Isometric training is an almost forgotten method of strength training. However, according to notable strength experts from the former Soviet Union, it can be equal to conventional barbell training.
Isometric training was popular in the 1960s in the time of Bob Hoffman of the world-famous York Barbell Club. Bob did self-resistance with many poses in many positions like a bodybuilder. Dan Gable, the great college wrestler, did Isometrics with a simple rope.
Speaking of wrestlers, grappling develops great strength at many angles. It comes from quasi-Isometric contractions while wrestlers pull and push on their opponents over an extended time. Wrestlers must constantly wrestle to gain this type of strength for their matches.
My good friend Jimmy Benjamin, a three-time national Olympic weightlifting champ at 132 pounds body weight, made a visit to Bob Hoffman’s room to talk about sponsorship. The entire time he was there, Bob was doing bodyweight Isometrics. Isometrics are used in all sports.
Let’s start with bodybuilding.
When a bodybuilder makes a pose with some part of their body, it is held in an Isometric contraction. It can be a leg pose, a double biceps pose, or even a lat or abs pose. In these cases, it is an Isometric contraction held for a few seconds as training or in front of judges.
At the end of a movement, the bodybuilder contracts muscles and maintains a maximal contraction for a second or two during weight or machine training in the gym.
The weightlifter should include Isometrics in their training. One reason, among many, is that Isometrics can build strength at a precise position for which the lifter may lack. For pulling, you should start with the bar on the floor, then hold at mid-shin, at the knee, and at the second pull position. Work up to three or four holds at each place for three to five seconds by gradually increasing to an estimated 80 percent to 100 percent effort.
For the lifts overhead, use three positions: the chest, top of the head, and near-lockout. Use a clean and snatch grip in front of your body or behind your head.
For squatting, hold at the very bottom at parallel and a few inches above parallel, where most will fail as this is most often your sticking point.
Special exercises can be held in Isometric positions. Examples are arched-back Goodmorning back extensions and calf-ham-glute raises.
The coach can now easily view the lift to correct mistakes, especially the second pull, which is done very quickly. Moving fast makes it hard to see missed positions. Using Isometrics, the lift can be corrected as it is held in place for a few seconds instead of moving at 1/100s of a second. Doing a single part of a lift in a split second provides specific muscles little work. With Isometrics, the area can receive 10 to 20 seconds of work in a single workout.
Remember to add Isometrics into your training and not abandon the Dynamic lifts. While doing Isometrics, you will always put your body in the perfect position before starting the movements.
This is an overlooked part of Isometrics training. You don’t need much equipment to do Isometrics, just a lifting bar and a power rack with pins to pull or push against. It does not take long to do several pulls or pushes. Remember to gradually apply more force until you reach roughly 85 to 100 percent effort.
Before discussing Isometrics in powerlifts, let’s talk about the Hoffman Method. Bob Hoffman started doing Isometrics in the 1960s. Still, it was always uncertain how much force the lifter applied while only using a weightlifting bar against an unmovable bar.
Hoffman produced a unique power rack with the uprights about 12 inches apart with two sets of pins. The bar rested on the lower pin with a second set of pins just a few inches above. Now the lifter would load the bar with, let’s say, 80 percent of his max and lift it up against the higher pins and exert max force for two to five seconds. The lifter or coach would know how much power was applied to each effort with this tool.
Special note: The low and higher pins should be separated by only one to three inches. The task is to pull or push against a pin, not lift the bar in a concentric motion.
A ten- to 15-minute workout can produce great results by doing several sets at one to six angles with two- to five-second efforts. Only hold your breath on max efforts, and remember to add more force until a total effort is applied.
Pressing can be improved with Isometrics, including curls and triceps extensions.
All pressing exercises should include Isometrics using an empty bar or a loaded bar with the Hoffman Method. Westside performs many concentric lifts, meaning lifting without an eccentric phase first. This concentric method will not add body weight.
For squatting, place the bar on a pre-set pin from well below parallel to just doing a quarter squat. Next, squat upward to the second set of pins just a few inches higher and generate force ranging from 80 percent to 100 percent for exertions of two to five seconds for three to five sets. Do two or three different heights in one squat Isometric workout. Use just an empty bar or load the bar and use the Hoffman Method.
All squats can be trained from the front, back, overhead, and even Zercher squats. You must always use the correct technique for each effort. Always set yourself in the perfect position to start. Hold breath only on the last couple of reps or exertions.
Use up to six starting positions for the deadlift with Isometric work. Focus mainly at the beginning of push or pull on the bar, but radiate down to 15 degrees upward and downward from the Isometric position.
Isometrics can significantly improve technique at any position from the start to the finish of the lift. Think about it: When you lie under a rack bench press, you will make sure the bar is in the perfect place to start, not one side of the bar two inches lower on one side, but straight across the chest so not to hurt yourself.
The Russians have been making unbelievable deadlifts in recent years. After watching the start position, it was clear they had something different in their program. It was Isometrics. They would pull into the perfect start position by pulling on the bar to achieve a position with the hips as close as possible for excellent leverage. We must do the same if we want to compete on the platform. This process should be used at the start of any lift.
Can Isometric training be eccentric? Yes. The answer to “How?” is the K Box.
The K BoxTM
A K BoxTM can be used to resist lowering or the eccentric phase. The more force is applied concentrically, the opposite force is applied on the eccentric phase. The K Box has been a game-changer for Westside. It will pull you downward in a quasi-isometric effort to build strength and size.
One last note.
It has been found that applying roughly a 50 percent effort for up to 20 minutes can also produce a very positive gain in strength for every second of Isometrics.
Isometrics for Track
Isometrics for running can greatly benefit faster times at any distance. It involves primarily hip function., First, hanging leg raises with the legs held straight out with the legs together for a time. After two minutes, add a slight resistance with weights or bands.
Also, while supporting yourself off Dip Bars, hold legs out front for time, again like the hanging version. Try holding legs far apart and maintain Isometrically for time. Always breathe.
Isometrics on a Reverse HyperTM
Use a light weight to start and hold legs to the rear for at least 10 seconds for repeated sets at the top, middle, and near the bottom. Do both holds with legs together and pull your feet against the straps outwardly. Hold leg position at three positions—near top, bottom, and mid-range.
More can be found in Run Faster with Isometrics Training by Dr. Larry VanSuch.