Advanced Isometric Training: Ballistic and Quasi Isometrics

By on May 22, 2019

I love cool, lesser talked-about types of training, that can help you to achieve awesome results. Isometrics ticks all those boxes and then some. And in this post, I’m going to share two even lesser known forms of isometrics that might make a huge difference to your strength.

Ballistic Isometrics

But first a quick recap.

Isometrics are contractions with no movement. These come in two flavors: overcoming isometrics and yielding isometrics. The former refers to an isometric contraction against an immovable object: trying to bend an iron bar for instance or push down a tree like the Indian wrestler Gama. The latter kind – yielding isometrics – refers to any attempt to hold a position against resistance: such as when holding a handstand, or keeping a barbell halfway above your chest with arms bent during a bench press.

Both kinds of contraction have their benefits. But it is overcoming isometrics that will help you to increase your max strength without necessarily increasing muscle size. This is accomplished by increasing your ability to recruit motor units in the muscle. In other words, the nervous system adapts to enable you to use your muscle more totally.

This also occurs during a 1 rep maximum. Here you use 100% of your available force to move a weight – thus training yourself to use your muscle at maximum efficiency. But the limitation here, is that during a one rep maximum, the maximum force within the muscle only occurs for a couple of milliseconds – at the most difficult point of the movement. What sets an overcoming isometric apart is that this maximum contraction is continuous, allowing for a truly max effort.

Overcoming isometrics

The results speak for themselves: most old-time strongmen used some form of overcoming isometrics to be able to pull off their amazing feats. Modern strongman Dennis Rogers has done the same to the point of exceeding even elite athletes in his motor recruitment. As I’ve discussed often, this was also a key component of Bruce Lee’s training.

To utilize overcoming isometrics to their fullest, you should aim to hold each contraction for around 6 seconds. You should train multiple joint angles (as the area of affect is only somewhere between 10-30 degrees), and you should avoid using overcoming isometrics for more than 10 minutes total during a workout. This is especially true of compound movements like the squat and bench press.

But how can we take this concept even further with two additional forms of isometrics?

Ballistic Isometrics

Ballistic isometrics are sometimes also referred to as explosive isometrics. Either way, you might be forgiven for thinking that this sounds like a contradiction. I have mentioned these before, but we’re going to be using them now in a slightly different way.

The idea is that you are going to try to recruit max effort as quickly as possible against the immovable object – exploding into the effort and thereby potentially increasing your starting strength and ability to quickly reach top power for explosive movements.

You can of course rep these out, holding the contraction only very briefly, or combine these concepts so that you start the contraction as explosively as possible. But there is another way to incorporate ballistic isometrics too.

Incidental training grip

If you try to generate as much force as you can for 6 seconds – measuring it with a hand dynamometer say – you will inevitably find that it begins to taper off toward the end as your muscle fibers fatigue and give out. If you started at 60kg, you might finish at a lower 48kg.

But now try making a conscious effort to explosively contract again and you’ll find you actually do have a little force left in the tank and you can bump it back up to 55kg say. In other words, by adding ballistic isometrics during a longer overcoming isometric, you can recruit more muscle fiber in total.

Why? Because the nervous system never allows you to recruit 100% of your muscle fiber, or even 100% of your larger, fast-twitch containing motor units. There are always some left in reserve to prevent injury and to conserve energy. So as you start to fatigue the motor units you are currently using, you can send a new neural drive to recruit even more large ones. In doing so, you dig deeper, recruit more strength, and force more neural adaptations!

Quasi Isometrics

At the other end of the spectrum, we have quasi isometrics, which have more in common with yielding isometrics.

Qausi Isometrics Slow Pull Up

The idea in this case is to move through a complete range of motion as slowly as possible, potentially taking minutes to complete a pull up or press up. This is much harder than it may at first sound.

This does numerous things. Firstly, it trains you to much more finely control the amount of force you are exerting during the movement. You need to recruit and/or release just the right amount of motor units to gradually raise or lower your body. Secondly, it forces you to maintain full concentration through the entire range of motion, and to feel the feedback from your muscles as you do – many people say this can help to fix technique issues.

Finally, it forces you to contract your muscle continuously during the stretch position, which is well known to elicit hypertrophy and strength gains.

Overcoming Isometric

In short: if overcoming and explosive isometrics build brute force and power, quasi isometrics can be used to develop finesse and precision. Combine both and you can begin to control your muscles in a way that even strength athletes rarely manage.

To get started, aim for around 30% of your 1RM or use bodyweight to avoid injury. Then aim for a 30 second concentric and same for eccentric. During the lowering phase you can choose to use ‘active’ or ‘passive’ contractions. Active means that you’re engaging as much force and muscle control as possible, passive means you’re attempting to relax and only use the necessary strength. The former is better for hypertrophy – effectively being similar to a negative rep – while the latter can improve strength and control. Proponents like Maxick tell us that muscle relaxation can similarly contribute to muscle control and strength and of course this can improve your overall efficiency and endurance – this would be an ideal exercise for a rock climber.

Avoid extremely complex movements that put you in a compromised position – this technique is not suitable for deadlifts for instance. A good way to use them is at the end of a workout as a kind of finisher, especially as they will use a large proportion of slow twitch fiber.

Supinated support hold

These aren’t the only methods for improving muscle control and fiber recruitment. The aforementioned Maxick and Maxalding method is something I’d like to look into in future, as is electromyostimulation. If that sounds interesting… stay tuned!

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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