Isometric exercise seems to be out of favour at the moment. Lots and lots of talk about functional excercise and trying to get the excercise to mimic the tasks being trained for as closely as possible and all this is great, but Isometric exercises do have their place.
My left shoulder is currently recovering from surgery and there are still several movements that are painful. The pain is natures way of saying don’t do that! And I can tell you from experience over the past few months that if I ignore the pain, then what I get is more swelling and more pain and it becomes a vicious cycle. The problem is that if I completely rest the shoulder then what happens is that although the inflammation in the joint improves the muscles that control it waste. Then I get less shoulder stability, poor scapula control, which causes pain and swelling because the joint doesn’t work properly and this also becomes a self-perpetuating problem.. Clearly what is needed is a middle ground, where I can stimulate the muscles but at the same time not aggravate the joint. And the answer is Isometric exercise.
Isometric exercise is a type of static exercise. A muscle is held against some resistance without any change in the angle of the joint. Resistance in isometric exercises typically involve contractions of the muscle using:
- The body’s own structure
- Structural items (e.g., pushing against a door frame)
- Free weights, weights machines or elastic equipment (e.g. holding a weight in a fixed position)
Isometric exercises are thousands of years old, with examples from the static holds in certain branches of yoga or Chinese martial arts.
Isometric exercises have some differences in training effect as compared to dynamic exercises. While isometric training increases strength at the specific joint angles of the exercises performed,dynamic exercises increase strength throughout the full range of motion. While dynamic exercises are slightly better than isometric exercises at enhancing the twitch force of a muscle, isometrics are much better than dynamic exercises at increasing maximal strength at the joint angle trained. Additionally, flexibility can be increased when isometrics are performed at joint range of motion extremes. These isometric contractions recruit muscle fibers that are often neglected in some dynamic exercises. For example, gymnasts are extremely strong at great ranges of motion through the practice of isometric holds.
What I have found is that by performing a series of Isometric exercises I have been able to not just stop the muscles wasting, but actually start to rebuild and reactivate them again. It’s time-consuming, because to get strength back into the muscles across their entire range of motion I have to do the Isometric holds in several different positions. For example, if I stand with my arm at my side and raise it out from my body in an arc until it is above my head then as it approaches horizontal it hurts. If I do this a few times then any movement (no matter how small becomes painful). But if I support the arm and move it into the horizontal position and hold it in that position, then there is no pain. The muscles are activated and I am finding that after a few days of this I am able to move the arm more and more before the pain appears.
I think that the shoulder is pretty much healed and that all the problems I have are related to the muscles that control the shoulder either wasting or miss firing. My surgeon has told me that 80% of the shoulders strength comes not from the tendons and the joint’s structure, but from the muscles. And that the muscles are heavily involved in correctly positioning the shoulder within the glenohumeral joint.
So the challenge for the next few weeks is to rebuild the muscles mass and reactivate and retrain the miss firing muscles without aggravating the structure of the joint and causing too much inflammation.