Dynamic Tension; or, Must Be Hard Work: Making Yourself Miserable Without Moving a Muscle!

Atilla had a new set of exercises for me today. Let me tell you about them. Misery shared is misery halved, right?


She brought in the usual light weights to use with my heavier set, her yoga mat, the step, all the normal torture devices. She then proceeded to do something completely different with them.

It's called "isometrics". It's also known as "static action exercise" or "Dynamic Tension," a la Chuck Atlas.

Isometrics involves keeping a muscle under strain in one position only. Sometimes, as in a plank or side-plank, you can stress multiple muscles at once (abs, shoulders, triceps). Other times, as in an isometric bicep curl, you stress only one muscle.

So what's the benefit to isometric exercise? Do they work? How can I, (you ask) the faithful Cranky Fitness reader, reap the benefits of standing and doing what seems like nothing, or lying and doing what seems like nothing?

Isometric exercise is nice because it changes things up. Let's face it: unless you have the weirdest job in the world, you're probably not going to have much use for strengthening a muscle only in one position. That's what an isometric exercise does: it strengthens the muscles used in the position in which those muscles are held. However, that sort of bizarre (from your muscles' point of view) demand can shake 'em up, make 'em wake up, and help push you through a strength plateau.

As for whether or not they work, consider this: Charles Atlas built an empire (which continues to this day) on isometrics. Yoga and Pilates have isometric components. An acquaintance of mine, an honest-to-Frog Olympic gymnast, tells stories of the Russians in the 1970's and 1980's doing their isometric insanities on the sidelines of the world championships. Isometrics alone won't make you the strongest man or woman in the world, but they can sure help you hold heavy things in one position for a long time.

So: how to manage an isometric exercise? Easy. Grab your five pound barbell and lie down on the floor. Put the barbell between your ankles and lie back down. Ready?

Sit up in a V-shape, steadying yourself with your hands if necessary (and boy do I find it necessary), and hold that position for, oh, forty-five seconds. Or fifteen. Or five. Whatever you can manage is fine; this is tough at first.

Or, grab an eight-pound weight. Hold it out straight from your shoulder (don't lock your elbow) for thirty seconds or so.

For real, true morning-after misery, assume the squat position. Hold it without moving for as long as you can.

If you're an advanced adherent of static action exercise, you can try this: (NOTE: I am not recommending that anybody try this exercise without a spotter, a mat, and an ambulance standing by. I've done it a few times and have always fallen flat on my face. Cranky Fitness, LLC, assumes no responsibility for plastic surgery bills, uproarious laughter, or public humiliation incurred by performing the following move. Always exercise with a buddy. Check with your health-care provider before doing anything this dumb.)

Face away from a wall. Put your hands on the floor. Walk your feet up the wall until they form an angle that doesn't kill you. Hold that position until you either fall over or somebody comes to rescue you.

Advanced version: Bend your arms slightly at the elbows.

Super-Advanced version: Have a cat jump up on to your back at a critical moment.

It's easy! It's fun! It's a strength-increasing, plateau-busting, muscle-building extravaganza! It's isometrics! And the best thing about the whole deal is that it's very, very difficult to trip over anything in the gym when you're not actually moving.

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