Isometric training—also known as static strength training—is an underrated and underused strength training method that can help you overcome a plateau in many of your lifts and increase your overall strength.
What is isometric training?
When we train, our muscles typically contract in one of three ways (depending on the movement). When we lower a weight—as is the case during the descent of a back squat—our muscles tense while lengthening. This is known as an eccentric contraction. When we then lift the weight, our muscles tense and contract to shorten the distance between the joints. This is a concentric contraction. Lastly, our muscles can perform an isometric contraction. This happens when the muscle contracts but doesn’t change length. Unlike traditional strength training—where our muscles usually perform eccentric and concentric contractions through a range of motion—isometric training is done in a static position. Think about pushing against an immovable object—such as a wall—or holding a position of muscle tension without moving, like a plank, a wall sit, or holding the bottom the position in a pause squat. Typically, many isometric movements are done using body weight (as you’ll see below), but athletes can still incorporate weighted isometric positions into their training.
What are the benefits of isometric training?
Increases muscular strength
As I mentioned above, isometric training consists of the muscle contracting without changing length in a static position. As a result, the athlete doesn’t undergo a full range of movement in the ‘lift’. Some may think that this isn’t an ideal way to build strength, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. Think about the beating your arms and shoulders will take when holding a heavy deadlift at full extension for as long as possible (take a look at event 4 from the recent CrossFit Invitational for further proof). The reality is that during isometric training the body is able to recruit almost all of its motor units. Motor units are comprised of a motor neuron and skeletal muscle fibers—groups of motor units work together to coordinate the contractions of a single muscle. In fact, in 1953 two German researchers, Hettinger and Muller, studied the impact of isometrics on strength, concluding that a single daily isometric exercise that utilized two-thirds of a person’s maximum effort exerted for six seconds at a time increased strength by 5% for up to 10 weeks.
Perhaps one of the most useful applications of isometric training as it pertains to weightlifting is that it can help to build strength in movements that require large muscle contractions, and helps athletes overcome ‘sticking points’ in those movements. During a dynamic lift—such as a back squat—the muscles move through concentric and eccentric contractions. There is an application of maximal force throughout the full range of motion in the lift, but it doesn’t allow for the focus of that force and muscular tension at any particular stage of the lift. That’s where the advantage of isometrics comes into play. By performing yielding isometric work (which is where you hold a weight and your objective is to prevent it from dropping) or overcoming isometric work (where you push or pull against an immovable resistance), you can target particular stages of a lift where you struggle and apply your full force to strengthen that area. For example, say you are weak coming out of the hole in a back squat. A good isometric drill to perform would involve loading a barbell with weight and descending to a position just above full depth in the squat, and holding it for as long as possible. The musculature around the joint angle at that specific body position will undergo sustained stress for a longer period of time that could be achieved in a dynamic movement, thus providing it with greater neuromuscular adaptations.
In addition, Mel Siff notes in his book Supertraining that:
“Isometric training also produces significant strength increase over a range of up to as much as 15 degrees on either side of the training angle. Moreover, as with all strength measurements, there is a specific force or torque versus joint angle curve for each type of muscle contraction, so that it is highly unlikely that a strength increase would be confined to a very precise angle and nowhere else in the range.”
Essentially, Siff is saying that the strength that’s produced at any particular joint angle has a 15-degree carryover to any position above or below the area that’s being worked.
Can help to improve body control
While overcoming and yielding isometrics have excellent application in weightlifting, these methods are less advantageous for movement patterns that require full body control and awareness. However, isometrics can still be used to improve these areas. An athlete should look to incorporate gymnastics-based holds (such as handstand holds and L-sits) to achieve similar levels of muscle activation as can be achieved with overcoming and yielding isometrics, while also improving body control and awareness and core activation. For a practical demonstration of how these areas would get a workout, simply kick up into a full handstand against a wall (or pike press on a box) and hold that position for as long as possible. You will soon start to shake all over and have to focus your energy on maintaining a tight abdomen to keep yourself rigid and in good position.
A fantastic side benefit of isometric training is that it can help to improve your flexibility. Think about how you try to improve your hip mobility for squats. One of the drills you may perform is simply squatting down to full depth and holding that position, focusing on driving your knees out while keeping your chest up. No doubt you will feel a great stretch in your groin, hamstrings, quadriceps and the surrounding musculature of the hip joint. Well guess what? These muscles are contracted and stretched in order to keep you in that position and stop you from falling to the ground. Your body is acting as the resistance, and you are technically performing an isometric hold. Now think about adding a barbell to that position, and you’ve got a yielding isometric movement. Maintaining a low position in a squat with the resistance provided by a barbell will be a serious workout for your hip mobility, and there’s no doubt that you’ll see an impressive transformation when it comes to performing any regular squatting motion in a workout. It’s no wonder that Olympic Weightlifters and gymnasts regularly perform isometrics to improve their flexibility.
To get you started with isometric training, here are a few drills that you can work on at home or at the box.
Find a wall and lower yourself until your knees are at 90 degrees and thighs are parallel to the floor. Your back should be flat against the wall. Hold this position for as long as possible (your quads will be on fire), and repeat for 3 sets.
From the starting position of each movement, lower yourself until you are about halfway to the floor. Hold this position for 30-60 seconds, than rest and repeat for 3-5 sets.
Facing a table or a chair, raise your right let directly behind you, keeping it as straight as possible while bending forward slightly at the waist. You can hold on to the table/chair for support. Try to get your back leg parallel to the ground. The hamstrings, glutes and lower back should all be contracting. Hold for 30-60 seconds, then repeat with the other leg.
After warming up by performing full deadlifts at a moderate to light weight, load the bar up with a weight that is beyond your one-rep max. Get into your deadlift start position, and pull as hard as possible for six to eight seconds. It is crucial to maintain good form and posture in this position.
Before attempting this movement, you should be comfortable and competent with bailing from a back squat. Grab a barbell in the squat rack and load it with a moderate to heavy weight. Now lower yourself to a particular position in the back squat movement (full depth, parallel, slightly above parallel, etc.) and hold this position for five to eight seconds. For added safety, you can use an extra set of pins that are set at the same height as you perform the hold. That way you can re-rack the bar without attempting to stand up or having to bail, which will be helpful as the weight will be heavy.
Pick a position in the pull-up where you struggle, and get into that position. So if you are weak near the top of the bar, jump up to the bar and assume a position where you are at eye-level with the bar. You may need to use a box or a band to help get into your desired position. Hold the position for as long as possible, and allow yourself to descend slowly to get an added workout. Repeat as necessary.
Photo courtesy of Travis Isaacs/CC by 2.0