The Rise and Fall of Isometric Training in the 60’s – What Happened?

As a form of exercise, isometric  training has been around for thousands of years. It is a major part of such disparate disciplines as Yoga and the Martial Arts, for example. However, in modern times isometric exercise probably reached their peak in the 1960’s. What accounts for it’s explosive growth and subsequent flame out is an interesting story. Here’s what happened.

Like a lot of things, the Fitness and Health industry seems to go in cycles. For example, the Atkin’s low carb diet was huge in the early 60’s, before it was forgotten about until it was rediscovered in the early 21st century. It ‘s just the way of things, it seems. The peak in popularity for isometric training was definitely the 1960’s. During this time famous athletes like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris trained using isometric contractions. Bruce Lee was devoted to the practice, as was President Kennedy. In every newsstand and grocery checkout isle you could find books and pamphlets extolling the virtues of isometric training. Everyone was talking about and doing isometric exercises in some form it seemed and then, just as suddenly, it fell out of favor.

What happened? Well, for one thing Isometric Training became a bit of a fad during this time. Just like the Atkins diet a few years ago, everyone was trying it, although few stuck with it. Also, the market became flooded with isometric courses of dubious value. With crazy titles such as “Isometrics: Total Fitness WITHOUT Effort” and “The Lazy Man’s Guide to Physical Fitness”, they all promised amazing results with little effort. One of the advantages of isometric exercises is that they ARE easy to LEARN. However, this doesn’t mean they are EASY TO DO. Like anything worthwhile, it takes effort. I suspect when the “Fad” people learned this, they dropped the training in their never ending quest for a “no effort” workout solution. This quest still goes on today. Hence the popularity of products such as the Thighmaster.

A second factor that undermined Isometrics as a form of exercises is that it became associated with steroids. In the previous decade major weightlifting teams had discovered the benefits of isometric training. However, the Soviets first, and then the Americans, also discovered the benefits of steroid use. When records began to fall, the question was always asked “What are you doing differently?”  The answer was always a half-truth. “We’re using a new form of training called functional isometrics”, or something like that. Steroids were never mentioned.

Steroid use continued to filter down throughout the rest of the fitness industry, particularly with the bodybuilders. When asked how they build their impressive physiques, they followed the lead of their Olympic cousins. “We’re using isometric exercises”.

And so it went. However, at some point the truth gets out and that time was the 1960’s. Despite the fact that isometric exercises DO WORK, they became associated with steroid abuse. People thought the gains that weightlifters and bodybuilders had made was ALL due to steroids, and that isometrics were useless. Isometric Training pretty much fell out of favor at this point, relegated to the periphery of the fitness industry.

However, what goes around comes around. It seems to me that people are beginning to rediscover the benefits of isometric training. The fact of the matter is  that when you put in the effort, isometrics can give you a great look and build natural strength in record time. The bottom line is that this form of training works. I expect you’re going to be hearing more about this training method in the years ahead. Get ready for the isometric training boom of the early 21st century? We’ll see!

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