Isometric Training Using Resistance Bands vs. Weights

Isometric training is a form of exercise where your muscles don’t move while contracting.  It is not a very popular training method for most athletes these days, such as those that require concentric contractions (shortening of the muscles under tension; think biceps curl) and eccentric contractions (lengthening of the muscles under tension; think quadriceps during the down motion of a squat).

But whether you know it or not, you involve yourself in some form of isometric contraction every day, whether it be in the gym performing an exercise, at work doing your job, or something as simple as standing in line at a store.

Without your ability to create and endure isometric contractions in your body, you would be unable to do most things you take for granted, if not all of them, including exercise. Your very ability to sit a computer and read this article can only be done through isometric contractions taking place along the postural muscles in your spine, enabling you to sit upright and rather motionless in the process.

Initial Uses For Isometric Training

Many years ago when isometric training started to become popular in the weightlifting world, it was known to just a few that this type of training was the desired method to help someone get past a sticking point in a certain exercise.

For someone who may have had difficulty with their bench press for example, what would happen is that there would be a point in the repetition of the exercise where the person got stuck, or couldn’t move the bar past, and therefore wasn’t able to complete the motion.

The solution to this was to modify the bench press exercise where the sole purpose of it was to hold the bar at this trouble spot, perhaps as shown in Figure A below, for as long as you could before the weight eventually overtook you.  And with the help of a spotter the two of you would eventually return the weight back to the rack for safety reasons.

isometric hold bench press with text

Figure A.

In your struggle to maintain the weight at your weak spot, you were in essence developing the strength in your muscles at this position so that over time, you could move past it and get your arms into a more advantageous position to push the weight all the way back up.

This was an extremely beneficial way to train your muscles and it is still practiced today by the majority of weightlifters for this and perhaps other reasons.

Misconceptions and Limitations

Because isometric training will exercise a muscle at only one point within its entire range of motion, it has always been thought that while it had its place in the fitness world, it was a small one at that.
This is because there were those who would say that, given a choice, it’s better to exercise a muscle through its full range of motion such as when you perform a biceps curl, than it is to exercise it at just one point along the way.

There is a lot of truth to this from a basic exercise point of view.  But with any and all exercises, each will have its own set of advantages and disadvantages when compared to another.  And this is why you as an athlete in today’s competitive sports world need to know as much about every type of exercise as well as every type of muscle contraction to be successful in your sport.

If you are simply doing what everyone else is doing, then you should expect to get similar results.  But similar results may not be good enough for you.  Similar results may still keep you from getting the playing time you deserve, the scholarship your desire or the contract you and your family are depending on.

‘Similar results’ may be good enough initially for those who have a huge learning/performance  curve ahead of them, but for those who may feel as though they need something more to stand out from the crowd, they are going to have to think outside the gym in order to have any hopes of having a breakthrough.

Thinking Outside The Gym

Whether it’s your desire to get stronger with a given exercise, become a faster athlete, jump higher or kick a ball farther, at some point you are going to have to start incorporating other training methods into your routine if you are sitting on a plateau and perhaps not yet satisfied with your current level of performance.

These ‘other training methods’ will have to come by way of introducing exercises that involve all three muscle contraction types: 1) concentric, 2) eccentric and 3) isometric.   They will also have to come by way of introducing other training aids into your routine besides traditional weights and body weight exercises.

Resistance Bands

Do you recall your first experience with a resistance band?  If you are like most when one was first handed to you, you probably grabbed it by both ends and started to pull it apart over and over again.  Or maybe you stepped on one end, grabbed the other with your hand, and started performing a biceps curl with it.

This is what you will observe with just about anyone you see holding a resistance band; a modified weight-training exercise where the weights have been replaced with a band or resistance tube.  See Figure B.

resistance band biceps curlFigure B.

There is nothing wrong with this type of exercise as all exercises will have some value to you as an athlete. But there is a far better way to use the bands than using them with a simple weight lifting strategy.

This is because when you start off using the resistance band with a weightlifting, or repetitive motion strategy, it is typically un-stretched and therefore not offering any resistance back to you.  With your muscles in their own starting position as well, they are typically at their weakest too.

So what you have at the start of any exercise where a resistance band is typically used is a weak band and weak muscle, so not much development should be expected during say, the first half of the repetition.
Then as the exercise proceeds, the band starts to stretch and offers more resistance.  Your muscles start to contract as well and the joint they are acting on gets into a move favorable position to leverage more force.

So ultimately what tends to happen is that by using the resistance band with a weightlifting strategy, you tend to exercise the muscle only through the latter third of its motion with any significant resistance.

This has been the traditional approach to using resistance bands and is not likely to change in the near future if for no other reason than shear habit.  Again, there is nothing terribly wrong with this it’s just that there is a much more efficient and better way to use them.

Using The Resistance Band With An Isometric Training Strategy

We talked earlier about how isometric training was used in weightlifting to help athletes get past a sticking point in an exercise.  Well, this same type of strategy can also be used with resistance bands for just about any exercise you can think of.

But the difference between using weights for a resistance aid versus resistance bands is startling significant. So much is this difference that you as an athlete should take note of it here since incorporating this type of training into your exercise routine can help you breakthrough those unwanted plateaus in your current level of performance.

Weights provide a one-dimensional force back into your muscles, and that is straight down due to gravity.  So, whenever you move weight, or hold weight in a steady position such as during and isometric contraction, the acting force of the weight is downward.   Sure, they may be exercises that have cables that re-direct this force other than downward, but the point to make is that it is always in one direction, i.e., one dimensional.

But resistance bands don’t work this way.   Resistance bands always direct their force back to their point of attachment and the amount of force they provide varies based on the length they are stretched.

Upon first glance this may not appear as being much different from a weight, but what you have to be aware of is that the amount of force offered by a weight never changes whereas the amount of force offered from a resistance band does, even with subtle changes that take place during your best attempts to hold an isometric contraction.

For example, if you were to try and hold a biceps contraction (isometric) at the midway point with a 20 lbs. dumbbell for 10 seconds (Figure 1a) and compare that to the force you feel while holding a resistance band in the same position with a 20 lbs. equivalent (Figure 1b), you could instantly tell, or better yet, feel the difference between the two even if there was a way to hide the identity of the forces you were holding on to.

blog weight and bandsThis is because the force of the 20 lbs. dumbbell would always be 20 lbs. no matter what position your arm was in.  Even as the muscles start to weaken and cause the joint to move a little, the 20 lbs. weight would still be 20 lbs. and its direction of force would be straight down due to gravity.

But the 20 lbs. resistance band “equivalent force” would never stay at its starting 20 lbs. level, even with your best effort to hold and maintain a steady position with your arm.  This again is because the force of the resistance band is dependent on two things: 1) its length when stretched and 2) the angle of where it is attached.

Therefore, any small change in your arm movement, as in micrometers, whether it be side to side, or up and down as your arm starts to tire will immediately affect the length of the band and/or the angle to where it is attached.  As a result, the 20 lbs. equivalent resistant band force must change.

Over time as you muscles get even weaker still, the movements may become more pronounced.  This will then require an immediate adjustment on your part to try and restore the initial exercise position.   If you go too far beyond the original starting point, you could create more force in the band due to increasing its length.  If you come up short, the force would as well.

This constant battle to restore and maintain the initial starting position with a tired muscle trying to maintain an isometric contraction with a resistance band creates ‘micro movements’ that gives you feeling of dynamic elastic tension.

This feeling is perceived through the proprioceptors (position awareness) within your muscles, tendons and joints so it is a very real experience.  See Figure C.proprioceptorsFigure C.

This is quite different than the affect you get with static weights where the amount of force they supple doesn’t change and again, it is instantly recognizable by the feeling you get even if you can’t see it.

The advantage to using the resistance band with an isometric training strategy there is that your muscles will constantly perceive these small changes that take place in the direction of force as well as in the resistance level and be forced to create different muscle recruitment patterns as you try and hold this position.  This new pattern is significantly different from that which takes place while holding the weight because the weight is not subject to this change of position.

This new recruitment pattern of muscle is also of great benefit to you as an athlete because you can instantly target areas of muscle weakness and lack of coordination on a much deeper level than you normally experience.   And once you expose these with this type of training, you can force your muscles to get stronger and with more precision in a much shorter time than before.

Now we used the example of a simple biceps curl here for simplicity, but this same strategy of using the resistance band with an isometric training strategy can be used on every joint in the body just like weights.

When you try this with some of your muscles that perhaps you may have never trained before, like your hip flexors, you will instantly identify and then correct even greater weaknesses in these muscles which are certain to enhance your athletic performance.