"Pain is just weakness leaving the body."
It's one of the most common coaching phrases out there.
It's also used to justify some of the worst programming a coach can come up with. Stuff that has little-to-no application to sport but beats athletes into exhaustion—a barrage of Burpees, marathon-length Bear Crawls, insane high-volume workouts like this. You know the drill.
Drills or exercises are often done entirely for the purpose of "toughening up" athletes or programmed as a "finisher" at the end of a workout or practice.
This way, athletes who are already fatigued have to learn to "push through the pain." After all, you're going to be tired in the fourth quarter, but you've still got to give it everything you've got—so the reasoning goes.
The problem with regularly using this sort of approach as a way to build mental toughness is the physical toll it wreaks. Coaches may be making their athletes more capable of persevering through discomfort, but are you making them any better at their sport?
No, you're not.
Best-case scenario, you're creating unnecessary fatigue and the sort of wear and tear that subtracts from peak performance.
Worst-case scenario, someone gets seriously injured or ill.
At some point, pain isn't weakness leaving the body—pain is just pain, and it comes with physical consequences.
"(I remember) taking a 45-pound plate and being made to do 20 different movements until I almost threw up," Pat Coyne, owner of Black Sheep Performance (Blue Ash, Ohio), recalls of his own experience with ill-conceived finishers as an athlete.
"Did it make me stronger? Probably not. Did it make me really tired? Yes. Did it make me mentally tougher? I don't think independently. I think it built team chemistry. But at the end of the day, our job (as coaches) is obviously to improve performance. Part of that is mental toughness, but when you're wasting someone's time for 8-10 minutes at the end of the workout and trying to show your toughness as a strength coach by trying to kill the kids, most times, that's not going to work…For some people, it does. They win championships that way. But my perception, that's the wrong way to go about it."
What if there was an alternative that allowed athletes to continually push their own mental boundaries, but without the deleterious impact on their bodies?
There is, and they're called extreme isometrics.
They involve assuming a position, such as the bottom of a Lunge or Push-Up, and creating an intense contraction while your body resists the forces of gravity:
Over time, you want to be capable of holding such a position for increasingly longer periods. A big benchmark for athletes at Black Sheep is being able to hold an Extreme Isometric Lunge for over three unbroken minutes.
We went deep on the power of extreme isometrics in a recent article, but perhaps their most obvious application for athletes (or anyone looking to get mentally and physically stronger while recovering more quickly) is as an end-of-workout "finisher."
Since the duration and intensity are ultimately self-governed and there's no external load or impact on the joints, extreme isometrics are overwhelmingly safe.
They provide an environment where a person can truly go to "failure" without fear of physical consequences. In fact, Coyne and several other experts report that regular extreme isometrics speed up recovery times, reduce aches and pains, and increase energy levels.
"It's a good mental toughness exercise for people to really get into their own brain and their own subconscious—but (you feel) great afterwards," says Coyne. "A little fight or flight is released where you can either quit or you can continue to try to create more stimulus within your body. But eventually you will fail. You'll fail. Which I think is a good thing, as well. Eventually you'll get to a point where you can't. They keep you humble. They keep you mentally sharp I think. And they give the kid and the athlete something fun to buy in to because they're always going against the clock, they're always going against themselves."
Increasing the duration of a hold requires not only pushing into new frontiers of mental toughness, but a strengthening of lagging muscle groups and an improvement in overall body awareness.
Many coaches will justify poor finishers by saying they want their team to "go through something hard together," but that's also easily do-able with extreme isometrics.
"At the end of a workout at Black Sheep, we circle the athletes up. And me and the other trainer will jump in with the athletes," says Coyne. "We're talking about how the session went, we're talking about stresses of school, we're having a conversation. We're all getting pummeled by the isometric, but we're also communicating, we're talking, we're building chemistry. So it's a team building exercise, and we're also working our mental toughness. It's basically a finisher done the right way in my eyes."
Two of the best extreme isometrics to use as finishers are the Extreme Isometric Split Squat and the Extreme Isometric Push-Up.
Extreme Isometric Split Squat
If you're looking to integrate just one extreme isometric into your routine, make it this.
Joel Smith, Division I track & field coach and owner of Just Fly Sports, says the Extreme Isometric Split Squat (which is also referred to as an Extreme Isometric Lunge) is often the core movement in his coaching arsenal. He likes to see athletes reach a continuous three-minute hold that's "solid to the point (he) could balance a glass of water on their front thigh" as a benchmark of bodyweight strength.
The key here is the "scissoring" action you get by pulling your front foot toward you while driving your back foot forward. Keep the heel of your front foot barely off the ground if you can.
Extreme Isometric Push-Up
The Push-Up is perhaps the most popular bodyweight exercise in existence, but have you ever tried holding the bottom for more than a second or two?
Probably not. You might be surprised at just how quickly your body can start resorting to compensations here. Those compensations tend to appear at the core, butt and/or elbows. Remember: once you're physically unable to resist or quickly correct these sort of compensations, the rep is over. We do not want our body practicing faulty movement patterns.
The record hold for an Extreme Isometric Push-Up in Coyne's gym is 3 minutes, 50 seconds.
If you're looking to finish your workouts with a bang, extreme isometrics are an amazing option.
If you approach them with the right mindset, they build focus and mental fortitude, strengthen your weakest muscles, and supercharge your recovery time.
"It's either we do a punisher to completely deteriorate the kids and crush them, or we can do something to promote healing and actually help them get better at the end of a workout," says Coyne.
"Do I want my team to do Burpees for a finisher, or do I want them to do an isometric? Do I want them potentially ripping their rotator cuff and labrum and tearing everything jumping and throwing themselves on the ground, or do I want to do something that, over time, could potentially make them 5-6 percent stronger?"
The key is that if you're using extreme isometrics as a finisher, you want to progress your time each week. It's OK if you can only do 15-30 seconds at first. But like any form of exercise, if you're not willing to compete with yourself, you're going to miss out on the most powerful benefits.
Photo Credit: Thomas_EyeDesign/iStock
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