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Functional Isometrics: The Ultimate Guide!

Isometric training is one of the most powerful tools you can use to build strength and muscle mass.

Many of the world’s best strength coaches like Charles Poliquin, Josh Bryant and Christian Thibadeau use isometric training as a go-to strategy for blasting through training plateaus.

In my experience one of the best forms of isometric training is called “functional isometrics.” If you want to learn more about functional isometrics then this article is for you!

Introduction

  • Part 1: Charles Poliquin Functional Isometrics
  • Part 2: Josh Bryant Functional Isometrics
  • Part 3: Christian Thibaudeau Functional Isometrics

In this comprehensive guide I will teach you everything you need to know about how to use functional isometrics to get freaky strong and build slabs of functional muscle mass. 

Functional isometrics is an advanced training method where you perform partial range of motion reps in a power rack in between two sets of safety pins.

You perform 4-6 partial range of motion reps followed by an all-out isometric contraction against the top pins for 6-8 seconds.

Here is a perfect video demonstration:

Functional isometrics are so effective for building strength and muscle mass because they combine 2 awesome training methods:

  • Partial range of motion repetitions
  • Overcoming isometric contractions

Partial range of motion reps are great because they let you overload a specific part of the range of motion with a heavier than normal weight.

Research shows that partial reps have many advantages including down-regulating the golgi tendon organ, building connective tissue strength and increasing your confidence with heavy weights.

Performing partial range of motion reps in between two sets of safety pins is even more effective because you can isolate different parts of an exercise:

  • The bottom third of the exercise
  • The middle third of the exercise
  • The top third of the exercise

This is the exact strategy that Charles Poliquin uses with his athletes: he has his athletes perform 3 sets in each of these parts of the range of motion.

Of course the real magic behind functional isometrics is the all-out overcoming isometric contraction that you perform at the end of the set.

We know that there are two main types of isometric contractions:

  • Yielding isometrics
  • Overcoming isometrics

Yielding isometric contractions involve holding a weight in place against the force of gravity.

For example if you pause for 2 seconds in the top part of a leg extension then you are performing a yielding isometric contraction. Yielding isometrics are great for building muscle mass.

Overcoming isometric contractions are completely different: they occur when you apply maximum force to an immovable object.

Here is the powerlifter Al Davis performing an overcoming isometric on the bench press:

I highly recommend you watch this video with the volume turned up. Al Davis is pressing so hard that he screams twice during the set!

When you perform a set of functional isometrics you perform 4-6 partial range of motion reps immediately followed by an all-out overcoming isometric contraction.

Research shows that overcoming isometric contractions help you recruit up to 7% more muscle fibers and produce 15% more force than regular concentric or eccentric contractions.

The bottom line is functional isometrics combine the best parts of partial range of motion reps AND all-out overcoming isometric contractions into one brutal training method.

It’s no wonder some of the world’s best powerlifting and bodybuilding coaches use functional isometrics to blast through training plateaus!

I hope you found this introduction helpful. Now let’s take a closer look at how some of the world’s best coaches use functional isometrics with their world-class athletes.

Note: if you have trouble reading the training routines in this article then check out this guide on how to read a training program. Now let’s get down to business…

Part 1: Charles Poliquin Functional Isometrics

I first read about functional isometrics through the writings of Charles Poliquin.

Charles was a Canadian strength coach who worked with Olympic and professional athletes all over the world.

He often used functional isometrics to help clients like the gold medalist shot putter Adam Nelson break through strength plateaus on key exercises.

Charles Poliquin’s favorite way to use functional isometrics is to perform break up a barbell exercise into three different sections:

  • The bottom third 
  • The middle third
  • The top third 

You then perform 3 sets of functional isometrics in each of these sections followed by 1 full range of motion set without the safety pins. Altogether you have to perform 3 + 3 + 3 + 1 = 10 very challenging sets.

Here is an athlete giving a perfect video demonstration of a Charles Poliquin style functional isometrics workout:

As you can see there are 3 steps to a functional isometrics set:

  • Step #1: Perform 4-6 partial range of motion reps
  • Step #2: Perform an all-out isometric contraction against the top pins for 6-8 seconds
  • Step #3: Try to perform 1 more partial range of motion rep where you hit the top pins

If you can complete another full rep after the 6-8 second isometric contraction then you should increase the weight a little for your next set.

If you nail the 6-8 second isometric contraction but barely lift the weight off the safety pins after that then don’t even think about increasing the weight! That is absolutely perfect – just use the same weight for your other sets in that section of the exercise.

As you can see the athlete performs sets in the bottom third, middle third and top third of the bench press. Then he performs 1 full range of motion set in the regular bench press.

This final full range of motion set is absolutely critical! It teaches your body how to transfer the strength gains over to the full range of motion exercise.

There are a few things you have to keep in mind during a functional isometrics workout.

First of all you do not want to use too much weight on any of your sets. I recommend you use a weight that is a little bit too light for your first set and increase the weight if it is too easy. 

For example here is what your weights might look like for a bench press isometronics workout:

Bottom Section Sets

  • Set #1: 160 pounds x 5 reps
  • Set #2: 180 pounds x 5 reps
  • Set #3: 200 pounds x 5 reps

Middle Section Sets

  • Set #4: 180 pounds x 5 reps
  • Set #5: 200 pounds x 5 reps
  • Set #6: 220 pounds x 5 reps

Top Section Sets

  • Set #7: 200 pounds x 5 reps
  • Set #8: 220 pounds x 5 reps
  • Set #9: 240 pounds x 5 reps

Full Range Of Motion Sets

  • Set #10: 160 pounds x 5 reps

As you can see the weight is increased for each set at each new range of motion. This will help you “grease the groove” and get adjusted to the new range of motion before performing your heaviest set.

However, that DOES NOT mean that the first 2 sets are “easy.” The partial range of motion reps will be a little bit easier but you are still performing an all-out isometric contraction against the top pins for 6-8 seconds.

You want to push as hard as the powerlifter Al Davis during these isometric reps! In other words you want to press so hard that you literally break the safety pins in half!

OK, I’ve rambled on long enough. Here is what a full bench press functional isometrics workout might look like:

Charles Poliquin Functional Isometrics Routine

  • A1: Bench press bottom position functional isometrics (medium grip), 3 x 4-6, 1/0/X/0, 3 minutes rest
  • B1: Bench press middle position functional isometrics (medium grip), 3 x 4-6, 1/0/X/0, 3 minutes rest
  • C1: Bench press top position functional isometrics (medium grip), 3 x 4-6, 1/0/X/0, 3 minutes rest
  • D1: Bench press (medium grip), 1 x 4-6, 4/0/1/0, 3 minutes rest
  • E1: Decline ez-bar extension with chains (to forehead), 3 x 6-8, 3/0/3/0, 45 seconds rest

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise C1, exercise D1, exercise E1.

It’s very important with this type of workout to be conservative with the weights that you use. I highly recommend you perform your 3 sets at each section of the bench press with 80%, 90% and 100% of the weight you think you can handle.

It’s also important to perform all of your sets with perfect form and without psyching yourself up.

In other words you don’t want to channel your inner John McEnroe before your sets. Instead you want to perform each rep as if you were a robot.

IFBB pro Ron Partlow calls these “robot reps.”

If you know anything about Charles Poliquin then you know he loved to write training routines with antagonistic supersets. In other words his athletes would alternate back and forth between sets for opposing muscle groups.

For example he might have his athletes perform a set of triceps, rest 1-2 minutes, perform a set of biceps, rest 1-2 minutes and perform another set of biceps.

Antagonistic supersets have many advantages including allowing you to produce more force, improving your muscular endurance and increasing your training density.

Charles often wrote his functional isometric workouts with antagonistic supersets to make them even more effective. Here is what an arm routine might look like for someone trying to increase their bench press. Check it out:

Charles Poliquin Functional Isometrics Routine #2

  • A1: Bench press bottom position functional isometrics (shoulder-width grip), 3 x 4-6, 1/0/X/0, 2 minutes rest
  • A2: Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / supinated grip), 3 x 3, 3/0/X/0, 2 minutes rest
  • B1: Bench press middle position functional isometrics (shoulder-width grip), 3 x 4-6, 1/0/X/0, 2 minutes rest
  • B2: Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / supinated grip), 3 x 3, 3/0/X/0, 2 minutes rest
  • C1: Bench press top position functional isometrics (shoulder-width grip), 3 x 4-6, 1/0/X/0, 2 minutes rest
  • C2: Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / supinated grip), 3 x 3, 3/0/X/0, 2 minutes rest
  • D1: Bench press (shoulder-width grip), 1 x 6-8, 4/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest
  • D2: Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / supinated grip), 3 x 3, 3/0/X/0, 2 minutes rest
  • E1: Decline ez-bar extension with chains (to forehead), 3 x 6-8, 3/0/3/0, 45 seconds rest
  • E2: 60 degree incline cable curls, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/3/0, 45 seconds rest

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B1, exercise C1, exercise C2, exercise D1, exercise D2, exercise E1, exercise E2

So far we’ve looked at Charles Poliquin style functional isometric routines for the bench press.

The truth is functional isometrics also works extremely well for other exercises like the overhead press, squat and deadlift.

For example here is a perfect example of a functional isometrics workout for the front squat:

You do have to be more careful when using functional isometrics for the squat or deadlift.

The main thing I would be worried about is managing your lower back fatigue. In my experience this method works best for people with very good structures for the squat or deadlift.

If you are built like Christian Thibadeau with short legs and a long torso then you are built for the squat and you will probably do great on a functional isometrics squat routine.

On the other hand if you are built like Arnold Schwarzenegger with long legs and a short torso then a functional isometrics squat routine is probably not a good idea for you.

Part 2: Josh Bryant Functional Isometrics

Josh Bryant is one of the world’s most successful powerlifting coaches. Today Josh works with many high-profile powerlifters including the world’s strongest bench presser Julius Maddox.

Josh Bryant believes that isometrics are his “secret weapon” for breaking world records in the bench press.

Josh has a few different ways to use bench press isometrics but one of his favorite methods is functional isometrics. Here is the exact training protocol:

Josh Bryant Style Functional Isometrics

  • Step #1: Perform 4-6 full range of motion reps where they touch a pair of safety pins set just below lockout. 
  • Step #2: On the last rep perform a 6 second all-out isometric contraction against the top safety pins.

Here is IFBB pro Jonathon Irizarry giving a perfect demonstration for this training method:

Josh loves to use functional isometrics as a bench press supplementary exercise. He uses this exercise with anyone who needs to strengthen their triceps or improve the lockout portion of the exercise.

Here is a functional isometrics bench press workout that Josh Bryant had Jonathon Irizarry perform while he was training to bench press 500 pounds. Check it out:

Jonathan Irizarry Functional Isometrics Bench Press Workout

  • A1: Bench press (competition grip), 1 x 2, 1/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Speed bench press (competition grip), 6 x 3, 1/1/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • B2: 30 degree incline chest supported DB row, 6 x 6, 1/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest
  • C1: Bench press with bands (competition grip), 2 x 1, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • D1: Bench press full-range functional isometrics (competition grip)**, 2 x 5, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • E1: V-bar dips (forward leaning torso), 2 x 15, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • F1: DB floor fly, 3 x 8-12, 1/1/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • G1: Unilateral cable pushdown (underhand grip), 3 x 8-12, 1/0/X/1, 60 seconds rest

**On your last rep perform a 6-8 second overcoming isometric contraction against the top pins.

Here is the training video for this workout:

This bench press workout might look a little weird if you are not used to Josh Bryant’s programming. 

Josh breaks up his powerlifting bench press workouts into 4 phases:

  • Phase #1: Competition bench press
  • Phase #2: Speed bench press
  • Phase #3: Bench press supplementary exercises
  • Phase #4: Bench press accessory exercises

For this workout Jonathon Irizarry performs the band bench press and the functional isometrics bench press as his 2 supplementary exercises. These are the “C” and “D” exercises in the above routine.

Both of these exercises were used to improve Jonathon’s triceps strength and lockout power.

Of course Josh has other ways of using isometrics to blast through training plateaus on the bench press. You can read about them in my article “Isometrics For Powerlifting: The Ultimate Guide!

Somewhere in the world there is a bodybuilder reading this article and shaking his head. “C’mon, Man! I don’t care about getting strong – I just want to build big triceps!”

Don’t worry – Josh Bryant has you covered. He often uses functional isometrics with his bodybuilding clients to blast through hypertrophy training plateaus. Check it out:

Josh Bryant Bodybuilder-Style Functional Isometrics

The key to making Josh Bryant style functional isometrics work for a bodybuilder is to increase the rep ranges.

Josh often uses sets of 6-8 reps rather than 4-6 reps when working with his bodybuilders. These extra reps and time under tension make a big difference.

Here is how a bodybuilder might structure their triceps workout to increase the size of their arms. Check it out:

Josh Bryant Bodybuilder-Style Functional Isometrics

  • A1: Bench press functional isometrics (shoulder-width grip), 3 x 6-8**, 1/0/X/0, 2 minutes rest
  • B1: Rope cable triceps extensions (high pulley), 3 x 10-12, 3/0/X/1, 2 minutes rest
  • C1: Unilateral DB french press, 3 x 6-8, 4/0/4/0, 2 minutes rest

**On your last rep perform a 6-8 second overcoming isometric contraction against the top pins.

Josh Bryant would call this an “omni triceps workout” because you are overloading your triceps with three completely different exercises, rep ranges and tempos. In other words you are thrashing all the muscle fibers in all three heads of the triceps.

Josh believes that this type of holistic approach where you attack your muscles with many different training strategies is key to building big triceps.

Here is Josh Bryant dropping a knowledge bomb:

“You have to work every single weight range. A lot of people are scared to work heavy, or they don’t have the intestinal or testicular fortitude to push out a hard set like that. 

You’re going heavy and then really high reps with a ton of time under tension. You’ve gotta do both – you’ve gotta use a holistic approach if you want to get holistic huge arms.”

Take it from the former youngest man to bench press 600 pounds – you need to be creative in your approach to build big, strong triceps!

Part 3: Christian Thibaudeau Functional Isometrics

Christian Thibadeau is a world-class strength coach who has worked with countless Olympic and professional athletes.

He is also the author of many ground-breaking strength training books including my personal favorite “Theory And Application Of Modern Strength And Power Methods.”

Christian has his own version of functional isometrics that he uses with his athletes. It is a little different from the version used by Charles Poliquin or Josh Bryant but I feel it is worth talking about here.

Christian has his athletes perform a short partial range of motion set and then hold the weight in the lockout position for 8-10 seconds. For example:

This is similar to a “rack lockout” as performed by many powerlifters.

Christian Thibadeau style functional isometrics have three main advantages:

  • Advantage #1: They desensitize your golgi tendon organ
  • Advantage #2: They improve your connective tissue strength
  • Advantage #3: They improve your confidence with heavy loads

Christian Thibadeau says that you can use as much as 20-50% more weight with a functional isometric than you can a full range of motion exercise. In my experience this is true.

The act of handling this ultra-heavy weight is a powerful way to blast through training plateaus in lifts like the bench press or squat.

One of the best ways to use Christian Thibadeau style functional isometrics was invented by the legendary bodybuilder Chuck Sipes.

Chuck competed during the golden age of bodybuilding and was regarded as one of the strongest bench pressers in the world. In 1960 he bench pressed an unbelievable 570 pounds at a bodyweight of just 220 pounds!

Chuck liked to alternate between sets of heavy supports and full range of motion bench presses. For example:

Chuck Sipes Heavy Supports Template

  • Set 1: Heavy Supports
  • Set 2: Full Range Of Motion
  • Set 3: Heavy Supports
  • Set 4: Full Range Of Motion
  • Set 5: Heavy Supports
  • Set 6: Full Range Of Motion

The heavy support sets helped him to lift more weight on his regular sets.

This routine is basically a form of contrast sets or post-tetanic potentiation. It doesn’t matter what you call it – this routine works!

And for all you “science guys” who want over 9,000 studies on why this method works here is Josh Bryant knocking some sense into you:

“If you want to know the ins-and-outs of the science of this, do a search on PubMed, talk to a doctor at a cocktail party, or just follow my lead and get some real results right here.”

Here is a sample heavy supports bench press routine that you may want to try. Check it out:

Chuck Sipes Heavy Supports Bench Press Workout

  • A1: Bench press heavy supports (medium grip), 3 x 1, X/0/X/8, 3 minutes rest
  • A2: Bench press (medium grip), 3 x 6, 4/0/1/0, 3 minutes rest
  • B1: 30 degree incline DB press, 2 x 20-40**, 2/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest
  • C1: Dead stop skull crusher, 3 x 6-8, 2/1/1/0, 10 seconds rest
  • C2: Band pushdown, 3 x 12-15, 1/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest
  • D1: Lat pulldown (wide / pronated grip), 3 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 1 minute rest
  • E1: Barbell dead stop row, 3 x 8-10, 2/1/X/0, 1 minute rest

**Perform 2 sets to failure in the 20-30 rep range using the same weight.

There are an endless number of ways that you could organize a Chuck Sypes heavy supports bench press routine. This is just one possible example.

Josh Bryant sometimes uses Christian Thibadadeau style functional isometrics with his powerlifting clients. The big difference is Josh likes to use them as a supplementary exercise rather than as a core movement like Chuck Sipes.

Here is a bench press workout that James Strickland performed while training for an absolutely ridiculous 700 pound bench press. Check it out:

James Strickland’s 700 Pound Bench Press Workout

  • A1: Bench press (competition grip), 1 x 2**, 1/1/X/0, 4 minutes rest
  • B1: Speed bench press (competition grip), 5 x 3***, 1/1/X/1, 4 minutes rest  
  • C1: Rack lockout, 3 x 1****, 1/0/X/1, 4 minutes rest
  • D1: V-bar dips (forward leaning torso), 2 x 5, 1/0/X/1, 2 minutes rest
  • E1: Seal row 3 x 5
  • F1: DB floor flys (neutral grip), 3 x 10, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • G1: Standing rope cable pushdown, 3 x 10, 1/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest  

**Performed at 85% of his projected 1-rep max

***Performed at 88% of his projected 1-rep max

****Perform 3 sets of 1 ramping up to one top set with maximum weight. The top set should be hard but NOT an absolute grinder.

Here is the training video for this workout:

As you can see James performed his sets of functional isometrics before his accessory exercises for his chest, back and triceps.

Christian Thibadeau style functional isometrics are a great plateau buster for exercises like the bench press and squat. Just be careful when you are using this exercise. It can be hard on the joints if you don’t know what you are doing.

I recommend you use them for no more than 1-3 weeks at a time and to use them sparingly throughout the year.

Conclusion

Functional Isometrics are an incredible training method.

They were first invented by Olympic Weightlifters in the 1950s to boost their strength in the strict overhead press and they are still used today by some of the strongest athletes in the world.

I especially like the way Josh Bryant incorporates functional isometrics into his bodybuilding and powerlifting routines. With Josh Bryant’s routines you only need a single pair of safety pins so you can easily perform them in any commercial gym to blast through training plateaus.

Here is Josh Bryant breaking down the secret of long-term strength training success:

“You have to continually push your training. You have to do something harder than you did last time. This is progressive overload. You have to do more volume, another set, another rep. 

Don’t think 45’s and 25’s. Think micro-progressions – I’m talking very, very small steps. The journey of 10,000 miles starts with the first step.”

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!