2 Isometric Training Methods For Stronger Powerlifts

There's a lot more to isometric training than planks.

In the never-ending quest to get bigger and stronger, concentric and eccentric contractions get most of the love in the gym, while isometrics get left out in the cold.

Because when people think of isometrics, they think of wall squats and plank variations. You know, the exercises that practically nobody enjoys.

But there’s much more to isometrics than just planks.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Dumbbell Bench Press Guide

What Is Isometric Exercise?

Isometric muscle contractions are when the muscles produce force, but there is no change in the length of the contracting muscle. Think of it like a tug of war between your muscles.

Isometrics can overcome sticking and weak points in the squat, deadlift and bench press by getting you stronger at your weak point. Pretty much everybody trains by moving the weight from the beginning to the end point of a movement, spending as little time as possible between the two. But glossing over the middle portion of a lift makes it easy to develop sticking points — difficulty bringing the bar past your knees during a deadlift, for example.

You may already know this, but what a lot of people don’t know is that there are two ways to approach isometrics.

1. Pauses

This involves reducing the weight and pausing at a particular joint angle that is causing you problems. For example, pausing at the bottom of the squat because you’re having problems driving out of the ‘hole.’

When using the pause method to attack these weakness consider using 60-80 1RM, 5-8 reps with a 3-5 second pause and do this as part of your accessory training after your big movement for the day.

2. Overcoming Isometrics

This is pushing or pulling against pins (usually in the squat rack) at a specific point in the range of motion that is causing you problems. For example, locking out the top of the squat.

With overcoming isometrics, perform at the start of your training, before hitting the heavy weights because you’ll need all-out effort for each rep. Some studies suggest keeping the contractions between 5-15 seconds, 4–6 times with 3-5 minutes rest between efforts.(1)

When you’re having trouble in a particular point in your lift, it pays to spend more time there, not less.

[Check out our complete guide to using this type of isometric in your deadlift training!]

Examples of Isometric Training in the Powerlifts

Squat: Pause

Common sticking points in the squat are in the hole and mid-way when the knees are at 90 degrees. Here are some examples of the aforementioned isometrics.

This one’s an unusual two-pause back squat, which may be doable at lighter loads.

Squat: Overcoming Isometrics

This example would be used to help improve the lockout for athletes who have difficulty completing a squat.

Bench Press: Pause

Common sticking points in the bench press are close to the chest, elbow at 90 degrees, and between 90 degrees and lockout.

Bench Press: Overcoming Isometrics

You can place the pins anywhere, but the example below is what one might use when having difficulty locking out at the top of the movement.

Deadlift: Pause

Besides not being able to pull the weight from the floor, the deadlift sticking points are first portion of the lift, floor to below knees, around the knees and last part of the pull from mid-thigh to lockout.

Deadlift: Overcoming Isometrics

Once again, this is an example of overcoming isometrics that may be useful to folks who have difficulty locking out the end point of the exercise.

How to Program Isometrics Into Your Training

Note: If you’re progressing in your lifts then keep going. But if you notice you have sticking point in your lifts then consider using pauses or overcoming isometrics in your training.

Pauses

These are great for beginner or intermediate lifters who need to build strength in certain positions of a lift or have reached a plateau in the weight they can lift.

Decreasing the weight and adding pauses is a great way to create more time under tension, helping to build strength and add muscle without having to grind with heavier weight all the time.

Pauses can be programmed in two ways:

1. Main strength movement for the day

Here you’d use a weight around 80-85 % of 1RM when you’ve plateaued.

For example,

1A. Paused bench press (using 3-5 second pause) 3-5 sets of 3 reps

1B. Mobility exercise of your choice

After your big strength movement for the day

To work on sticking points or to add extra volume for hypertrophy purposes. Use a weight around 60-70 % 1RM with a 3 to 5 second pause.

For example,

1A. Paused squat (in the hole) 3 sets 6- 12 reps

1B. Chin ups

Overcoming Isometrics

If you’re a more advanced athlete, if you’re already strong and notice you have certain sticking points in your lift when approaching your 1RM, then this is more your cup of tea. This technique requires an all-out effort and is more suited to the advanced lifter.

These are best programmed at the start of your training when you’re fresh and ready to roll. Doing this as your main strength movement and then working on that lift with submaximal weight afterwards in your accessory training works well.

For example,

1A. Deadlift (off the floor or lockout) 4- 6 sets 5- 15 second all out contractions

1B. Half kneeling hip flexor 60 seconds on both sides

2A. Deficit deadlifts or Rack Pulls 3 sets 3- 6 reps

2B. Band pull a parts 15-25 reps

When Not to Use Isometrics

Using isometrics in your squat, bench or deadlifts is not for everyone.

If you’re training power, or you’re a power athlete looking to move weight as fast and explosive as possible, then isometrics might slow you down.

And beginners who are starting with these lifts, who haven’t built up enough strength and technical know-how of their weak or sticking points should steer clear of overcoming isometric exercises. If that’s you, then lifting submaximal weight through a full range of motion is your best bet.

Wrapping up

When all else has failed in an effort to strengthen your weak points, pick isometric contractions first for a change. But consider talking to a qualified strength coach or buying a dedicated program before changing up your programming completely.

Featured image via Photology1971/Shutterstock

References

1. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2019 Apr;119(4):1029-1039. doi: 10.1007/s00421-019-04092-y. Epub 2019 Feb 7. What are the best isometric exercises of muscle potentiation?

Shane McLean

Shane McLean

Shane McLean is a Certified Personal Trainer who’s worked with a wide variety of clients, from the general population client all the way to ex-Navy seals and college athletes.

Shane is a big believer in seeing exercise as a gift for the body and never a punishment — exercise should be as enjoyable as possible and never just a “work” out.

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