Isometric training is one of the most effective training methods ever invented. It works unbelievably well for building muscle mass and strength. There are two main types of isometric contractions:
- Overcoming isometrics
- Yielding isometrics
Overcoming isometrics involve pushing or pulling your muscles against a fixed object. For example here is Al Davis performing an overcoming isometric set on the bench press:
Al Davis is pressing an empty barbell against a set of safety pins. He is literally trying to break the safety pins in half using the barbell!
Yielding isometrics are a little different: the occur when your muscles are contracting but not moving. For example if you hold your arms straight out to your sides during a dumbbell lateral raise then you are performing a yielding isometric.
Isometric training has many advantages. It is a superior training stimulus for size and strength gains, it lets you train your sticking points in many exercises and it is a great plateau buster.
However, isometric training also has many disadvantages. You have to perform isometric sets together with full range of motion sets, it can be very difficult to recover from and it is a very difficult way to train from a psychological perspective.
If you want to get the most out of your training then you must learn the advantages and disadvantages of isometric sets. And that is exactly what I will teach you in this helpful guide.
Now let’s get down to business…
Advantage #1: It’s A Superior Tool For Strength Gains
Research and real-world experience has proven that isometric training is a superior tool for building strength. This is especially true when you are talking about overcoming isometric contractions.
One of the biggest reasons that isometric sets work so well for building strength is they down-regulate the golgi tendon organ.
The golgi tendon is located in all of your muscles such as your chest, biceps etc. It’s job is to make sure that you don’t injure yourself doing something stupid in the gym. If it senses danger then it will actually prevent your muscles from contracting as hard as possible.
For example if you load up a barbell with 1,000 pounds and try to deadlift it then your golgi tendon will say “Nope, not going to happen!” and inhibit some of your muscle fibers from firing.
The problem with the golgi tendon organ is it tends to be overactive in most trainees. In other words it will stop you from producing maximal force even when it is safe to do so. Fortunately you can use isometric sets to get around this issue.
One of the best strategies to blast through a training plateau in the bench press is to use “rack lockouts.” The idea is simple: you are going to bench press an extremely heavy weight through a 1-3 inch range of motion. The weight should be more than your 1-rep max on the bench press.
Here is James Strickland giving a perfect rack lockout demonstration:
James is performing an isometric contraction with the weight in the lockout position. The goal is to get his body used to handling ultra-heavy weights and to down-regulate the golgi tendon organ. This is a great strategy for intermediate and advanced trainees to blast through plateaus in the bench press.
Here is a sample bench press routine featuring rack lockouts that you may want to try. Check it out:
Bench Press Rack Lockouts Routine
- A1: Bench press rack lockout (medium grip)**, 3 x 1, X/0/X/8, 180 seconds rest
- A2: Bench press (medium grip), 3 x 6, 2/0/X/1, 180 seconds rest
- B1: Seated DB overhead press, 3 x 8-10, 3/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Decline ez-bar extension (to chin), 3 x 10-12, 2/0/2/0, 30 seconds rest
- C2: Band pull-apart, 3 x 10-12, 1/0/1/2, 30 seconds rest
**Performed with a 1-inch range of motion.
For this routine you are going to alternate back and forth between a heavy set of rack lockouts and a moderately heavy set of full range of motion bench presses. You perform a rack lockout set, rest 3 minutes, perform a set of bench presses for 6 reps, rest 3 minutes, then perform another rack lockout etc.
The goal is to perform 3 total sets of the rack lockouts and the bench presses. When you go to perform your regular bench presses the weight will feel unbelievably light in your hands.
I think you will be shocked at how much stronger you are on the bench press after just 1 workout using this routine! That is the power of isometrics for boosting strength.
Advantage #2: You Can Blast Through Sticking Points
Isometric training is probably the single best training methods for eliminating sticking points. I want you to watch the following video of IFBB pro Johnie Jackson performing an isometric deadlift:
Johnnie is performing an isometric deadlift by pulling an empty 45 pound barbell into a set of safety pins. Johnnie is pulling so hard that it looks like he is having a seizure!
Research shows that when you perform an all-out isometric contraction most of your strength gains occur right at the part of the lift that you are targeting. This is great because you can eliminate sticking points this way!
Let’s use Johnnie Jackson as an example. Johnnie has a weakness on the deadlift right below his knees.
If he performed a bunch of full range of motion deadlifts then he would still have that same sticking point. But if Johnnie performs a few isometric sets right at his sticking point then he can actually eliminate that weakness because that is where most of his strength gains will occur. How cool is that?
Here is a Josh Bryant style isometric deadlift routine that you may want to try. Check it out:
Isometric Deadlift Peaking Routine
- A1: Conventional deadlift**, 1 x 2, X/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Conventional deadlift isometric****, 1/0/X/6, 120 seconds rest
- B2: Speed conventional deadlift******, 4 x 3, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Barbell dead stop row, 3 x 6-8, 2/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- D1: Lat pulldown (medium / neutral grip), 3 x 8-12, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- E1: Seated cable row (v-handle), 3 x 8-12, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- F1: Standing DB shrugs, 3 x 8-12, 1/0/1/3, 60 seconds rest
**Performed with 90% of your 1-rep max.
****Performed with an empty 45 pound barbell. Set the safety pins right at your sticking point in the deadlift. For example if your weakness is right below your knees then that is where you place the safety pins.
******Performed with 70% of your 1-rep max. Lift the weight as explosively as possible!
Josh Bryant is known for his high-volume powerlifting routines. If you have good recovery ability then this routine may be just what you need to hit a new PR in the deadlift!
Advantage #3: It’s An Excellent Plateau Buster
The Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin used to say that “a routine is only as good as the time it takes for you to adapt to it.”
In other words even the best training routines will only work for a certain amount of time. Eventually your body will become “bored” of your current routine and you will stop making progress.
Isometric training is so effective for building size and strength because it is a novel training stimulus. In other words it is completely different from anything else you do in the gym.
When you present your body with a powerful new type of training stimulus it has no choice but to grow bigger and stronger. And one of the best isometric routines for breaking training plateaus is called “isometronics.”
Isometronics is basically a combination of partial range of motion reps and all-out overcoming isometric contractions. Here is a perfect video demonstration:
To perform an isometronics bench press workout you divide the exercise into three different sections using 2 pairs of safety pins:
- The bottom third
- The middle third
- The top third
You want the safety pins set up 4-6 inches away from each other for each part of the exercise. An isometronics set looks like this:
- Step #1: Perform 4-6 partial range of motion reps in between the safety pins
- Step #2: On your last rep press against the top safety pins for 6-8 seconds. You want to press like you were trying to break the safety pins in half!
- Step #3: After your isometric contraction you lower the weight back down to the starting position and attempt 1 more partial range of motion rep. If the weight was heavy enough then you won’t get this last rep.
A full isometronics workout features 10 total sets of work. You perform 3 sets in the bottom part of the lift, 3 sets in the middle part and 3 sets in the top part. Then on your 10th set you perform 1 full range of motion set for 6-8 reps.
After your 10 heavy sets you can perform some assistance work if you want. Here is a sample isometronics bench press workout. Check it out:
Bench Press Isometronics Routine
- A1: Bench press bottom position isometronics (medium grip), 3 x 4-6, 1/1/X/1, 180 seconds rest
- B1: Bench press bottom position isometronics (medium grip), 3 x 4-6, 1/1/X/1, 180 seconds rest
- C1: Bench press bottom position isometronics (medium grip), 3 x 4-6, 1/1/X/1, 180 seconds rest
- D1: Bench press (medium grip), 1 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
- E1: Standing rope cable pushdown, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest
Isometronics is such an incredible plateau buster because it combines 2 extremely effective training methods:
If you are stuck at a bench press plateau then I can’t recommend this isometronics routine highly enough. It may be just what you need to plop your butt back on the “gains train!”
Disadvantage #1: It Must Be Paired With Full Range Of Motion Sets
This is the single biggest disadvantage of isometric training: it cannot be performed on its own. It MUST be performed together with full range of motion sets. Otherwise your nervous system has a hard time learning how to transfer the strength gains from the isometric sets to the traditional full range of motion sets.
There are many ways to pair together full range of motion sets and isometric sets. One of the best methods when you are training for hypertrophy is to pair together isometrics and full range of motion sets as part of a tri-set. Josh Bryant calls this method “iso-dynamics.”
Here is an awesome iso-dynamics routine you can try for your triceps. Check it out:
Josh Bryant Iso-Dynamic Triceps Routine
- A1: Bench press isometric (shoulder width grip)**, 3-5 x 1, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Bench press against bands (shoulder-width grip), 3-5 x 3, 1/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Decline DB extension, 3-5 x 10, 5/0/1/0, 240 seconds rest
Here is Josh Bryant giving a perfect overview of this training routine:
As you can see you start the tri-set with a set of bench press isometrics.
You want to press an empty barbell into a pair of safety pins set just below lockout. This isometric set will teach your body to activate the high-threshold motor units in your triceps.
Then you rest 10 seconds and perform a heavy set of banded bench presses. The bands make the top part of the lift more challenging which is a great way to further overload your triceps.
Finally you move onto decline dumbbell extensions performed with a 5-second lowering phase.
This routine so effective because it combines three completely different types of exercises together into one brutal tri-set. As you can see there are many different ways to combine full range of motion sets and isometric sets together in one training routine. You just have to be a little bit creative!
Disadvantage #2: It’s Very Taxing On Your Central Nervous System
Isometric sets are awesome for getting stronger in record time. Unfortunately this comes at a price: they can be very difficult to recover from. They place an enormous toll on your central nervous system and should not be performed on a year-round basis.
Instead you should periodically perform isometric sets throughout the year to boost your strength at key times.
Josh Bryant loves to program overcoming isometrics into his powerlifters’ meet prep cycles. He usually uses them for 3-6 weeks at a time as they are getting close to their competition.
For example here is how Josh might organize a 12-week peaking cycle in the squat or deadlift:
Josh Bryant Periodization
- Weeks 1-3: Heavy Triples
- Week 4: Deload
- Week 5-7: Heavy Doubles
- Week 8: Deload
- Week 9-11: Heavy Singles + Isometrics
- Week 12: Deload
- Week 13: Competition Week!
As you can see the isometrics are programmed in for 3 weeks right before the competition. This is a great way to peek your strength while heading into a powerlifting meet.
Josh Bryant’s general recommendation is to use isometrics for 3-6 weeks at a time. After 3-6 weeks they stop working so you should drop them from your program. Don’t worry, after several months your body will be ready for another round of isometrics to further boost your strength.
Isometronics is another isometric system that can be very difficult to recover from. This method was a favourite of Charles Poliquin.
Charles used to tell his athletes to use isometronics every other workout for a particular body part. In between the isometronics workouts his athletes would perform a “5 sets of 5” workout or some other traditional workout. For example:
- Workout #1: Isometronics
- Workout #2: 5 x 5
- Workout #3: Isometronics
- Workout #4: 5 x 5
- Workout #5: Isometronics
- Workout #6: 5 x 5
The 5 sets of 5 workout gives your body a chance to recover from the the more demanding isometronics workout. This is the approach that Olympic gold medalist Adam Nelson used on his way to winning the gold medal in shot put under Charles’ guidance.
There are many ways to periodize your training while using isometronics sets. The important thing is to take breaks from isometrics and to monitor your recovery while using them.
Isometrics are like a double-edged sword: they are great for building size and strength but they can be very difficult to recover from if you are not careful.
Disadvantage #3: It’s One Of The Most Psychologically Demanding Training Methods
Isometrics are hard. In fact they are so hard that the average trainee won’t be successful with them. This is especially true for overcoming isometrics.
Just take another look at Al Davis performing overcoming isometrics for the bench press:
Talk about an all-out effort! Al Davis is pushing into the pins with every fiber of his being. The only way to be successful with this method is to press / pull into the pins as hard as you can for a full 6-8 seconds.
Many trainees have a hard time giving a maximum effort with isometrics. I know I do! I’ve tried Josh Bryant style isometrics on many occasions but I was never successful with them.
No, that’s not the problem. For some reason I have a hard time really giving an all-out effort on isometric sets. Every once in a while I work with someone who has a similar experience. They can’t handle isometric sets mentally.
If this describes you then you may want to try a yielding isometrics training protocol. Here is a sample shoulders / back yielding isometrics routine you may want to try. Check it out:
Shoulder / Back Yielding Isometrics Routine
- A1: Pull up (narrow / pronated grip), 3-4 x 6-8**, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- A2: Standing military press (hanging band method / shoulder-width grip), 3-4 x 6-8**, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- B1: T-bar row, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: 45 degree incline bench press (shoulder-width grip), 3 x 10-12, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- C1: Seated DB external rotation, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/2/0, 120 seconds rest
**Pause 3 times on the lowering phase of your last rep for 8 seconds each. Your last eccentric rep looks like this: lower the weigh 1/4 of the way, pause for 8 seconds, lower the weight 1/2 of the way, pause for 8 seconds, lower the weight 3/4 of the weight, pause for 8 seconds, lower the weight all the way, done!
These yielding isometric contractions will overload your muscles after they have already reached near-failure. This is a powerful way to stimulate muscular hypertrophy.
It is also much easier than overcoming isometrics from a psychological perspective. You only have to hold the weight in place during these isometric reps instead of pressing into an immovable object!
Isometric training is a very powerful tool that you can use to build muscular size and strength. Isometric training is like a double-edged sword: it has many advantages and disadvantages.
If you are serious about reaching your size and strength goals then I highly recommend you use some of the methods covered in this article. It may be just what you need to take your game to the next level.
“Your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world. Don’t let anything stand in the way of the light that shines through this form. Risk being seen in all of your glory.”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck with your strength training journey!
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