The Notre Dame football team does it enthusiastically. The San Francisco 49ers do it shyly. The Pittsburgh Pirates do it. Overweight girls in Baton Rouge do it. Star athletes like High Jumper Bob Avant and Basketball Player Bob Pettit do it, and weight lifters like Louis Riecke and Bill March swear by it.
What all these disparate types have been doing is not falling in love, as the song put it, but practicing a new-and-old form of exercise called "isometric contraction," or IC. And what is IC? It is pushing on brick walls, pulling on steel girders, squeezing baseballs, trying to lift freight cars. It is any kind of exercise in which the muscles strain and tense against an immovable object or each other for a few seconds without movement.
Little had been heard about isometric contraction until news of the Pittsburgh Pirates' "secret" training routine got out earlier this year. The secret (SI, July 24) was that the Pirates had introduced IC to their players under the direction of Jay A. Bender. Ph.D., professor of physical education at Southern Illinois University.
Since then, almost as though by underground railroad, IC has been popping up at all points of the compass. So have exploiters of the technique, and some of them are making claims that have not been heard since the days of snake oil. The fact remains that even the most extreme detractors admit that the system builds muscle.
Lou Riecke, for example, was lifting weights for 14 years with little success. Last November he stopped weight training and began a set of isometric exercises, pushing and pulling at an immovable bar for a mere 15 minutes a day, including rest periods. At the end of six months, he was able to press 300 pounds, 45 more than his previous high. He could snatch 305 instead of 265, and clean-and-jerk 375 instead of 315. In June, Riecke, at the age of 34, earned a berth on the five-man U.S. Olympic weight-lifting team, which competed against Russia.
Bill March, who tried a form of IC before the 1960 Olympics but abandoned it, failed to qualify for the last Olympic Trials because he couldn't make the total three-event lift minimum of 825 pounds. In March 1961 he resumed isometric contraction in earnest. Two months later he won the national junior weight-lifting championship with 975 pounds, and last week he broke four North American records (see page 93).
But IC is not merely a gimmick for the Muscle Beach set. It appears to have genuine value in almost any sport, particularly in toning muscles and cutting down on muscle injury. Norbert Roy, co-captain of the Notre Dame football team, brought IC up the river from his native Baton Rouge, introduced it informally to his teammates. Dozens of factors have gone into Notre Dame's markedly low injury rate this year; IC may well be one of them. (The same low injury rate is seen on the Pirates and the 49ers, where IC is used extensively.) Roy himself is a prize example of what the system can do for the physique. In nine weeks of isometric exercise, he added three inches to his chest, 2� inches to his neck and 10 pounds to his weight.
Istrouma High of Louisiana, a hotshot football school, uses IC almost exclusively. Says Coach James E. (Big Fuzzy) Brown, "We feel it's the finest thing for body building and overall coordination we've ever had. This is also something old men like me [Brown is 54] can do. I've been doing isometric contractions myself for 30 seconds a day. I've lost two inches off my waist and 12 pounds."
Coach Red Hickey of the San Francisco 49ers (see page 22) admits that his shotgunning team uses IC but refuses to talk about it, evidently considering it a secret weapon. When a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED reporter asked whether he could discuss the subject with 49er Trainer Henry Schmidt, Hickey retorted: "If Schmidt talks to you, I'll fire him!" The 49er players, obviously well coached, clammed up when approached.
Professor Gene Logan of the University of Southern California, where High Jumper Bob Avant is a student, reckoned that the angle of the knee of Avant's push-off leg was 135� at the moment of takeoff and decided to strengthen his leg muscles at that precise angle. Logan built what he calls "the device" (below, right). Avant inserts his right leg in it and pulls with all his might. He considers this IC exercise the most important factor in converting himself from a 6-foot-8 high jumper to a 7-footer. It took two months.