In the early ’60s isometrics seized the country with the virulence of an influenza epidemic. Anyone seeking more strength spent a portion of his training time pushing and pulling against a stationary bar. On the heels of pure isometrics came muscle contraction with movement, which was called isometric-isotonic exercise. More properly, it should have been named isotonic-isometric exercise, since you moved the bar slightly before locking it into an isometric hold.
Having to move a weighted bar a short distance before locking it against the pins for a 12-second count proved to be much more effective than pure isometrics. That was the method that Dr. John Ziegler taught Louis Riecke from the very beginning, and Riecke’s amazing progress had the whole world talking. Using Ziegler’s program, Riecke had added 155 pounds to his Olympic-lifting total in six months, which was unheard of. Even more impressive was the fact that he was in his mid-30s.
Ziegler’s other test subject, Bill March, also continued to improve. He set a world record in the press with 354 at the ’63 Philly Open as a 198-pounder. Riecke earned a world record for himself the following year as a 181-pounder with a 325 snatch, done split style, at the YMCA Championships in Los Angeles. It was primarily due to the stunning success of those two athletes that the strength-training community became convinced that the new form of training was valid.
While Bob Hoffman’s claims about the merits of iso training were often taken with a grain of salt because he was prospering from the sale of courses and power racks, others came out in support of the new method. Prominent researchers with nothing to gain, such as Dr. C.H. McCloy of Iowa State University and Dr. Arthur Steinhaus of George Williams College in Chicago, provided data that backed up what Ziegler was recommending.
Each month Strength & Health featured articles about the success of athletes and coaches who wholeheartedly endorsed isometrics. The University of Alabama and Florida State University put their highly regarded stamps of approval on the training system. In 1961 the Seminoles had a perfect 10’0 season, which prompted even more collegiate teams to purchase power racks and start doing isometrics. Anyone who’s ever been associated with professional or collegiate athletes knows that if top teams begin doing something new, all the others must follow suit or fall behind, especially in the recruiting game.
S&H also published glowing accounts of the improvements made by many well-known athletes. Frank Budd, who set a world record of 9.2 seconds in the 100-yard dash, was using isometrics, as were discus thrower Jay Sylvester, high jumper John Thomas and the teen shot-put sensation from New York, Gary Gubner. With so many testimonials from renowned scientists, coaches and athletes, there was no question that if a person wanted to get stronger, he must start using the York Functional Isometric Contraction System.
Nevertheless, it was really Bill March who carried the torch for isometrics. His rapid rise in Olympic lifting, his good looks, his powerful physique and his availability made him the perfect model. Every month the magazine featured him in an article about isometrics, and he adorned more S&H covers than anyone except John Grimek; he was also on the cover of the York course. While Vern Weaver, Grimek and Steve Stanko, working in different types of power racks, appeared in the magazine as well, March was the official poster boy for isometrics.
For the most part those who wanted to include the new technique in their routines chose isotonic-isometrics over pure isometrics. Of course, in order to do the more advanced form of the system, you absolutely had to have a York power rack’or a facsimile’and they weren’t always available. That was the situation I found myself in when I moved to Marion, Indiana, to take the position of youth director at the YMCA. Our meager budget couldn’t handle a York rack, so I made one. It had to be the most absurd’and ugliest’power rack in the country but was most functional, and that’s all I cared about. And it did help me and my lifting mates make some gains.
There are several reasons why moving the weighted bar a short distance before locking it against the pins proved to be more productive than pure isometrics. Whenever you pushed or pulled against a fixed bar, it was very difficult to determine if you were, in fact, exerting yourself to the maximum. You might only be putting 60 percent of your effort into the rep. On the other hand, when you moved a weighted bar a short distance before holding it tightly against a set of pins, the guesswork was eliminated. Either the bar stayed flush against the pins, or it didn’t. So, if you weren’t able to hold 315 pounds against the pins for 12 seconds, you knew that you needed to use less weight. One of the cardinal rules that Ziegler set down was that time is more critical than the amount of weight being used. ALL Another plus in favor of moving a weight before doing an isometric contraction was that you could gauge your progress from workout to workout. If you started off using 185 for your press lockouts and within three weeks you were handling 225 for the required count, you knew for certain that you were getting stronger in that position. That was motivational. In contrast, there wasn’t any positive proof that you were making progress with pure isometrics, other than having one or more of your free-weight exercises move up.
Another motivational factor had to do with the psychology of numbers. Strength training is all about numbers. The lifter who can squat 500 is stronger than the one who only does 495. It’s much more satisfying to be able to lock 365 against the pins for 12 seconds than it is to push against a fixed bar for the same count. Going through a complete isotonic-isometric session was extremely taxing. Pure isometrics isn’t that demanding, and I preferred to exhaust my body, for I believed it benefited my cause much more.
Even though the York course didn’t require any warmups other than calisthenics, toe touches and some stretches, I always spent adequate time making sure the muscle groups I was about to put under dire stress were ready for the work ahead. When I was only able to do the pure isometrics, even after I did some calisthenics, I still felt as if my muscular system wasn’t thoroughly prepared. So before I got in the rack for one or more pulling isos, I would do a set or two of power cleans with a light weight. And I used the same idea prior to squatting or pressing.
In addition, in the first position for any series of exercises, such as pulls, I would do a couple of light warmup sets for three reps without holding my final rep against the top pins before hitting my target weight. Then, if I felt sufficiently warmed up, I would only do one set at the other positions. That, I believed, allowed me to handle more weight on my work set and lowered the risk of injury. If you do the iso correctly, you put a great deal of stress on the muscles and attachments, so it only makes sense to prepare them for the extreme exertion.
Now I come to the part of the drama that eventually altered forever not only strength training, competitive weightlifting and bodybuilding but also nearly every other competitive sport. In Part 1 of this series I noted that Ziegler got close with Russian officials and lifters at the ’54 World Championships, in Vienna. That’s when he learned that they were experimenting with a new form of training, isometrics, and also using male hormones, primarily testosterone.
Back at his home in Olney, Maryland, Ziegler researched the subject and did some testing of testosterone on his own. It was his opinion that the steroid produced by the body wasn’t very effective in building muscle and improving strength, so in conjunction with the CIBA Pharmaceutical Company, he developed a synthetic hormone called Dianabol. At the same time he was introducing March and Riecke to isometrics and isotonic-isometrics, he was also giving them Dianabol.
Ziegler and Hoffman kept the steroid use a secret, although for different reasons. Hoffman realized that Dianabol would give his York lifters a tremendous advantage over their opponents, and when the results started coming in, he did his best to secure the secret even more. He wanted the general public and athletic community to continue to think that it was the rack work that was responsible for the spectacular progress the two test subjects were making. That would ensure the sale of more courses and racks. If people knew that March and Riecke were using drugs, Hoffman’s income would drop, and there was no way he could benefit because he couldn’t market Dianabol.
Ziegler had a different reason for wanting to keep Dianabol under wraps. His primary motive for helping to create the anabolic steroid was purely humanitarian. He never received any monies for the sale of the drug, nor did he benefit from the windfall at York when the company’s yearly gross shot up because of all the orders for racks and courses. Ziegler wanted to create a drug that would help bedridden patients and those recovering from surgery or prolonged illness to rebuild their muscles faster and be restored to better health more rapidly. He thought that by testing the drug on robust specimens such as Olympic lifters, he could get feedback more quickly. He could also avoid medical regulations regarding drug testing. He was a rogue and proud of it. It so happens that the rogues in history are the ones who often break barriers, and Ziegler was certainly doing that when he helped bring Dianabol to the athletic scene.
Once it became clear that the steroid was the main reason for March’s and Riecke’s spectacular gains, Ziegler was even more adamant that the drug remain a secret. He feared the consequences if word leaked out, believing that athletes, with their competitive natures, would abuse the drug’which, of course, is exactly what happened. He told me that he wished that he had never conceived the idea of creating Dianabol, and he was certain that the end results were going to be more damaging than beneficial.
The use of steroids by March and Riecke remained a secret for a surprisingly long time when you consider how athletes gossip. I did hear a few rumors about York lifters using male hormones, but there was never anything in print to confirm it. For good reason, as Hoffman was controlling the press. In the mid-’60s things began to change. Out of nowhere average lifters began making gains similar to those achieved by March and Riecke. Tony Garcy, Bob Bartholomew, Gerald Moyer, Russ Knipp, Dr. John Gourgott and Bob Bednarski were suddenly vying for berths on international teams. Soon after Tommy Suggs moved to York from Texas, he became a full-blown heavyweight, won the Junior Nationals and the Collegiates and qualified for the Olympic Trials. His sudden success made a big impression on me, since we had competed on equal terms in Texas. Those who had a connection to York had learned about the magic pink pills. Dianabol started out as a pink pill, and then the color was changed to blue. Don’t ask me why. The point is, those outside the circle remained ignorant of the athletes’ steroid use. Even after I moved to York to become Tommy’s assistant at Strength & Health, I still didn’t find out about Dianabol until I’d been there for six months. Once word started to spread, it swept across the country like a wildfire. The cat was out of the box, and as Ziegler predicted, it was Pandora’s box that had been opened.
I want to clear up a common mis’conception here: York lifters, other than March, did not get Dianabol from Ziegler. He adamantly refused any requests for the drug and encouraged Hoffman not to assist them in getting it from other sour’ces. His advice fell on deaf ears. Hof’fman liked the advantage the steroid gave his lifters and made arrangements with a physician in York who provided it free of charge. Di’anabol became part of the recruitment package. Represent the York Barbell Club, and received pro’tein, vitamins, sweats, T-shirts, travel expenses to meets and anabolic steroids. Not unexpectedly, with a residency rule requiring lifters to live in the area where their team was based set aside, the York team grew quickly. When it came to weightlifting, Bob Hoffman was the AAU.
Lifters from California to Texas to New York and everywhere in between discovered that when they started taking Dianabol, it didn’t matter how they trained. They still made fast gains. The opinion among lifters was that the great progress that March and Riecke made was a direct result of the anabolics and that isometrics was a smokescreen’a well-designed hoax to sell courses and racks. Isometrics and isotonic-isometrics fell out of favor as fast as they had shot to the forefront.
The truth of the matter, though, is that Ziegler’s rack programs did contribute to the gains made by the test subjects. And all the other lifters’such as Garcy, Bartholomew and Bednarski’also used the program he set down. What got lost because of Hoffman’s subterfuge was the hard-and-true fact that rack training is one of the very best ways to increase strength, particularly the isotonic-isometric system.
I have used it on advanced athletes at the three colleges where I served as strength coach. Every one of them responded favorably, and none were taking steroids. The gains they made were a direct result of the training system, not an ergogenic aid.
The primary reason that isometric training is not a part of strength programs today is coaches don’t understand the basic concepts well enough to be able to teach it to their players. And unless they were taught the system by Ziegler, they are totally unaware of the subtleties involved’or, more correctly, unless they were taught by the doctor or by someone who learned from the doctor. Coaches stay with what they know. It’s safer than venturing into uncharted territory, especially when their jobs depend on the progress made by their athletes.
Even so, when I teach isometric training to coaches and athletes at clinics, they learn the technique readily because it’s so simple. That’s another reason rack training isn’t in common use: Complicated is considered better than simple. Chains, rubber bands, elaborate machines and contraptions have to produce more strength than just lifting a weighted bar a few inches and then holding it against a set of pins for 12 seconds. That’s the current thinking, but it’s wrong. There’s no better way to gain strength than by doing isotonic-isometrics.
Obviously, you must have a power rack in order to use this system. On the ideal rack the holes for the pins are set close together, and the uprights should be wide enough apart to enable you to perform a wide range of exercises. If your routine includes overhead lifts, such as military presses or jerks, you want the rack to be higher than the finish position of the movements.
If the power rack that’s available to you doesn’t meet all of those standards, you can still do some isos. Whenever I encountered a rack that didn’t have the holes close together, I resorted to standing on two-by-fours to get the exact position I was seeking. Since I wouldn’t be moving my feet during the iso, it didn’t pose a problem.
The question arises: What positions in the rack are the best to do? The answer is, it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. A bodybuilder would select different exercises from a shot-putter, and an Olympic lifter would do a different routine from what a powerlifter uses. In other words, your iso workout should be sport specific. For example, powerlifters have little use for overhead power, so there’s no reason for them to include any pressing positions in the rack. Instead they’ll benefit by selecting various benching placements. There are many ways to incorporate isos into your routine. One is to use them in place of your regular exercise for a certain bodypart. I’ve had athletes come to me saying that they only had 30 minutes in which to train, for whatever reason. I gave them a rack routine in which they did three pressing positions, three for pulls and three for squats. While they warmed up, I got the rack ready, and I helped them change the positions after each set. They were able to zip through the workout with time to spare.
I’ve also used isos to make a change in a routine. When I notice that people’s pulls lack snap and they’re obviously overtrained on that lift, I have them stop and replace whatever pulling exercise they were doing with two or three pulling positions in the rack. That serves two purposes: It helps relieve their fatigued condition because it’s not as demanding as the full-range movement, and it hits their attachments more directly and benefits them strengthwise. Another plus is that it allows them to leave the gym with a positive frame of mind rather than a negative one.
There’s no better way to improve a weak area than by using isos. I introduce them to athletes for that express purpose, and it always works. Typically, a lifter will have difficulty coming out of the bottom of a squat or pressing the bar through the middle on a bench press or finishing the top of a power clean or power snatch. Once the weak spot is identified, that’s where you want to set the top pins in the power rack.
Take the sticking point in the bench, for example. Do a set or two of light benches for 10 to 12 reps, and then place the bar on pins that are a few inches below the higher ones. Say you can bench 255 for five reps: That’s going to be your work weight for your final set in the rack. Use 185 on your first set. Press it up against the top pins for three reps, but don’t hold it against them. Just tap them and lower the bar. You do set two in the same fashion with 225. On the third work set, with 255, press the weight up and tap the higher pins twice. Then lock the bar against them on the final rep and hold it snugly in place for 12 seconds.
Should you be unable to fix the bar against the pins for the full 12 seconds, don’t do another set. Just make sure you use less weight the next time you work that position. Always remember that time is more important than the amount of weight on the bar. Conversely, if you were able to hold the bar tightly against the pins for the required count, use more weight the next time around.
This discussion will get you started on isotonic-isometrics. Next month I’ll get into things like the mind-set you need for doing this form of strength training, the technique and the many ways you can incorporate it into your current program.
Note: The Powertec power rack is a great piece of equipment for isometric-style training. It’s available from Home Gym Warehouse. Call 1-800-447-0008, visit www.Home-Gym.com or see page 269.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. IM