Isometrics are already an integral part of training, whether we know it or not. Some muscles are always contracting isometrically to support the body in motion, but too few trainees deliberately focus on isometric work and all the wonderful things it can do for them.
For those unfamiliar with the term “Isometrics”, here is a short definition:
“A muscle force in which the muscle length does not change, because the contractile force is equal to the resistive force.”
Isometrics are generally split into three categories, two of which we will look at here-
- Yielding Isometrics
You are trying to prevent a weight or your bodyweight from moving. During a Pull Up for example, holding the Chin above the bar is a yielding isometric contraction. So is holding the Barbell statically halfway through its range of motion in a Standing Biceps Curl.
- Overcoming Isometrics
You are exerting force against an immovable object. Trying to deadlift a car is an example of this, so is pushing against a wall. Unlike yielding isometrics, you are exerting maximal force trying to get the object to move, but you can’t. The downside of overcoming isometrics is that there is no detailed way to measure it, or immediate feedback when intensity of effort drops.
Now, let’s look at how more people could benefit from these two types of isometrics and when it makes the most sense to add them to your training.
Benefits Of Isometrics Exercise
Improve Neural Drive
Isometrics are an excellent tool to improve neural drive to your muscles and help recruit more and larger muscle fibers for each contraction. This is known as Post Activation Potentiation (PAP), and overcoming isometrics are great for this method. We can work with a supramaximal weight, without actually having to move it.
In the One Arm Dumbbell Press for example, we could begin (after a good warm-up) with a Dumbbell that is too heavy for us to complete a single repetition with and just hold it near the bottom of the shoulder press position, exerting full force up into the dumbbell.
2-3 sets of 10-15 seconds will suffice to get the nervous system fired up.
Now, when you progress onto your workout weight, you will find that the weight feels a lot lighter.
Strengthen Weak Points Within A Movement
Isometrics let us pinpoint weaker parts in an exercise’s range of motion. Take the deadlift for example. Obviously, the hardest part is the bottom third – the initial lift off the floor. If you are strong in the top two thirds of the deadlift, but struggle with anything at shin level, it makes sense to spend some more time in that bottom third.
One way to do this is to add yielding isometrics to that part of the deadlift. Lift the Bar, then pause and hold for a few seconds at the position you struggle with, then complete the lift at normal speed. Lowering the bar, again, pause at said position for a few seconds, before setting the bar down.
Spending additional time in a sticky area will over time make you stronger in that part of the range of motion.
The Pull Up is another exercise that isometrics work wonders for. Most people struggle with the bottom third – getting out of the extended arm position. We all know the guys that claim they can do a ton of Pull Ups, but nowhere near extend their arms at the bottom. If they did, they would probably only get a couple of reps and that could be bad for their ego.
Just as common is the Chin not clearing the bar at the top (without craning the neck). Ideally, chest contact should be made with the bar, as this gets the smaller upper back muscles fired up, but most trainees lack the upper back strength to do this.
If you add yielding isometrics to strengthen your weak spots in the Pull up, like the bottom and the very top, you will quickly notice a big difference in performance in those portions of the exercise.
And for those training for their very first Pull Up, isometric holds at various points along the range of motion should be your first point of attack.
The days of isometrics being an advanced training method are long gone. Beginners will benefit from isometric training in several ways: Beginners have trouble exerting maximal muscle force, recruiting less muscle fibers for any contraction compared to experienced trainees.
Isometrics can teach beginners how to exert more force and it does so in a safer environment, than if we took them through the dynamic version of that movement – it is extremely hard to f**k up an isometric contraction, because there is no movement and it requires a lot less motor-skill.
Isometrics can also help beginners “feel” a position that they struggle with. The bottom of the hip hinge is one of them. Spending some additional “isometric time” in the bottom of the hip hinge will improve the mind-muscle connection for that position.
The jury’s been out on whether isometrics are a good muscle building tool. Some studies in the past found increases in strength, but not hypertrophy. This, however, can be put down to the way isometrics were prescribed in these studies. The contraction protocol wasn’t long enough to elicit any significant gains in muscle.
Strength is traditionally trained using repetitions in the 1-5 range and Hypertrophy in the ranges of 6-12. Adjusting these reps to the equivalent in isometric holds, an isometric contraction would need to be held for periods of 20-40 seconds to elicit the best hypertrophy response, since time under tension is a big factor in putting on muscle.
The favored way (and it seems like the only way) isometrics are used in people’s hypertrophy programs today is limited to adding an isometric hold to the end of a set, until the muscle worked is utterly exhausted.
In my experience, the results from using isometrics this way are meager at best.
When isometrics are employed when the muscle is already close to exhaustion, we do not benefit from the full force-producing capabilities of that muscle and will be selling ourselves short.
Instead, experiment with days where your focus is on isometrics only, using a few compound and isolated exercises. And remember, longer duration (20-60 sec) yielding isometrics are necessary and they beat overcoming isometrics for the purpose of muscle gain.
Note– Muscles and joints are designed to be moved through their full range of motion, therefore using isometrics as your only means of training is generally not a great idea. It is rather a welcome supplement to normal “overcoming” resistance training.
Isometrics have an extremely invigorating effect, in part due to the favorable endocrine response following this type of training.
If you follow a tough training routine and further dynamic exercise would beat you up too much – with its high energy cost and eccentric component – you can always give your muscles a good workout using isometrics alone, without draining your muscles and negatively affecting your recovery time.
Build Functional Strength
Most of the classic calisthenics movements require a tremendous amount of isometric strength, where your bodyweight and the change in levers deliver the only means of resistance.
Male gymnasts have physiques many guys would give their left nut for and a lot of their training is based on isometrics. They display freakish strength and could give experienced weightlifters a run for their money in many of the big lifts, even though they never train them.
One of the biggest benefit of gymnastic-style exercises is the development of the smaller muscles of the body that work isometrically as stabilizers and synergists to the bigger players. It’s hard to beat isometrics for strengthening these smaller muscles, that make the prime movers look good.
Static bodyweight exercises and those requiring a large stability component will instantly upgrade every program they are added to, as they produce rapid functional strength gains.
Look into easier progressions of L-Sits, Front Levers, Back Levers, Handstands, the Planche and other high-tension core exercises on the floor.
While progress is slow and hard for bodyweight isometrics, few things will boost your performance and athleticism more than these high-tension exercises.