What if I told you there was an exercise that could make you run faster, jump higher and lift heavier, using nothing more than your own body weight?
And that this exercise could develop unimaginable levels of mental toughness while destroying your most persistent pains?
That it carried virtually no risk of injury, could supercharge your speed of recovery, and could be done by just about anyone, anywhere, at any time?
Because such an exercise does exist.
It looks like this:
Extreme Isometric Lunge
While it’s not exactly a “sexy” exercise, when utilized correctly, these type of long-duration isometrics are some of the most challenging, rewarding, restorative exercises in existence.
“It’s the highest level of input I know that exists without electrocuting somebody,” says Dr. Tommy John, owner of Dr. Tommy John Performance and Healing Center and author of the book Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance: A Sports Parent’s Survival Guide. He’s the one in the navy shirt in the above video.
“This is what I’ve noticed in my office—other forms of training only get you good at those other forms of training. Where as this will turn you into a complete athlete. When you attempt other forms of training, our people can go dominate their world. But those people come in and they can’t make it through day one.”
Many people are skeptical of extreme (a.k.a. long-duration) isometrics because they don’t look all that impressive.
They’re not the sort of thing that garners thousands of likes on Instagram, or gets you up on the wall of fame in most weight rooms.
Many people’s experience with isometrics is limited to sloppy 60-second Planks or Wall Sits, which also doesn’t help perceptions. But judging this book by its cover would mean missing out on the incredible benefits extreme isometrics have to offer—benefits that often cannot be replicated by traditional strength training.
Although extreme isometrics have been around for many years, Jay Schroeder is largely credited with their popularization in America. Schroeder’s EVO system, which we cover in depth here, is known for its extensive usage of long-duration isometrics, its brutal intensity, and its ability to produce eye-popping improvements in athletic performance.
Schroeder’s methods famously helped former NFL safety Adam Archuleta to one of the most amazing combine performances in history, and a large number of professional athletes train under Schroeder to this day.
Unlike many traditional barbell or dumbbell movements, long-duration isometrics expose weaknesses almost immediately, as they make any compensations painfully obvious.
This makes them not only a phenomenal diagnostic tool, but also a straightforward way to address those weaknesses head-on. If you want to continue to increase the duration of a hold over time, which is the overarching goal here, the imbalances or dysfunction causing those compensations must be addressed. The pain and discomfort that come with these holds is the sensation of these under-performing muscle groups re-learning how to function and fire as intended.
“I use isometrics with every single person who walks in the gym,” says Patrick Coyne, owner of Black Sheep Performance (Blue Ash, Ohio).
“I can see how people compensate. How does their foot react to the stress in their body? Can they even balance? What’s taking over? Are they compensating with their back? Is their hip flexor weak?…(Over time), we can improve performance by improving the weak links in their kinetic chain and how their body is firing.”
Per strength coach Christian Thibaudeau, a maximal isometric contraction recruits up to 10% more total muscle fibers than a concentric or eccentric maximal contraction, and the firing rate of the recruited muscle fibers is also significantly higher. So while the outside may appear placid during an extreme isometric, what’s going on inside is a whirlwind of activity.
The body doesn’t just hit a “pause” button when you’re asking it to hold a demanding position against the forces of gravity. It must alternately fire certain muscle groups very quickly in order to maintain the illusion of a perfectly stationary hold. This is why we can’t hold an isometric indefinitely.
“It’s the opportunity to learn a position, thousands of times per minute, for however long you choose to do them,” says John.
“This is one of the greatest ways to get back to feeling every inch of your body through training, which is supposed to be the goal. We’re supposed to connect, mind to body.”
Thanks to the nature of these isometrics, they’re accessible for just about everybody while also carrying a very low risk of injury. There’s no barbell to collapse underneath, as the moves require nothing but your own body weight. When you can no longer hold a position, you simply fail on your own terms. John says he’s yet to witness an injury occur during the tens of thousands of extreme isometrics he’s supervised.
Holding the position at or near the end range of motion (such as the bottom of a Dip, for example) offers the most overall benefit, but the range of motion is also easily adjusted for individuals with acute or chronic injuries/conditions. John’s seen fantastic results from extreme isometrics with such clients.
“In rehab, we need to get a stimulus into the body greater than the stimulus that caused the injury to break the PTSD and emotional vicious cycle that accompanies chronic pain. Isos allow that stimulus to be present, without harming the system beyond optimal training breakdown,” says John.
“Isos are the life-or-death scenario that can safely be applied within everyone to change the emotional, intellectual, spiritual memories that are necessary to healing.”
Long-duration isometrics can be utilized in just about any scenario. Coyne and John recommend them for general population, beginner athletes, trained athletes and injured athletes, and to be used as a warm-up, a workout, a finisher, a recovery session, a rehab workout, or exercises performed periodically throughout the day.
When John worked at Synergy Fitness & Sports in Illinois in the early 2000s, NFL players would come in the Monday after a game to endure a series of extreme isometrics. It was, in John’s words, “hell.” But on Tuesday, they awoke totally refreshed and recharged while other players were still licking their wounds.
Coyne credits extreme isometrics with helping him alleviate the chronic low back pain caused by herniated and bulging discs that had plagued him for many years.
There are no shortage of impressive performance-related anecdotes for extreme isometrics, such as well-trained athletes gaining multiple inches in their vertical jump or adding 30 pounds to their bench press within a couple months of dedicated isometric training.
If you’re thinking this sounds like an infomercial, I can’t blame you. But there’s no product to sell here. Extreme isometrics are just you tapping into the potential of your own body and, as John says, “bringing the whole system online”.
But here’s the catch—extreme isometrics have to be hard for you to get something out of them. Really hard.
So hard that many people do not perform them correctly or give up on them before they can see results. NHL star T.J. Oshie nearly quit training with Schroeder after his first two weeks because the workouts were so brutally difficult.
If you’re going to give up on a hold the second it starts feeling difficult, you’re not going to get much out of it.
While it’s perfectly fine (and even expected) you might only be capable of holding a position for 15 or 30 seconds at first before failing, you need the determination to continually push that number. Muscle spasms aren’t unusual during extreme isometrics, and Coyne encourages his athletes to push through them.
With the right mentality, the rewards can be immense.
“If you get the right mindset, you just created life-or-death, unceasing, for however many seconds. Your brain is literally thinking it’s dying. Think of the change it will create in that environment. You can get the craziest changes in your neural anatomy if you can withstand all the terror that comes with it,” says John.
“You have to consciously switch and say ‘Nope, we’re good. I got this. I’m going to go to my breathing, I’m going to go to my vision, I’m going to go my imagery. And hold it. And your changes are just compounding.”
Another requisite is intense effort. While the body can only produce a maximal contraction for maybe 10-20 seconds, at most, great intent is crucial to spurring adaptations via extreme isometrics. You’re not just hanging out. You’re either pushing and/or pulling with your hands and/or feet (depending on the exact hold you utilize) to produce an intense contraction.
Progression in duration over time is also an important factor. One way to approach extreme isometrics as a beginner is to decide you want to hold each position for a total of, say, 3 minutes. You then try to hit that total in the fewest number of sets possible. Over time, it should take you fewer sets to do so, and your longest set should also get longer.
“If a person is starting an isometric and doing a 35-second round the first week, we have to progress. Forty-five seconds to a minute the next week. And you have to make sure your posture is locked in so your patterns are firing the right way versus doing an isometric the wrong way when you might be able to hold it for six minutes but you’re not doing anything,” says Coyne.
To do this, you’ll also want to “drop” into position for most of these movements, as Coyne outlines in the below videos.
With that in mind, here are five different extreme isometrics from Coyne you can try yourself.
Again, these can be utilized in just about any context. The easiest way to integrate them into your existing routine may be using one as an end of workout “finisher” or as a routine you begin using shortly after you wake up or before you got to bed, but the only limit is your imagination.
Remember: Contract hard. Push through the pain. Focus on your breathing. And aim to set a new PR for your longest hold each week!
Extreme Isometric Split Squat/Lunge
If you’re looking to integrate just one extreme isometric into your routine, make it this.
Joel Smith, Division I track & field coach and owner of Just Fly Sports, says the Extreme Isometric Lunge is often the core movement in his coaching arsenal. He likes to see athletes reach a continuous three-minute hold that’s “solid to the point (he) could balance a glass of water on their front thigh” as a benchmark of bodyweight strength.
The key here is the “scissoring” action you get by pulling your front foot toward you while driving your back foot forward. Keep the heel of your front foot barely off the ground if you can.
“It’s almost like you’re trying to cycle your feet through in a stride, but you’re not going anywhere,” says John. Go shoeless if possible.
Extreme Isometric Straight-Leg L
The simplicity of this hold belies the fact that it recruits a huge amount of musculature. One weak link in the foot, ankle, calf, knee, hamstring or hip can bring it all down.
“One leg on the ground, trying to achieve force into the ground through that bottom leg. The leg that’s up in the air, you’re trying to create as much tension as possible driving upwards,” says Coyne. “Everyone’s going to feel these isometrics in different places, because everyone has different compensation patterns. That’s what’s amazing about isometrics. Someone could feel it in their lower back, another person might feel it in their psoas, another might feel it in their calf, another might feel it in their hamstring.”
Go shoeless if possible.
Extreme Isometric Dip
The Extreme Isometric Dip is a fairly advanced movement. If you’re not ready for it, skip to the next move.
“Your elbows are freaking past your face, extreme range of motion. It’s extremely great for baseball players, throwers,” says Coyne.
The record hold for an Extreme Isometric Dip in John’s office is an incredible 6 minutes, 16 seconds.
Extreme Isometric Push-Up
The Push-Up is perhaps the most popular bodyweight exercise in existence, but have you ever tried holding the bottom for more than a second or two?
Probably not. You might be surprised at just how quickly your body can start resorting to compensations here. Those compensations tend to appear at the core, butt and/or elbows. Remember: once you’re physically unable to resist or quickly correct these sort of compensations, the rep is over. We do not want our body practicing faulty movement patterns.
“The brain is not going to pull energy from the hands, because it knows if the hands fail, the face is going to get hit. The brain won’t pull energy from the feet, because it knows if the feet fail, the whole system is going to go down. So where will it pull from first? The stomach and the butt. It will take energy from there and spread it to the hands and feet. And that’s when you see the dip, or they poke their ass up and their belly drops down. It’s just the brain surviving,” says John.
“The other thing is the elbows will cave in, showing they don’t have control of their rotator cuff during chest load, during trunk stimulation, during foot stimulation. Elbows come in, so it’s external rotation as defense, now you have a total cuff failure.”
The record hold for an Extreme Isometric Push-Up in Coyne’s gym is 3 minutes, 50 seconds.
Extreme Isometric Chin-Up
Coyne generally prefers the Chin-Up hand position (palms facing towards you) rather than the Pull-Up hand position (palms facing away from you) for extreme isometrics.
Coyne’s only seen one athlete in his gym who could exceed the one-minute mark for an Extreme Isometric Chin-Up hold.
Spend some time working on Chin-Up Extreme Isometrics, and you’ll be amazed at how your ability to rep out both normal Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups can increase.
Photo Credit: YakobchukOlena/iStock