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Sean Maloney
May 25, 2012

Explosive Isometrics: Speed Training

with the Brakes On


TAGS: Sean Mahoney, power production, sport-specific training, rate of force development, speed


Explosive Isometrics: Speed Training with the Brakes On

Rate of force development (RFD) is king in the sporting world. Rarely will an athlete
have the luxury of a second or two to produce maximal power. Its all about what you
can develop in fractions of a second. With this in mind, any training modality that may
improve characteristics of force generation would be of real interest to the strength and
conditioning coach. Explosive isometrics are one such technique that has been
proposed to train RFD, but is it really possible to train speed and power production
through isometric training? Well, the answer may surprise you


Enter explosive isometrics

There is far more to isometric training than maintaining a static contraction for a
prolonged period of time. Explosive isometrics can be defined as "attempting to move
an immoveable object with explosive intent." The key aim of explosive isometrics is to
increase RFD at a key point or position within a specific movement. Its important to
emphasize the key point or position part of that statement. Adaptations achieved
through isometric training diminish as you move away from the angle trained (ThpautMathieu et al, 1988; Weir et al, 1995). Such examples could be the release point in a
throwing action or the mid-thigh position in a snatch.


The theory

The force-time relationship (figure 1) underpins all types of muscle activity, isometric
included. Its imperative that we understand this relationship in order to determine the
potential training effect of any activity. By executing isometric exercises with maximal
explosive intent, we emphasize the attack phase of the attempted contraction.
Explosive isometrics are proposed to be an effective modality for developing RFD due
to this sharp attack phase (Siff, 1993; Behm & Sale, 1993).






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Joe Schillero
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Mark Dugdale
Figure 1

While the concept of explosive isometrics isn't new, authors such as Siff (1993) and
Yessis (1995) have long suggested the potential for explosive isometrics to be used to
develop power. Research evaluating their potential application is largely lacking. To
date, only three studies have evaluated the training effect of performing isometrics with
explosive intent.
Behm and Sale (1993) compared the training effect of an explosive isometric
dorsiflexion performed on one limb to that of a high-velocity dorsiflexion on the other.
At the end of a sixteen-week training protocol, the same power training response was
observed in both limbs. Behm and Sale concluded that regardless of the type of
muscle activity (dynamic or isometric), it is the explosive intent of contraction (and
therefore rapid RFD) that provides the desired power training adaptation, not the actual
speed of the movement itself.
Maffiuletti and Martin (2001) attempted to find an underlying mechanism for the
improvements observed as a result of explosive isometric training. They compared
isometric leg extensions performed in either an explosive or progressive manner (force
was gradually ramped up over the duration of contraction). Both groups achieved
significant and comparable gains in torque generation. However, the mechanisms
behind these improvements were different. The authors concluded that explosive
isometric training resulted in primarily muscular adaptations such as improved
excitation coupling, and more extensive hypertrophy. The adaptations observed
following progressive isometric training were primarily neural related and associated
with developments in firing rate and potentiation of the H-reflex.

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Scott Yard
Olsen and Hopkins (2003) attempted to make explosive isometric training more sportspecific. The authors had elite level martial artists perform an explosive isometric
activity in addition to their regular resistance training three times a week over a nineweek training period. The exercise consisted of attempting to perform an explosive
kicking action while the kicking leg was restrained by a belt. Participants performed


Sheri Whetham
Ted Toalston


four sets of ten repetitions, progressing to five sets after two weeks. The authors
reported an 1121 percent increase in movement speed in the three exercises they
testeda low kick, a palm strike, and a side kick. Improvements were most
pronounced in the palm strike and side kick, exercises with biomechanically similar
initiation patterns to the training exercise and also coupled with shorter response times
(i.e. faster movements). Olsen and Hopkins suggest that explosive isometrics may be
of greatest benefit to movements that are predominantly reflexive and associated with
minimal countermovement or preload.

While explosive isometrics can be conceivably implemented with any type of

resistance, bands and cables/pulleys are the quickest and most flexible modalities to
set up and utilize. Figure 2 shows an example of an explosive isometric activity
designed to mimic an overhead throwing or hitting action performed with a strong
resistance band. Simply grab the band, walk out from the rack until its fully
lengthened, and take up the throwing position as shown. From this position, attempt to
perform the throwing action. The band should stop the movement where you would
normally release the ball. This set up, as with the cable machine, can be altered to
replicate almost any conceivable movement.

Figure 2
Explosive isometrics can of course be adapted to work around specific sticking points
in the big lifts. Using a cage, there are two general ways of setting these upeither
pushing/pulling an empty barbell into the pins or attempting to push/pull from the pins
with a load that is too heavy to move (figure 3). Personally, I'd opt for the latter option
because it's easier to eliminate any preloading effect. Going into the pins will require a
certain degree of pre-activation in order to position the barbell there in the first place.
However, you could argue that preloading or pre-activation is apparent when the
exercise is performed dynamically and going into the pins may demonstrate greater

Figure 3

As theres relatively little research into this area, its hard to make any concrete
recommendations for the prescription of explosive isometrics. However, some generic
training principles can be applied:
As with any type of power training, these exercises should be undertaken in a
fresh and non-fatigued state to maximize RFD.

While Olsen and Hopkins' (2003) study worked up to five sets of ten reps, I feel
that multiple sets of lower repetitions would prove more appropriate for
maximizing RFD. Research has shown that RFD in isometric contraction is
reduced after a few as five repetitions (Viitasalo & Komi, 1981). Applying loading
strategies along the lines of 610 sets of 24 repetitions, which is commonly
utilized for dynamic effort training, would seem to be more suitable for explosive
isometric training.
For those new to this style of training, a reduced volume is recommended. Start
with 34 sets within a given session before gradually building up to more.
Exercises must be performed with maximum explosive intent.

Other uses for explosive isometrics

It would be interesting to suggest whether explosive isometrics could be used to elicit a

post-activation potentiation (PAP) effect that would carry over to dynamic movement.
Sustained, progressive isometrics have been shown to elicit PAP. However, the
predominant mechanism is thought to be through an increase in motor unit recruitment.
Given the relatively short period of time under tension associated with explosive
isometrics, there may be an associated reduction in the potential for PAP.
Olsen and Hopkins (2003) have also outlined the potential use of explosive isometrics
in a rehabilitation scenario, particularly in regards to shoulder rehabilitation with
throwing and racket sport athletes. These exercises will inherently limit the range of
motion possible, which may be of use if it's necessary to avoid specific joint angles.
Furthermore, as these types of exercises will condition the musculature at a rapid RFD,
they may also serve as a general prehabilitation/rehabilitation exercise for joints such
as the shoulder that will be required to function at rapid velocities.

Explosive isometrics are a relatively novel training modality that may be utilized to train
RFD at specific joint angles. Research suggests the potential for such gains to transfer
to certain matched sporting movements. However, further investigation is required to
truly evaluate their effectiveness. Such interventions may prove beneficial to advanced
athletes who have reached a plateau in their training, but it should always be seen as a
small addition to a balanced resistance training program and not the primary focus.
Behm DG, Sale DG (1993) Intended rather than actual movement velocity
determines velocity-specific training response. Journal of Applied Physiology 74
Maffiuletti NA, Martin A (2001) Progressive versus rapid rate of contraction
during 7 wk of isometric resistance training. Medicine and Science in Sports and
Exercise 33(7):122027.
Olsen PD, Hopkins WG (2003) The effect of attempted ballistic training on the
force and speed of movements. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research
Siff MC (1993) Understanding the mechanics of muscle contraction. National
Strength and Conditioning Association Journal 15(5):303.
Thpaut-Mathieu C, Hoecke J, Maton B (1988) Myoelectrical and mechanical
changes linked to length specificity during isometric training. Journal of Applied
Physiology 64(4):150050.
Viitasalo JT, Komi PV (1981) Effects of fatigue on isometric force- and
relaxation-time characteristics in human muscle. Acta Physiologica Scandavica
Weir JP, Housh TJ, Weir LL, Johnson GO (1995) Effects of unilateral isometric
strength training on joint angle specificity and cross-training. European Journal
of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology 70(4):33743.
Yessis M (1995) Training for power sports, part 2. Strength and Conditioning 17








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