Isometrics: Get Stronger Without Moving a Muscle

Walk into any gym in the world and you'll see all the cool kids lifting weights, so most people think that's the only way to get strong and build muscle. But . . . what if I were to tell you there was another way to get strong, a way that you wouldn't have to lift a weight to get stronger and build power – would that be something that would interest you?

Now obviously, I'm being a little facetious here – you definitely should lift weights to improve muscle size, density, strength and power. However, there is another way that can you improve those attributes without lifting weights and it's actually safer on your muscles, joints and tendons: isometrics.

One of Three

Isometric is one of the three types of muscular contractions, the other two are concentric and eccentric, and they seem get all of the attention in the gym. Concentric is the lifting action of a movement; when you apply force to a weight, an increase in muscular tension causes the muscle to shorten and the weight is lifted. Eccentric is the opposing action; when you lower the weight, the muscle lengthens. Isometric contractions occur with no muscular action – force or tension is applied but there is no shortening or lengthening of the muscle.

There are two types of isometric contractions. Yielding isometrics are where you hold a position, like when you do a plank or a wall sit for time. Overcoming isometrics occur when you exert maximum force on an immovable object, like trying to push a car that is set in park or pin press, which I'll cover later in this post.

In a typical exercise you may utilize all three contractions, let's look at the squat as an example. When you lower yourself into the bottom position, that's the eccentric phase. If you happen to pause at the bottom for a second or two, that would be classified as a yielding isometric. When you stand back up, that's the concentric phase.

Yielding isometrics are commonly used to get that extra pump by holding a contraction at the end of a rep. Conversely, I see very few people training overcoming isometrics, which is a shame, because they're a great alternative way to get stronger. Most trainees focus on just lifting weights and gain strength incrementally. Others, who have dug a little deeper into training methods, utilize eccentric training because there is a lot of evidence showing its benefit to improving strength.

I'm hoping to convince you to add in some overcoming isometrics, so lets take a look at why

Safer Alternative to Lifting Weights for In-season Training or Injured Athletes

As I mentioned earlier, concentric and eccentric contractions involve muscle shortening and lengthening, which can actually create tissue inflammation due to the sliding actions of tissues - this is what causes the micro tears and eventual muscle soreness that is associated with weight training. Although this is a good thing, technically, because that's how you build muscle, it also means that you could be more sore if you're really trying to push the limits to gain strength, especially if you're doing really slow eccentrics, because that action causes the most muscle damage.

Isometrics on the other hand are the only contraction that doesn't increase inflammatory mediator release, which means you can slot them into your programs without making you sore. If you're coming back from an injury, these are good options and are widely utilized by rehab professionals (1). They would also be beneficial for anyone who wants to improve or maintain strength and power while tapering for an event like running a marathon or any athlete who is in season and wants to mitigate muscle soreness and possible inflammation.

Now, let's take a deeper dive into the two types of Isometrics and how you can incorporate them into your program.

Yielding Isometrics

Yielding isometrics are great for building strength, balance and stability. You can use them with just about any body weight exercise, like holding the bottom of a lunge or the top of a chin up. Front and side planks are also widely used as well and are great for improving core strength, endurance and stability. The key to any true yielding isometric is to keep as still as possible and fight gravity as much as you can; if you're constantly repositioning yourself, you're not getting the benefits, because every time you shift, you lose the contraction.

I hate excessively long planks; once you can do 45 seconds – move on to something harder like lifting an arm or leg while keeping that stiff body position.

I also like the Paloff Press Hold. In this exercise you're pressing out the weight from a cable stack and resisting the weight from pulling you. This is a great way to train anti rotation, which is important for any rotational athlete like golfers, or hockey and tennis players, but is also important for any runner.

I'll usually play with a mix of longer holds of 10 seconds with lighter weight or shorter holds of 2 to 5 seconds with heavier weight

Overcoming Isometrics

Overcoming isometrics are rarely seen in the gym, but they offer a great training stimulus to improve strength and power. As mentioned above, they're performed by maximally exerting force into an immovable object and this is where there is a huge potential to safely exert force and recruit high threshold motor units without risk of injury.

Think of these exercises as a form of strength or power training, you want to really focus on driving the barbell – or thick dowel – against the pins. Ideally you want to keep these in short duration, because they are a maximum contractions, so think about how long it takes you to do a heavy rep of squat, deadlifts or bench presses.

You could do sets of multiple 3-5 second contractions or, you can do one rep of 3 to 5 seconds and pair them with a strength or power movement to take advantage of what's called post activation potentiation, which takes advantage of an acute response that can enhance force capability – essentially acting as a turbo charger for power output!

The great thing about the pins is that you can set them to different heights, so you can improve on angles that you find are sticking points in certain exercises, like the bottom of a squat, deadlift or bench. But, you can also utilize them to strengthen different angles; I also like starting the pins on a low position, and moving them up one position each set – this way you're building power throughout a different range of motion.

I like the behind the back barbell pin squat for improving either the squat or vertical jump. You could pair this exercise before doing either a squat jump, box jump or even a barbell back squat to take advantage of post activation potentiation.

Here are a couple of ways you can utilize this way of training:

Straight set:

A) Behind the back pin squat - 2 - 3 sets x 5 x 2 - 3 sec repetitions

Post-Activation Potentiation

A1) Behind the back pin squat - 3 x 1 - 5 second repetition

A2) Box jump or squat jump - 3 x 5

A1) Behind the back pin squat - 3 x 1 - 5 second repetition

A2) Barbell, Kettlebell or Dumbbell squat - 3 x 5 (use a weight you can comfortably do 5 reps)

Pin Bench Presses are also really great exercises to improve pressing power. If you've been benching for a while, you'll likely know what position you struggle with - so set the pins to that height and start crushing your bench PR's.

Here are a couple of ways to program pin presses:

Straight set:

A) Floor pin press - 2 - 3 sets x 5 x 2 - 3 sec repetitions

Post-Activation Potentiation

A1) Floor pin press - 3 x 1 - 5 second repetition

A2) Hands elevated explosive push up or medicine ball chest throw - 3 x 5

A1) Floor pin press - 3 x 1 - 5 second repetition

A2) Barbell, Kettlebell or Dumbbell pin press - 3 x 5 (use a weight you can comfortably do 5 reps)

So hopefully I have convinced you to add in some isometrics into your program. There are benefits to adding both types, and I think a well rounded program should utilize both, especially if your goal is to increase strength and power. That being said, they're not the most exciting exercises, so you may not want to do whole workouts of them, although there are some trainers that do.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or if you think I'm full of shit.


(1) Taken from the Functional Range Conditioning lectures from Dr. Andreo Spina on when I took the course, but are not publicly available.

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