Isometric training is one of the most powerful training tools that you can use. During an isometric contraction your muscles are contracting without moving.
There are two different types of isometric contractions:
- Yielding Isometrics
- Overcoming Isometrics
Yielding isometrics are often called “iso-holds.” They occur when you are contracting your muscles to hold a weight in place. For example if you hold a pair of dumbbells in the top position of a lateral raise for as long as you can then you are performing a yielding isometric contraction.
Overcoming isometrics occur when you are contracting your muscles and producing force against an immovable object. For example if you bench press an empty 45 pound barbell into a pair of safety pins as hard as you can for 8 seconds then you are performing an overcoming isometric contraction. The bar may not be moving but your muscles are contracting as hard as possible!
Here is a perfect demonstration of an overcoming isometric contraction on the bench press:
Talk about an all-out effort! Al Davis is literally trying to shatter the safety pins into a million pieces! Overcoming isometrics can also be performed on other exercises like the incline bench press, overhead press, deadlift and even curls.
Here is a perfect demonstration of an overcoming isometric contraction on the deadlift:
Once again the athlete is pulling the barbell into the safety pins as hard as he can for 6 seconds. He is literally trying to break the safety pins in half! The bodybuilding / powerlifting coach Josh Bryant has done more to popularize overcoming isometrics than anyone else in the world.
Josh believes that overcoming isometrics have several advantages over more traditional training methods:
- They help you produce up to 15% more force
- They help you recruit up to 5-7% more muscle fibers
- They preferentially target the fast-twitch muscle fibers
- They are the fastest way to destroy sticking points
- They work synergistically with powerlifting speed sets
Talk about a powerful training method! Josh has gone so far as to say that overcoming isometrics are his “secret weapon” for helping powerlifters break world records in the bench press.
Of course overcoming isometrics aren’t just for powerlifters. Josh Bryant uses overcoming isometrics to help his amateur and professional bodybuilding clients to break hypertrophy plateaus, especially in the triceps.
In this comprehensive guide I will teach you the best overcoming isometric training strategies for building size and strength. Here is an outline for the rest of this article:
Overcoming Isometrics Article Outline
- Part 1: Isometrics For Powerlifting
- Part 2: Functional Isometrics
- Part 3: Iso-Dynamics
After reading this article you will know exactly how to program overcoming isometrics in your own training routines to reach your size and strength goals in record time.
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: Isometrics For Powerlifting
Overcoming isometrics are a powerlifter’s best friend. They are one of the best tools you can use to break through strength plateaus in the bench press and deadlift. Josh Bryant likes his clients to bench press or deadlift an empty 45 pound barbell into a set of safety pins as hard as they can for 6-8 seconds.
Here is James Strickland giving a perfect demonstration of an isometric bench press:
Josh has his clients do the exact same thing for the deadlift: they deadlift an empty 45 pound barbell or a barbell loaded with 135 pounds into a set of safety pins. Your goal is to press or pull so hard that you break the safety pins in half!
If you do this correctly then your muscles will start to shake as if you were having a seizure! Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal. Your muscles are contracting so hard and so fast that every available muscle fiber is firing at the exact same time. The important point is that these isometric sets teach your body to recruit more muscle fibers AND to produce more force.
Another benefit is you gain strength at the exact point in the range of motion that you are training. If you are weak 2 inches off your chest in the bench press then you would set the safety pins 2 inches off your chest.
Just think about it: during a normal set the bar might be at your sticking point for .3 seconds. During an isometric set you can get as much as 6-8 seconds of time under tension at your sticking point! Now THAT is a powerful way to destroy your sticking points!
Josh likes his athletes to alternate back-and-forth between speed sets and isometric sets. For example:
- Set #1: Isometric bench press, rest 2 minutes
- Set #2: Speed bench press, rest 2 minutes
- Set #3: Isometric bench press, rest 2 minutes
- Set #4: Speed bench press, rest 2 minutes
During the isometric set you are teaching your body to produce more force and active more muscle fibers. Then when you perform your speed sets these new muscle fibers will still be firing so you will be stronger and more explosive than normal.
In other words this is a form of “post-tetanic potentiation.” You can call it whatever you want – the bottom line is alternating isometric sets and speed sets is ridiculously effective for building strength!
Josh likes to break up his powerlifting workouts into 4 phases:
- Phase 1: The Top Set
- Phase 2: Speed Sets / Isometric Sets
- Phase 3: Supplementary Exercises
- Phase 4: Accessory Exercises
Josh always starts his powerlifting isometric workouts off with a top set on the bench press or deadlift. This is usually a heavy set of 1-3 reps performed with 85-95% of your 1-rep max.
After the heavy top set Josh moves right into the speed sets and isometric sets. Josh has his athletes perform anywhere from 2-6 speed sets and isometric sets. You can target anywhere from 1-3 different sticking points with the isometric sets. You would simply adjust the height of the safety pins every few sets.
Finally Josh finishes his powerlifting overcoming isometrics workouts with a few supplementary and accessory exercises for the bench press or deadlift.
Here is a sample bench press workout performed by the 700 pound raw bench presser James Strickland. Check it out:
James Strickland Bench Press Workout
- A1: Bench press (competition grip), 1 x 1, 1/1/X/0, 4 minutes rest
- B1: Bottom position bench press overcoming isometric (competition grip), 2 x 1, 6-second hold, 2 minutes rest
- B2: Speed bench press (competition grip), 2 x 2, 1/1/X/1, 4 minutes rest
- C1: Lockout position bench press overcoming isometric (competition grip), 2 x 1, 6-second hold, 2 minutes rest
- C2: Speed bench press (competition grip), 2 x 2, 1/1/X/1, 4 minutes rest
- D1: V-bar dips (forward leaning torso), 2 x 5, 1/0/X/1, 2 minutes rest
- E1: DB floor flys (neutral grip), 3 x 10, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- F1: Lat pulldown (wide / overhand grip), 3 x 10, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- G1: Standing rope cable pushdown, 3 x 10, 1/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
You can click right here to see James Strickland performing this exact isometric bench press workout.
This is a very long workout. The “B” and “C” exercises are where James alternates his isometric sets and speed sets. James performs 2 isometric sets with the bar 2 inches above his chest and 2 sets with the bar 2 inches below the lockout position. This lets him attack 2 different sticking points in one single workout.
If you want to learn more about this type of workout then check out the following article:
I talk a lot in that article about how Josh Bryant programs overcoming isometrics for the bench press and deadlift.
Part 2: Functional Isometrics
Functional isometrics are an isometric training method where you combine 4-6 partial range of motion repetitions and an all-out overcoming isometric contraction. Functional isometrics are unbelievably effective for building maximal strength and increasing the size of your fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Here is the exact training protocol for a functional isometric set:
- Step 1: Perform 4-6 partial range of motion reps in a power rack in between 2 sets of safety pins
- Step 2: On your last rep perform a 6-8 second overcoming isometric contraction against the top pair of safety pins. Your goal is to literally break the top pins in half!
- Step 3: Lower the weight back down to the bottom pins and attempt 1 more partial range of motion rep.
Here is a perfect video demonstration of a functional isometrics workout:
Why are functional isometrics so effective for building size and strength? Basically they are a hybrid between two powerful training methods: partial range of motion reps and overcoming isometrics. The overcoming isometrics act as a “post-fatigue” method where you further overload your muscles after reaching failure or near-failure on a set.
The isometric contraction obviously increases your force production and helps you to recruit and fatigue extra muscle fibers. However, the overcoming isometric contraction also creates an occlusion effect where blood cannot enter into your muscles. This forces your body to release various anabolic hormones like IGF-1 and MGF.
A full functional isometrics workout features 10 working sets on the bench press or some other exercise. Here is the exact protocol:
- Perform 3 sets of functional isometrics in the bottom third of the range of motion
- Perform 3 sets of functional isometrics in the middle third of the range of motion
- Perform 3 sets of functional isometrics in the top third of the range of motion
- Perform 1 full range of motion set for 4-6 reps using a moderately heavy weight
Most trainees find they can increase the weight on the bar as they move through the workout. This makes sense as you are performing your sets closer to the lockout position as you progress through the workout.
Here is a sample bench press functional isometrics workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
Functional Isometrics Bench Press Routine
- A1: Bench press bottom position functional isometrics (wide grip), 3 x 6**, 2/0/2/0, 180 seconds rest
- B1: Bench press middle position functional isometrics (wide grip), 3 x 6**, 2/0/2/0, 180 seconds rest
- C1: Bench press top position functional isometrics (wide grip), 3 x 6**, 2/0/2/0, 180 seconds rest
- D1: Bench press (wide grip), 1 x 6, 3/0/1/0, 180 seconds rest
- E1: Behind the neck press, 3 x 6-8, 4/0/2/0, 120 seconds rest
- F1: Seated cable rope face pull, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/1/2, 60 seconds rest
- F2: Cable rope triceps extension (high-pulley), 3 x 8-10, 2/0/1/1, 60 seconds rest
**Performed as a functional isometrics set. On your last rep press against the top pins as hard as you can for 6-8 seconds. Then lower the weight back down to the bottom pins and attempt one more partial range of motion rep.
This is an unbelievably effective workout for boosting your bench press strength. Charles Poliquin says that many of his clients improve their bench press by as much as 30-45 pounds after 3-4 weeks on this type of routine.
This routine is also great for boosting functional hypertrophy, or hypertrophy specific to the fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Josh Bryant has a variation of functional isometrics that he likes to use with his bodybuilding and powerlifting clients. For this version you only need 1 pair of safety pins. This makes it much easier to perform in a busy commercial gym.
Here is a training video of Josh’s functional isometric training method:
As you can see the bodybuilder performs 8 full range of motion reps on the bench press. On the 8th rep he performs an overcoming isometric contraction against the top pins for 6-8 seconds. This method is simply fantastic for building bigger, stronger triceps.
Here is what a functional isometric routine might look like for a bodybuilder trying to build bigger triceps. Check it out:
Josh Bryant Functional Isometrics Hypertrophy Routine
- A1: Josh Bryant style bench press functional isometrics (shoulder-width grip), 3 x 8**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Decline ez-bar extension with chains, 3 x 10-12, 3/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Overhead cable rope triceps extensions, 3 x 10-12, 3/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
This is a short-and-sweet triceps routine that will blow up your triceps faster than you can say “Kevin Levrone.” Don’t blame me if you can’t comb your hair for 5 days after performing this routine!
Josh sometimes likes to use this type of functional isometrics training method with his powerlifting clients. Josh recently had the bodybuilder Jonathon Irizarry perform them as he trained for a massive 500 pound bench press.
Here is the exact training routine that Jonathon used:
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 full-range functional isometrics (competition grip)**, 2 x 5, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C2: Bench press with bands (competition grip), 2 x 1, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- D1: V-bar dips (forward leaning torso), 2 x 15, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- E1: DB floor fly, 3 x 8-12, 1/1/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- F1: Unilateral cable pushdown (underhand grip), 3 x 8-12, 1/0/X/1, 60 seconds rest
**Performed as an isometronics set. Perform 6 partial range of motion reps with the safety pins set 2 inches below lockout. On your 6th rep press against the top pins as hard as you can for 6-8 seconds. Try to break the pins in half! After the isometric contraction you are done.
Here is the training video for this workout:
Josh had Jonathon supersetting functional isometrics with banded bench presses. This is pure insanity but it worked absolutely perfectly for Jonathon.
Within 8 weeks he went from bench pressing 400 pounds for a single to bench pressing 500 pounds for 2 reps! Now THAT is the power of functional isometrics for improving your bench press!
If you are stuck at a training plateau in the bench press or want to blow up your chest, shoulders and triceps then I highly recommend you give functional isometrics a shot. They are one of the most underrated training methods in the world.
Of course you can also perform functional isometrics on other exercises such as squats, deadlifts and overhead presses. Anthony Ditillo was a big fan of using functional isometrics to bring up all of his weaker lifts.
Part 3: Iso-Dynamics
Iso-dynamics is a training method where you combine overcoming isometrics with full range of motion exercises. Josh Bryant likes to use iso-dynamic tri-setes where you perform your overcoming isometrics set followed by 2 full range of motion exercises. For example:
Iso-Dynamics Training Protocol
- Perform 1 set of overcoming isometrics, rest 10 seconds
- Perform 1 set of a full range of motion exercise, rest 10 seconds
- Perform 1 set of a full range of motion exercise, rest 3-5 minutes, repeat!
This type of iso-dynamic tri-set is incredibly effective for building muscular size. Tri-sets are great because they prolong the time under tension of your sets and force your muscles to work three times as long as normal.
The 10 second rest breaks in between each exercise are short enough that the training method feels like one long continuous set but long enough that you can tap into the high-threshold motor units on the 2nd and 3rd exercises.
One of Josh’s favorite strategies is to use iso-dynamic tri-sets to bring up a bodybuilder’s lagging triceps. You would perform the overcoming isometric set just shy of lockout on the bench press and then perform 2 “meat and potatoes” triceps exercises to finish the tri-set.
Here is a sample training routine you may want to try. Check it out:
Josh Bryant Iso-Dynamics Routine
- A1: Bench press overcoming 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, 3-5 minutes rest
**Set the safety pins 2 inches below the lockout position. Press the barbell into the safety pins as hard as you can for 6-8 seconds. See the video below for more details.
Here is the full training video for this workout:
One of the things that I really like about this routine is Josh uses three completely different types of sets in one single tri-set.
The overcoming isometric is great for “priming” your nervous system and teaching your body to recruit as many muscle fibers in the triceps as possible. Then you move onto the close grip bench press with bands to further overload your triceps. The bands make the lift harder at the lockout portion of the lift and really force you to accelerate the bar with your triceps as hard as possible.
Finally Josh finishes the routine with a triceps extension exercise that places the triceps under a deep loaded stretch. He also uses a 5-second negative phase to help you achieve 60 total seconds of time under tension for the set.
By the end of this routine your triceps are going to be more tired than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s former house maid after he invited her to his private office!
If you are stuck at a triceps hypertrophy plateau then you have to try this training routine. Just make sure you take your post-workout drink and do everything else you can to recover. This workout will drain your muscles and your central nervous system but your triceps will grow like never before.
Overcoming isometrics are one of the most powerful training tools in the world. They are incredibly effective for building strength and functional hypertrophy. Many of the world’s best strength and physique coaches like Josh Bryant and Charles Poliquin regularly use overcoming isometrics with their world-class athletes to produce faster results.
If you are a powerlifter then the powerlifting-style isometrics are a no-brainer. They work really well in the last 4-8 weeks before your powerlifting competition to boost maximal strength and destroy your sticking points.
If you are a bodybuilder then a great place to start would be Josh Bryant’s iso-dynamics routine or his unique take on functional isometrics.
Whatever program you use you must make sure that you press / pull the bar as hard as you can into the safety pins. If you “wimp out” and give less than 100% effort then you have no one to blame but yourself when you don’t get the results you want.
“Remember the mind is your best muscle… Big arms can move rocks, but big words can move mountains…. Ride the brain train for success.”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck with your strength training journey!
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