Iso’s and High-Tension Lifting: Why They Make Sense

My neice hitting the iso-hold lunge. If she can hold it for a minute so can you.

“How much time?, How much time?”

During the first few weeks of off season training it’s a question I hear daily. It turns out that pain is a powerful motivator for time keeping–especially if you’ve been holding the same position for five minutes.

That’s what happens during the crescendo of the intro Iso-Extreme program–a program that I was introduced to by Jeremy Frisch and one that I use frequently with my athletes.

“Air, tension, speed!”

They’re not three words that I hear every day, but ones that I spout off nearly every minute while my guys train. Especially during their low-load, high-tension every day lifts; which are typically bench press, deadlift and Olympic lift variations.

Now that we’re fully engulfed in summer football training, my guys do each every day–iso extreme holds and high-tension, low-load every day lifts. The guys are adept at keeping time now–or they’re tough enough to internalize the burden–so I don’t have answer time questions. They, however, still listen to me bellow the three precursors to violent movement–air, tension, speed.

But why? What makes these two training entities so effective that they are in every program I write and done with such high-frequency?

It’s their nervous system effect–they create a powerful feedback and output loop.

Alpha and Gamma

Here’s a quick, and very condensed, nervous system review:

Sensory (afferent) system gives the central nervous system information about the body–position, muscle length, muscle tension, heat, cold, etc. Muscle spindles are included in this system.

Motor (efferent) system is the central nervous system’s command in response to sensory in put and as a means to accomplish our desires. Alpha and Gamma motor neurons are included in this system.

These two systems are constantly talking. Sensory gives the brain info about what’s going on “out there” and the brain responds with its solution.

Here’s a brief, dorky explanation.

Muscle spindles send information to our brain about muscle length and the velocity of muscle length change. Gamma motor neurons modulate the sensitivity of primary and secondary muscle spindles. Gamma neurons are often co-activated with alpha motor neurons. As this happens, muscle activation increases.

Now the loop continues–as activation of the gamma neurons and alpha neurons increases so does sensitivity of the spindles. The central nervous system has a lot of information about muscle activation, length, tension and velocity. It can read all of this information as movement without any movement occurring.

As this happens you sink lower into your is0-hold lunge, wall squat or push-up by “pulling” yourself lower. Contractions are isometric or eccentric-quasi-isometric but the brain senses movement.

This same feed back loop is active when we create optimal tension. Lots of tension, lots of feedback from spindles more juice in the alpha and gamma motor neurons.

How Does This Transfer to The Gym?

We Get Faster: As we get better at sticking the iso’s and using tension, nerve conduction velocity increases. Input to, and output from, the CNS happens at a faster rate. Remember, also, that intense iso holds train movements without movement–so while you’re not actually sprinting during an iso-hold lunge, you’re sprinting.

During high-tension, low-load lifts the focus is on speed. We must intend to move the bar quickly–and it must actually move quickly. While there is some deceleration involved with the concentric portion of these lifts–deceleration doesn’t diminish until we’re at or above eighty percent of 1RM–the daily high output trains the body to be fast. Couple these high-tension, low-load lifts with jumps, throws and heavier lifts and you’ll have a monster on your hands.

Proprioception Improves: This follows the same vein as improving nerve conduction velocity–it’s improved communication between our afferent and efferent systems. It involves kinesthesia–our body awareness–but isn’t limited to that. Improving the communication between sensory and motor nerve pathways improves proprioception on a conscious and unconscious level. In the simplest terms, the better this feedback and output loop works the better you work.

Improved Injury Resistance: Most strains and sprains occur when the muscles and ligaments are under high-tension and are at the end of their ranges of motion–the quads, the hamstrings and the pecs are common examples. Putting these muscles on tension at their end length builds strength at the end of the range of motion. And if you can load tissues at this end range for two minutes you’ll likely affect the fascia–improving tissue through restructuring. Freer moving fascia means cleaner movement through a broader range of motion. This, folks, isn’t rocket surgery. Move better, and more cleanly, and you’re less likely to be injured.

We Get Stronger: Folks love to attribute strength with muscle. There’s no denying the need for some good ole cross-sectional area, but the force those muscle produce is nervous system dependent. Train a better nervous system, get a stronger person.

We Get Tougher: There are few things in the training world more miserable than holding an iso-lunge for a minute or more. Legs shake, quads burn and Jesus’ eyes float in front of yours. This is where self-talk comes in–you’re going to try to talk yourself out of holding them the full time. Don’t let your soft side win. Here are a few ways to keep that knee off the ground:

  • Hum “There’s No Easy Way Out” from the Rocky4 soundtrack while you create your own montage in your mind
  • Make bets with yourself every 15 seconds that you can’t last 15 more seconds
  • Pretend you’re Bruce Lee
  • Here’s the best of all: Just decide that a fuckin’ lunge hold isn’t going to beat you and that you’re stuck there for the allotted amount of time and there’s nothing you can do about it.

How Do We Use Them?

I mostly use iso-extreme holds as bookend exercises; I place them either in a warm-up or use them as finishers. There is a complete iso-extreme intro program that I’m privy to, and use, but that shit’s confidential. Start with forty-five seconds for each hold and work up in time. If you’re going to rest at any time during the hold, do as Jeremy Frisch taught me. Take three breaths and get back into it.

High-tension, low-load every day lifts are placed at the end of the warm-up–they are the precursors to the more heavily loaded main lifts of the day. Typically, I super-set a bench press variation and a deadlift variation (something I picked up from my coach, Mike Ranfone). I keep the reps per set at five or less and the total volume at twenty reps or less.

Bald is Beautiful

The Final Hold

Training is about being efficient at producing a result. Iso-holds and high-tension, low-load lifts efficiently improve movement and nervous system output. These are the things that make monsters.


Latash, M. (2008). Neurophysiological basis of movement. (2nd ed.). Human Kinetics.




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Todd Bumgardner
M.S./ CSCS/ Owner of Beyond Strength Performance/ Ginger
Todd Bumgardner

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M.S./ CSCS/ Owner of Beyond Strength Performance/ Ginger
2 Responses
  1. Thanks for your article. I held deep lunges for a minute and a half this morning. I was looking for information on how long they should be held. I guess i did well. I am 43 years old. I used to be a ski racer. In my prime, we did the legendary thirty minute wall sit. Terrorizingly hard. Amazingly, it was possible.

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