Last month I mentioned the two most important people in the isometric-contraction craze that swept through the strength-training community in the early '60s: Dr. John Ziegler, a highly respected physician in Olney, Maryland, and Bob Hoffman, owner of the York Barbell Company and self-proclaimed Father of American Weightlifting, World's Healthiest Man, as well as the Greatest Chinese Food Eater Outside China and the World's Greatest Polka Dancer. He took other titles, but you get the idea. He had a huge ego.
Ziegler and Hoffman had formed a partnership of sorts to test Doc Ziegler's theory concerning a new form of strength training. Ziegler was the mastermind behind isometric contractions. Hoffman had the resources to support the research and a magazine, Strength & Health, to publicize the results should they prove favorable. If isometrics could really help improve strength in healthy athletes such as Olympic weightlifters, Ziegler intended to use his findings to help rehabilitate those recovering from serious illnesses or surgery. His motive was purely humanitarian.
Hoffman, on the other hand, saw a golden opportunity. If isometrics really did work, his York lifters would have a tremendous advantage over their opponents, and that would increase sales of his weights and nutritional supplements. Since racks were needed to do isometrics, he could capitalize on those as well.
Now Ziegler needed someone to test his theories on, preferably a young weightlifter who was willing to follow Doc's advice to the letter. Grimek suggested Bill March, a 23-year-old 181-pound Olympic lifter who lived in Dover, not far from Hoffman's residence. Bill weighed 176 and had just won the '60 Middle Atlantic with a three-lift total of 745. Hoffman liked the idea of having a local product, and Bill was called in for an interview. Like any young athlete, Bill saw this as a chance to move up the ladder in a hurry. All he had to do was train, a luxury afforded no other Olympic weightlifter in the country at that time. The only spanner in the works was that Ziegler had to supervise all the workouts personally at his home gym in Olney, 90 miles from York.
Ziegler, who had a large house, suggested that Bill stay with him and his family, but Bill wasn't keen on that idea. Even though he was anxious to take part in the experiment, he was newly married, and spending five days a week away from home didn't appeal to him. Besides, the 180-mile round trip through back roads five days a week plus the training looked to be extremely taxing. Bill admitted that he wasn't sure he could handle such a schedule for very long.
That's where Dick Smith entered the picture, playing a major role in this piece of weightlifting history. Smitty had hung around the York Barbell Gym as a youngster, and when his close friend Vern Weaver became a part of the York team, Smitty tagged along. He never trained for competition, but lifting with Weaver, Grimek, Jules Bacon and Stanko was reward enough. He thoroughly enjoyed being around Olympic lifters and bodybuilders–so much so that he quit his job in a machine shop to go to work at York. He became a jack-of-all-trades and the trainer of the lifting team.
Bill March was one of Smitty's favorites, so he stepped up and offered to drive Bill to and from Olney five days a week and to act as Ziegler's assistant. Since Smitty was already on York's payroll, the experiment began.
So two more key players were firmly in place. I want to emphasize how absolutely indispensable Smitty was to the success of the venture. I don't believe isometrics would have ever come to fruition, at least not at that time, without Smitty. I don't think Bill would have made that arduous drive for very long either, and if he'd stopped coming to Ziegler's place, Doc's interests would have changed. He was interested in many other concepts, such as a machine that could contract muscles involuntarily, using certain amino acids such as L-lysine to promote better health and an anabolic aid for increasing strength.
Smitty's role in isometrics development has never been fully appreciated, nor has his contribution to Olympic weightlifting. If Hoffman was indeed the Father of American Weightlifting, Smitty was the kindly uncle who did all that was necessary to help any lifter succeed. Without his efforts isometrics would probably have been put on the back burner, as would the other innovations that came out of Ziegler's experiment.
The key elements were in place: Hoffman's financial support, Ziegler's genius, March's dedication and Smitty's willingness. Isometric training as designed by Doc Ziegler began. He'd devised his system by applying some originality to research previously conducted in Germany and Russia. Progress came quickly to Bill March. When the 1960 Olympic team came to York for final training before going to Rome, Bill pitted himself against Jim George and John Pulskamp and often outlifted them. His rapid gains were the talk of everyone associated with the team. A clinic was held in conjunction with the Olympic team's stay in York, and one of the lifters invited to take part was Louis Riecke of New Orleans. That put in place the final piece of the isometrics puzzle.
While in York, Riecke purchased some new clothes that gave him a rash around his waistline. He went to see Doc, the Olympic team's physician, at the Yorktowne Hotel and took the opportunity to question Doc in depth regarding the buzz at the York Gym about Bill March's special training. Riecke wanted to know how March could have made such amazing progress in such a short period of time. ALL Doc was very guarded; only he, March and Smitty knew what was going on in Olney. Hoffman, of course, was in the loop but couldn't really grasp the nuances in the training system. Doc had never planned to use more than one test subject, and even if he had, Riecke didn't fit his profile. At 34, Riecke had been competing for more than 20 years. A psychology professor of mine at SMU had lifted against Riecke in 1941, so he was well past his prime–not what Ziegler needed at all.
Still, something in Riecke attracted Ziegler. Louie had a pleasing personality and was extremely intelligent. He also had some medical training, another plus in Doc's view. Louie expressed a fierce desire to try the new system of strength training, and Doc agreed to think about it. He was too busy right now but said he'd let Riecke know after the Olympics.
In November, Doc asked Riecke to serve as the second test subject in the experiment. What he didn't tell the veteran lifter was that he planned to use a slightly different version of isometric training on him.
Riecke came to Olney under a cloak of secrecy; Ziegler did not inform Hoffman or anyone else in the York organization. Enjoying the clandestine arrangement, Doc made Riecke swear that he wouldn't tell another soul what he was learning.
We now know that Ziegler was having Riecke use a more advanced form of isometrics, in which the lifter moves the bar a short distance, then locks it in an isometric hold for the desired count. He'd used only pure isometrics on Bill March in order to get a comparison between the two lifters' results. Once he saw that the system he was to call isotonic-isometric was better than pure isometrics, he put Bill on Riecke's routine too. Every issue of Strength & Health carried glowing reports of March's astounding gains. At a time when adding 30 pounds to your total in a year was considered admirable, he'd put 150 pounds on his in 11 months. He'd moved up to the 198 class, which was unheard of, and it was all attributed to isometrics.
I was skeptical. I figured March was genetically gifted and had a vast array of nutritional supplements at his disposal. Plus, all he had to do was train. Others in his circumstances would be able to do what he was doing. He had the best coach too, in Bob Hoffman. (Boy, was I off base.) There was also a perception that what went on at York didn't apply to lifters in the rest of the country. The York Barbell was to weightlifting what Yankee Stadium was to baseball and didn't relate to what we were doing at the Dallas YMCA. So I continued to train as always.
What altered my thinking and started me pushing and pulling against a stationary bar wasn't March's splendid success but rather Riecke's sudden improvement. Because there were so few meets in the southwest, Louie would come to Texas to compete. In the fall of '60, I lifted against him in Dallas. He did a 255 press, 265 snatch, and 315 clean and jerk. I was 20 pounds behind him in the press, 30 in the snatch but cleaned 325. That gave me hope of challenging him in a year or two. It's always useful to have a goal, someone to catch.
The next time I competed against him was in Houston in March of '61. My dream of moving closer to him vanished in a flash when he did 295, 285 and 360. Like every other lifter present, I was stunned. Increases like that were simply not possible, but I'd witnessed his lifts with my own eyes. No one had ever heard of someone so far past his lifting prime make such gains so fast. He revealed that Doc Ziegler had taught him the new form of strength training.
Back in Dallas, I began incorporating isometrics into my routine, though not exclusively. I enjoyed working out with weights and the tired feeling I got after a hard session. I did isometrics on my nonlifting days under the stadium at SMU, training after the football team completed their workouts, at night. The dark wasn't pitch black; filtered light came from outside the stadium. But that shows you how simple the routine was. I'd move the bar up and down the upright using my fingers more than my eyes, then do sets for my pulls, presses and squats.
I also tried to learn all I could about isometrics to make sure I was doing everything by the book. I bought a course from York and studied it with more enthusiasm than any of my textbooks. Sid Henry, who'd been to York and gone through a session with Bill March directing him, added to my knowledge on the subject. Doc Ziegler named his system functional isometric contraction, a method of developing strength through static contraction. On an isometric movement the muscles don't shorten as they do in a regular exercise done with a bar or dumbbell. All muscle energy is used in tension and none in movement, which helps develop the maximum amount of strength.
The basic program suggested three positions for the overhead press, back squat, pulls and toe raises. You could substitute front squats for back squats and snatch-grip pulls for clean pulls. Of course, with a bit of imagination any exercise could become an isometric movement: good mornings, bent-over rows, curls and so on. You needed straps for the pulling exercises.
You did only one rep at each of the positions. Once you locked the bar into position, you went for 100 percent for nine to 12 seconds. You were encouraged to move fast and take only short rests between the positions. I usually completed my workout in 15 minutes, and that included a calisthenics warmup. One reason I moved quickly was that I was trespassing: The racks were off-limits to everyone but SMU's varsity sports teams.
Both March and Riecke continued to make impressive gains, and Hoffman was making a mint on rack and isometric course sales. Indeed, the early ads for racks and courses sold what was called the Hoffman-Ziegler Isometric System. That quickly changed to the Hoffman Isometric System. Not that Doc cared–he wasn't doing it for the publicity. Hoffman, on the other hand, angled for attention and wanted the public to believe the concept came from his inventive mind.
That was Hoffman's modus operandi. He made readers of Strength & Health believe that he'd conceived the idea of protein powder, whereas Rheo Blair had come up with that product and sold it to him. When Tommy Kono devised knee bands made out of the same type of rubber used in scuba suits, they were marketed as TK Kneebands. Not for long. Within months, the ads were for BH Kneebands. The guy was truly a piece of work.
Does isometrics work? That question was on every lifter's mind once word leaked out that the two test subjects were also taking an anabolic steroid called Dianabol. Had the new form of training been a grand hoax? Many believed so. To answer the question, however: Yes, isometrics does work. I made noticeable gains, as did my teammates at the Dallas Y. Isometrics worked some bodyparts better than others, and that varied from individual to individual. It boosted my pulling power for snatches and cleans and helped my press but did nothing for my squats.
Pure isometrics comes with a few drawbacks. The biggest is that it's difficult to tell if you're actually exerting max effort. You may feel that you're pushing or pulling at 100 percent, but in most cases you aren't. An observer sees no difference between someone applying 50 percent and another applying 80 percent. Going full throttle on any movement takes a bit of learning and practice.
As Ziegler also pointed out, no one can exert 100 percent effort. That only happens under situations of dire stress, such as lifting a car off a person trapped under it.
Another problem for me was that isometrics was boring. Sure, it was quick (many like exercise to be quick), but you get no aesthetic pleasure from one rep at nine or ten stations. Lifting weights was an athletic endeavor that I greatly enjoyed. Isometrics was work and not the least bit of fun–nothing that could compare to a successful full snatch, clean, jerk or even a full squat. Nor does isometrics enhance the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, which are important not only to strength athletes but also to anyone wanting a higher quality of life.
Another aspect of isometrics that I didn't like was that you couldn't translate what you were doing to actual numbers. As with working out on machines, there was no real way to tell if you were making any improvement. You couldn't pull or push against the bar for any longer than the recommended 12 seconds; more ain't better in isometrics. On the other hand, if one of your primary lifts improved right after you did some isometrics, you could attribute the gains to the static contractions. Despite the weak points of isometrics, I believe it can be a useful supplement to any strength program. It's a good way to strengthen a weak area in a lift, such as the sticking point in the bench press. Set the pins in a power rack at the exact spot where your bench stalls when the weights approach your max, fix an empty bar up against the pins, and do an isometric hold for 12 seconds. Do it three times a week on the days you don't do any benches or don't go heavy on them, and you'll see positive results. If the top pull on your snatches needs work, isometrics is a way to hit the groups responsible rather easily and effectively.
Isometrics is good for a change. If you're feeling stale, take two or three weeks and do only isometrics. When you return to your normal routine, you'll be refreshed and have more enthusiasm for your exercises–and you may be even stronger.
You may not have a power rack in your gym, but if you have a Smith machine, you can still do isometrics. At the Dallas Y we simply turned the hooks upside down and did a complete workout of presses, pulls and squats. Training partners stood on the machine to keep it from lifting off the floor.
Remember the portable isometric contraption from last month? The one York sold as the Strength Builder was made with wooden bars, one to stand on and one to hold, with a length of chain that let you do a variety of exercises on it. Peary Rader sold an even better model, made of metal with two lengths of chains. They're no longer around, but with a little imagination you can make one. It doesn't take much because I made one while I was a counselor at a boys' camp in Branson, Missouri, one summer. A number of us used it while on a float trip down the Buffalo River. It would be great to carry along on a trip. You could do isometrics for 15 or 20 minutes, then another 20 minutes on flexibility and then go for a walk or run. It's better than doing nothing, and it would help maintain your strength.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Olney.’ Once word about Dianabol spread, isometrics dropped out of favor and by the end of the '60s had disappeared from the scene altogether. Pure isometrics was put in the same boat as isometric contractions with weights, and both got dumped because weightlifters and other strength athletes felt they'd been conned. It was the steroids, people said, and not the newer form of training that had turned March and Riecke into world-record holders and Olympians.
The fact is, though, that doing isotonic isometrics or isometrics with weights is one of the very best ways of increasing strength. Next month I'll detail how to include them in your program.
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