Thursday, January 26, 2012


When I was a little boy, not too long ago, and the runt of the pack that roamed the playgrounds that dot this nice leafy corner of south Delhi I call home, I used to spend a lot of time reading comic-books from DC. Some of these were very yellow, dog-eared old imported editions that my uncle used to read when he was a young boy. These comic books transported me into Metropolis and Gotham City where the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight did heroic things to save lives and entertain readers. But then I could separate fantasy from reality and once I was done with the story I didn’t think about it too much. But I did spend a lot of time thinking about the back pages in some of those comic books which had a lot of advertisements – toys, and flavoured gum and radio sets and the like but what caught my attention was none of these. It was the picture of a man smiling at the reader with his arms folded in front of his chest. His arms and chest rippled with sculpted muscles that rivaled that of the superheroes in the comic-book and his name was Charles Atlas.

Atlas had a little tale to tell, in comic-book style, of how a skinny young boy who had been bullied at the beach and insulted in front of the girls for being a sissy, sends for a Charles Atlas workout programme and is transformed within weeks into a hunky and powerful young man. This sculpted to perfection Greek-God then goes back to the beach and beats up his former tormentor, while onlookers marvel at his might and his muscles.

Charles Atlas died long before I was born, and so I couldn’t have asked him for a programme booklet and even if someone else was running it in his wake, I was too young to figure out the complicated international telephone and order codes etc. And neither did I have the money nor the courage to ask my parents for it.

So I was doomed to remain skinny and puny, and all I could do was read that advertisement every now and then and wait for a miracle to transform me into that beefy boy in the ad. But it did not happen. Gymnasiums weren’t as popular then as they are now and I eked out my days at the low end of the self esteem scale.

Then one day, I spotted one of the bigger boys in the playground walking around with a tube like apparatus with cables attached to it. He called it a bull-worker and said that the manufacturers say that if working out with it does not transform your body within weeks, they would return the money. So, does it work? Well, he had only begun, he said. I was fascinated. This sounded like something out of the legendary Charles Atlas programme (for the record, it wasn’t). I wanted to try it. But this guy said that I shouldn’t try these exercises before I was eighteen. He said it would stunt my growth if I strained my muscles at my age and not grow any taller. I didn’t want to be skinny, but I didn’t want to stay short either. I decided to wait till I had become as tall as I could get (Today I know that isometrics, unlike weights, under normal circumstances, should do nothing to impede skeletal growth, but in those pre-internet days, rumours would fly thick and fast and one was always better off safe than sorry. I later learnt that bull-workers were used for a form of training that had become rather popular in those days – it was called isometrics.

Isometrics involve a maximal contraction of the muscle while pulling or pushing against an immovable force that was said to generate immense strength and add size and shape to a muscle in double quick time. As the years went by, I waited for the day when I could get my hands on a bullworker without having to worry about staying short, but somehow by the time I got there, both bullworkers and isometric had gone out of fashion.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, barbells and dumbbells, gymnasiums and nautilus machines were the done things of the day and soon, bull workers and Charles Atlas comics (the Charles Atlas method, by the way, has little to do with isometrics, but more of that later) had to be content with gathering dust in the corner. I had gotten into martial arts training by then and had started collecting Bruce Lee’s training manuals. In one such training manual, I found references to isometric training and memories of my introduction to isometrics came rushing back. Bruce Lee had designed his own isometric apparatus. I didn’t have access to a similar apparatus but I modified them so that I could do them with a bullworker, and thus, many years after I first heard of them, began my first isometric workout…

Since then I have discovered many other variations of isometric workouts which don’t require any apparatus. Both Bronze Bow publishing and Animal Kingdom workouts have some excellent and fairly comprehensive books on the subject. But why am I telling you about this? And should you be trying out for yourself? Well, the answer to that is a rather irritating ‘it depends...’ And it depends on what you want from your workout.

Proponents of isometrics like fitness author John Little and fitness expert John Peterson will tell you that isometrics are the most effective and quickest route to developing immense muscular strength. Not only that, but isometrics are also apparently excellent for packing size and sculpting the muscles and creating an aesthetically pleasing physique sooner than most other forms of exercise. Is that true?

Well, I have been training my body isometrically for a while now and I can assure you that few exercise systems can match isometrics in terms of radically reshaping the body’s contours. Isometrics won’t burn fat or create the kind of muscle separation that a combination of high intensity weight training and cardio would give you but it will very quickly transform a soft flabby body into something that would resemble a scaled down version of the Farnese Hercules. And even though isometrics are not what Charles Atlas had in mind when he came up with his comic book advertisement, isometrics are perhaps the quickest route to a visible physical transformation.

These workouts can be done without apparatus, anytime and anywhere. Moreover, it has been said that isometric workouts are healthier and safer than weight workouts because there’s little chance of injury, since literally, not a muscle moves during an isometric workout and the spine stays healthy. Also, muscle mastery and mental concentration improve rapidly and “nerve impulses to muscles and tissues and glands” are enhanced, which help the body stay young and healthy.

So what’s the catch? Why hasn’t it taken the world by storm? Why don’t we hear of strength athletes like Manny Pacquiao or Hollywood strongmen like Jason Statham or Vin Diesel talking about how isometrics changed their bodies? Is it a complete system of health and fitness?

And here are the answers. If you want to dramatically change the shape of your body with minimal investments of time and money, nothing beats good old isometrics. But if we are talking about enhancing athletic potential or even pure strength, then there’s a snag to contend with. Isometrics do build strength but only in the zone in which the muscle is being trained. For instance, if you try and push against a wall with your hands and put your whole body into it for about 10 seconds of maximal effort, then will build a great deal of strength in that position and the muscles in your arms and shoulders and chest will grow strong and beautiful, but this strength will not necessarily allow you to bench press more weight than you could in the past or punch a heavy bag really hard. These activities require you to build strength through a range of motion and not just at one point of complete muscle contraction. (I have seen my body transform with isometrics but I’ve got to admit that during that same period, though my strength levels did not recede, they did not improve that much either.)

So if what you want is a good looking physique with muscles that are strong but your lifestyle does not necessarily demand that they be very coordinated, then isometrics is the best possible value for your time and effort. But if you are looking for something that will help you not just look good but hit a tennis ball better at the club or manage an impromptu bed press, then you’ve also got to incorporate some conventional training tools like body-weight calisthenics or weight workouts.

And it is a complete workout in itself for general health and fitness. Well nothing beats yoga or a hard and soft qigong workout (which would incidentally include a fair number of isometric moves) if you ask me, but if isometrics are your thing, add about twenty minutes of running or better still, shadow boxing, thrice a week to give your cardiovascular and nervous systems as good a workout as the isometrics would give your muscles and bones and tendons and ligaments.

A word of caution: always remember to breathe correctly; inhale while you build up tension in the muscles, exhale while you hold the contraction and then inhale again as you relax the muscle. At no point should you hold your breath for it could trigger sudden changes in blood pressure and even damage the heart.

If you think isometrics suit your lifestyle, pick up a good book by one of the authors mentioned above, read it carefully, check out a few video demonstrations on the internet and then ideally start your programme under an expert’s supervision and with your doctor’s blessings.

Isometrics are a potent tool and need to be handled with care.

As for me, I’m going looking for the next great workout while you try and push that wall over…

So long, and like I said, don’t hold your breath while I’m gone…


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