Category Archives: Adam Vogel
We already know what you’re thinking.
If we were trying to come up with an article topic that would simultaneously draw the ire of the entire strength and conditioning world, destroy our credibility, and raise the estrogen levels of anyone unfortunate enough to lay their eyes upon it, bodyweight isometrics would hit the bull’s-eye.
Hear us out. We’re not suggesting that you trade in your Chuck’s for stretchy yoga pants and soy lattes. We’re not even suggesting that you change a single repetition in your weight-training program at all.
This article is about leveraging the benefits of an extremely powerful training tool that’s been used by bodybuilders, Russian power athletes, and Olympic gymnasts for centuries. So wipe out any preconceived notions you might have of what bodyweight training is all about.
Enter the World of Isometrics
Bodybuilding legend Charles Atlas first introduced isometrics to the fitness world in the 1920s under the term, “dynamic tension.” Atlas seemingly did quite well for himself with isometrics, earning both a reputation for being the best-built man in the world and a small fortune from sales of his program detailing how to use them.
The popularity of isometrics surged again in the 1950s after a study by Hettinger and Mueller showed that a small dose of daily isometrics could increase strength by 5% per week for up to 10 weeks. But somewhere between the 1960s and today, isometrics seemingly disappeared from mass circulation.
Although isometrics have managed to maintain their popularity among power athletes, their role has been significantly downgraded to the rehabilitative setting and breast enhancement programs for flat-chested women.
The Way of the Isometric
Adequately defining isometrics can be problematic; the best we can do is to say that it’s a movement. As such, it occurs when the force produced by a muscle is exactly equal to the external load imposed on it. But that’s not to say that there’s no movement at all.
I think the Bee Gee’s said it best when they observed that when an “irresistible force meets an immovable object… blood starts to flow.” And it does, as do nerve impulses, calcium ions, sliding actin, and myosin filaments, as well as all the other internal processes that must occur to produce a muscular contraction.
The carryover benefits of isometric training on dynamic lifts have been well documented. For decades, Russian coaches have advocated a strength regime that consists of 75% concentrics, 15% eccentrics, and 10% isometrics.
Why would the Russians devote so much time to this style of training?
Because they knew (and we know) that isometric exercises can be more effective than dynamic ones for building strength movements that require muscle contractions of large magnitude during particular stages.
Where would that fit into weight training? Perhaps at the bottom of a deadlift, the midpoint of a bench press, or the lock out in an overhead jerk?
During a dynamic exercise, the application of maximal force that can be achieved at any one joint angle is transient at best. Static contractions, on the other hand, allow you to focus on a specific joint angle and blast it with the type of sustained stress necessary for neuromuscular adaptations to occur.
As an additional benefit, many claim the strength that’s produced at any particular joint angle has a 10-15% carryover above and below that position.
There are many different ways you can add isometrics into your program, depending on your goals. Powerlifters and strength athletes have used chopped-up versions of their competition lifts to perform static holds with maximal weight in a position of emphasis.
This is usually accomplished by performing overcoming isometrics, in which the bar is pushed or pulled against an immovable object like a squat rack, or yielding isometrics, where a maximal weight is prevented from falling to the ground.
While these methods can be an incredibly effective means for building strength and power for these particular patterns, the lack of a need for body awareness or strategic placement makes them less applicable for non-strength athletes like football players, MMA fighters, or for general physical preparedness.
One method to address this is to pair static gymnastics-based holds with our athlete’s dynamic exercises. Using these types of holds allows for similar levels of muscle activation as standard isometric movements, but with the added benefit of improving overall body control, core activation, and body awareness.
If you have any doubts, spend two-minutes watching a collegiate level or higher gymnastic meet and you’ll quickly come around. Not only do they look like bodybuilders, with well-defined muscles and incredibly low body fat levels, they’re also some of the strongest pound-for-pound athletes in the world.
The weightroom exploits of gymnasts are legendary. Consider 140-pound gymnasts who could crush 300-pound + bench presses and triple-bodyweight deadlifts without ever having touched a weight in practice before. Conversely, there aren’t many 300-pound bench-pressers rocking iron crosses their first time out.
Below are three gymnastics-based exercises that will give you the biggest bang for your buck.
L-Sits and Front Levers
The L-sit is a staple exercise in gymnastics core-conditioning programs, forming the basis for the more advanced parallel bar and ring maneuvers. It includes elements of active posterior chain flexibility, static abdominal strength, and a remarkable level of shoulder girdle and upper arm support strength.
L-sits are probably the most humbling abdominal exercise on the planet. No amount of sit-ups, bent-leg raises, or front planks can ever truly prepare you for the feelings of feebleness that accompanies most people’s first attempt with this exercise.
The L-sit is pure badassery. Along with forging a set of Kevlar-coated abdominals, working the L-Sit position can do wonders for your front squat, deadlift, and any other exercise that relies on hip flexor and knee extensor strength.
Here’s a great progression that will get you started on your journey toward building a strong and functional midsection:
Phase One: Tuck Hold
Support yourself between two benches with your arms straight, and torso in an upright position. Raise both legs (bent) to at least parallel, if not a little higher.
Phase Two: Low L-Sit
Using the same setup, raise both legs (straight) to a level just below parallel. This will pull the quadriceps more into the mix, setting you up for the next variation.
Phase Three: Full L-Sit
The full L-sit is usually performed from the floor. The goal here is to keep both your legs off the ground, at or above hip height for 5-10 seconds. Once you’ve mastered the L-sit, make sure to congratulate yourself as this is no small task – you’ve officially earned the privilege to refer to your abs as a “Situation.”
The front lever is the gold standard in total body strength development, requiring upper body pulling power, core control, and the ability to subjugate the physical properties of the universe by sheer force of will.
It involves holding your entire body in a rigid horizontal plank on a pull-up bar, with your arms straight and your back parallel to the floor, giving you the Jedi-like appearance of floating on air. Achieving this position requires a Herculean effort from your lats, abdominals, hip flexors, and scapular stabilizers.
This is one of the hardest total body exercises out there, so a tight progression that works up to the final product is a must. Before you jump into hanging variations of the front lever, it’s helpful to get a “feel” for the exercise by practicing the basic positions on a bench or the ground first.
Tucked Front Lever to Single-leg Lever
Beginning from an inverted hang position, slowly lower your body until your back is parallel to the floor. Consciously tense your armpits and pull downwards (towards the bar) while retracting your shoulder blades. Once you’re able to maintain this position for at 5-10 seconds, begin to reach one leg out in an alternating fashion.
A word of caution, these are tough, demonstrating the power of disadvantageous leverages and bodyweight isometrics. If you can’t get one leg out, follow the L-sit progression until you’re comfortable in the tuck for 30 seconds straight and try again. At this point, you should have enough strength to attempt the movement.
Full Front Lever
Assuming you’ve already turned a few heads at the gym with your single-leg lever, get ready to start blowing people’s minds by extending your other leg out straight to complete the full front lever position. This is an extremely difficult position to get into, and you only need to hold it for 1-2 seconds to officially claim it as yours.
As you can see, bodyweight isometrics aren’t all wall squats and front planks borrowed from a geriatric training program. Applied correctly, they can be powerful training tools with multiple benefits that go well beyond increasing muscular endurance.
They may even be a more effective means of developing overall strength, power, and body control than traditional weight-based movements. Just don’t tell anyone at the gym we said that, okay?
Ever hear a trainer try to explain why their client can’t get below parallel on a squat? Once you get past the token explanations about bad knees, aching backs, or tight body parts, the next issue is usually the hips.
It’s no secret that to have a great squat, you have to have great hip mobility. Unfortunately, saying that you need hip mobility to squat deep is like saying you need a lot of money to be rich; merely acknowledging that you need it doesn’t make it so. As any personal-finance guru will tell you, if you’re going to get rich, you’d better have a plan.
The hips have many different functions. They must be both stable and mobile at different times and in different planes, along with being able to abduct, adduct, extend, and rotate on demand. But when we discuss hip mobility in the context of the squat, what we’re really talking about is hip flexion.
Hip flexion is the technical term for a decrease in joint angle between the femur and pelvis. This occurs from either side of the joint, by raising the leg towards the abdomen – like when you run – or by lowering the upper body toward the leg – like when you squat down.
If you want to have any chance of squatting below parallel with a weight on your back, then you’re going to need at least 110-125 degrees of hip flexion. Achieving full squat depth with anything less than full range of motion at the hip requires your body to make a number of biomechanical compromises.
Following the joint-by-joint approach, when the hip lacks flexion, the joints above it (the lumbar spine), and below it (the knee) will overcompensate to make up the difference.
It’s something of a Ponzi scheme our bodies have developed, robbing stability from one joint to provide mobility for another. But while this type of compensated movement may allow you to achieve certain positions, it puts excessive strain on the back and knees.
When your body isn’t ready for these positions, the repetitive stress eventually leads to structural overload, inflammation, and a long-term relationship with your orthopedic surgeon. Show me a guy who says that squats hurt his knees or tweak his back and I’ll show you a guy with a hip mobility problem.
Typically when we see lifters struggling to reach full depth during a squat we immediately think of the posterior chain – tight hamstrings, glutes, lower back, etc. Yet limitations in hip flexion can come from the front or the back, depending on what’s being restricted. Hip restrictions come in three main flavors – muscular, capsular, and structural (bone) – each requiring different solutions.
Structural restrictions occur when the femoral head and neck don’t “fit” properly into the acetabulum (the cup-shaped cavity at the base of the pelvis). Because this is often a genetic trait, sometimes you can’t do anything about it other than curse your parents for passing you their lackluster DNA.
However, these can also form as the result of increased exposure to activities that promote anterior pelvic tilt, like hockey and distance running. The forward tilting of the pelvis is usually the result of a shortening and tightening of the hip flexors and lumbar erectors, coupled with a lengthening and weakening of the glutes and abdominals. Vladimir Janda labeled this “lower cross-syndrome.”
This type of alignment sets the bottom of the pelvis on a crash course with the top of the femur every time you flex your hip. According to Janda, to fix this faulty posture, the tight hip flexors must first be inhibited through stretching and massage followed by strengthening exercises for the glutes and lower abdominals.
Exercises and articles on glute and abdominal strengthening are a plenty and don’t require much repeating – basically, don’t skimp on your planks, leg raises, bridges, and deadlifts.
Here are two drills to help melt away the layer of ice that’s likely formed around the front of your hip over the last decade:
Hip Flexor Stretch (Wall or Bench)
This is one of the most effective and universally-despised stretches ever. Perhaps this is because most lifters’ hip flexors are shorter than Gary Coleman ducking under a subway turnstile, or maybe they just don’t put enough effort into their stretches. Either way, grab a bench or a wall, pour yourself a glass of Scotch, and settle into position for 2-3 minutes a side.
Psoas Active Release with Plate
Psoas stretches might be a dime-a-dozen, but soft-tissue techniques are almost nonexistent. Because the psoas sits so deep within the body, it can be very difficult to access through touch. Here’s an easy way to get pressure onto this stubborn muscle using a common weight plate and some elbow grease.
Make sure to place the weight plate slightly off center, between the ribs and the pelvis. I like to center the pressure about two-inches from the belly button laterally, and about one-inch down. Once you feel weight pressing on the psoas, move your leg through hip flexion activation to breakup any scar tissue or fascial tightness.
Perhaps the least talked about or understood cause of limited mobility is tightness in the joint capsule itself. Like all synovial joints, the hip is encased in a flexible membrane – like a piece of fruit suspended in a bowl of Jell-O – that provides the hip with an additional layer of flexible support.
This membrane is referred to as your joint capsule. Although it might not receive much attention, it’s one of the most important pieces in the mobility puzzle. When the capsule becomes stiff and tight, it compresses the articulating surfaces of the joint and alters what’s called accessory joint movement.
Accessory movements at the capsular level are necessary for larger physiological movements like flexion or abduction to occur normally. For example, to avoid impinging the anterior capsule and psoas tendon during hip flexion, a slight posterior glide of the femur must occur. Without it, the joint must compress against these structures to achieve its goal of moving.
That brings us to the wonderful world of joint mobilization! This phrase gets thrown around a lot in the strength and conditioning world as a stand-in for any exercise that purports to improve range of motion.
However, joint mobilizations are actually very specific techniques that involve applying angled pressure to a joint to manually create accessory movement, stretch the joint capsule, and decompress the surrounding tissue.
Traditionally performed by a manual therapist with the assistance of a traction belt, many joint mobilizations can be recreated by yourself with a little bit of know-how and a two-inch stretch band.
Bottom-up Hamstring Stretch with Band
Loop a stretch band around a squat cage. Place your leg through the middle of the band, pulling it to where your hip and leg meet. Walk away from the cage, causing the band to stretch.
Once you have a good amount of tension, place the band-leg forward and the free leg back. Bring your hands to the ground, bending both knees. Then, keeping your hands in a fixed position, begin to straighten the knees as much as possible, pushing the hips back toward the cage. Repeat for 15-20 cycles.
Top-Down Forward Bend with Band
Starting from the same setup as the bottom-up mobilization, this time keep both legs straight and reach forward to touch the toes of the forward foot. Press your hips back toward the cage as you lean forward. Repeat for 15-20 cycles.
Squat with Band
Here the band is in the same position around the upper leg, but the anchor is lower to the ground (about 6-8 inches from the floor) so the tension is directed back and down. Walk away from the cage to increase band tension at the hip and perform 10-15 deep squats for each leg.
Last but not least are muscular restrictions. These are the big men on campus in the strength and conditioning world, receiving much of the attention from both trainers and clients.
These fall into three categories. First are soft-tissue entrapment issues, where tissue becomes gnarled or stuck together, like in the case of trigger points and myofascial adhesions. Second are problems with excessive stiffness or resistance to changes in length. Finally, problems involving muscle length, where a muscle has actually lost sarcomeres and therefore has become shorter.
Restrictions in the hamstrings, glutes, or lower back can all limit hip flexion. I find that a lacrosse ball works best to free-up entrapment issues, while a stretch band works best on length and stiffness problems.
High Hamstring Mash
The proximal hamstring attachments on the backside of the pelvis exist in an area of high stress and tension in the body, making them prone to stiffness and adhesions. Compound that with the eight or more hours most people spend sitting directly on this area each day – squishing it like an overstuffed flatbread Panini – and you have plenty of room for problems to occur.
To free up this area, place a lacrosse ball directly under the glute fold (slightly closer to inside) and then sit on something hard (insert your own jokes here) like a plyo block or the floor. Roll back and forth over the hamstring attachment, ungluing the ugly mess of matted down tissue that has likely formed there.
Loop a 1-inch stretch band about a quarter of the way up one of the columns on a squat cage. Lie down in front of the cage, with your head directly under the band and put one foot through the looped band. Keeping your leg straight, push the band down to the floor and then slowly control the movement back to the top. The heavy eccentric load forces a controlled lengthening of the posterior hip and hamstring, thereby increasing flexibility and decreasing stiffness.
Summing up, limitations at the bottom range of your squat can be coming from the backside of the pelvis through stiffness or adhesion, or the front side through capsular restriction and decreased accessory motion. Identifying the source of the restriction will have an obvious effect on correcting the limitations in range, as will taking the course of action described in this article.