The Notre Dame football team does it enthusiastically. The San Francisco 49ers do it shyly. The Pittsburgh Pirates do it. Overweight girls in Baton Rouge do it. Star athletes like High Jumper Bob Avant and Basketball Player Bob Pettit do it, and weight lifters like Louis Riecke and Bill March swear by it.
What all these disparate types have been doing is not falling in love, as the song put it, but practicing a new-and-old form of exercise called "isometric contraction," or IC. And what is IC? It is pushing on brick walls, pulling on steel girders, squeezing baseballs, trying to lift freight cars. It is any kind of exercise in which the muscles strain and tense against an immovable object or each other for a few seconds without movement.
Little had been heard about isometric contraction until news of the Pittsburgh Pirates' "secret" training routine got out earlier this year. The secret (SI, July 24) was that the Pirates had introduced IC to their players under the direction of Jay A. Bender. Ph.D., professor of physical education at Southern Illinois University.
Since then, almost as though by underground railroad, IC has been popping up at all points of the compass. So have exploiters of the technique, and some of them are making claims that have not been heard since the days of snake oil. The fact remains that even the most extreme detractors admit that the system builds muscle.
October 30, 1961
Lou Riecke, for example, was lifting weights for 14 years with little success. Last November he stopped weight training and began a set of isometric exercises, pushing and pulling at an immovable bar for a mere 15 minutes a day, including rest periods. At the end of six months, he was able to press 300 pounds, 45 more than his previous high. He could snatch 305 instead of 265, and clean-and-jerk 375 instead of 315. In June, Riecke, at the age of 34, earned a berth on the five-man U.S. Olympic weight-lifting team, which competed against Russia.
Bill March, who tried a form of IC before the 1960 Olympics but abandoned it, failed to qualify for the last Olympic Trials because he couldn't make the total three-event lift minimum of 825 pounds. In March 1961 he resumed isometric contraction in earnest. Two months later he won the national junior weight-lifting championship with 975 pounds, and last week he broke four North American records (see page 93).
But IC is not merely a gimmick for the Muscle Beach set. It appears to have genuine value in almost any sport, particularly in toning muscles and cutting down on muscle injury. Norbert Roy, co-captain of the Notre Dame football team, brought IC up the river from his native Baton Rouge, introduced it informally to his teammates. Dozens of factors have gone into Notre Dame's markedly low injury rate this year; IC may well be one of them. (The same low injury rate is seen on the Pirates and the 49ers, where IC is used extensively.) Roy himself is a prize example of what the system can do for the physique. In nine weeks of isometric exercise, he added three inches to his chest, 2½ inches to his neck and 10 pounds to his weight.
Istrouma High of Louisiana, a hotshot football school, uses IC almost exclusively. Says Coach James E. (Big Fuzzy) Brown, "We feel it's the finest thing for body building and overall coordination we've ever had. This is also something old men like me [Brown is 54] can do. I've been doing isometric contractions myself for 30 seconds a day. I've lost two inches off my waist and 12 pounds."
Coach Red Hickey of the San Francisco 49ers (see page 22) admits that his shotgunning team uses IC but refuses to talk about it, evidently considering it a secret weapon. When a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED reporter asked whether he could discuss the subject with 49er Trainer Henry Schmidt, Hickey retorted: "If Schmidt talks to you, I'll fire him!" The 49er players, obviously well coached, clammed up when approached.
Professor Gene Logan of the University of Southern California, where High Jumper Bob Avant is a student, reckoned that the angle of the knee of Avant's push-off leg was 135° at the moment of takeoff and decided to strengthen his leg muscles at that precise angle. Logan built what he calls "the device" (below, right). Avant inserts his right leg in it and pulls with all his might. He considers this IC exercise the most important factor in converting himself from a 6-foot-8 high jumper to a 7-footer. It took two months.
Bob Pettit, star forward for the St. Louis Hawks, worked with IC for six weeks last summer and became measurably stronger, as indicated by weight-lifting feats. How helpful this new brawn will be to him on the courts is still unknown. "But any time you're stronger, you're better," says Pettit. "I don't know yet if I can jump higher, shoot better or play with more stamina. I'll know in February or March."
Hotbed in Baton Rouge
Pettit and Roy did their IC work in Baton Rouge, which is no coincidence: tie Louisiana capital is a hotbed of the system. Francis Drury, a Louisiana State physical education professor, was one of its earliest advocates, as was Trainer Marty Broussard, who has developed special IC equipment for LSU sprinters and football players. Broussard says he even has used IC to improve his golf game. Holding a club in various positions against immovable objects and straining the muscles employed at those points, he has lengthened his drives 15 yards. Dr. Drury and Alvin Roy, Norbert's uncle and the proprietor of a Baton Rouge health studio, predict that through isometric contraction all world records in weight lifting will be broken within the next year, every world track and field record within the next two years.
Another strong IC booster is Bob Hoffman, the messianic Olympic weight-lifting coach. "It's the greatest thing the world's ever seen," he says. "I am absolutely awestruck at the miracles it has wrought. Let's make full use of this gift from heaven."
Doing just that. Bob Hoffman is manufacturing and marketing a "Super Power Rack," essentially a steel bar which can be set at various heights. Hoffman, 62, believes this is better for everybody (as well as for him) than using just any old immovable object. "It's easy to damage hotel bathrooms," he warns. "I was pulling against a washbasin, and I pulled it loose. In Kiev, our fellows were pushing from wall to wall, and one wall came down, much to our regret."
Hoffman has interested Dean Markham, one of President Kennedy's fitness advisers, in IC. "Recently," Hoffman has written, "Dean Markham spent a night at our home, and at 4 o'clock in the morning, he and I were training with the Super Power Rack."' Markham praises IC, but quickly points out that "the program is much too new at this time to be endorsed by the President."
Isometric contraction is, in fact, neither new nor revolutionary, but only recently has it been widely applied to a variety of sports. Arthur H. Steinhaus, Ph.D., of Chicago's George Williams College, notes that scientists in the early 1920s conducted experiments in which one leg of a frog was tied down while the other was left free. The muscle in the tied-down leg grew significantly.
Steinhaus contends you don't have to do repetitive exercises to build muscle, but he says athletes have been taught to suffer and any system that makes it easy seems wrong to them. "They like their sweat," he laments.
Steinhaus points to some IC limitations, however. "It does nothing for the heart or lungs," he says. "It does not increase endurance. It is strictly a system for increasing strength, and strength is only one aspect of fitness."
Dr. Peter Karpovich of Springfield College, another leading physiologist, says: "There are more claims than evidence. Isometric contractions will not build up endurance and stamina."
Karpovich does recognize IC as a valuable system for rehabilitating the handicapped. Indeed, it has been used to maintain and rebuild the strength of hospitalized and convalescent patients. Dr. W. T. Liberson, in a controlled study at a veterans' hospital in Rocky Hill, Conn., reported strength increases of up to 300%.
Wesley K. Ruff, associate professor of physical education at Stanford, takes a middle-of-the-road approach. IC, he says, can be helpful to the person without room or facilities for exercise (e.g., space travelers, long-distance drivers, deskbound office workers). It can improve all-around fitness, provided it is used along with exercises like running, which build up the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. And it can be helpful to people who have all the natural skills of their favorite sport but lack the needed strength. Not a complete answer, IC then must take its place among the more conventional forms of exercise, a valuable supplement but not a substitute. GIs and ex-GIs will be sorry to hear that calisthenics will be around for a few more years.