WHAT IS IT?
An Isometric is a maximal-effort, static contraction. They can be used effectively in a variety of ways, but the key applications we will focus on will be:
Priming the nervous system- Before your working set on a given movement, perform a ~5 second Isometric against an immovable resistance that mimics the pattern being trained. This should be done in the segment of the ROM in which maximum force can be generated by the target muscle(s). Take ~10-30 seconds before transitioning to your working set after the Isometric.
Increasing intensity- After approaching (or reaching) failure, extend the set by performing an Isometric against an immovable resistance. The duration should be as long as possible or until the strength of contraction noticeably diminishes (to maximize intensity). These can be done in any part of the ROM or using multiple different points within the same Isometric sequence.
Strengthening tendons- Using gradually escalating contraction strength, perform a ~10-15 second isometric against an immovable resistance. Start at 0% and slowly increase force output until ending around ~80-90% (note that maximum force should be avoided in this case). These should be done at various points in the ROM making sure to touch as many degrees as possible. Special care should be given to segments of the ROM that are painful or uncomfortable.
Improving mobility- Also known as PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching, ease into a deep passive stretch for ~5 seconds then perform a ~3-5 second Isometric (with gradually escalating contraction strength) against an immovable resistance. Then relax and allow the stretch to push a few degrees further. Complete 2-3 rounds of this. This can be done one your own, but having a partner or trainer is recommended.
HOW TO TRACK PROGRESSION?
Isometrics are not a technique that can (or should) be progressed or measured quantitatively.
WHO SHOULD USE IT?
Anyone can use Isometrics due to their broad application, low prerequisites, and minimal injury risk.
WHO SHOULD NOT USE IT?
There is not a category of trainee that cannot effectively use isometrics.
WHEN TO USE IT?
Let’s break this down by application again:
Priming the nervous system- Isometrics are best used when strength and/or power acquisition are the primary goals. The can be used for hypertrophy here but that would mostly be as a means for inducing progressive overload (much as with Potentiation Sets).
Increasing intensity- Isometrics can be used to increase intensity within any phase of training that has working sets being taken to (or close to) failure. The fatigue generated from Isometrics is vastly less compared to other techniques so there aren’t many limitations on their use. The obvious counterexamples here would be deloads and active recovery periods in which normal, working sets are kept well short of failure and intensity is purposefully restrained.
Strengthening tendons- Isometrics here can be used within any phase of training. They are especially efficacious before your workout as a way of warming up the joints and soft-tissue.
Improving mobility- Isometrics here can be used within any phase of training, but it’s recommended to perform this type of stretching either after your workout or on non-training days.
WHEN NOT TO USE IT?
There is not a phase of training in which Isometrics are contraindicated though each use case has specific best practices (as listed above).
HOW TO USE IT?
For our purposes here, I’m going to focus on the two use cases that are most pertinent to our hypertrophic goals: priming the nervous system and increasing intensity.
Priming the nervous system- As mentioned above, we want to perform these before our working set. Each exercise will have its own specifications but a general rule of thumb is to try to replicate the intended pattern as closely as possible and with the least amount of external load possible. The Isometric should be done with a different modality and a different set-up. The goal should be to reduce risk down to zero on the Isometric by carefully choosing the way in which it’s being performed. It’s also absolutely imperative that the body positions and technique used on the Isometric match what will be used on the working set as closely as possible. The exercise being “primed” for should generally be a compound, multi-joint movement in which progressive overload (or a variation of) is being applied.
1)Deadlift- Immediately before EACH set, perform a 5 sec Isometric pull against an empty bar. This should be performed using spotter arms set to knee height in a power rack. Place an empty bar UNDER the arms and then, using your normal deadlift technique, attempt to pull the bar upwards through the immovable spotter arms. Rest ~20 sec before moving into your working set.
2)Bench Press- Immediately before EACH set, perform a 5 sec Isometric press against an empty bar. This should be performed using two sets of spotter arms in a power rack: one set just above your chest and the other about ~2-3 inches higher. Place an empty bar inside the sets of arms and then, using your normal bench press technique, attempt to press the bar upwards through the higher immovable spotter arms. Adjust as needed to find the right set-up and execution so you can generate max force. Rest ~20 sec before moving into your working set.
3)Barbell Bent Over Row- Immediately before EACH set, perform a 5 sec Isometric pull against an empty bar. This should be performed using spotter arms set to hip height in a power rack. Place an empty bar UNDER the arms and then, using your normal bent over row technique, attempt to row the bar upwards through the immovable spotter arms. Adjust as needed to find the right set-up and execution so you can generate max force. Rest ~20 sec before moving into your working set.
Increasing intensity- When it comes to increasing intensity, the Isometric should be perform after the working set has already been taken to (or close to) failure. These can actually be a bit tricky to get right due to the fatigue that’s being carried over from the working set, so often times, a completely different variation will have to be performed to exhaust the working muscle with the Isometric. Having a partner to provide external resistance can be invaluable here, as can being strategic with the set-up in order to take advantage of natural end-points in the ROM that are intrinsic to the cable/machine/modality being used. Single-joint, isolated movements are generally best for increasing intensity through Isometrics. Make liberal use of natural immovable objects such as walls, the ground, and anchored racks.
1)Barbell Curls- Take a set to failure with ~10RM then immediately grab a bar with ~20-30% of working set load and curl it halfway up. Contract maximally in this position while a partner provides equal downward resistance. Hold for as long as possible or until force production falls drastically.
2)Lying Cable Laterals- Take a set to failure with ~15RM, rest for 10 sec, then perform one more concentric and hold at the top. The key here is to set-up the movement so that the top of the ROM is also the highest point in which the cables go. You should be contracting against an immovable resistance in this position. Hold for as long as possible or until force production falls drastically.
3)Lying Hamstring Curls- Take a set to failure with ~20RM then increase the load by ~50% and attempt to curl the load through the concentric again. The weight will be too heavy for a full ROM but you should be able to get about halfway up. Hold for as long as possible or until force production falls drastically.
HOW NOT TO USE IT?
Let’s use the same practice as above:
Priming the nervous system- Isolation movements are almost always going to be contraindicated from being used at the primary exercise here, though, there might be cases in which they can be used effectively as the subject of the Isometric. No matter what, stability and safety are paramount. Force output must be maximized so energy being lost or inefficiently used (due to balance deficiencies) is directly counter-productive. Extreme ends of the ROM (or muscle length) should be avoided during the Isometric.
1)DB Flye- Too risky of a movement to perform Isometrics with
2)Barbell Squat- These can be done effectively but it has to be with an empty bar and against spotter arms or something similar (like with the deadlift and bench press) in order to minimize risk of injury. Most people will try to unrack a bar with 200% of their 1RM as a way to perform an “isometric” and that is an extremely bad idea.
3)Standing Barbell OHP- Even if we were to set it up and execute in the same way as we’ve previously stated with spotter arms and an empty bar, there is too much instability intrinsic to this variation.
Increasing intensity- Compound exercises are going to be contraindicated here due to the intensity technique being applied after reaching a fatigued state. The variation used should be maximally taxing locally while minimally taxing systemically. Stability should be prioritized. Focus on increasing intensity within the target muscle rather than for a given movement pattern—In this case, the primary movement can be heavy and multi-joint while the Isometric after can be done with a completely different exercise in order to specifically exhaust a single muscle. Many people will make the mistake of conflating Isometrics with Isoholds when attempting to use them as intensity techniques, so remember to maximally contract for your Isometrics rather than comfortably holding a simple static position.
1)Leg Press- The load needed to properly exhaust the quads and/or glutes here would be way too high even after fatigue. It would be a better idea to use Leg Press as the primary movement then something like a Leg Extension as the post-Isometric.
2)Barbell RDLs- The risk of injury is too high here due to the axial loading
3)Single Arm DB Preacher Curls- These can theoretically be done effectively but the risk of injury (biceps tear or strain) is too great. A machine would be the more appropriate modality.
BENEFITS OF THE TECHNIQUE:
-Broad applications and use cases
-Anyone is able to use them at any time
-Comparatively low fatigue generation and injury risk
-Helps to increase hypertrophy, strength, power, and mobility while reducing risk of injury
DRAWBACKS OF THE TECHNIQUE:
-Can be somewhat challenging to set-up and execute correctly
-Often confused with other techniques (namely, Isoholds)
-Cannot be quantified or progressed
-Restrictive in terms of suitable exercises and ways in which to perform them
-Difficult to find “immovable” resistance for many movement patterns
-Usually requires a good amount of space and/or multiple different setups