Posted February 20, 2017

Isometrics for Improving Range Of Motion

I talk a lot about mobility and how important it is for getting after it in the gym. It could be said that you need to train for strength, but train for mobility to allow you to train for strength, but maybe that’s being a little reductive. In either case, it’s tough o build strength in a position you can’t get to, which makes it relatively important to have some level of mobility available to you and under your control to use.

Frozen shoulder, huh? I heard some guy on the internet say everyone should hang, so go grab that chin up bar and I'll see you in 10.

Frozen shoulder, huh? I heard some guy on the internet say everyone should hang, so go grab that chin up bar and I’ll see you in 10.

One often overlooked and under-utilized method of improving range of motion is a simple stalwart of programming that’s survived for decades, primarily because while they’re not sexy, they still solve problems relatively effectively.

Isometric exercise can have some massive impacts in range of motion, and builds off a lot of the tenets I’ve outlined in previous posts: building stability and motor control in the specific position, applying force through tissues to promote adaptation, and reducing neural guarding that could hold back achieving a range of motion.

They’re also incredibly simple to use, and work well as a warm up, active recovery drill between heavier sets, restorative work, maximal intensity training sessions, and even homework for rehab clients.

A basic explanation of how these can work is as follows:

  1. Find a position or range that needs to be expanded
  2. Put the body into the end of the available range of motion in that direction
  3. Contract muscles to pull away from or further into that range with light to moderate tension, ensuring you can breathe, for 5-10 seconds.
  4. Relax
  5. See if you can get a little deeper into that pain-free range of motion
  6. Repeat in the new position. If no new range became available, repeat in the same position.

Depending on the direction of force application, these can be either agonistic or antagonistic (pushing the gas pedal or pulling off the brakes). In Functional Range Conditioning, these movements are referred to as PAILs and RAILs, and if you want to know more about them and how or why they work, check out this article.

 

The good thing about these kinds of exercises is they take very little equipment (or none at all), can usually be done anywhere, and can take very little time to see improvements in range of motion in some situations. In cases where an individual may have some capsular or joint restrictions that go beyond simple neural reflex loops, they can still be beneficial, but will take considerably longer applications (instead of once or twice producing results, you might need to do them daily or multiple times a day for months or even years to see lasting improvements).

Here’s a recent example of me working with someone to help her get through some issues with overhead pressing and rowing:

There are some key points to remember with these kinds of exercises. First, don’t push into a position that hurts. If you don’t know what that pain means or whether it’s an annoyance or your body saying it’s getting damaged, don’t put it there. If a range of motion hurts, back out until you can get to a point where it doesn’t hurt any more and work there.

Start with a low relative effort. You heard me in the video say to apply a “handshake level” of tension, or a tension you would give if you were shaking someone’s hand, not a max deadlift. From there, gradually increase tension without pain and within what ability to control the position you have in you. How hard can you make it? With solid control and focus you could make this equal the intensity of a max squat, very challenging poop, or sprinting for your life away from a bear. Whatever works for you.

 

 

 

  • Dean, awesome stuff. Sometimes the simple fix is the right one. Your point on isometrics does that, here. WIll those changes sustain to the next day? What’s your explanation for why the pain is pushed into a further range of motion?

    • Occasionally they do sustain after a single exposure, but to make it stick usually takes repeated application over time.

  • That was a great video, Dean. Very instructional and efficient. Appreciate all the great work you produce.