Isometric what? Few people know what isometric strength is and even fewer know how to train it. However, isometric strength plays a huge role in jiu-jitsu. It is the often forgotten and heavily neglected form of strength training, yet it may have the largest and most immediate impact on your game. If it’s that important, then why is it ignored? Isometric strength plays such a miniscule role in most sports and daily activities, that for the vast majority of people and athletes, isometric training doesn’t make sense. So, through the years, isometric strength training has essentially been forgotten. However, I’m sure most of you know that jiu-jitsu athletes aren’t like other athletes, and jiu-jitsu has its own set of demands unlike any other sport, and isometric strength is one of them. In this article, I am going to teach you what isometric strength is, why you should start training it, and how to train it effectively.
What Is Isometric Strength?
First, we must understand what an isometric muscle contraction is. An isometric muscle contraction is a static muscle contraction; the muscle contracts, but there is no movement at the joint. This generally occurs during one of two situations. The first situation is called, “overcoming” isometric contraction. This is when the muscle contracts against an immoveable object; think pushing against a wall as hard as you can. The second situation is referred to as “yielding” isometric contraction. This is where something is held in place, even though it could be moved. In other words, you are applying the exact amount of force necessary to counteract the resistance. Think of wall sits or holding a crunch. The basic premise and common theme here is that isometric contractions involve no movement. During a jiu-jitsu match you will probably experience quite a bit of both, overcoming and yielding isometric contractions. Ok, so what is isometric strength? Isometric strength is simply how much force the muscle can apply during these contractions and/or how long the muscle can apply this force without fatiguing. Both of these can make a huge difference in a jiu-jitsu match.
Why Isometric Strength Is Important
I know the last section was a little technical, and you may not see the correlation to jiu-jitsu, but jiu-jitsu involves a lot of heavy isometric contraction. In fact, the basic premise of jiu-jitsu is rather isometric if you think about it. You are trying to immobilize the other person. You want to put him in a position where you can control him and prevent him from moving. Essentially “applying the exact amount of force necessary to counteract the resistance” from your opponent to keep him from moving. Think about trying to hold someone in side control or mount, or squeezing a choke to get the finish. These are isometric actions. This is unlike almost any other sport. Almost every other major sport exclusively involves movement, moving yourself, moving an object, or moving someone else. This sets jiu-jitsu apart. It has its own set of unique demands and one of them is isometric strength. How many times have you told someone or heard, “it’s a different kind of strength” when describing jiu-jitsu? That different kind of strength is isometric strength. Isometric strength is also the reason why some people appear big and strong (and they are probably traditionally strong), yet when they’re rolling they don’t feel very strong. And vice versa! I know I have rolled with guys way lighter than me that I thought I could easily overpower, but couldn’t, yet ended up feeling stronger than guys heavier than me. Improving your isometric strength will improve almost all aspects of your game.
How To Improve Your Isometric Strength
Now that we can agree that isometric strength is important, how do we improve it? This is another problem with isometric strength. Not only is isometric strength often overlooked, but when it is trained, it is often trained incorrectly. Most people get a basic understanding of isometric contractions and just start adding random isometric holds to their routine, assuming it will increase overall isometric strength. Well, sorry, but that’s not the case. The good news is that isometric strength can be increased relatively quickly. The bad news is that the strength gains are only at the angle and movement trained. Basically, if you push against a wall with your arms at 90 degrees, you will get stronger with your arms at 90 degrees and not anywhere else. This is where most of the mistakes are made. You must make sure the exercises mimic exactly where you want to get stronger. You also must make sure you train different angles of the exercises since the improvements will only be at the angle trained +/- about 10 degrees. For example, if you want to get better at holding someone in side control, you should pick an exercise that mimics pulling your arms in close to your body and squeezing, such as a supine row hold.
Now, don’t get me wrong here, I am not saying to forget all normal strength training and only do isometric exercises. However, they should be a part of your training program if you want to improve your strength on the mat. They are great to add at the end of your training sessions or to superset in with other exercises during your strength training. Generally, for isometric exercises, you will hold each for a certain period of time, usually 30 seconds to 1 minute. To make things more difficult, you can increase resistance as you would with most exercises. For body weight exercises you can add a weighted vest to increase intensity. I have included some of my favorite isometric exercises for jiu-jitsu, but this is not a comprehensive list; in fact, one of the great things about isometric exercises is that you can create exercises based on your individual needs. So, take a look at your game and find some exercises that mimic positions you find yourself in.
Supine Row Hold
Supine Row Hold with Ab Strap
Low Push Up Hold (elbows tight)
Supine Row Hold with Gi Grip
Low Push Up Hold (elbows tight) with Feet Elevated
Reaching Lunge with Zercher Hold
Pull Up Holds
Pull Up Hold with Ab Strap
Heavy Bag Squeeze
Isometric strength, while often overlooked, plays a crucial role in jiu-jitsu performance. It is that “different kind of strength” seen on the mats. Improving your isometric strength will no doubt improve your game. But remember, isometrics must be trained very specifically in order to gain the strength in the right areas. Start adding the right isometric exercises to your program and watch your strength on the mat increase.