A few folks have asked me recently to explain the high tension exercises again. The nickname is isotonics, drawn from isolation toning. Your muscles are working against each other, not against some external force (i.e., gravity with free weights or against a machine). My objective is less about toning and more about promoting circulation for my whole body. Keep in mind that, with one exception as noted below, you strive for a full range of motion. If you suffer from arthritis, this routine should actually help things.
So what motions do I perform?
We start with the largest muscle groups and work to the smallest. That means legs first. Put your arms in a comfortable place, such as across your chest. Tense the muscles in your legs and squat down as far as you can while keeping the tension on your leg muscles. It may take some time to discern subjectively how much tension it takes, but the objective means hitting 12 repetitions before it’s just too much to keep going. With my bad knee, you can imagine I don’t go very deep, so adjust according to your needs. This engages the whole leg and lower back.
Next, I stand in front of something like an armchair and lean forward to grip the arm rests. Then, I tense my legs and rise on my toes just a bit. Switching off between legs, I raise one behind me with that same tension as before, then pull it back down. Alternate back and forth to hit around 12 repetitions. This isolates more on just the thigh muscles.
Finally, for the lower leg it works best if you have some kind of step. You need to stand with just your toes on the step and your heels hanging over the open space below. Use something high enough that your heels can’t touch the floor. Tense up your calf and shin muscles, drop down as low as possible, then push up to fully extend to your toes. Repeat for 12.
For the abdominals and back muscles, simply stand up straight, feet shoulder-width apart, with your arms across the chest again. Tense your midriff and back, bend slowly from the hips, not across the belly itself. Bow yourself forward, then attempt to pull backward somewhat past upright. Breathe out as you move one way, stop and breath in tightly through tense muscles, then breathe out again the other way. Most people say this one “hurts” a little, so be careful to control the arch at the bottom of your spine. Again, bend from the hips while keeping the lower back locked in a slight arch.
Now for the upper torso. Mentally, you can divide your shoulder girdle between pushing and pulling, imagining that your hands are holding a bar. Each motion engages the upper back, chest and shoulder muscles. However, you need to mentally engage your whole body somewhat as if you were working against real resistance. That means rotating the shoulders a bit when you change directions between pushing and pulling. Try to feel it like a true press or rowing motion. I do five different angles: straight out in front, straight overhead, straight down, and at a 45º angle up and down in front of me. I do them in that order, but it really doesn’t matter. Start with your arms extended, pull back against your own tension to about the chest (as far as you can pull), then push back out.
Next I try to isolate the shoulder girdle just a bit by doing straight-arm swings in three axes: back and forth at chest height in front of me (“fly” we call it), up and down to the sides (but stop before you get much above shoulder level), and a full range up and down in front of me (chopping).
Finally, because I have a serious need for keeping my hands working well, I do arms. First I hold them straight up overhead and curl back down behind my head. Then I do curls from hips up to my chest. Finally, I reverse my grip with palms facing down and do another set from the hips. Then, to keep my grip alive, I do a combined motion starting with my hands raised just a bit facing palm down, fingers extended and spread. Tense up the hands and forearms and close the fingers slowly, then turn the fist around to palm-up position, return back and slowly extend the fingers against tension. This is sort of a grab motion.
For my own personal needs, I often finish with a pair of abdominal hardening exercises. Men in particular lose their abdominal strength quickly with age and it’s not good for your internal organs to bulge out like that. So I lay supine on a padded surface with my elbows half-way out from my sides and hands raised straight up. Rising half-way up with my torso, I reach out one hand across to meet the opposing toe as I raise my leg simultaneous with my torso. The non-reaching arm swings out a bit and I turn my face toward it. Thus, we are doing a full v-up with a twist, and this works the entire belly-band muscles. Drop down and alternate to the other side. Try not to cheat by pushing against the floor with your non-reaching elbow. Some folks seem to have a tough time coordinating raising both the torso and one leg, but if you can learn it, it’s a wonderful exercise. Do as many as you can in alternating pairs.
I typically finish with flutter kicks: Lie supine with hands palm down under your butt for balance. Stiffen the legs and hold your feet dorsiflexed (toe pulled up toward you). Raise both legs just a few inches off the floor and don’t let them drop. Alternate kicking up just a little farther than the length of your foot. Do as many as you can.