Curious… is isometric training good for building muscle?
Do you wonder if isometric muscular contractions are good for building muscular hypertrophy?
Then you've come to the right place.
In this comprehensive guide, I will show you how to use isometric training to take your physique to the next level!
- Part 1: Build Muscle With Overcoming Isometrics
- Part 2: Build Muscle With Yielding Isometrics
Isometric training is one of the most powerful training methods that you can use in the gym. If you are creative enough then you can use isometric training to build tons of new muscle mass!
So what is isometric training, and why is it so effective for building muscle?
The truth is, there are three types of muscle contractions:
The 3 Types Of Muscular Contractions
- Type #1: Concentric contractions
- Type #2: Eccentric contractions
- Type #3: Isometric contractions
Concentric and eccentric contractions occur when you are lifting or lowering a weight. Isometric contractions are completely different: they occur when your muscles are contracting without moving!
Isometric training is an awesome strategy that you can use in your workouts to build more muscle mass. The key is to combine isometric training with regular concentric / eccentric training in the same workout.
One of the best ways to use isometric training is called “overcoming isometrics.” The basic idea is to push or pull against an immovable object as hard as you can for 6-8 seconds.
For example here is Tyson Hughes performing an overcoming isometric contraction for his triceps on the close grip bench press:
In this video Tyson is performing 6 regular sets followed by a 6-second isometric contraction against the top pins. Tyson is literally trying to break the safety pins in half! This kind of overcoming isometric contraction is great for recruiting fast-twitch muscle fibers at the end of your set.
There are many other ways to perform overcoming isometric contractions to build muscle and they will all be covered in part 1 of this article.
The other type of isometric contraction is called “yielding isometrics.” The basic idea is to use your muscles to hold a weight in place against the force of gravity.
For example here is a bodybuilder performing an iso-hold on the dumbbell lateral raise:
The weight isn’t moving but this bodybuilder’s side delts have to be on fire from this exercise!
There are many ways to perform iso-holds in your training. You can perform them as a separate exercise or as a post-failure method after you finish your last rep in a set. I will cover many different “iso-hold” strategies in part 2 of this article.
I hope you found this overview helpful. Now let’s get down to business…
Part 1: Build Muscle With Overcoming Isometrics
Overcoming isometrics are one of the most underrated training methods for building muscle.
When you apply force against an immovable object you aren’t breaking down any muscle tissue. However, you are doing a number of things to stimulate muscle growth:
- You recruit more fast-twitch muscle fibers
- You increase the time under tension on your muscles
- You release more anabolic hormones like IGF-1
- You create an occlusion effect in your muscles
All of these things make overcoming isometrics a fantastic training method for building muscle. The key is to perform overcoming isometrics together with more full range of motion exercises.
There are two ways to use overcoming isometrics to build muscle mass:
- Option #1: Iso-Dynamics
- Option #2: Functional Isometrics
Let’s take a closer look at both of these options.
Option #1: Iso-Dynamics
Iso-dynamics is a training strategy where you perform an all-out overcoming isometric contraction for 6-8 seconds, then immediately go and perform a full range of motion exercise for 3-10 reps.
This combination of isometric training and full range of motion training damages a ton of muscle fibers and is fantastic for stimulating growth.
I first learned about iso-dynamics from Josh Bryant so let’s see what he has to say about this method. Here is Josh Bryant demonstrating a brutal iso-dynamics routine for your triceps. Check it out:
Triceps Iso-Dynamics Method
Talk about an intense training method! For this routine you are performing a tri-set with three triceps exercises: the isometric bench press, the bench press with bands and the decline dumbbell extension.
You perform all three exercises in a row with only 10 seconds rest between exercises. Here is the full routine in case you are curious:
Iso-Dynamics Bench Press Routine
- A1: Close grip bench press overcoming isometric***, 3 x 6 second hold, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Close grip bench press against bands, 3 x 3, 1/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Decline DB extension, 3 x 10, 5/0/1/0, 4 minutes rest
***Perform an overcoming isometric with an empty barbell. The pins should be set up 2 inches below lockout in a power rack.
And here is a great video showing the full routine:
This iso-dynamics routine is so effective because it overloads every type of muscle fiber in the triceps.
The first 2 exercises are great for recruiting the fast-twitch muscle fibers and placing a ton of tension on the triceps while the last exercise is used to hit the slow-twitch muscle fibers and generate a ton of metabolic fatigue.
You can also use iso-dynamics to build bigger biceps. An easy way to do this is to perform isometric barbell curls, rest 10 seconds and then perform the incline dumbbell curl for 4-8 reps.
Here is Josh Bryant demonstrating this method. Check it out:
Biceps Iso-Dynamics Method
Talk about an intense workout! Josh Bryant’s client is curling the bar into his hands while Josh is doing everything he can to prevent the bar from moving.
Josh wants you to perform isometric reps in the bottom third, the mid-range and the top third of the barbell curl to overload different points in the strength curve and build more muscle mass.
Here is the full biceps routine in case you were curious:
Biceps Iso-Dynamics Routine
- A1: Ez-bar curl bottom position overcoming isometric (wide / supinated grip), 3 x 6 seconds, 10 seconds rest
- A2: 45 degree incline DB curl (supinated grip), 3 x 4-8, 3 minutes rest
- B1: Ez-bar curl middle position overcoming isometric (wide / supinated grip), 3 x 6 seconds, 10 seconds rest
- B2: 45 degree incline DB curl (supinated grip), 3 x 4-8, 3 minutes rest
- C1: Ez-bar curl top position overcoming isometric (wide / supinated grip), 3 x 6 seconds, 10 seconds rest
- C2: 45 degree incline DB curl (supinated grip), 3 x 4-8, 3 minutes rest
Iso-dynamics are a tremendous strategy for building muscle mass but they are not the only way to use overcoming isometric contractions!
Another great strategy is called “functional isometrics.”
Option #2: Functional Isometrics
Functional isometrics is an advanced training method that you can use to build muscle mass and strength. The goal is to perform a regular set of 4-8 reps and then immediately perform a 6-8 second isometric contraction to create even more muscle damage.
Here is Josh Bryant giving a perfect overview of how to use functional isometrics to build bigger triceps. Check it out:
Josh Bryant Bench Press Functional Isometrics
This is a perfect demonstration of functional isometrics.
The bodybuilder performs 6-8 full range of motion reps where he hits the top pins in each rep. Then on his last rep he presses the bar up against the top pins for a full 6-8 seconds.
Here is a sample arm training workout where Josh Bryant used functional isometrics to terrorize the triceps. Check it out:
Josh Bryant Functional Isometrics Workout
- A1: Bench press functional isometrics (shoulder-width grip)**, 3 x 6, 1/0/X/0, 3 minutes rest
- B1: Chain triceps extensions, 3 x 8, 5/0/1/0, 1 minute rest
- C1: Thick grip barbell curls (reverse grip), 3 x 5, 5/0/1/0, 1 minute rest
- D1: 60 degree incline DB curls (supinating grip), 3 x 8, 1/0/X/0, no rest
- D2: Standing alternating DB curls (hammer grip), 3 x AMRAP**, 1/0/1/0, no rest
- E1: V-bar dips (upright torso)****, 2 x 20, 1/0/1/0, 30 seconds rest
- E2: Standing DB curls (supinated grip)****, 2 x 20, 30 seconds rest
- E3: Standing band triceps pushdowns****, 2 x 20, 30 seconds rest
- E4: Standing alternating DB curls (hammer grip)****, 2 x 20, 30 seconds rest
**Performed with the occlusion training method. Wrap an occlusion training device around your arms to restrict your arm blood flow while performing these exercises.
Here is the training video for this workout:
The Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin prefers to use functional isometrics in a slightly different way: he has his athletes perform 4-6 partial range of motion repetitions followed by an isometric contraction against the top pins.
Charles actually has his athletes perform partial reps in between 2 pairs of safety pins. Check it out:
Charles Poliquin Bench Press Functional Isometrics
Charles Poliquin says that his version of functional isometrics is one of the best ways to train for “functional hypertrophy.” In other words it is a great way to increase the size of your fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Here is a sample Charles Poliquin style functional isometrics routine that you can try. Check it out:
Charles Poliquin Functional Isometrics Routine
- A1: Bench press bottom position functional isometrics (medium grip), 3 x 4-6, 1/0/X/0, 3 minutes rest
- B1: Bench press middle position functional isometrics (medium grip), 3 x 4-6, 1/0/X/0, 3 minutes rest
- C1: Bench press top position functional isometrics (medium grip), 3 x 4-6, 1/0/X/0, 3 minutes rest
- D1: Bench press (medium grip), 1 x 4-6, 4/0/1/0, 3 minutes rest
- E1: Decline ez-bar extension with chains (to forehead), 3 x 6-8, 3/0/3/0, 45 seconds rest
Functional isometrics are a great choice when you are training pressing exercises like the bench press, incline bench press and the overhead press. They can also be performed on other exercises like squats, deadlifts and even bicep curls if you are creative enough!
Here is the Olympic gold medalist Adam Nelson demonstrating functional isometrics on the standing barbell curl. Check it out:
Adam Nelson Biceps Functional Isometrics
If you are feeling extra brave then you can even use functional isometrics on different machine and isolation exercises.
Here is John demonstrating a brutal isometric set on leg extensions. Check it out:
John Meadows Leg Extensions
The bottom line is overcoming isometrics are a tremendous way to train if your goal is to build muscle mass. The key is to combine them with full range of motion sets.
You can perform the isometrics right before your full range of motion work to pre-fatigue your muscles. You can also perform isometrics right after your full range of motion work as a post-fatigue method.
I recommend you try both of these strategies and see which one works best for you!
Part 2: Build Muscle With Yielding Isometrics
So far we’ve talked about how to build muscle mass with overcoming isometrics.
Another great isometric training strategy is called yielding isometrics. The basic idea is to use your muscles to hold a weight in place and to prevent it from moving.
This technique is sometimes called an “iso-hold” by top level bodybuilders. Whatever you want to call it this strategy is fantastic for building muscle mass!
There are 3 ways to perform iso-holds in your training. Check it out:
The 2 Yielding Isometric Variations:
- Option #1: Iso-holds performed during the set
- Option #2: Iso-holds as a post-failure method
- Option #3: Iso-holds as a separate exercise
The first option is to perform iso-holds during your regular set. For example you could perform a 1-3 second isometric hold at a specific point in the range of motion to increase tension on the target muscle.
Here is a great video of Charles Poliquin using this strategy on the reverse ez-bar curl. Check it out:
Charles Poliquin Brachialis Iso-Hold
Research shows that you can recruit more muscle fibers in the brachialis muscle when you perform a 1-3 second pause in the bottom half of reverse curls. Charles is using the 2 second pause to recruit more muscle fibers in the brachialis so his client gets faster results.
The bodybuilding coach Josh Bryant also likes to use iso-holds to make brachialis exercises more effective.
Another strategy that you can use is to perform iso-holds in 3 separate areas during the range of motion of your exercise. For example here is Josh Bryant demonstrating this strategy on the machine squat:
Machine Squat Yielding Isometrics
Josh Bryant has his clients perform 3-second pauses in 3 different parts of the range of motion on every rep. These isometric pauses force you to recruit more muscle fibers in your quads and dramatically increase the time under tension of the set.
Josh says that this strategy works better on the machine squat because you don’t have to worry about balancing a heavy barbell on your back – you can just focus on working the target muscle.
Another great strategy is to use isometric pauses as a post-failure training method. You would train to failure on an exercise and then perform an isometric hold in a power position to further fatigue the target muscle.
Here is Dusty Hanshaw demonstrating this strategy at the end of his rest-pause set for shoulders. Check it out:
Dusty Hanshaw Static Hold
This kind of post-failure iso-hold is a very powerful way to stimulate muscle growth in advanced bodybuilders.
The bodybuilding coach John Meadows is also a big fan of this strategy. He often trains to failure on an exercise, then performs several partial reps in the stretched position and finally finishes up with an iso-hold in a power position.
Here is John demonstrating this strategy on the machine fly. Check it out:
John Meadows Chest Iso Hold
John performs 10 full range of motion reps, then 7 partial reps in the stretched position and finally a 10-second iso-hold to failure. If that kind of set won’t stimulate growth in your chest then I don’t know what will!
So far we’ve looked at ways to perform yielding isometric contractions on each rep during a set or as a post-failure strategy. You can also perform yielding isometrics as a completely separate exercise. You just lift the weight up and hold it there for 10-60 seconds or until you reach failure.
Josh Bryant really likes to use this strategy on the dumbbell lateral raise exercise to build up the side delts. Check it out:
This exercise is sometimes called the “crucifix hold” because it looks similar to the crucifix hold event from professional strongman. Whatever you want to call it, this strategy is tremendous for building up your side delts.
The bodybuilding coach John Meadows sometimes performs iso-holds on one exercise right before he performs full range of motion reps on another exercise. This is a very creative way to train for muscular hypertrophy.
Here is IFBB pro Ken Jackson supersetting an iso-hold on the band row with smith machine rack deadlifts. Check it out:
Band Iso-Hold Into Deadlifts
Ken Jackson is using the band row iso-hold to pre-fatigue his upper back so it has to work even harder during the smith machine rack deadlifts.
As you can see there are many different ways to perform iso-holds in your training.
Isometric training is one of the most powerful training methods ever invented. In this guide I showed you how to use 2 different types of isometric sets to build muscle mass:
- Overcoming isometrics
- Yielding isometrics
Overcoming isometrics are more of a powerlifting-style training strategy where your goal is to build the fast-twitch muscle fibers. On the other hand yielding isometrics are more of a true bodybuilding style strategy where your goal is to create as much muscle fatigue as possible and increase the time under tension of your sets.
I recommend you try both strategies and see which one works best for you!
“Vision is a purpose, and when your purpose is clear, so are your life choices. Vision creates faith and faith creates willpower. With faith, there is no anxiety, no doubt – just absolute confidence.”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!