Five years passed before the well-kept secret slipped out that Bill March, Louis Riecke and others connected with the York Barbell Club were using anabolic steroids and that the drug, not isometric contraction, was the real reason they were all making such spectacular progress. Once on the iron grapevine, however, word spread rapidly. Soon Olympic weightlifters in Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Jacksonville and Winston-Salem found local sources for the Dianabol that would so dramatically improve their totals.
They also discovered that any routine, done consistently and diligently, produced startling results, as long as they took the little pink pills regularly. That’s when the systems of rack training that Dr. John Ziegler had developed and Bob Hoffman had so successfully marketed became pass’. The weightlifting community figured that Hoffman had deliberately concealed the drug use of athletes who’d trained with isometrics and isotonic-isometrics just so he could sell courses and racks. Which was true.
Sales for isometric courses and all types of power racks fell like a missed jerk. I recall going to a room in an old warehouse in York to pick up back copies of Strength & Health to take to a coaches’ convention and seeing power racks stacked from floor to ceiling. They’re probably still there.
Rack training as designed by Dr. Ziegler might no longer have been considered beneficial, but it was a case of the baby going out with the bathwater. That’s because the system, when executed correctly, is extremely effective’especially the isotonic-isometric movements, in which you shift a weighted bar a short distance before locking it into a 12-second isometric hold.
Before I moved to York from Marion, Indiana, I improved my clean by 15 pounds and my snatch by 10 by using Ziegler’s system in the rack. You’ll remember that rack training seems to have more influence on one area of the body than others. In my case the positions for the pull helped me more than the ones for the squats and presses.
Lifters who’d been taught by Ziegler or one of his students, such as Bill March, continued to use his system even after steroids became part of weightlifting and bodybuilding. Garcy, March, Bednarski, Brannum, Whitcomb, Moore, Mielec, Glenney, Suggs, Pickett, Bartholomew and I used it till the end of our competitive careers, as did top bodybuilders like Bill St. John, Val Vasilef, Bob Gajda and Sergio Oliva. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Ziegler’s disciples were among the first used by professional-football strength coaches in the country: Riecke for the Steelers, John Gourgott for the Saints, Tommy Suggs for the Oilers, and I worked with the Colts.
When I took the position of strength coach at the University of Hawaii, though, I really got the opportunity to test the Ziegler system on a large group of athletes who were not using any form of steroids. In the early 1970s you couldn’t get them on Oahu anyway. That’s changed, but during my island tour I had plenty of pure, willing subjects.
For isotonic-isometrics to have any real effect, the athlete has to be past the beginning stage. The longer he’s been training hard, the better. My primary job was to work with the football team, and none of them had done serious strength training, so I didn’t put any of them in the rack until my second year there. I did find an ideal subject soon after I joined the coaching staff, however.
I attended an Olympic meet in Honolulu, mainly to see Tommy Kono, Pete George and Harold Sakata, since there was no lifter of any note. All the lifters were Asian except one, a transplanted Pennsylvanian named Steve Dussia. He won the 181 class with a 220 snatch and 270 clean and jerk. After the contest we talked about mutual acquaintances, and I learned that Marty Cypher, one of the best coaches in the country, had introduced him to the Olympic lifts. Steve asked if he could train occasionally at the UH weight room so I could help him with his form on the split snatch, which was the style I used when I competed. I agreed on the condition that he assist me in teaching the football players and other athletes lifts like the power clean, overhead press, jerk and front squat. ALL Thus Steve became my unofficial assistant, training exclusively at the university. He’d been lifting heavy for six years, and I quickly found out that he was one of the rare individuals who could handle an enormous amount of work and still recover easily. He was a natural for power rack training. Two-and-a-half months after he started training with me, he competed in another meet. Still a light heavyweight, he snatched 270 and clean and jerked 320. Everyone in the audience and all the officials were convinced I’d given him steroids (if I could have gotten my hands on any, I would have taken them myself). He was clean and had achieved the remarkable gains the old-fashioned way, through lots of hard work and sweat. Without doubt the isotonic-isometrics had helped a great deal. Steve continued to make progress for the three years I coached at UH.
When you start using isos, keep in mind that it’s like any other physical discipline: There’s a learning curve. The more you practice isos, the more proficient you’ll become and the more benefits you’ll derive. The first thing to understand is that you must be thoroughly warmed up before hitting your work set. If you apply yourself fully to that final isometric hold, which you have to do to get results, your muscles and attachments must be prepared for the stress.
Even though you may be sweating and puffing from a just-completed exercise, you still have to make certain that the groups you’re about to work with isos are ready. For example, you may decide that you want to get your squats out of the way before doing some isos for one or more pulling positions. Maybe your back got plenty of work during the squats, but it’s still prudent to do some movements for your back before proceeding to the rack. You don’t need to do much’a couple of sets of power cleans or high pulls. In fact, you don’t want to do much; you need to have plenty available for those work sets.
An alternative to free-weight movements outside the rack is to do a couple of warmup sets inside the rack at the position you’re going to use first: three reps, tapping the top pins on each rep but not holding it for a count.
Whenever you watch someone with iso experience doing a routine, it looks so simple. It is, but you have to do a lot of things perfectly for isos to be productive. To begin with, your grip, foot spacing, hip, back and shoulder placement must be exactly the same when doing an iso and the free-weight, full-range movement. Your form and line have to be identical to the one used on the lift you’re trying to improve with the isos, or you’re wasting your time and energy.
I often stayed with Tommy and Karen Suggs when they lived at Oyster Creek on the Gulf Coast in Texas. Over time I added several powerlifters to my list of trainees. One of them made impressive gains, but he wasn’t winning any meets because he could never manage to lock out the deadlift he needed for the victory. The bar would explode to midthigh, then stall’really stall, as if hitting some invisible force field.
We trained at Billy Neel’s combination dive shop and gym in Clute (the hottest weight room this side of hell), but I asked him to come out to Tommy’s place so I could teach him isos in some privacy. There was a super power rack in Tommy’s garage gym. I wanted the lifter to do isos at only one position, the exact spot where the heavy deadlifts always stuck. I demonstrated the two warmup sets and the work set, stressing the fact that holding the bar up against the top pin was more important than how much weight he used. I suggested he do isos twice a week on the days he didn’t deadlift. He used good technique and agreed to add them to his routine.
He worked different shifts at Dow Chemical and went on nights right after I taught him isos, so I didn’t see him for weeks. When we met again, he said he hadn’t improved. That baffled me’until I watched him do his isos. He loaded the bar to 495 for his work set, and when he locked the bar against the top pins he leaned way back for the count of 12. I immediately understood why he hadn’t made any progress.
He was pulling the bar in a line that he couldn’t possibly use during the execution of a deadlift. I told him that if he leaned back the way he was doing, he’d fall over. It was also obvious that he’d been using a heavy weight to impress his training mates. That wasn’t the first time I’d observed someone letting his ego get in the way of correct technique on the rack. It’s a natural tendency to move away from the correct line during an iso hold because that particular position is relatively weak. But that’s why you’re doing an iso there’to make it stronger. So you must resist breaking form.
I had him lower the weight to 405, set him in the proper position with his frontal deltoids out in front of the bar and instructed him to maintain that form while doing the iso. He held the bar against the pins, but just barely. I advised him to use only 385 the next time he did an iso hold at that spot and concentrate on maintaining the proper mechanics for the 12-second count. Within a month he was holding 455 on his work set, and his newly gained strength had moved his deadlift up 25 pounds. Trainees doing isos for the bench press frequently alter their technique drastically so they can hold the bar against the pins for the required time. They press the bar in an entirely different line and set their elbows in a new position. I saw one powerlifter doing an iso for the middle of the bench who’d fixed the bar against the pins directly over his eyes. I told him the isos weren’t going to make him a better bencher because he never brought the bar back that far. If you don’t use the line on an iso identical to what you use for the lift, the rack work will be totally ineffective.
Sometimes a lifter honestly believes he’s using correct form on his isos, even when he’s not. So it’s valuable to have someone with a good coaching eye to watch you while you’re learning to do isotonic-isometric contractions. A slight adjustment in mechanics can make all the difference. If you train alone, you can benefit from watching yourself in a mirror. When you see that your form is off, stop and make the necessary adjustments. If you’re unable to maintain proper technique with a certain weight, use less. Isos will improve a lift only if your form is perfect. Anything less than perfect is a waste of energy.
Which brings us to the factor of concentration. Since you’re doing only one iso at any position, you must focus on what you’re trying to accomplish and concentrate on the task at hand. You can waver on a rep during a free-weight exercise and still make the set successfully, but if your focus breaks down during an iso, you’ve failed. That takes some time to learn, and it’s one reason isos are more productive for those who’ve been practicing the system for a while. Experience is a great asset in that form of strength training.
Here are a few tips. Never jam the bar up against the pins in preparation for the isometric hold. Rather, ease the bar up and press it firmly against the pins, steadily increasing the pressure on the bar so that at the conclusion of the count you’re putting in as close to 100 percent effort as you possibly can. As you push the bar into the pins, don’t think about merely holding it there. Instead, imagine that you’re pushing the bar right through them. That will help you steadily push or pull harder, and when you do, you can feel more of your muscles contract. You might be surprised to learn that muscle groups you didn’t know were part of the exercise get involved in the contraction.
I’ve found that the top pull is the best position to use for teaching the technique; it’s a strong point for nearly all lifters and one on which they can rather easily maintain form. You’ve done your warmups and loaded a poundage that you know you can handle, though it may be enough to push you to the limit. Strap on, plant your feet firmly, and check your body mechanics, making sure that your front deltoids are in front of the bar. Now drive your feet down into the floor as you lift the bar in a smooth fashion up against the top pins. Lock it in place, and start pulling. When the count reaches five, apply more pressure to the bar. Every muscle in your body should be fully contracted, from your calves to your traps. When you do it right, you feel an electric shock shoot up into your traps. That’s what you’re after: a maximum contraction.
Keep pulling. Try to bend the bar. Once you hit the 12 count, don’t let the bar crash downward. Instead, reduce the pressure, take a couple of deep breaths, and lower the bar in a controlled manner back down to the support pins.
Now we come to breathing. The rule is simple’you hold your breath for the duration of an isometric contraction. If you breathe, you diminish your ability to apply maximum force to the bar. That’s because inhaling and exhaling causes your diaphragm to relax, which creates negative intrathoracic pressure.
Take a deep breath as you lock the bar up against the pins, and hold in the air until you’ve reached the desired count. Then exhale. That will make sure you maintain a positive pressure inside your rib cage. Holding your breath during an iso isn’t usually a problem, except with overhead lifts, such as presses, jerks and lockouts. Some lifters undergo what’s called the Valsalva maneuver’a forceful exhale effort while keeping nose and throat closed’while applying maximum exertion overhead. Usually harmless in healthy people, it hinders the flow of venous blood to the heart and can cause you to black out. If you start feeling dizzy on any of the positions, be smart enough to use a lesser count’eight or 10 seconds instead of 12. Better safe than sorry; the original course recommends holding a contraction for six to 12 seconds. The reason I’ve always used 12 seconds for everything but overhead exercises is that it takes me at least six seconds to get to the point of pushing or pulling at maximum effort. I use the remainder of the time to gain the benefits of the exercise.
Don’t forget that the main reason you’re doing isos at certain positions on various exercises is that they’re your weaker points. So you’re not going to be able to handle big numbers initially. It’s a truism of strength training that it doesn’t matter where you start; all that matters is where you end up. Once you master the technique involved in isotonic-isometrics, gains will come steadily.
I’ll get more deeply into this subject next month.
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