Using Isometrics to Build Strength in Power Lifts

Isometrics came into fame in the 1970s with the idea that they could build enormous strength. They soon fell out of popularity because in essence, isometrics don’t move and so are difficult to measure. We measure our progress in various ways: intensity, volume, measurements of body parts, etc. How you become better at isometrics is difficult to see. We have been told that to get better at our lifts we must work on our weak points. I have found there is no better way to improve these points than through isometrics.

The two main types of isometrics I have used to improve weak points are short duration isometrics (6 seconds or less) and long duration isometrics (6 seconds or more). The way isometrics work to increase strength is not by strengthening the muscle but the nervous system and the motor pattern used in that particular position. You see, our nerves are coated with a fatty layer called myelin. Myelin increases the efficiency of the nerve by acting like the rubber coating around an electrical cord. If there is little to no rubber coating, electricity can go anywhere and your blender, toaster or coffee maker won’t work very well. With a thick rubber coating the electricity can travel to the appliance safely and efficiently. This holds true for your nervous system as well. The more myelin coating your nerve the more efficient the signal is and the easier it is to produce a muscle contraction.

So how do you build more myelin? We can start by finding your sticking point – the point in the lift that you always fail at. For me it’s about two inches off my chest in my bench press. The quick fix is short duration isometrics. After your bench workout strip the weight down to roughly 30% of your 1RM. Take the bar out of the rack and hold it in a bench press position at the point where you fail. Hold it there for 6 seconds then re-rack the weight. You can do this same exercise for the squat, overhead press and deadlift. Once this becomes easy increase the intensity by having your training partner push down on the bar while you push back up. If you are too strong for your training partner add more weight!

Watch a short duration bench press isometric here:

Long duration isometrics are more painful and can last anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes. There are many different ways to do them but for simplicity’s sake I will continue to focus on the bench press. I prefer a reverse grip chest hold. To perform this set place two small boxes on the ground, then get into a push up position holding onto the boxes with a reverse grip. Lower down to the bottom of a push up position and hold yourself off the ground. After about 30 seconds you will start to shake – that’s your nervous system struggling to continue to fire for a longer period of time. Start with 30 seconds, working your way up to 5 minutes total taking breaks when you need to and then work towards 5 minutes uninterrupted. Once you can do 5 minutes straight start adding weight to your back.

Watch a long duration bench press isometric here:

Add either of these exercises to your bench day and you will blow past your sticking points. I would shy away from adding both on one day due to the volume on the nervous system. Feel free to play with these exercises to find the one that works best for you. These are just 2 ways to skin the cat and we all know there are many!

By Tommy Miller, M.Ed., CSCS, USAW