How to Use Isometrics for Massive Strength Gains

By on December 11, 2017

On this channel and blog, I’ve talked a lot about the usefulness of using isometrics – and overcoming isometrics in particular – to build strength. This is perhaps the training method that has the most potential to increase your pure crushing power. But how do you go about using isometric training successfully in order to get the best results?

For those that are new to the concept, isometric training means contracting the muscle in a single position rather than through a range of motion. In other words, you are making effort but without movement. There are two ways to do this:

Yielding Isometrics: Here you hold a weight or push against something until you can do no more and you give out. For instance, this might mean holding a dumbbell halfway through a curl.

Overcoming Isometrics: This is the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object and involves pushing or pulling against resistance that will not budge even an inch. Examples include trying to curl chains that are attached to the ground, or trying to push down walls and trees.

Overcoming Power

Overcoming isometrics is the kind that builds the most raw strength and power and it has been used successfully by many classic strongmen, as well as Bruce Lee himself. When we use overcoming isometrics with maximum effort, we are holding a maximal contraction for an extended period, to a greater extent than is possible with another form of training.

The closest comparison is training with a one rep maximum, which means lifting the heaviest weight you possibly can in order to utilize 100% of your accessible strength. The problem with this, is that a one rep max invariably involves momentum, varying angles and gravity. In other words, you are only using a maximal contraction for a very brief moment; at a peek in the movement after which momentum or gravity manage the rest.

On the other hand, overcoming isometrics allow you to focus on that moment of maximum strength and to maintain that power for the entire exercise. This has the effect of improving said maximum strength and in particular, it can increase muscle fibre recruitment – perhaps more than any other form of exercise (study).

It’s no coincidence that this is the training method used by Dennis Rogers, thought by some to be the strongest man alive pound for pound. Dennis was found to have greater control of his muscle fibre recruitment on the show Stan Lee’s Superhumans. It appears that overcoming isometrics provide the perfect stimulus for increasing muscle fibre recruitment, thereby allowing you to use a larger percentage of your dormant strength.

As far as the body is concerned it has met a challenge it is not prepared for and it needs to adapt to get stronger. Like I always say, it comes down to SAID: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands.

And for this reason, adding overcoming isometrics to your current routine may be one of the most effective ways to rapidly increase your strength and power.

How to Use It

While it’s true that overcoming isometrics can help you to build a particularly high amount of explosive power, it’s also true that this strength increase is focussed on a single joint position as there is no range of movement. Studies suggest that there is some ‘spillover’ to the rest of the ROM of about 15-30%. Whatever way you cut it though, you’re going to need to train multiple angles in order to get the most from it. The usual recommendation is to pick a position at the start of the movement, the middle and towards the end. I would even suggest adding in a fourth position so that you are covering each quarter of the movement… but that is optional.

Isometric training can also be used as a way to deal with the failure points of a movement. If you find yourself often failing at the same point in a movement, then you can use isometrics to increase your max power output at that specific point.

In terms of how long to hold these contractions for, the generally agreed advice is to make each ‘repetition’ 6 seconds long for strength benefits. This appears to be the most effective method for suppressive the protective mechanisms of the CNS. This form of training is very intensive for the nervous system and should be performed at the start of your workouts before your muscles are fatigued. If you train using reverse pyramid training (meaning you start with the heaviest weight), then you can consider this to be the set that comes before your max.

I haven’t found any concrete advice on how many sets and reps to use for each of these exercises. But if we consider that we’re performing a maximal contraction for longer than we regularly would during a 1RM exercise, I would recommend keeping this relatively low. Perhaps 3-6 repetitions at each joint angle. I personally like to use overcoming isometrics at the start of a heavy drop set, wherein the overcoming isometric effectively acts as the set that is ‘heavier than the one rep max’.

Types of Overcoming Isometric Exercise

While it is possible to train overcoming isometric with a weight, it is generally not advisable. Weights that are beyond your 1RM are very difficult to manage, which creates potential risk (whereas isometrics are generally praised for being a very safe form of exercise).

So, what can you use in order to train with isometrics? Where can you find these immovable objects?

One option is to use a tool like the bull worker, or power bar. I’ve reviewed this piece of equipment before but essentially it is a device that offers some resistance using springs and lets you squeeze and pull it.

Of course, anything that can be pulled, squeezed or crushed can also be useful for overcoming isometrics. Pick up a basket ball and try to squeeze it between your two hands, or grab a rope or a phone book and try to tear it in half. This is how many ‘old time strongmen’ would train, and it’s also a popular technique among modern day strongmen too.

Bending bars and trying to pull things apart is particularly popular for this purpose and especially when it comes to building grip strength and forearm strength: things that are particularly important for the old-time strongman. This is also a particularly convenient way to train. A rope or a piece of metal won’t cost you much and you can easily grab them whenever you’re looking for a quick workout.

Likewise, any wall or bar can make a useful immovable object. That might mean pushing against the wall, or pulling against a lamppost or a set of railings. In the latter examples, you can also ‘brace’ with your spare arm. Or how about pushing against the inside of a doorframe? You can push against the top to perform shoulder presses and then stand on a chair in order to alter the height to go through your 3-4 joint angles.

Better yet, why not gradually change joint angle by moving towards or away from the immovable surface. This way, you can move through an entire range of motion. Likewise, you can also gradually increase or decrease the amount of force you use if you want to increase or lower the challenge. This would be a great way to perform a drop set.

One last way you can practice overcoming isometrics is particularly convenient, which is to use your own body as the resistance. This can mean pushing against your own arms, pulling against your own legs, or clasping your hands together. One of my favorites is to sit on a chair, rest my elbows on my knees and then trying to bend forward using my abs (like an upright sit up). This can be performed anywhere and at any angle.

Other Forms of Isometric Training

Another very interesting option is to use explosive isometrics, or ballistic isometric as it is also referred to. Here, you are static but while using explosive force. Sounds like a contradiction but essentially what it boils down to, is simply trying to reach maximum contraction as quickly and explosively as possible.

Something I have ‘invented’ while experimenting with this type of training (who knows if it is already a ‘thing’), is to use explosive isometrics when I’m already part way through the contraction. In other words, I maintain maximum force for as long as I can and then each time I think I’ve ‘maxed out’, I make another conscious effort to ‘burst’ with more strength.

However you go about using ballistic isometrics, this can be a great way to build your explosiveness and particularly if you train the start of the movement in order to increase your starting strength.

Isometrics can also potentially be used for endurance and muscle size. The best way to do this is by using yielding isometrics and particularly ‘post fatigue’. This means that you are training to the point of failure and then keeping your limb in that position in order to build up even more blood and metabolites and provide a massive stimulus for growth.

And if you follow my favorite form of training, then you can take this to the next level even: by starting a routine with an overcoming isometric, moving on to a one-three rep maximum in the form of a reverse pyramid set, moving on to a drop set/mechanical drop set and then finishing with a long yielding isometric and eccentric phase.

But that’s a post for another time.

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.