If you want to push yourself to bigger gains on big lifts like the bench press and deadlift, you have several tried-and-true methods. You could add more weight to whatever exercise you’re doing, or you could do more reps. You could reduce your rest time between sets, or you could slow the pace of every rep, increasing time-under-tension.
Those are the traditional methods to push your biggest exercises to bigger heights, but there’s another hidden weight room weapon that can teach you to produce the force you need for big lifts: The isometric rep.
Isometrics aren’t new, and overall, they’re a more versatile training tool than you think. but now you’re going to use them in a new way. Your goal here: Use several isometric contracts to “prime” your body for bigger traditional lifts. Do this right, and moves like your bench press, deadlift, and squat can take major leaps.
The Basics of Isometrics
What’s an isometric contraction? It essentially has you applying as much force as possible to a resistance that you simply can’t move at all. Think of pushing against a wall, or trying to pull an airplane. If you put your all into each one, you’ll have to strain your muscles and your entire body, even break a sweat. But the object that you’re trying to move simply won’t go anywhere.
You will, however, be challenging your body using one of the most underrated methods of training in the gym. And once you incorporate this into your program, you’ll be moving bigger weights and dominating your workouts in ways you’d never expected.
How Isometrics Prep Your Body To Move Big Weight
Isometric training has several useful strengths that can aid your traditional workouts. When you apply force to a force you can’t move, your muscles also don’t move even though they’re clearly straining. That means your muscles won’t change in length. It also means your skeleton and bone structure is never moving under load.
Your muscles, however, are trying to apply maximal force, getting a lesson in the force they need to produce in order to work past “sticking points”. You can use this to your advantage by using isometrics as primers before a traditional lift or using them as mid-workout supplements in classic workouts. You’ll do this by doing a few sets of isometric reps before doing, say, your heavy deadlift work. Or use an isometric midway through your workout to focus in on your middle-back muscles before some heavy rowing.
There’s carryover to both strength work and athleticism, and research agrees with that. One small study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found exactly that, showing that isometric contractions before certain vertical jump drills enhanced performance in those jump drills.
This works because isometrics force you to create maximal effort during key moments of an exercise’s range of motion. Take a bench press rep, for example. You may have a “sticking point” midway through the rep. But when you’re using a weight you can control, you generate enough kinetic energy before that moment to push through that sticking point. Move up in weight, however, and you can’t generate as much kinetic energy before that moment, so you struggle to get past your sticking point.
Remove that kinetic energy from the mix, however, and work only at that sticking point, and you get to work on creating max output at that point in the force curve. You can work isometrics from any point, allowing you to work on creating max output at every moment in the force curve.
Such levels of force can’t be duplicated with a moving bar, not even when you’re performing your one-rep max.
The Rules of Isometric Training for A Bigger Max
Before you start up with isometric training, make sure you understand how to do it both safely and effectively. You want to create a situation that forces your muscles to generate maximum force, which requires using a challenging load. It’s also going to tax your muscles and require a lot of mental focus, so you want to make sure you do it safely, too.
So keep these principles in mind whenever you’re incorporating isometric work into your workouts.
Use Big Weight
Be sure you use a weight that you can’t budge by yourself. So if your one-rep max in the bench is, say, 225 pounds, you’ll want to use a weight that’s a good bit heavier than that. To do that safely, you’ll also want to make sure you’re using a Smith machine or other machine that essentially provides you with a built-in “spot.”
Survive for 10 to 20 seconds
For an isometric to work, you have to be willing to hold it for awhile. Focus on 10- to 20-second contractions, and make sure you give each one everything you’ve got. Don’t let yourself relax during the period of each rep. And know that it’ll be harder to exert yourself than you think on these. Ten seconds doesn’t sound like much when you read it here, but your typical standard set of an exercise sometimes lasts only a little longer. And you’re doing multiple reps of that, giving your muscles time to lengthen, contract, and relax. You heard it here first: These 10- to 20-second will be more than enough time to make your muscles quiver and zap your nervous system.
Limit your isometric training work to 2 to 3 sets
That’s more than enough volume. The goal isn’t to take your nervous system down to zero, at least not the way you’re trying to use them in this story. You’re working to amp and prime your body so that it’ll perform better on standard reps. Rest 30 to 60 seconds between each set of iso work.
Your Best Iso Moves
Not all exercises are ideal for this brand of isometric priming training. You’re not doing this with, say, power cleans or snatches, and you also don’t want to challenge yourself in situations that could lead to injury (say, an overhead squat). So stick with these bang-for-your-buck moves, smart exercises that use conventional gym equipment and can really enhance your performance at basic gym moves.
Pump Up Your Deadlift: Iso Deadlift
Set up an empty bar in a squat cage, with the bar on the ground and the safety pins positioned over the bar, not under it. Position your body as if you’re going to do a standard deadlift (and you can check out the video below to learn the basics of how to set up for the deadlift).
Now, pull the bar up, as if deadlifting. You’ll eventually hit the pins. Pull straight into them and continue pulling up; now you’re holding your isometric. Try to pick the entire machine off the ground (unless you’re the Hulk, you shouldn’t be able to). Pull with everything you’ve got, but never let your hips rise higher than your shoulders at any point.
Play with pin position on this, hitting different portions of the deadlift force curve. A few good pin positions to work with: Positioning the pins level with your upper shin, lower shin, and lower thigh.
Max Out Your Bench Press: Iso Chest Press
Set up in a Smith machine, with your seat or the bench positioned just under the a bar set to the correct starting point. Make sure you overload the weight here (if your max on the bench is 200 pounds, load up 350).
Don’t unrack the weight from its position in the machine; leave it locked. Now, try to move the bar. You shouldn’t be able to. But keep pressing against it for your 10 to 20 seconds. Focus on keeping your form tight as you press against it, working on total-body tension as you press up and thinking about keeping your elbows tight and pinching your shoulder blades as you drive the bar as hard as you can.
Don’t use a starting point that’s too low on this one; the bar should be about 6 inches from your chest and shoulders.
Strengthen Your Squat: Wall Hip Abduction
This is a great way to prime your glutes and lumbar region before squats, deadlifts and lunges — and it doesn’t even require any weight. To do this, simply stand with your side to a wall, spacing yourself about two feet from it, toes facing forward. With your leg closest to the wall, drive your heel into the wall, making sure not to bend either knee. Drive outward against the wall as hard as you can, aiming for the glutes to do most of the work on both sides.
Pump Up Your Back: Shoulder Extension
Stand with your back to a wall, and step one foot away from it. Assume a quarter-squat position, and extend your arms straight back behind you with clenched fists until the hands contact the wall. Your elbows should be locked right out, and you should be maintaining good posture with a proud chest. Apply maximum force behind you, and keep the rear deltoids and triceps fully engaged the entire time.
Dominate Your Pullup: Flexed Arm Hang
Find a pull up bar and choose your desired hand position (neutral, overhand or underhand grip are all fine). Using the best pullup form possible, perform one rep, and hold that top position, avoiding swinging. Tighten your abs while doing this. Be sure to keep the shoulder blades pulled back and down, so the ribcage remains highest up when holding position.
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