AMA October 2023 - Resistance Training, Isometric & Calisthenic Exercises

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Welcome to another AMA and this one focuses on strength training with a view to learning how to use resistance training, calisthenics and isometric exercises to get better results or, at least get the results you want a little faster. As usual there are some rules to keep in mind :) keep all questions on topic as much as possible (and I know this sounds easy it really ain't when we all get talking about fitness). If in doubt about a question being on topic ask it anyway. :LOL: There are no stupid questions: we expand our knowledge by asking and there is so much new stuff coming out on exercise that much of the 'wisdom'of the past no longer applies. Feel free to ask any follow-up questions from the answers I place here. In past AMAs a lot of value has come from that follow-up and it has often allowed me to explore avenues of knowledge and exercise science that otherwise I might not have.

As usual I will acknowledge a question by 'Liking it' and answer it, usually, within 24 hours of it having been asked. If I haven't acknowledged your question I haven't seen it so if I am forging ahead and it is not being answered please draw it to my attention by tagging me.

I will try to be as detailed and expansive in my answers as possible and I will supply links to relevant studies to back up what I say so that you all get to better understand where the science stands these days. I will keep this thread open until 26th October to give everyone the time necessary to internalize what is being said and come back with their own questions or further questions.

Looking forward to all your questions. (Kinda ;)).
 
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Damer

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@GentleOx the answer to this excellent, opening, question is "it depends". :LOL: Strictly speaking every type of exercise builds muscle and burns fat. But they don't all do it in the exact same way or at the exact same rate so grading one as superior to another is predicated on context and the context is dependent on you. Your fitness levels, experience with exercise and goals when exercising all play a role so the one that will be superior, for you, to the others will depend on why you're exercising, how long have you been exercising for, what your expectations are, your particular lifestyle and what you hope to accomplish through exercise.

If your goal, for instance, is to get stronger then building muscle is a byproduct of that process and the choices you will make in terms of exercise. If, on the other hand, you want to build larger muscles or put on more muscle specifically, the protocols you need to put in place in your training should all be aligned to that goal.

A 2018 study that compared muscle thickness and 1 repetition maximum (1RM) in two groups where one used push-ups with a progressive load in execution, and the other used the classic benchpress, also with a progressive load in added weights, found no difference in results between the two. So, to the extent on developing some specific muscle groups at least, traditional resistance training and calisthenics are the same.

A 2023 study looked at the effects of isometric exercises to failure compared to a combination of isometric exercises and resistance training. In this particular study they were measuring for muscle size increase (hypertrophy) and "maximal voluntary isometric contraction (MVC)" i.e. joint strength (as the focus was on the elbow joint). What they found was that there was no difference in strength between the two control groups so those who did isometric exercises to failure developed the same strength as those who did traditional resistance training and isometric exercises to failure but the second group did experience more hypertrophy than the first.

Both these studies are counterintuitive which shows the many complex pathways that are activated by exercise which then lead to strength. All of which brings us to my opening statement of "it depends". Your goals and particular set of circumstances (and I am using the world "you" generically here) will determine the particular training combination you will want to put in place.

A 2019 study showed that when it comes to developing joint strength, isometric exercises were superior to dynamic ones (i.e. in sports that involve jumping and kicking for example) resulting in fewer injuries and greater increases in performance, faster. Again, this shows the need for specificity in our fitness goals. We know, for example, that dynamic performance (i.e. moving the body in a complex way through three dimensional space) requires equally complex neuromuscular adaptations that control both force (maximal muscle velocity) and precision. This study highlighted the effectiveness of isometric training in achieving this precise combination of effects, particularly when an athlete had mobility issues because of injury and could not perform a dynamic movement for that reason. It also showed that with a change in protocol isometric training could also induce hypertrophy when required.

In their totality this trio of studies show that when it comes to muscle size and strength you need to be fully aware of what you are training for and work, intentionally, to create the best combination for yourself.

The second half of your question had to do with fat loss. All exercise involves an increase in energy expenditure and that increase in energy expenditure, over time, with most other factors remaining the same, will deliver a decrease in the body's stores of fat. A 2021 study that used young women as its subject, looked at both isometric and isotonic (i.e. resistance training and dynamic movements) exercises and concluded that they both lead to a decrease in stored fat loss with the dynamic exercises having a slight edge.

A 2022 study that used 100 college-age students as its subjects also found similar beneficial results. Both isometric and isotonic exercise helped decrease the body's store of fat (and again isotonic exercises had a slight edge). Both isotonic and isometric exercise helped increase strength and gain muscle. However the study also showed that when it came to increasing cardiovascular and aerobic performance, surprisingly, isometric exercise delivered better results. This is surprising because the respiratory load (i.e. the rate at which we breathe when exercising) would, from an experiential point of view, be heavier when we are lifting weights than when we hold a static loaded position. My guess here (and it is only a guess) is that the improvement came not so much from any respiratory adaptation but from a significant improvement of joint strength and joint stability which, in this case, made the aerobic exercise the students were tested on, easier for those those who did isometric exercises than those who engaged in isotonic ones (i.e. resistance training and/or dynamic training).

This same study also showed that isotonic training, i.e. resistance training, again somewhat counterintuitively, lead to a greater range of motion (ROM) and better flexibility than isometric training. The reason I say somewhat counterintuitively is because the general perception is that resistance training leads to muscle and joint stiffness and loss of flexibility.

So you can see there are trade-offs. No method of exercising is exactly the same as another. Fat-loss in the studies cited, for example, was always a little higher with resistance training than it was with isometric training. This is to be expected when we realize that fat loss, really, is carbon dioxide molecules (CO2) expelled from the body with each breath we take and we tend to breathe deeper and heavier when lifting weights or performing a dynamic movement than when we hold a static pose. Note, however, that this fact did not translate into improved cardiovascular performance for the students in the 2022 study, mainly I suspect, for the reasons I've already mentioned above.

I hope all this helps shed some light on what is, admittedly, a fairly complex subject.
 

Hops_Lifts

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However the study also showed that when it came to increasing cardiovascular and aerobic performance, surprisingly, isometric exercise delivered better results.
This was so interesting! In short, it sounds like a healthy mix of exercise types if your goal is general strength, endurance, and flexibility. Thanks for this detailed post, @Damer!
 

Dhiraj_Naik

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What kind of goal orientation can include a mix of these? Do the daily workout programs on Darebee include these or are they done randomly. I ask because i follow it in this sense: Exercise of the day, workout of the day, Challenge of the month and a foundation program. This is done in 1 session. You see, i haven't thought of a goal as much as i am doing this for weight loss as well as strength training/improving cardiovascular & flexibility simultaneously.
 

Damer

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@Dhiraj_Naik this is a good follow-up question. Knowing that resistance training, isometric exercises and calisthenics activate similar adaptations in the body, over time, we now have to ask: "How do we apply this knowledge"? The best answer is that you always start off with your own personal goals. What is it that you want to achieve when you exercise? Ideally, of course, we all want to achieve everything all at once. We want to be strong, look strong, be fit, feel healthy, be fast, have endurance and be flexible. But there is no training regime that will give us all that fast. Exercise is always about trade-offs.

To understand this better let's consider what exercise really is: It is the application of a stressor on the body that is designed to trigger a particular, desirable adaptation and over time, deliver a specific effect. We can call this effect strength, flexibility, endurance, speed, etc. Fitness, as an overall level of capability, is a side-effect of this approach. A bodybuilder, for example, is fit. So is a marathon runner. So is a ballet dancer and so is an MMA fighter. They're all fit but they all look different. So fitness is not really about how we look. Fitness is the body's ability to adequately manage energy levels in order for us to perform in a specific physical way. And, if we have a reasonable level of fitness and have not specialized a lot in a particular physical skillset (like, for instance, power lifting), we are able to perform at a higher, general level than the average person in everything like running, lifting, throwing kicking, etc.

When we frame fitness and exercise in this fashion what we do then, what mix of exercises we apply will be the direct result of our own particular needs and focus which will, in part, be determined by our own unique set of circumstances.

All three types of exercise, for instance, will help you lose weight. But not at the same rate and each one will make different demands on your body and its skeletal muscles. So, what you choose for yourself will depend on how fit you are already. What lifestyle you live. What available time you have to put in this. What experience you have of exercising regularly. How much rest you get and so on.

DAREBEE workouts and our challenges, programs and exercise of the day activities include a good mix of exercise types because we address the needs of countless individuals across the globe each of whom will have specific requirements dictated by their own set of needs and circumstances. If you follow the ones you mentioned, that mix, over time will deliver a very rounded exercise experience. But because the fit is broad, you will need to be patient to see results. What we achieve when we focus our training in a particular area or a particular type of exercise is faster progress.

Not having a particular goal is not a problem as long as you just want to feel good in your own body, be capable and stay healthy. I hope this has answered your question.
 

guibo94

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As a general rule of thumb, what are the pros and cons to using isometric and "range of motion" resistance training? Or rather what are the best circumstances to use isometric and traditional resistance exercises in a strength routine? These questions were inspired by previous AMA posts and PNF stretching specifically, since it is basically like isometric stretching. Thank you for your responses and posts so far!
 

Damer

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@guibo94 this is such a great question and it is so very hard to answer properly, but I will try. The reason it is hard to answer is because it really depends upon the person's individual fitness goals, their perception of themselves as they exercise and, of course, all the many variables that constitute a person's fitness level and experience in training. Ideally you'd want to use isometric exercises in-between traditional range-of-motion resistance training. Why? Well, because while range of motion resistance training will result in adaptations that lead to strength gains it may not necessarily lead to stronger joint stability. The best way to understand this is consider that if the body allocates 1 unit of energy to strengthen hips, glutes, quads, knee joint, shins and ankle joint in a single squat. Holding the body steady in the traditional martial arms sitting stance places a lot greater focus on the knee joint. Reiman's book, Physical Rehabilitation, cites this as a key benefit of isometric exercises. They're kinder on the joints which makes them great during injury and they tend to strengthen them faster than traditional resistance exercises.

So, ideally again, you'd want to train in let's say ballistic exercises (kicking, jumping and running) and/or resistance training and add, in-between, days when you'd do isometric exercises to help you get stronger faster even as you're recovering from the more energetic sessions. I hope this helps but if not please feel free to come back with follow-up questions.
 

mitrac

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Thanks so much for doing these and for this site, it's an incredible inspiration and source of knowledge!

My assumption is, resistance training and calisthenics (not sure about isometric exercises) would be the most effective training tools to help a generally health person to increase weight overall - is that right? The priority is enhancing overall health, it's not about looks or even muscles at all. So deeper than that, what I can't find good answers for - how much training needs to be done to see results, and how much can someone with low BMI and low muscle mass (and female if that matters) hope to gain in a year of training? And how quickly is that muscle mass lost if such training is suspended? (e.g., for 1 week or 4 weeks)

Travel, overwhelm, illness, and injury are a part of life, so I feel like I need to plan to train enough during healthy predictable times, to make up for times when such training is not possible. So I'm after practical knowledge on that front. How much training vs non-training has to be done to get an overall gain in weight?

I can add more context, but I didn't want to make this all about me. I also know others in a similar position: Resistance or calisthenics training 1-2x per week (broken up by several weeks of non-training now and then for various reason) isn't enough to gain muscle or weight. So... is this the wrong strategy, or is it the correct strategy, but training needs to be dramatically higher volume?

If this isn't quite on topic feel free to point me elsewhere, thank you!
 

Damer

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@mitrac thank you for posting this question. Basically you're asking two questions: How to put on muscle and then how to maintain it. Gaining weight, overall, which is not attributed to stored reserves of fat in the body requires a number of adaptations: heavier/stronger bones, slightly larger muscles, changes in tendons and their thickness (and therefore weight). Both resistance training and calisthenics, over time, will lead to that. But you're thinking of combining the two. I am glad you mentioned gender as women, in general, find it harder to put on muscle either because of monthly variations in the estrogen cycle (we have a guide on this here) or because of menopause and the changes that happen to the female body's hormonal profiles as a result of that.

A study that compared resistance training vs calisthenics with women subjects, over 10 weeks, found that resistance training contributed the most gains in strength (and I suppose body weight) when compared to calisthenics. (The study is here). That study is accurate in the way its protocol permitted the measurement of strength, it is however 20 years old and we have better research methods now. A longer study on football players (the study is here) found that, over 12 weeks the subjects studied gained weight and strength and changed their body composition. I would not normally cite a 20-year-old study without a good reason. The reason is to show just how much our understanding has changed of how adaptations in the body take place and how to best study them. A further study that looked at resistance training using bodyweight exercises (like the ones we use in many DAREBEE workouts) showed that there were encouraging results in strength, weight and overall base fitness provided it was a daily practice (something I will get back to a little later). That study is found here.

We know that resistance training usually involves single joint movements while calisthenics involves multi-joint movements. Additionally we know that strength is a skill, rather than a muscle attribute although, obviously, when we measure it in a clinical setting we tend to examine the ability of single joint movements to deliver flection of measurable intensity. Resistance training is best suited to delivering muscle increase over a relatively short time and calisthenics are geared to delivering overall body strength over a relatively short time. If you combine the two, either in a single session or consecutive sessions the results you will get will depend on your age, overall fitness, level, gender, personal hormonal profile, previous experience with exercise, quality of sleep, quality of nutrition and so on. But, as a rule of thumb a 60/40 split, where you workout for 60% of the time in resistance training and the rest of the time in calisthenics would give you the best of both.

If you take into account the caveats I listed above, the minimum, uninterrupted length of time you should be looking to do that for is 10 - 12 weeks. If you are not seeing change because of exercise then the problem lies elsewhere: sleep, recovery time, nutrition, underlying health conditions, etc.

Once muscle has been put on, maintaining it is relatively easy and requires resistance training once or twice a week (and there is a study on that here). Taking a longer break from exercise however leads to rapid deconditioning (the study for that is here and it is pretty disheartening for all of us) unless some kind of physical activity is done. So, I'd say depending on fitness level and age and nutrition you could probably get away with a week of inactivity before you start to feel the loss in strength and overall physical condition.

You're right in saying that life is complex. No long-term fitness program is going to run to plan. But for the times when it doesn't the smart thing is to have a contingency. Do microworkouts like our 12 Daily Microworkouts. Or the slightly more energetic but equally short microworkouts found here. Failing that try to be more physical in your daily life - walk more to places when you are not working out. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Lift your luggage instead of pulling it. Anything you do will help you maintain the gains you have made even when you are not putting in a full workout.

I hope this has answered your question but feel free to come back with anything you think needs greater (or better) clarification.
 

mitrac

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Wow, thank you so much. It is so helpful how you broke this down and explained the different aspects of each part. And I hadn't seen the guide to training and women's hormones yet, that is super!

This has definitely put a spotlight on why I'm treading water over the last year and gives me some clear guidance on what I can do about it. Basically, I am only working out at levels that would predict muscle maintenance, and on top of that I've had many rest days. Your response gives me quite some hope, actually, to see there are several avenues and ways of doing things I haven't explored yet, like higher frequency training, different combinations of training, and the contingency microworkouts.

Thank you so so much!!!
 

mitrac

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@mitrac Darebee has also some nice guides: https://darebee.com/fitness/how-to-build-muscle.html.
Thanks so much! 🌟 Following on from that I've just done a lot of binge reading of related guides. There's so much to learn, yet I'm excited to see lots of ideas that are accessible for where I am now. One of the biggest perspective shifts has been the need to purposefully make and practice my contingency plan, i.e., have specific microworkouts ready for breaks throughout my day. I think I'll make a plan and join the logs section 😊
 

Damer

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facuzayas

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Hi Damer!! such a good AMA!!

My questions are: how to combine isometric in a regular basis of workouts? are they better at the beggining of a session?
what's the difference between isometric, overcoming iso and very-slow motion excercices?

If you have only 5 minutes to train, you'll choose isometrics?

sorry, a lot of questions!!

and thank you!
 

Damer

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@facuzayas what an excellent set of questions! Ok, let's take them in reverse order. If I only have 5 minutes (and occasionally in my life this really does happen) isomeric exercises are a life-saver. They need no warm up to speak of (although a warm-up should always be used, at a pinch and with some care and a lot of body-awareness, you can get away with not doing one in this particular type of exercise - please note the caveats I've added) and will deliver joint strength and muscle strength in a really short time. For instance, with just your five minutes to exercise, holding a classic martial arts sitting stance with the knee joint as close to 90 degrees as possible for three minutes is a massive challenge and then holding a push-up halfway for two minutes means you have a combination that has delivered a virtually total-body strength workout.

Now for the rest.

Isometric exercises hold the muscles tense in a particular joint angle (whatever that might be, depending on range of motion capability and type of exercise being tried) for a set length of time. During the exercise the joint angle remains constant. In slow-motion exercises the joint angle constantly changes. The advantage of slow-motion exercise over a faster ballistic movement lies in the fact that in a ballistic movement a portion of the muscle engages and then momentum does the rest while in a slow-motion exercise a much larger number of muscle fibers are recruited. There are many complex biochemical and neurological reasons for that but the easiest way to explain it is to say that lacking the momentum of the movement supplied by the ballistic approach muscles experience a heavier load and recruit more muscle fibers of greater variety (i.e. both slow-twitch and fast-twitch or, to put it more scientifically: Type I, Type II and Type IIa).

Finally isokinetic exercise is exercise that moves the muscle at constant speed regardless of the load applied to it. Anyone training with resistance bands is attempting to do just that, wearing a weighted vest and doing push ups or pull ups and punching with light had weights are all good examples. This forces the muscle to undergo adaptations throughout its length so it gets stronger, faster even if its bulk doesn't substantially change.

There is no real way to say one type of exercise is better over the others. They all trigger adaptations in the body and deliver fitness gains. The only way you can judge which is best for you is to determine what you want to achieve personally and what resources you have to do it with. For example, if you are really pressed for time and some days you only have those 5 minutes isometric exercises are excellent.

Ok, now for your first question which is very on-point. Muscles respond to three things: mechanical tension, metabolic stress and fatigue. Intuitively we understand that if we combine isometric exercises before a workout we induce a significant level of fatigue which then has to be overcome in the isotonic part of the workout. This approach, again intuitively, should result in a shortcut to adaptations and improved fitness outcomes because we start off from a point of fatigue that could perhaps have been achieved if we did isotonic exercises for twice the time which would, possibly, also raise the risk of injury.

Data is a double-edged sword here so we need to be cautious in how we interpret the results. A 2015 study showed that if we start with isometric exercises indeed, we succeed in creating a fatigue load early on. Then isotonic exercises help develop adaptations faster but (and it is a BIG but) the initial fatigue we start with causes us to reduce performance (because the muscle is fatigued) so now we get less of the fitness outcomes we expect from the isotonic exercises. A 2018 scientific review of 12 such studies only bolstered the argument.

Then, a 2022 study of female volleyball players delivered confirmation of the exact type of fitness outcome we intuitively hope to get when we combine isometric exercise with isotonic one: better, faster, explosive strength results. That study however had a number of interesting caveats we need to keep in mind: the level of fitness of the participants, the expertise of the participants, the required fitness outcome of the participants. These three elements were key in delivering those results because, as the study shows, those who participated were physically fit, technically proficient and determined to achieve more of a particular key effect that is required in their sport.

Can we replicate that in an arguably less driven, more generic lifestyle environment? I'd say "it depends" on who is implementing it, what they are looking for, how fit they already are, how disciplined they are and so on. I hope this has answered your excellent questions. If you feel something here needs more clarification or a longer explanation please just let me know.
 

Ravenhilde

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Wow, thank you so much. It is so helpful how you broke this down and explained the different aspects of each part. And I hadn't seen the guide to training and women's hormones yet, that is super!

This has definitely put a spotlight on why I'm treading water over the last year and gives me some clear guidance on what I can do about it. Basically, I am only working out at levels that would predict muscle maintenance, and on top of that I've had many rest days. Your response gives me quite some hope, actually, to see there are several avenues and ways of doing things I haven't explored yet, like higher frequency training, different combinations of training, and the contingency microworkouts.

Thank you so so much!!!
@mitrac Thank you for asking! As a 47 yr old woman I'm so interested in learning more about how to best workmy body to prepare it for aging. @Damer thank you for the wonderful posts and workout suggestions.
 

Damer

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I will now close this thread. Once again, your questions helped make it immensely useful. Like other AMA threads I will move this to our Knowledge Base. I know we are all short of time, however, if you spend the odd a few minutes now and again in diving into the topics there and also the comments you will most likely discover new things, understand some other things better (because we all evolve and change with time), reinforce your knowledge and clarify your understanding and, also, you will be able to point new Hive members to threads that will help them in turn. Gratitude for your participation here.

Martial Arts GIF
 
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