Isometric Training

In today’s blog I’m going to discuss isometric training; the different types; its benefits for increasing strength, muscle mass, improving technique and how you can implement them into your training.

What are isometrics?

Isometrics are a muscle action that occur when there is no external movement or change in the joint angle. This training has been around since ancient times (490 B.C.) when the Greek warriors would train their elbow flexors by holding back their bows for help periods of time. Isometrics are occurring all the time as you move around and especially when training. Wedged in between concentric (shortening) and eccentric (lengthening) contractions, they play a critical role in executing movement in a synchronised, efficient and powerful manner.

Isometrics are achieved by either pushing/pulling against an immovable resistance; usually termed overcoming isometrics or holding a weight in a certain position (called yielding isometrics).

How are they beneficial?

Overcoming isometrics are incredibly effective at increasing strength without necessarily increasing muscle size. You can recruit up to 10% more muscle fibres during a maximal isometric contraction when compared to a concentric or eccentric contraction. Basically, your nervous system adapts to enable you to use your muscles more efficiently and totally. During a maximum effort lift (squat/deadlift/bench) you are only using your maximum available force within the muscle for a few milliseconds at the most difficult point in the movement. What sets isometrics apart is that you use this maximum effort and recruitment for an extended period of time. This is incredibly taxing work, so avoid using for more than 10mins in your workout.

The strength you can gain is quite specific to the joint angle plus or minus 15 degrees above or below the joint position. This means you gain the strength in the position you’re holding, and you’ll need to train multiple positions if you wish to strengthen the entire range of movement.

Isometrics are also beneficial at overcoming weak links or sticking points in certain lifts, and improving movement patterns and compensations in the body.

Furthermore, isometrics are a valuable tool to stimulate muscle growth as well. By holding a resistance at certain positions for longer durations you can stimulate hypertrophy to achieve muscle growth. They can also be used to fix problems with exercise technique and motor recruitment (more on this for another blog).

How to train using isometrics

As mentioned earlier there are two main forms of isometrics: overcoming isometrics and yielding isometrics. These can be done as complex movements or isolating specific areas. They can be held at a long or short muscle length and can be done for long durations or explosively.

Overcoming isometrics

These can be performed anywhere, but to get the most out of this type of isometric having a gym available makes it a little easier.

3-4 sets of 6-9 seconds done with maximum intent and effort.

These can be done by ramping up for 3-5 seconds or performed explosively depending on your training goals. These are recommended sets if you’re only training one position. If you’re training multiple positions, it’s recommended to do 2 sets per position.

Example exercises:

Rack Squat
Deadlift Pin Pull
Doorframe Overhead Press
Tree/Wall Pushovers (it won’t move but do try)

Yielding Isometrics

Theseare also easy to perform anywhere. There are a few options available: Holding a weight or bodyweight position for a long duration, a combination of isometric and dynamic movement called the ISO-Dynamic method, and Loaded stretching, which is a long duration hold in an active stretched position.

2-4 Sets of 45-75 seconds – These can be done passively (holding the weight/position and using only what you need to prevent movement), or actively (holding the weight/position and actively flexing the muscle as hard as you can).

ISO-Dynamics can be done three different ways:

  • Pre-fatigue. Hold a position prior to completing normal repetitions. 3 Sets of 20-30seconds hold followed by 6-12 repetitions.
  • Post fatigue. Hold a position after completing dynamic repetitions for as long as possible. I would only do this on the last set as the fatigue build-up can affect performance in subsequent working sets.
  • Multi-holds. Complete holds in between every few reps of a set. 3 Sets of 8-12 reps with 10-20 seconds holding between every 3-4 reps. A set would look like this: hold 20 seconds / 3-4 reps / hold 15 seconds / 3-4 reps / hold 10 seconds / 3-4 reps.

Example exercises:

Split Squat Hold (+Reps)
Bulgarian Split Squat Hold (+Reps)
Push Up Hold @Bottom (+Reps)
Pull Up Hold @Top (+Reps)

Loaded stretching can be done for similar loading time than long duration. The concept is simple, slowly go down to the end of the eccentric portion of a movement (where the target muscle is stretched) and try to hold that position for as long as tolerable or the allotted time.

Example exercises:

Chin ups

Give some of these methods a try. It will spark significant gains in strength and improve the health of your muscles, tendons and joints.

Yours in holding those Iso’s, Go get some!!