Knowledge

Exploring Isometric Training

Christian Thibaudeau

Co-founder of Thibarmy, Trainer

Articles, Strength and performance, Training

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Exploring Isometric Training

Isometric exercises refer to contracting a muscle to produce force, without any significant movement happening. Iso meaning “same” and metric meaning “length”; so quite literally it refer to exercises in which the muscle(s) stay the same length while producing force.

As long as I can remember I’ve used isometric exercises in my own training as well as with the athletes I work with. Through the years, the importance and place of isometrics in my approach has fluctuated, but they were always present.

In fact, when training athletes, my system uses a combination of isometric, eccentric, concentric and plyometric methods. Normally in every training phase, in a periodized scheme.

Now, before you accuse me of copying “Triphasic Training” by Cal Dietz please understand that I first wrote about this approach in 2003 in an article called Super Beast . This was a full 9 years before Triphasic Training was published.

Furthermore my book “Theory and Application of Modern Strength and Power Methods” describes this approach in-depth, which was again published 7 years before “Triphasic Training”. In fact, I will confess to having never read Triphasic Training.

My original inspiration for this system was a Swiss track and field coach named Jean-Pierre Egger who trained uberfreak shot putter Werner Gunthor.

When I was 19 I saw a series of videos detailing his training approach (which you can still find on Youtube, but only in French) and that’s when I started researching the use of isometrics and eccentrics in conjunction with regular training.

Other inspirations included the work of French sport-scientist Gilles Cometti. Two of his books (Méthodes Modernes de Musculation tome 1 et tome 2), written more than 20 years ago, were some of the first that I read about performance training. Cometti’s approach used a combination of isometrics, eccentrics, concentrics, plyometrics and EMS.

Further inspiration came from the work of Bob Hoffman (in reality, books by Bob Hoffman about methods developed by Dr.John Ziegler), specifically his book “Functional Isometrics”.

It is my belief that isometric training is one of the most underrated training tools. It is not often used simply because most people don’t know how to use it properly, meaning they get suboptimal results.

In this article I want to teach you about the various isometric methods you can use, their training effect and how to program them effectively.

The Types of Isometrics

There are several types of isometrics, each with their own specific effects. This is why some might have experienced poor results when trying isos: they might have used the wrong version for their objective.

We can classify isometric exercises into three broad categories. Each of which will include a few variations.

Overcoming isometrics

In an overcoming isometric, your goal is to attempt to move a resistance that cannot be moved. It could be the safety pins in a power rack, a special tool like the Isochain, or any fixed object that is solid enough for you to push hard against maximally. Even though there is no movement, your intent is to push/pull as hard a possible as if you were trying to move the resistance.

Yielding Isometrics

In a yielding isometric the intent is different. You are not trying to move an immovable resistance; but rather you are holding a weight in place and/or maintaining a set position. You can hold the weight in various positions or just a single position. Or you could simply hold a position using your body weight as resistance.

Note that loaded stretching  is a form of yielding isometric performed at a position where the muscles are at the end of their range of motion. These will be covered individually.

Stato-Dynamic

This is a hybrid method in which you include one or several isometric hold(s) (yielding iso action) within a single or multiple rep(s). The holds can either be performed during each repetition of a set (the most common approach), at the beginning of the set (called iso pre-fatigue) or at the end of the set (called iso post-fatigue).

These three broad categories then have several variations within them, such as:

Functional isometrics

This approach is both an overcoming isometric and stato-dynamic method. It is very similar to the overcoming method; in that you will be pressing against the safety pins in a power rack. The main difference is that you do it with a loaded barbell instead of with the empty bar. You set up in the rack with two sets of safety pins about 5-6” apart. The bar rests on the lower set of pins and you press the bar into the higher one.

There are two main ways of using this variation:

1) working up the heaviest weight you can bring to the second set of pins and hold for 6 seconds (obviously this means that you are not pressing hard into the pins as the resistance comes mostly from the barbell weight)

2) using a more manageable bar weight (around 80-90% of your max on a lift) and then pressing into the pins as hard as possible.

 

Isometronics (max fatigue method)

This is a variation of the functional isometric method, but in which you do “reps”. The set-up is similar to that of regular functional isometrics (two sets of safety pins). But a set is done in several steps:

1) Use a bar weight of around 80% of your maximum on the full range lift

2) Press the bar from the lower set of pins to the higher one and push in to the pin for a second. This is one rep.

3) Perform 6-8 reps like that.

4) On the last repetition, keep pressing against the pins as hard as possible for 4-6 seconds.

5) After returning to the lower pins attempt one last press to the higher pins.

 

Loaded stretching

This is a form of long duration yielding isometrics performed when the target muscle(s) is/are in its/their most stretched position. When you reach the lowest position, you actively try to work with gravity to reach an even greater stretch.

For example, if you are doing a DB bench press loaded stretch, once you are in the lowest natural position you actively pull with your upper back to try to increase the stretch even more. For more information about loaded stretching and its proper parameters and benefits, please visit my article on the subject.

 

Reactive isometrics

This is also form of plyometric exercise. It consists of dropping a weight (or your body) and suddenly catching it. Upon catching it you must immediately stop the movement. If you want to argue semantics, it is technically not an isometric action, as there will be an extremely small elongation of the muscle, so it would be more of an eccentric action. But the intent is to stop the weight (or your body) so that there is no movement upon catching it, and immediately there is maximal tension produced.

 

Parameters to use

With isometrics the two main parameters are the duration of the effort as well as the level of intensity of the muscle contraction (or the weight used).

Some types are best suited for specific durations/intensities. For example, overcoming and functional isometrics are best suited for shorter efforts of a near-maximal or maximal intensity whereas yielding isometrics work better with longer durations.

 

Short Duration/High Intensity Isometrics

These include overcoming and functional isometrics and are best suited for increasing strength, specifically at the angle(s) being trained.

The main benefits of short-duration/high intensity isometrics (overcoming and functional isometrics) are:

  1. Strengthening a specific joint angle (normally to fix a sticking point in a movement)
  2. Activate the nervous system to be able to increase fast-twitch fiber recruitment and firing rate prior to your regular heavy lifting
  3. Increase the capacity to recruit the synergist and antagonist muscles during a movement to improve active joint stability
  4. Possibly programing the nervous system to recruit more fast-twitch fibers
  5. Can help strengthen tendons

 

The training parameters to use are:

Duration of a rep: 4-9 seconds

Effort level: maximal effort (a lot of people not reporting significant gains are simply not producing enough force during their efforts)

Reps per set: Normally only one effort per set is performed. But you can go as high as 3 reps of 4-6 seconds with a few seconds in between.

Number of positions: 1 to 3 depending on your goal. If you are using it to strengthen a weak part in a range of motion or to activate the nervous system, only use one position. If you want to use the isos to strengthen the whole movement, you will need to use 2 or 3 positions.

Number of sets: typically, 2 to 6 sets are done. I recommend sticking to a lower number, as maximal isometrics are very taxing on the nervous system. If using one position you should do 3-4 sets, if using two positions I suggest 2-3 sets per position and if using three positions, most should stick to 2 sets per position (or you could do something like 3 for the sticking point and 1-2 for the other positions).

 

Long Duration Isometrics

Yielding isometrics and loaded stretching are better suited for longer durations and are therefore more impactful on hypertrophy, muscle recruitment patterning in specific positions (used to correct improper recruitment patterns), tendon development and mobility (in the case of loaded stretching).

The training parameters to use are:

Duration of a rep: 30 seconds up to 3 minutes (some, like Jay Schroeder, recommends as long as 5 minutes). The shorter durations (30-60 seconds) will be more biased toward hypertrophy. The longer you go, the greater the effect on tendons and motor programing.

Effort level: you must use an external load that makes holding for the prescribed duration difficult. But you should not accept position shifts to be able to “make time”. If you can’t maintain proper positions and muscle tension, the load is too high.

Reps per set: Normally only one effort per set is performed. The exception might be with very long duration isometrics (2-5 minutes) in which you can take short breaks during the set if you lose position and muscle tension. This could qualify as doing multiple reps, but we normally do not prescribe a certain number.

Number of positions: Since the goal of these isometrics is not directly strengthening a full lift, we only use one position. Normally that position is either the extreme end range (loaded stretching), the position of highest tension in the exercise or a key angle you want to work on improving positional strength and muscle recruitment.

Number of sets: I normally like to shoot for a total time under load of 3 minutes for an exercise (again, you can even work up to a total of 5 minutes). The number of sets thus depends on the duration of each set.

 

Stato-Dynamic Methods I – Intra-Rep

This is the first variation of the stato-dynamic method, and it consists of including one, or several, hold(s) during each repetition of a set. I personally recommend 1 to 3 holds for 2 to 6 seconds each.

Typically, the duration of the hold(s) is inversely proportional to the number of pauses:

1 hold: 4-6 seconds each

2 holds: 3-4 seconds each

3 holds: 2-3 seconds each

The holds are normally done during the eccentric phase of the lift. You can do them during the concentric phase, but this greatly reduces the amount of weight you can use. I therefore prefer to use concentric holds during deloads or technique mastery phases.

We already covered the number and duration of the holds, let’s look at the other variables.

Effort level: Since the holds are included within a rep, the effort level or the intensity is related to your maximum on the lift you are using the stato-dynamic method on. A barbell weight of 55 – 85% is recommended which, depending on the number and duration of the holds, will give you anywhere between 3 and 8 repetitions. These sets should be taken to a fairly high level of fatigue, leaving around 1 rep in the tank.

Reps per set: 3 to 8 depending on the number and duration of the holds.

Number of positions: 1 to 3. Normally the positions are upper 1/3rd, mid-range and lower 1/3rd of the eccentric range of motion.

Number of sets: Same as with regular lifting. 3-4 is ideal most of the time.

 

Stat0-Dynamic Methods II – Pre-Fatigue

In this method you start the set with a moderate-duration yielding isometric (15-30 seconds) after which you immediately perform the prescribed number of regular reps.

Duration of a rep: the duration of the hold is 15-30 seconds. Then normal reps are performed.

Effort level: this is more of a hypertrophy method than a strength one, so sets of 6-10 repetitions are favored. The pre-fatigue hold will create about 10-15% of fatigue. As such a bar weight of around 65-75% is what you should be shooting for. As a hypertrophy method, you need to push each set hard, 1 rep in reserve or less.

Reps per set: 6-10 after the hold.

Number of positions: One. It is normally done at the position of highest tension. For example, on movements like rows, chin-ups or any exercise with a peak contraction (high tension/resistance at the end of the concentric range of motion) the hold is performed at the peak contraction/end of the concentric range. Whereas on other exercises (e.g. squat, RDL, bench press, military press, curl, etc.) it is performed at the mid-range.

Number of sets: Same as with regular lifting. 3-4 is ideal most of the time

 

Stato-Dynamic Methods III – Post-Fatigue

This last stato-dynamic method consists of adding a maximum duration yielding isometric after you have completed your prescribed repetitions. This is better used for hypertrophy as it prolongs the stimulation once you’ve hit a point where you can’t do any more repetitions. I especially like to use it on exercises in which you can perform a loaded stretch (split squats, DB bench press, RDL, lat pulldown, etc.).

Duration of a rep: After having done your prescribed repetitions you finish off by holding the prescribed position for as long as tolerable. Normally, if you took your set close to failure, you should aim for 20-30 seconds.

Effort level: this is again more of a hypertrophy method than a strength one, so sets of 6-10 repetitions are favored. As such a bar weight of around 70-85% is what you should be using. As a hypertrophy method, you need to push each set hard, 1 rep in reserve or less, then hold the isometric as long as tolerable.

Reps per set: 6-10 followed by the hold.

Number of positions: One. It is normally done either at the position of highest tension or as a loaded stretch if the movement lends itself to it.

Number of sets: This method is a bit more traumatic than the other stato-dynamic ones, so you should limit yourself to 2 or 3 sets, most of the time.

 

Reactive Isometrics I – Depth Landings / Altitude Drops

We have four levels of depth landings.

* Level 1 uses a low box: around the same height as your maximum vertical jump (if your vertical jump is 30”, use a box that is 30-32”). The goal of this level is to work on your capacity to land properly and solidly (you should master the landing before working on improving your jumping)

* Level 2 uses a mid-range box height; around 12-18” higher than your maximum vertical jump. For example if your maximum vertical jump is 30”, use a box that I between 42 and 48”. This provides a manageable overload upon landing, creating a greater amount of force and tension than the landing of a normal jump. It will improve your capacity to absorb force, which will translate to a better capacity to quickly transition to a jump after the dip, greater jumping height and quicker changes of direction.

* Level 3 uses a high box; around 20-30” higher than your maximum vertical jump. This is an extreme exercise with a very high level of force absorption. You can only move on to this level if you have not only gone through levels 1 and 2 (and have adapted to them) but also have an extensive experience with both jumping exercises and eccentric emphasis weight training. Furthermore, it should only be done for a maximum of 3 weeks, which is enough to get all the gains you will get from this method. Any longer than that will risk doing more harm for very little, if any, added benefit.

* Level 4 uses either the mid (level 2) or high (level 3) but with added weight. The added weight will be in the form of a KB/DB held on the chest (Goblet style), a barbell or DBs held in a curl, front or lateral raise position, or DBs held to your side. The extra weight used depends your strength on the “movement” you are using to do the hold. The key is upon landing, everything should be rock solid. Meaning that you stick the landing and that the is little if any “give” in the limbs holding the extra weight. The benefit of this method is that you simultaneously train the force absorption capacity of the upper and lower body.

Duration of a rep: The isometric phase itself (the landing) isn’t long. The goal is to “stick the landing/land solidly”. Then, hold the position for 2-3 seconds focusing on maximizing whole-body tension.

Effort level: As a plyometric exercise, we don’t want to get anywhere near any fatigue during your set. Each rep should be solid as a rock. Quality before quantity.

Reps per set: 3 to 5. Don’t hesitate to terminate a set before you have completed the prescribed reps if you feel like you will not be as solid on the next one.

Number of positions: One.

Number of sets: 2 – 4

 

Reactive Isometrics II – Drop and Catch

This has a similar training effect to the depth landings: it trains the muscles, nervous system and connective tissues to absorb force. By doing that it also trains your capacity to rapidly switch from eccentric to concentric action and increases power production.

Popularized (maybe even invented) by Jay Schroeder, this method consists of dropping a weight and rapidly moving the limb down to catch it. The catch must be as solid, and with as little give as possible. It’s typically used with exercises like DB front raise, DB lateral raise, barbell curl, plate (two arms) front raise and DB upright rows.

Duration of a rep: The isometric phase itself (the landing) isn’t long. The goal is to “catch solidly”. Then, hold the position for 1 second focusing on maximizing whole-body tension (eventually you can transition to immediately exploding back up when you catch the weight).

Effort level: As a plyometric exercise, we don’t want to get anywhere near any fatigue during your set. Each rep should be solid as a rock. Quality before quantity.

Reps per set: There are two main approaches here. The first one is more in line with traditional plyometric training and uses 5-10 reps per set (10 is higher than traditional plyo drills, but the drop and catch are more targeted and less demanding systemically). With ample rest between sets.

The second approach uses a higher volume of work to develop anaerobic capacity while still being forced to use the fast twitch fibers. This gives the FT fibers a lot of contraction time which will improve your capacity to recruit them and can even have a significant hypertrophy effect. You would do what could be called a “rest/pause set” in which you do 5-10 reps, then rest 10 seconds and repeat that sequence for a total of 6-10 sets.

Something like:

8 reps

10 seconds

8 reps

10 seconds

8 reps

10 seconds

8 reps

10 seconds

8 reps

10 seconds

8 reps

End of set

Number of positions: One.

Number of sets: 2-4 for the more traditional approach, 1 long sequence of 6-10 sets for the anaerobic capacity approach.

 

Reactive Isometrics III – Striking Reactive Isometrics

I learned about this method from my former client, friend and now one of the most innovative strength coaches in the world, Steffan Jones. It is very similar to the previous two methods (depth landings, drop and catch) in that there is a sudden and forceful isometric contraction to absorb force. This time it is realized by hitting a heavy bag. Steffan works mostly with throwing athletes (cricket fast bowlers and baseball pitchers) so the video he sent me is specific for that type of action but I see a lot of application to bench press strength/injury prevention as well as in tackling sports like American football and rugby.

 

Programming Considerations

I’ll try to make this section as simple and as palatable as possible. Programming these methods could be extremely complicated if we included all the possible intricacies and you would end up needing 3 Ph.Ds and to be sober for 3 months just to be able to digest the info.

Instead, I’ll give you guidelines based on how I work with isometrics.

  1. Just like with every method, I highly recommend only using one method per session. Meaning that I include one isometric day per training week.
  2. Since I use isometrics throughout the whole program (not just in some phases) I normally periodize it with longer duration work in the early phases, more intense/shorter duration isometrics next and then “explosive/reactive” isometrics.
  3. I typically use a specific method for 3 – 4 weeks.

An example could thus be:

Accumulation phase

Block 1 (3 weeks)

Loaded stretching

Block 2 (3 weeks)

Pre or post-fatigue stato-dynamic

 

Intensification phase

Block 3 (3 weeks)

Overcoming isometrics as activation

Intra-rep stato-dynamic

Block 4 (3 weeks)

Depth landing/drop and catch as activation

Functional isometrics

 

Realization phase

Block 5 (4 weeks)

Depth landing/drop and catch

Striking isometrics

 

Of course, this is just an example. You don’t have to follow it to a “T”.

  1. You can use isometrics only to address a specific issue. You don’t have to make it a large part of the complete system. For example, overcoming isometrics can be used for activation at the beginning of a workout, functional isometrics and overcoming isometrics can be used to strengthen a sticking point, stato-dynamic methods can be used to focus on lifting technique and body rigidity, loaded stretching can be used to improve mobility and reduce the risk of injury. But I still recommend only using a specific method for 3-4 weeks.
  2. Isometrics can be very hard on the nervous system, especially at first when you have little experience with them. You should take that into consideration when planning your training volume for a few weeks.
  3. This is true for every type of training method, but always try to use the fewest number of different methods within a workout. This is especially true when dealing with neurologically demanding methods (for example isometrics and plyometrics in the same session). That’s why I personally like to program only one, maybe two, method(s) in a session. If you have to include several methods within a workout, try to select methods of a similar nature or that target similar adaptations.

 

Conclusion

Isometrics are nothing new. But because you likely have not used them in the past they will provide a novel training stimulus to your body. This will likely allow you to progress at a much faster rate, at least for a few training blocks. Even once this rapid adaptation stage is over, I still believe that it is important to train the body with as many different types of muscle contractions as possible.

Each type of contraction provides a different neuromuscular stimulus and the more tasks you ask that system to perform the better your body will perform (and look).

Sadly, anything that moves away from the “big basics” or “meat and potatoes” of training are often quickly dismissed and even discredited by traditionalists (or meatheads with a closed mind to new ideas). Don’t get me wrong, isometric methods will not replace the big basic lifts with progressive overload. But they do provide unique benefits that can contribute to, not only greater overall progress but also faster performance improvements on those big basic lifts.

Give them an honest try and see for yourself.

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