What are your thoughts on isometric workouts and their effectiveness?” – Alexander Pipes

Isometric training, where you create maximal tension in a muscle group while in a fixed position is a very effective means of training. Isometric training helps improve joint stability and muscular strength at the joint angle being trained; approximately +/- 15 degrees around the position you are holding. Because of this, isometrics can be great for targeting weaknesses for big lifts and for rehabbing injuries. For example, targetting a weakness of your chest when you’re benching can be overcome by hitting isometric holds for 5-10 seconds with the barbell at that position.

The most common isometric exercise that you’ve probably heard of is the plank. It trains core stability and develops muscular endurance in the muscle groups that support and surround the torso. 

The problem with isometric training, as stated in the benefits, is that you only develop strength at the specific joint angle you’re training. To create strength through a full range of motion for a movement pattern – for example the bench press – you would have to perform isometric holds at increments all the way through the bar path; from lockout to right above the chest. Isometric training definitely has its place in the weightroom, but is typically reserved for targeting weaknesses or – for advanced applications – as a superset with an explosive movement for enhanced motor unit recruitment and more powerful expressions.

Some ways to utilize isometric training with the three big lifts – bench, squat, and deadlifts – is the following:

Bench Press Pin Presses – Setup a flat bench in the power cage and place one cage pin on each side at chest height. Place a lightly loaded barbell on these pins. Next, place two more cage pins at a height along the bar path where you typically have problems moving the weight. You will get on the bench and drive the barbell upward off the 1st set of pins into the 2nd set of pins (set at your weakpoint) as hard as you can with maximal muscular tension for 5-10 seconds. Start with 50% of your 1RM and progress from there. Repeat for 3-4 sets.

Pause Squats – Perform squats where you slowly lower down into the squat and hold a position where you typically stall out when squatting; most times this is at parallel or slightly above. This is because we get stronger as our joint angles improve (near lockout) and we get help out of the hole due to the strength shortening cycle (elastic energy accumulates as we descend into the squat) in our muscles.  Hold this position for a 3-5 second count and explode back to lockout – repeat for 3-5 reps. Start with 50% of your 1RM and progress from there. Repeat for 3-4 sets.

Top-Down Deadlifts – Instead of pulling deadlifts off the floor, you can build the strength needed for bigger weights by focusing on the lowering phase of lift. Performing isometric holds, 3-5 seconds at mid-quad, right below the knees, and mid-shin, will build an ironclad posterior chain and help your overall pulling strength.

“I’ve been trying to do front squats with my wrists turned up to the ceiling but my wrists/forearms are too tight. How do I work this out so I can front squat properly and not have to always do modified versions?” – Kareem Michael

Lift Doc

If you don’t want to resort to the “crossed-arm” bodybuilding front squat, or use lifting straps to help you stay in a better position, you’ll need to work on the following:

  1. Upper back mobility – Opening up the movement in your upper back with foam rolling and various rotational stretches, will allow you to stay more upright when you front squat.
  2. Stretch your lats, triceps and wrist extensors – When we lift we get stronger, but we also introduce tension into our bodies. We must continuously stretch, perform various dynamic mobility movements, warm-up thoroughly, and keep incorporating means of recovery like foam rolling, stretches with a band, proper hydration and good breathing habits to alleviate the tightness in our muscles.
  3. More core strength – The more weight we use on our front squats, the more core strength we need to stay upright and braced under the load.
  4. More hip mobility – Increasing the mobility, or unrestricted movement for the intended exercise of the hips will allow you to hit depth and not lose your straight back position at the bottom of the lift.
  5. Perform conventional front squats – To get better at any lift, you have to train it a lot. If it is something you want to make a strength, try front squatting every workout.  Keep focusing on good form, an upright position, and driving the elbows upward as you descend into the squat.

Meet the Lift Doctor

Jim Smith is a highly respected, world-renowned strength and conditioning coach. A member of the LIVESTRONG.com Fitness Advisory Board, Jim has been called one of the most “innovative strength coaches” in the fitness industry. Training athletes, fitness enthusiasts and weekend warriors, Jim has dedicated himself to helping them reach “beyond their potential.” He is also the owner of Diesel Strength & Conditioning in Elmira, NY.