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The Rise and Fall of Isometric Training in the 1960s: What Happened?

As a form of exercise, isometric training has been around for thousands of years. It is an important part of disciplines as diverse as Yoga and Martial Arts, for example. However, in modern times, isometric exercise probably peaked in the 1960s. What explains its explosive growth and subsequent extinction is an interesting story. This is what happened.

Like many other things, the fitness and health industry seems to go in cycles. For example, Atkin’s low carb diet was huge in the early 1960s, before it was forgotten until it was rediscovered in the early 21st century. It seems that it is simply the way of things. The peak of popularity of isometric training was definitely the 1960s. During this time, famous athletes such as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris trained using isometric contractions. Bruce Lee devoted himself to the practice, as did President Kennedy. Books and brochures extolling the virtues of isometric training can be found in every newsstand and grocery box. Everyone was talking and doing isometric exercises in some form, it seemed, and then suddenly he fell out of favor.

What happened? Well, for one thing, isometric training became a fad during this time. Like the Atkins diet a few years ago, everyone was trying it, although few followed it. In addition, the market was flooded with isometric tours of dubious value. With crazy titles like “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 does not mean that they are EASY TO DO. Like anything worthwhile, it takes effort. I suspect that when the “Fad” people learned this, they abandoned training in their never-ending search for an “effortless” training solution. This search continues today. Hence the popularity of products like Thighmaster.

A second factor that undermined isometry as a form of exercise is that it was 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 started to fall, the question was always asked “What are you doing differently?” The answer was always half true. “We are using a new form of training called functional isometric,” or something like that. Steroids were never mentioned.

Steroid use continued to permeate the rest of the fitness industry, particularly among bodybuilders. When asked how they build their impressive physique, they followed the lead of their Olympian cousins. “We are using isometric exercises.”

So it was. However, at some point the truth comes out and that time was the 1960s. Even though isometric exercises WORK, they were associated with steroid abuse. People thought that the benefits that powerlifters and bodybuilders had achieved were ALL due to steroids, and that isometrics were useless. Isometric training practically fell out of favor at this point, relegated to the fringes 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 is, when you push yourself, isometrics can give you a great look and develop your natural strength in record time. The bottom line is that this form of training works. I hope you hear more about this training method in the years to come. Get ready for the isometric training boom of the early 21st century? We’ll see!

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