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.
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.
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.
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@pike_air performing a 20 second overcoming-Isometric deadlift hold. Set pins just below knee height. Bar won't move any further, but pull against the pins for the duration with intent of pulling it up. #teamironwork #ironworkuk #deadlift #isometric #hypertrophy #structural #gains #tension #position #pull #isometric #overcomingisometric #strength #basebuilding #prestrengthphase #strengtheducation
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
1A. Paused squat (in the hole) 3 sets 6- 12 reps
1B. Chin ups
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Running @briannyt through her first wave of iso deadlifts. You’d be surprised how simple her training has been this past year and a half… l guess you could say she’s earned the right to do more of the fun stuff. We got the most out of the selection of exercises we know that work and then expand from there. That being said… this is one of my all time favorite tools for the deadlift. Applying max force into the pins for 5-10 second holds can be great for strengthening a very specific weak point in the lift, as well as forcing the lifter to be very aware of everything they are doing during the hold (if something isn’t firing correctly you’ll know.) From what I’ve read and personally experienced, these work best when done in a superset with a standard “speed pull”. These can be done with an empty bar or I’ve often done them with the same weight range as what l would use for speed work (50-65%). @sylva_sbc give these a try 😏 @generationstrengthgym – @feedmefightme @juggernautnutrition #squat #squats #bench #benchpress #deadlift #deadlifts #power #powerlifting #strength #strengthathlete #conjugatemethod
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.
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.
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
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?