the task you do, you may need to control the position of a single joint or many joints. And that could last a fraction of a second, or several minutes.
If your IMC strength is deficient in those pivotal positions, your performance suffers. And your body will break down if you’re not able to hold the right position for the right amount of time.
Unfortunately, many athletes take this crucial contraction for granted. And overlook training it to improve their capacity.
One of the main reasons people avoid isometric training is because it gets uncomfortable. That discomfort can come on quick and get more intense with every second that passes.
It stems from the high level of muscle cell recruitment that an IMC elicits. In fact, IMCs can do it better than using concentric or eccentric contractions.
In isometrics, the body is able to activate most of your available motor units. A motor unit consists of a motor neuron and all the muscle it innervates.
This high level recruitment demands a lot from your mental, neurological, and energetic capacity. So the challenge comes in focusing on keeping tension in the right places. And keeping a normal breath cycle throughout the exercise duration.
The good news is that the effort and discomfort are only temporary. So don’t run from it. Embrace isometrics for all its benefits.
3 more benefits of isometric training
Besides improving your ability to hold a position, IMC training can help you to:
- Establish a better mind-body (muscle) connection. This is critical in rehab after an injury. And is beneficial to the re-education of dysfunctional recruitment patterns.
- Overcome deficiencies in strength at certain ranges of motion. Especially in any pressing or pulling motion.
- Get past roadblocks in improving your flexibility and mobility.
How to incorporate isometric training into your program
A short, dedicated time allotment (5-10 minutes total) of IMC training, 3-4 days per week can be a game changer. So you can put it into your program with ease.
Some isometric training is better done for a short duration at moderate-to-high intensity. Usually from 2 seconds and up to 30 seconds.
While others are long-duration (> 30 sec.) at low-to-moderate intensity.
The duration and intensity you choose depends most on what your objectives are. And your starting point of strength is an important factor to consider.
Either way, a level of discomfort comes with the territory. Especially when you do it right.
Perfect practice makes perfect. So stop while you’re ahead.
Remember, quality always over quantity. The isometric training process can create fatigue fast. And with fatigue comes weakness and subsequent compensation.
If you allow compensation to happen, then you strengthen that compensation. Because that pattern gets imprinted in your nervous system.
So be sure to stop yourself short before your form falters. Your breathing mechanics, posture position, and voluntary muscular tension must be perfect.
Modes of isometric training
You may have a deficiency in strength at a certain range of motion in an exercise. So you can isolate that range using isometrics to build that precise strength.
It can be in a bench press, pull-up, squat, or deadlift. Find a sticking point and hold it for six to eight seconds.
One of the greatest perks of isometric training is that you don’t need gym equipment to do it.
You can use your own bodyweight in many exercises. All the varieties of planks and angles of a lunge can build tremendous functional strength.
If you keep hitting a roadblock in your mobility, then it’s likely a strength issue at that range. When you apply directed isometric tension while in at that range, you will build strength. And get past that nagging roadblock.
Before you start
Measure your baseline isometric strength to learn what needs your attention. And use it to track your progress.
Here are a few basic exercise examples to test the quality of your IMCs:
- Side plank
- Tall prone plank
- Single leg balance
To help you discover how you measure up, I’ve put together a self-assessment that comes with my Search and Rescue Mobility (SARM) program.
With it, you will establish a baseline with your isometric strength. Then, you’ll receive a daily routine to help you improve. So you can better your athletic performance and prevent injury.
Many, if not all, the SARM exercises involve isometric training. And the tutorial videos are all easy to access on the Athlete for Life app.
Get yours here.
As always, stay athletic.