This is a bit of a companion piece to my last letter on high-rep calisthenics training. Static contraction training (isometric training), while not actually boasting reps of any kind, causes most of the same adaptations as high-rep calisthenics (bodyweight) training.
A practice used for centuries by mind-body practitioners and martial artists to build legs of steal and limitless energy, the static squat, or horse stance - a squat posture with feet pointed straight ahead and placed about double shoulder width apart, with knees splayed at 90 degree bend, and back relatively straight - is a monster practice, and truly deserves a place among the most impactful and effective bodyweight exercises in existence.
In other words, you ought to be doing it at least some of the time, regardless of overall fitness level or age.
A few things worth noting up front about isometric training & the horse stance:
- Movement isn’t needed to build the body
- It’s unparalleled in conditioning and clearing lactate (often mislabeled lactic acid)
- It can condition all possible fibers within a muscle without added weight
- It has particular psychological benefits difficult to replicate with other approaches
- No movement means less friction and wear within the joint
The Unbearable Heaviness of Squatting
Squatting sucks, at least insofar as immediate, subjective experience is concerned. And holding that squat for minutes on end is even worse. When the immediate demand for energy is high and oxygen availability is limited, the body resorts to an anaerobic pathway to produce energy, which leads to the accumulation of lactate.
Lactate is a byproduct of anaerobic metabolism and is produced in the muscle cells when glucose is converted to pyruvate, which is then converted to lactate. The accumulation of lactate in the muscle tissue can lead to a decrease in pH, which can impair muscle function and contribute to fatigue.
However, lactate can also play a beneficial role. It can be used as a fuel source by other tissues, such as the heart and liver, and can also stimulate the production of growth hormone, which promotes muscle growth and repair.
The body can adapt to the increased demand for energy during exercise by improving its ability to tolerate lactate and use it as an energy source. This has corollaries to high-rep / high-volume bodyweight training, and is one the reasons isometric, static contraction training, and the horse stance in particular, are indispensable for improving global performance.
But to access these deeper adaptions, a degree of confronting intensity must be part and parcel of isometric training.
Uncle Billy Bob Returns
In the letter on high-rep training I used the analogy of uncle Billy Bob with the baseball bat - a lazy individual who only gets off the couch to regulate, and for anything less than a beat down, he’s staying put. Fast twitch muscle fibers have a similar attitude toward work, only contracting when slow twitch fibers have been proven inadequate.
Both of these fibers are valuable, and both deserve attention and dedicated training. But most people select modalities of training that specialize on one over the other, and for good reason. Exercises like the horse stance or the static squat are a compromise, and not necessarily suited to optimize either fiber in the short term. It is however exceedingly suitable for developing both to high levels over the long term.
It's like learning two languages as a child, which slows the rate of growth for one temporarily, but optimizes mastery of both over the long term.
It also forces power athletes to embrace long-hold, aerobic efforts, which is not their preference, and it forces endurance athletes to dig deep and recruit explosive, fast twitch fibers - it’s an equally awful experience for everybody, and as such, elevates lagging capacities.
The horse stance doesn’t last long, as most people fail within a couple of minutes. And there’s no added resistance, so how exactly does it recruit all possible fibers, and get Uncle Billy Bob off the couch?
For the untrained, it’s likely that entering the squat position is stressful enough to immediately bypass slow twitch fibers and skip straight to fast twitch. But as trainees progress, or have a prior base of conditioning, hold times extend and require less initial effort. In other words, you feel lighter because you’re stronger, and therefore less Billy Bob is required… until.
Where this exercise becomes a powerhouse for any and all is in the final remaining seconds of fight before failure. For most, as times extend into the 1-2 minute range, you can literally feel the locale of contraction move and shift in intensity around the agonists, antagonists, and stabilizing muscles, each called into action out of necessity, when it’s predecessors begin to give way.
It’s in this tedious, nauseating reluctance to stand back up that slow twitch fibers are recruited and blown out, followed by fast twitch fibers, until nothing is left to hold you up. When you’ve seen monks holding this position during lunch while eating rice, you realize the levels to which one can actually develop this skill, and the power and stamina for which all legs are built.
But can’t someone get too strong so as to make it a purely aerobic exercise, and reach a point of diminishing returns? In theory, yes. In practice, it’s far more complicated.
What makes this far more effective than plank training, which some have held for hours, for example, is the mechanical disadvantage of the technique.
In In Pursuit of Weightlessness I hail compound movements along 5 key vectors as the holy grail of physical development. Those 5 vectors represent the strongest biomechanics the human body is capable, each aiming to optimize mechanical advantage and balance and build the body with greatest safety and efficiency.
The body is made up of levers which apply force via muscles, through tendons, to move bones. Certain movements, and certain ranges of movement, optimize mechanical force potential. These are ideal for applying good stress on the body, and applying heavy loads that lead to rapid adaptations in a relatively safe manner. But that’s only one application of this principle.
In the event one lacks sufficient external loads (weights), you can apply similar stresses on the body by moving into positions that lack mechanical advantage - the bottom of a deep squat, or pushups with a serious forward lean (as in planche training). In the hands of an experienced calisthenics athlete, playing in deleveraged ranges can place equal strains and stresses on the body, and force equally intense muscular contractions to those of power lifters.
Your muscles don’t know if they’re working against a weight, or a physical posture. The stress can be the same.
A Yogi’s Misapprehension
A while back I chatted with a Yogi with a great deal of experience in her craft. She wanted to know why, if we worked together, she’d have to lift weights. She said she was already applying leverage in her work, predominantly focusing on core compound bodyweight movements. So she was correct, in a sense. But the reason for her current level of strength is also the reason she plateaued, and couldn’t figure out why.
When you’re consistently training in the strongest range of motion, yet your competence in that skill exceeds the impact of the stressor, the training effect doesn’t take place anymore… or at least you’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. This is perhaps the greatest argument against isometric training in general, stemming from a misunderstanding of mechanical advantage as it relates to applied stress.
That’s why weight training is so valuable. You can train in the strongest, safest range of motion while continuing to incrementally increase resistance / load in a measurable way.
With bodyweight training alone you run the risk of converting high-tension holds and power moves into aerobic exercise… unless you begin to de-lever your movements and delve into the realm of advanced calisthenics training. Delevering movements within key vectors salvages bodyweight conditioning for strength training.
Within a squat, 90 degrees is nearing peak weakness in the movement. Above 90 and you’ve got a quad dominant extension. At 90, the glutes play a strong part. And below 90 your hamstrings take a dominant role.
At 90 you’re balancing agonistic/antagonistic muscular engagement in a compromised position. One can stand close to straight up for hours, benefiting by max mechanical advantage of the squat vector. Every inch one descends into further into the squat removes more and more mechanical advantage.
This makes the horse stance or static squat VERY difficult to adapt to, and therefore an exceedingly strong candidate for max muscular development and stamina improvement.
It also generates a ridiculous burn, and requires a fierce mindset.
We Buffalo. We Go To Work.
When the storm comes there’s one creature that consistently faces it head on - buffalo.
They don’t just face it, they herd themselves together and run… directly into the storm. Nobody completely understands why they do this, whether they appreciate the coolness of rain, or it provides cover from predators, but one thing is certain, they’re the first to get beyond it.
One of the elements of evolution I find most fascinating is the idea that capacity (or mutation) precedes function. This is something most people misunderstand about the notion of ‘survival of the fittest,’ assuming it means those who adapt fastest/best pass on their bloodline.
This is not untrue on an individual basis, but at the level of species the theory actually points to random mutation as precursor to fitness. A clear example of this is wings on birds. Creatures weren’t jumping off cliffs without wings until one of them said, ‘You know? This would be, like, so much better if we didn’t hit those rocks, and instead just went, like, out there, into the sky.’
Nope. The wings came first, before the function of flight was a thing. That mutation provided certain advantages for survival, and as such, got bred into subsequent species. Those pre-birds that grew giant, heavy feet or ten eyeballs didn't prove as useful, and nobody wanted to marry them.
Once upon a time there was a buffalo who spear headed this campaign of running head-on into trouble. Maybe he/she wasn’t quite right in the head. But they survived, and proved fitter (in the broadest sense of the word) for it. Where most animals flee and seek shelter from the storm, buffalo face the fight head on.
That mindset / capacity wasn’t a logical leap based out of necessity, most likely, just as wings didn’t sprout up for wingless birds falling from the sky. It was a random attribute. It was good luck. And it makes some of the toughest animals on the planet even more resilient to stress, because there aren’t many things worse than getting caught in a violent storm.
They face it head on.
This is a psychology of growth. It’s a psychology of indomitable spirit. And it’s an embodiment of grit.
If you want the function, embrace the mindset of a beast attacking the storm.
Isometric training is a building storm, lactate accumulating in the muscles by the second, burning, mind begging for escape. One must continually face the pain with resolve, or run the risk of pain without payoff, for it’s the last few seconds - those that precede muscular failure - that do all the work.
The Last Few Seconds Do All the Work
As systemic stress accumulates - stress that not only attacks targeted muscles, but takes one’s mind to the edge of what they can bear - the mind-body threshold for stress is tested, and eventually, adapted (super-compensated).
One of the most common errors plaguing every gym is trainees targeting work they can do. That may seem reasonable, until you account for the stimulus that actually moves the growth and performance needle - necessity.
At early stages of training, failure isn’t necessarily a prerequisite to growth. And so many people remember those early training windows that sparked a mini transformation. And then they do the same thing for years, without measurable growth. And they wonder why.
The fitter one becomes, the harder it becomes to hit the sweet spot of training - doing enough, and just enough, to stimulate growth without overly taxing one’s system.
With isometric training, these adaptations similarly happen quickly up front. Most can achieve a one minute horse stance within a few weeks of training. To get to a minute and a half, however, one may need three to six months. And to get to three to five minutes, one may need six months to a year, or longer, of daily practice.
And this practice can be grueling, because the signals needed to force adaptations to strength and stamina through isometric training come in the remaining seconds prior to failure. Getting there requires the mindset of a buffalo, willing to face the pain, and run head-on into the storm.
And this can lead to a dark place.
The Dark Place | On Tissue Adaptation
Most people have heard the term ‘overtraining,’ and while many people are nervous about doing that, because it’s a thing out there to be nervous about, I suppose, people should be far more concerned with under-training.
Overtraining is rare. And it’s also complicated. It’s generally identified by performance regression, a significant drop in energy, and a lack of motivation. To truly overtrain, one must do ALOT of training… or be malnourished. Those who chronically under eat can overly stress their systems with average volumes of work.
But the dark place is real, and it’s plagued every serious athlete at one time or another over their career. It’s also a critically important step in tissue adaptation that paves the way for high levels of performance.
Your body needs to learn to tolerate meaningful volumes of training. The dark place isn’t merely boredom or mental fatigue, it’s a legitimate draw down on storages, central nervous system fatigue, endocrine fatigue, and possibly tissue damage.
Studies done on marathon runners have found cellular damage two years after a single event, for example. Stress (training) takes it’s toll. It’s also required to inoculate you against greater stressors.
Let’s never forget that training is stressful. Fitness is an adaptation to stress.
I mention this in the context of isometric training in general, and the horse stance in particular, because it’s one of those techniques that’s often practiced daily in traditional arts, and for minutes on end. There’s no place to hide from it, and as the seconds pass, one can literally feel fibers that initially controlled the movement fatigue and give up, while lesser used fibers step up, engage, and also fatigue and give up…until no fibers are left.
This type of training will lead to the dark place, a window of training where the performance declines significantly for weeks (your horse stance max time might decline from 1min 30sec to 45 sec without burn - just a lack of contractile capability and mind-body connection), and where the mind cannot bear the thought of showing up again, before it climbs to greater heights.
In Western sports science this is often a vilified state, one to be avoided, and if triggered, treated with complete rest.
But some of the most significant adaptations the body is capable of making must be deeply triggered in a grow-or-die type setting. As there is no movement in isometric training, and one is working through compound joint structures, there’s relatively low risk, outside of entering the dark place, hating life, and quitting.
But this is also the window where tissue adaptation makes profound leaps, and the continuing to train through the dark place is what reinforces the urgent need to adapt.
It also benefits deez n…
In my last Shanghai tribe there was a gentleman who shared a rather personal change with everyone in the tribe. I don’t think he’d mind my sharing it because he shared it, publicly.
After 4 to 6 weeks of training, which included the horse stance, among other isometric training techniques, he reported a massive change in the frequency and strength of his erections. Nobody cared, obviously, and some laughed. But when he asked why, I just said, ‘horse stance, baby.’
Starting the program, he had horrible structure, and couldn’t access 90 degree bend in the knees without severely compromising his structure, buckling his knees, tucking his tailbone, and rounding his shoulders. He was also terribly inflexible. So as both of these weaknesses started to improve, blood flow and healthy circulation was restored.
It can be difficult for both sexes to stumble upon the right type of training that specifically forces increased blood flow through their nether regions, and revitalizes sexual performance. The horse stance is such a practice, and it’s known for this convenient byproduct among the old arts.
Feet positioned at close to double shoulder width, the adductors (muscles of the inner thighs) and pelvic floor muscles contract intensely (kegels anyone?) in the latter seconds of a static squat / horse stance to prevent structural collapse. With the quads, hams and glutes all flooded with blood and pumping it to and through the groin, this puts the horse stance in a rare category of therapeutic exercises that target sexual health.
When people practice squats, they generally stay within lower rep ranges - 8-12 - and fail to increase blood flow to that region to a considerable degree. And because the pelvic floor muscles and the adductors are predominately slow twitch, most strength training exercises leap frog those fibers as the fast twitch fibers of the muscles of the thighs dominate.
In higher volume work like jogging one doesn’t enter any depth of range, so blood flow through the region often accumulates in the calves, and possibly quads when running hills. But the same problem occurs - the adductors and pelvic floor muscles are rarely get focused attention.
The horse stance, it turns out, is perfectly suited to optimize deez n…
So go forth, squat long, and…