The concept was the brainchild of Dr. John Ziegler, a general practitioner from Olney, Md., who specialized in physical rehabilitation.
He became interested in this branch of medicine after being severely wounded while serving with the Marines in the Pacific during World War II. he carried around metal plates in his head and leg for the remainder of his life, and began strength training to rebuild his broken body.
Ziegler did a great deal of research on his own behalf and came across some information done by German scientists that dealt with pushing or pulling against a stationary object in order to make the muscles and attachments stronger - in other words, an isometric contraction.
Doc Ziegler designed a power rack and tested out the idea. He found that it worked remarkably well and wanted to try it out on some healthy athletes. He considered Olympic lifters to be the strongest athletes in the world, so it was inevitable that he would connect with the York Barbell Company because it was only 90 miles from Olney.
Quickly, he became a part of that world-famous organization. Bob Hoffman, the self-proclaimed Father of American Weightlifting and owner of York Barbell, was delighted to have Ziegler on board. To have an M.D. on staff would add a great deal of credibility to his writings on training, nutrition and general health.
But when Doc Ziegler began pushing the idea of using isometrics as part of the training for the many lifters who represented the York Barbell Club, Hoffman balked. What Doc was proposing was too similar to the dynamic tension system that Charles Atlas and George Jowett had been marketing for a great many years. Hoffman had been blasting dynamic tension for years as an inferior method of gaining strength. Hoffman's main incentive in life was to make more money and he saw no way to make a financial gain by promoting isometrics.
In 1959, Dr. C.H. McCloy of Iowa State University, a renowned authority in the field of kinesiology and applied science, conducted a study on isometric exercises. McCloy submitted the study to Hoffman to be used in Strength & Health magazine, the home organ for the York Barbell Company. The study concluded that exercising on non-apparatus in an isometric fashion resulted in a marked increase in strength - exactly what Ziegler had been telling him for the past several years.
Hoffman knew that he needed to act fast, so he quickly had Doc Ziegler put together an instruction manual and ordered a shitload of power racks. And, of course, he began promoting the new form of strength training.
The Guinea Pigs
Bill March lived near York, was 23 years old and had only recently gotten interested in Olympic weightlifting. He weighed 176 lb. and had won the 1960 Middle Atlantic Title with a three-lift total of 745. When March was first approached with the idea of testing an innovative method of gaining strength, he was not so hot on the idea - especially because it meant driving back and forth to Olney from York five days a week to be put through a workout by Doc Ziegler. If it hadn't been for Dick Smith, the project would never have gotten off the ground. Smitty was the jack-of-all-trades at York Barbell and served as team trainer for the lifters. He volunteered to do all the driving, and the experiment was on.
March's lifts began to improve steadily at a rate that few could imagine. He shot past the 800-lb. barrier and kept right on going. He moved up to the 198-lb. division and at the 1963 Philly Open pressed 354 for a new world record. He was the poster child for isometrics. He had gone from being a fair-to-middlin' lightweight to a world class competitor in a very short period of time.
Isometric courses and power racks were selling like hotcakes. While Hoffrman was counting his money from the windfall, Ziegler was modifying his isometric rack routine. He believed that an athlete could get much stronger by moving the weighted bar a short distance before locking it in an isometric contraction. This had many advantages over pure isometrics where the bar doesn't move at all. First and foremost, it allowed the lifter to know, for certain, that he was applying his maximum effort. This was a major improvement.
When I first learned how to do isometrics, I was never positive that I was indeed putting out maximum effort. It felt like I was, but how could I be sure? I couldn't, and no one else could either. In fact, Ziegler stated that no one is capable of exerting a full 100 percent unless his life depends on it.
However, when the short stroke, or isotonic phase, was done prior to the isometric phase, things were clearer. Should the lifter not be capable of holding the weighted bar up against the top pins for the required amount of time, he was trying to use too much weight. Conversely, if he could hold the bar against the top pins for several seconds more than were required, more weight would be added at the next session in the rack.
Ziegler taught this newer method to March and also to the second test subject, Louis Riecke, a 34-year old lifter well past his prime. The New Orleans athlete had been competing for over 20 years, and although he was still regarded as one of the top light-heavyweights in the country, his lifts had leveled off. When the 1960 Olympic team was training at York prior to leaving for Rome, Riecke was invited to attend a clinic held for several other top prospects. Riecke came down with a skin rash from new clothes he purchased and went to see Doc Ziegler, the team physician for the Olympic Team, who was staying at the Yorktown hotel.
After Doc provided Riecke with the ointment, Riecke took the opportunity to ask Doc a host of questions about the new method of training March was using to make such amazing progress. Doc took a liking to the personable, highly intelligent athlete who also had some medical training.
Doc proceeded to teach him the same isotonic-isometric program he was currently using on March, and Riecke started making the same types of gains as March.
I had lifted against Riecke several other times because he often came to meets in Dallas and other parts of Texas. In the Fall of 1960, I competed against him in Dallas and he did a 255 press, 265 snatch, and 315 clean and jerk as a 181-er. I was only 20 lb. behind him after the press, did 30 lb. less in the snatch, and out-lifted him by 10 lb. in the clean and jerk. I figured that in a couple of years, or perhaps sooner, I would be able to challenge him because he wasn't improving much and I was.
All thoughts of catching him vanished in a heartbeat the next time I lifted against him. It was March of 1961 at a contest in Houston. He did 295, 285 and 360. I was stunned, as was everyone else in attendance. No one had ever heard of anyone so far past his prime making such amazing gains in such a short span of time. He informed all who asked that he was using the new training method that Doc Ziegler had developed: isotonic-isometric contractions, the same program being used by Bill March.
All the lifters there went home and began doing isometrics, even if they weren't sure what they were doing. Most purchased a manual and either built their own racks or purchased one from York. Every aspiring lifter also read in detail all the articles published on the subject in Strength and Health - and there were a lot of them, although none provided all the information needed to make quick gains. The articles were about the fast progress a great many athletes had made in a wide variety of sports by doing isometric contractions.
Rack sales proliferated as more and more coaches got on the bandwagon. Indiana University was the No. 1 swimming team in the country, and head coach Jim Counsilman ordered a large number of racks and started having his athletes go through a series of isometric movements. When they began breaking records at every meet, all the other swimming coaches followed his example and bought racks as well.
Isometrics were a big hit in other sports, too. Coaches and athletic directors loved the program. It was easy to learn, the racks took up very little space, and there was no clutter because there was no need to have extra plates, or dumbbells, or any type of exercising machines. The training system was so streamlined that an entire football team could go through a workout in 30 minutes or less. Perhaps best of all, at least for Hoffman, was that sports-medicine personnel and team trainers pronounced it was a safe form of strength training. These same team doctors and trainers had typically voiced their opinion that they believed lifting weights was detrimental to athletes.
By the Way . . .
Isotonics-isometrics swept across the country almost overnight. The only thing I can compare it with is the way Nautilus took the country by storm a decade later. Then in the mid-'60s, the isotonics-isometrics bubble exploded. Word had finally leaked out that along with the rack training, both March and Riecke were taking an anabolic steroid. Doc Ziegler was behind this innovation as well. When he learned that the Russian Olympic lifters were experimenting with male hormones, he dug in the research and ended up developing a little pink pill, which he took to CIBA Pharmaceuticals. That's how Dianabol was born.
The isometric craze came to a screeching halt. Soon lifters from all parts of the country were making similar gains to those Riecke and March had made. It didn't matter what kind of routine they used just as long as they were using Dianabol. The consensus was that the rack training had been nothing more than a smokescreen. It was the drug that made the difference, and almost overnight isometric training in any form was abandoned - except for one group of lifters - those at York Barbell. They continued to use the isotonic-isometric routine. Why? Because they know the system brought results.
The real value of Dianabol was that it helped the athletes to gain muscular bodyweight rather quickly, and everyone who had been associated with the sport of Olympic lifting knew that the easiest way to get stronger is to gain weight. But once the body weight levels off, which it must for all lifters other than the heavyweights, he must still work harder than his opponents in the weight room because his opponents are taking the drug too.
It also needs to be pointed out that those sports teams and individual athletes who excelled in their sports when they began using isometric systems were not taking any anabolic steroids. It was the rack training that made the Indiana swimmers faster. Jim Beatty broke the world record in the indoor mile after training with isometrics. Jay Sylvester broke the world record in the discus three times and praised isometrics for his increase in strength. What many coaches liked best about the isometric system was that it allowed their athletes to get stronger without adding any body weight.
The bottom line is that when an athlete does an isotonic-isometric program correctly, and by that I mean the way Ziegler taught it, he will get stronger. The main problem is there aren't many people left who know how to teach young athletes this method of training. A great many who knew the specifics of this form of strength training have departed to the weight room in the sky, and most of the others no longer have anything to do with the sport of Olympic lifting or strength training. Tommy Suggs is an exception. He still teaches athletes he comes in contact with how to do the iso program properly. I do, too, but because I no longer have a large group of athletes to deal with, I now encourage athletes in every sport to incorporate this system of strength training into their routines in my articles.
Hopefully, someone in a position of power will take up the cause and bring isotonic-isometric training back into the mainstream of strength training. Otherwise, it will be lost. But I suspect, not for long. Someone further down the road will come across research and old articles on the subject and be smart enough to resurrect the training system and figure out how to make money from it. [Dragon Door Isochain. Puke]. It's happened before, many times. Just look at the recent rebirth of kettlebells. [Whew. good think my stomach emptied itself earlier.]
The Hows and Whys of "Isos"
continued in Part Two . . .