Different People, Different Results: Settling the Static Contraction Controversy

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By Matt Stone

Back in January I gathered up a group of people to test the benefits and drawbacks of a type of strength training known as “isometrics” or “static contractions.” You can read about it in the post “Strength Research Project.” The training is intriguing to say the very least, and the reviews of one of the most prominent books on the topic, Pete Sisco and John Little’s Static Contraction Training, shows a very confusing and varied array of reports of success and failure. In some reviews there are results being posted that seem impossibly good. Other reviews show not just stagnation, but regression.

While fewer people completed the 10-week trial than I had hoped, the results of this small group were, just like the reviews – incredibly varied. I would like to think that any and all controversy surrounding this methodology (and others for that matter) can be somewhat resolved with the following simple statement…

Different people have different responses to different stimuli.

I wrote this post a week ago and 70% of it got erased when I tried to post it.  Now calm, with gunbarrel removed from mouth and bomb strapped to my laptop defused, I’m re-writing it from this point forward and, to be honest, it’s going to be an abbreviated version of what I had attempted to post originally because of it.

The results that people experienced ranged from hard-to-believe amazingness to totally lackluster.  But there were some general conclusions and generalizations that can be made nonetheless.  I could really care less about the training itself, or any type of training in general, as I think there’s a much bigger message screaming at us here about individuality and the need to try new things openly.  But here’s what the training entailed…

The training was geared specifically towards increasing strength in one simple movement – the bench press.  Each subject was instructed to do a static contraction or isometric hold with maximal weight for a minimum of 5 seconds and maximum of 10 seconds.  Thus, if you could hold a weight for more than 10 seconds it was too light.  If you couldn’t hold it for 5 seconds it was too heavy.  This was how poundage was determined from one workout to the next.  All subjects were easily able to increase the weight in every range just about every workout (and keep in mind that all of these subjects were lifting weights regularly prior to the start of this experiment – not newbies).

The subjects performed one hold in each of three ranges of the benchpress.  One at the top (elbows nearly straight), one in the middle (elbows at 45-degrees), and one at the bottom (elbows at 90-degrees and the bar just above the chest).  Total exertion time – or the time the subject was to hold the weight, was 15 seconds (3 sets * 5 seconds each).  That’s it.  Weights used were recorded and a before and after 5-rep maximum on a full-range bench press was recorded as well.  There were 12 workouts in all over a 10-week period.  The frequency of the workouts started at once every 4 days, but descended in frequency until the last two workouts were 8 days apart.  So any gains in strength in the bench press was a result of holding a bar for 3 minutes.  It’s amazing that any improvements could come from such a small amount of total time spent.

While all subjects increased static strength significantly (the weights they could lift off the pins and hold for 5 seconds), not all of this strength gain translated to gains in a full range of motion.  In fact, one girl increased her static strength by over 50% but couldn’t add a single pound to her 5-rep max.  Yet, another trainee, a male that had been doing Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program to the letter for months prior to the 180 Strength Research Project, saw an absolutely incomprehensible near-30% increase in his 5-rep max after 12, 15-second workouts.  He tried static holds with squats and deadlifts and noticed similar strength gains – gains so fast that his joints and tendons couldn’t keep up with the increasing strength and started to give him problems.

So there you have it – increase your 5-rep max by 0-30% in 10 weeks!

So yes, people respond differently to different stimuli. Some will gain strength with static contractions but not mass.  Some will gain strength and lose mass.  Some will gain static strength (probably all – that’s the only assumption I think that can be made for all people) but stay the same or maybe even lose strength in a full range. Some will have more joint pain while others will have less (the results of the post-experiment survey certainly showed this).  Some will like the training and others won’t.

It’s a great lesson for training, for diet, for anything really.  Different strokes for different folks.  What we can say about Pete Sisco and John Little’s Static Contraction creation is that it is neither the biggest pile of BS ever nor is it the ultimate form of strength training that makes all else obsolete.  It is, simply, an interesting training modality that may be a great fit for certain trainees or an important addition to other types of traditional training and exercise.

20 Comments

  1. Good synopsis.

    I’ve read quite a bit about the mixed results and decided that I would continue to do normal strength training for now.

    Although, it couldn’t hurt to throw in the occasional static contraction workout.

    Reply
  2. This doesn’t surprise me. I think it shows that, like with food, there is no one exercise method that works for everyone. In fact, variety may be essential with exercise, just as a wide variety of foods is best.

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    • I remember reading an article on training methods a few years ago. The author pulled various accounts of people claiming to have found “the best” practices. Of course they varied. Some swore by low rep compound movements, others by high rep, targeted movements, some by a twice a day routine, others by once every 5-10 days, etc.

      The author points out that the one consistent part of all these accounts is the beginning, some variation of: “I was doing X method and stopped seeing gains. Then I switched to Y method, and I’ve taken it to the next level.”

      The wrong conclusion is: “Y method is superior objectively.” The better conclusion is: “The variation from X to Y made Y superior.”

      His takehome was that variety when you start to stall or lose motivation is key. No method is always and everywhere better, except in response to an individual’s history.

      It was very compatible with a 180 approach, and I’m glad I found it way back when. It kept me from becoming dogmatic about training methods and theory.

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    • I agree with that. Variety seems to be the key to all of this. We often talk about how a diet is only good for so long, well maybe thats all its supposed to be good for. We may not be designed to do the same thing all the time at all or rather maybe we are and we adapt but that adaptation ability is what interferes with our desired fitness/body composition goals. We just need to be smart enough and agile enough to accept and recognize that fact.

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  3. Static Contraction is an old John Little protocol that is impractical for most as it involves using a spotter to load a heavy amount of weight on the machines. Book even includes several photos of now convicted murderer Craig Titus.

    John later developed the Max Pyramid which uses a lower (safer) weight with multiple static hold points. There is an article on it over on the BBS website, but the best example I’ve seen is a Fred Fornicola video on YouTube.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8_TiUwJ1y8

    I’m a huge fan of static holds. No stress on the joints and you can really strong with minimal time commitment. Been doing some form for 3 years now. Never injured.

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  4. I would like to see the results under a controlled environment, as in, ME being the environment. I believe these variants could easily be explained by technique, order in which exercises were done, length of time between workouts and exactly where the “top” position was. I did Pete Sisco’s Static Contraction Training, which varied from this protocol. He says intensity is one of his keys to constant improvement, and by intensity he means heavy weight. According to him, lifting anything less than the maximum is no better than lifting soup cans, in regards to strength increases.

    Technique: I varied my grip by just by a few inches between workouts and noticed a big difference in the amount of weight I could do. I finally settled in on the best hand placement that produced the max intensity.

    Order: Performing the two extra bench press holds in this protocol (at the middle and bottom) were a waste of time because the greatest amount of weight can be done at the top portion of the lift. If the bottom and middle were done before the top then that would exhaust the muscle from achieving maximum intensity. I had to be very careful about how hard I exerted myself when trying to find my new “max” on each new workout. If I wasted a rep trying to get say, a 25lb increase, then I was done and couldn’t do any heavier weight, rather than trying a 35lb increase and being able to do it.

    Time: This is another one of his keys to success. I didn’t believe it at first but it made a huge difference for me, I later realized. From my 4th to my 5th workout my weights didn’t increase any (475lb bench press on each). I re-read his instructions and realized I had been resting for only 10 days for the past 2 workouts and he said that the time would steadily increase between workouts. I rested for 21 days and on the next workout I did 535lbs, a 60lb increase by simply doing nothing. These folks resting only 8 days after 10 weeks of training could easily explain the flatline on strength increases.

    Position: During my third workout I was noticing that the weight felt way heavier than normal, and I wasn’t even close to my max yet. I double checked the pin position, thinking that was the only variable. I then noticed that the bench I was using looked ALMOST indentical to the one I had always used. There was one big difference and it was the height. There was an inch difference in them. It was lowering my point at which my muscles were at their maximum intensity and that one inch differences made a 40lb difference in weight. My best friend in the whole wide world, John Paul Madrigal, is a beast. He has 19″ arms and a 33 inch waist. He’s 6′ and weighs 200lbs. Since starting Matt’s wonderful RRARF in 2010, I’m Humpty Dumpty, 5’6″ and 174 lbs, 18+% body fat. He can probably out next me by 150 lbs in full range. But we did pretty close to the same weight on bench, and sometimes I did more. Why? Because at the gym he trained at, the power rack had larger increases in pin heights than mine did. Thus, he wasn’t at the perfect height like I was to be able to do the maximum intensity (weight) possible.

    I believe if these variables were held tight, we would see similar increases in strength accros the board. Just changing one of them could make the difference in the numbers reported.

    As far as the differences in the amount of mass gained on this program, that’s a different topic altogether. Sisco is wrong in his claims on everyone “laying on slabs of muscle”. I didn’t gain a single ounce of mass but increased my bench by 225lbs in 50 seconds of work. John Paul can read an article in Ironman and gain a lb of mass. I believe different strokes for different folks applies to mass moreso than to strength.

    Reply
    • The rest time is interesting. My results were big gains in static contraction but no gains in full ROM, but I was resting 8 days. Getting over the guilt associated with not working out is a huge hurdle.

      Reply
      • Yeah that was a problem for me too. I felt like I had to be doing something but doing nothing made me stronger than ever. It all makes sense now though. After 15 years of doing powerlifting type workouts, I thought that the plateau I always hit was just normal and that I had to work through it. No, I just simply required more rest the stronger that I got, that’s all.

        I think precision is key on this program. Changing the variables by just a very small amount made significant differences for me. I’m suprised there wasn’t a bigger variance in this experiment than reported.

        Reply
  5. *He can out BENCH me

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    • So what you’re saying is that you are Daniel Larusso? Basically?

      Reply
      • Ever since RRARF, yes. Before RRARF, I was ranked in the top 10 in the country in church volleyball.

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  6. I have tried and studied SCT many years ago. i also have some of PeteSisco’s books. My results were mixed at that time. But I will say that Pete’s main points seem to be: adding muscle and training less frequently.
    The immediate obvious thing with SCT the limited range of motion. From certain perspectives, like rehab for example, SCT falls short. Also, as you mentioned, not everyone gets stronger.
    But putting on muscle, which can be very healthy, and training infrequently seem to be the results for most who stick with it. These can both be vey beneficial despite the “different strokes..” aspect.

    Reply
  7. Its something good to add to your routine, powerlifters and strongmen have been doing supermaximal holds forever. Doing a routine of just that though is dumb da dumb dumb.

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  8. I am a fan of minimalist routines, but I believe one should use all significant mechanisms that induce hypertrophy: mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. I think there is no need to go extremely low on volume. I mean, something like 2×20 minutes a week is low volume already and it certainly limits the results to some extent anyway. But that’s the price I am glad to pay, as I don’t want 10%-20% better results going to the gym 4 hours a week and doing professional periodised programme. Fuck that, life is there to be lived. On the other side, you simply have to put some effort in for some time, and 5 seconds won’t do it, in my opinion.

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  9. The thing I noticed is that top static strength really went up a lot. Now rep work feels super light when I take the bar off the pins. However, I felt like I “Lost my groove” on the full ROM bench press.

    I think that if I would have kept doing even 5 reps per workout with a moderate weight, I would have kept that neurological “groove” in place, and possibly squeezed out another 5-10 pounds on my max effort attempt.

    Still, I think static holds and isometrics have their place in a well-rounded exercise plan.

    Reply
  10. I agree with many of the comments here: there really is no one-size-fits-all training protocol, and this includes isometric training.

    A short story to illustrate…

    A few years back, Pete Sisco was kind enough to grant me an interview for my abbreviated training site. I have always been a fan of short and simple workouts, so was thrilled to hear how Sisco’s isometrics system had helped and benefited many of his readers.

    Curiously, Sisco’s static contractions failed to work for me when I tried them. While I enjoyed some strength increases, I experienced little in the way of mass gains or full ROM carryover. However, when I later attempted Sisco’s power-factor workout, mass gains were immediate and my overall strength skyrocketed. (For those that don’t know, power-factor workouts consist of partial-rep cluster sets performed within a two-minute training window.)

    So how did the power-factor workouts succeed, and why did static contractions fail?

    In short, my body responds better to more reps.

    Sisco talks about the different types of strength on his site, and claims those trainees who struggle with static holds, often respond better to higher training volume – it would appear I am one of them.

    So a quick question for those volunteers who failed Matt’s bench-press experiment: would you have faired better on more volume? I believe it is possible. I also believe isometrics are an effective training tool for those who are best able to benefit from them, yet if the boots don’t fit – and in my case they clearly didn’t – no amount of squeezing, toe-pinching or shoehorning is going to make an incompatible protocol work for you.

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  11. I’ve been using and experimenting with different forms of static contractions, isometrics, partial reps, etc. for the past ten years and have seen a lot of different results. One thing I think it is important to mention is the role your diet can play in the success of a given workout routine. I personally am an ectomorph and thus have a thin bone frame and a fast metabolism. I’d trained using a Pete Sisco type routine and had seen some increases in strength and muscle mass, but nothing substantial. I realized that I wasn’t eating correctly and enough. When I got my diet in check and starting focusing on it more, in the first 6 -month period I gained almost 20lbs of lean muscle mass while performing the same routines I’d done before. During that period I averaged exercising once every 2 weeks.

    The basic static contraction workout of performing just one, 5 sec hold per exercise, definitely works to improve your nervous system’s firing patterns and to increase the the size of the actual muscle fiber thus creating a strong and dense muscle. However a lot of a muscle’s size comes from its sarcoplasm (the liquid surrounding your muscle cells), and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy comes more from exercises with a greater time under tension, like power factor training and multiple isometric holds back to back.

    I’ve experienced my greatest gains in muscle size when following a routine with a little more volume. (although it’s still way less volume than the majority of the routines suggested in the popular muscle magazines)

    Having said all that I think that if you’ve tried some type of static contraction, isometric, power factor, partial reps, etc. type workout with little or no results, maybe try it again but add a little more volume to your routine and make sure that you are eating to build muscle(especially if you are an ectomorph).

    Usually once or twice a year I will combine my isometric routine with an anabolic burst cycle diet(low calorie for a week or two and then high calorie for 2 weeks) and will consistently gain around 3lbs of lean muscle mass after each cycle.

    Reply
  12. Man talk about objectivity at its best. Great article. I think I’ll just have to try out the program to see if it suits me.

    Reply

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