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.