Isometric Protocols for Strength Development

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Snapshot of Takeaway Points

  • Isometrics allow a 10-15% higher recruitment level than your regular repetitions
  • Isometrics can be used to benefit any training goal from rehabilitation to maximal strength
  • Avoid plateaus and stagnation by adding isometrics into your training arsenal

Introduction

Isometric training has been around for many, many years and today we also have a plethora of research as to why it works. In my practice I’ve utilised it for early stages of rehabilitation, gaining muscle mass or improving maximal strength levels, with great success.

An isometric contraction is defined as applying force/tension without the object you are applying force to moving. You can apply force against an immovable object (overcoming isometric) or pause with a weight during a movement (yielding isometric). During an overcoming isometrics you can generate, depending on which research papers you read, 10-15% more force than just a regular contraction.

Isometrics are known to improve strength 10-15 degrees above and below the joint angle/point of exertion. They are great for enhancing intermuscular co-ordination or firing of muscles through full and/or a localised range. Co-ordination can be affected by many factors from lack of tempo training resulting in a loss of tension, to a weak muscle group. We want the nervous system to send signals to the muscles through the full range of concentric movement to maximise strength and reduce chance of injury.

In this article I share with you some of the protocols I’ve used with great success so you can utilise them on yourself or with your clientele.

Isometronics

Anthony Ditillo is the, or one of the, first to have written about this method, I heard it in turn from Charles Poliquin who was a big fan of it. He would often have his students perform this on semi-private internships to ensure they knew exactly how to execute it. This is the best way to learn!

It’s a ten set workout on one movement. You’ll perform the isometronic at three different points (Bottom, mid, top ROM) for 3 sets each and end the workout with one set of full range of movement. This is to ensure you re-establish neuromuscular connections and soft tissue integrity.

Each isometronic set is 4-6 mini/1-2” reps with a maximal isometric for six seconds on the final rep of the set. You then attempt another mini rep after the isometric. If you can do it then you can increase the weight for the next set at that range.

Workout overview

  • A) Front Squat (Bottom Range): 3 x 4-6 reps, 1016, 180s rest
  • B) Front Squat (Mid Range): 3 x 4-6 reps, 1016, 180s rest
  • C) Front Squat (Top Range): 3 x 4-6 reps, 1016, 180s rest
  • D) Front Squat (Full Range): 1 x 4-6 reps, 4010

Equally you can indeed pair things up with the isometrics to increase training volume and structural balance:

  • A1) Flat Barbell Press (Bottom Range): 3 x 4-6 reps, 1016, 90s rest
  • A2) Unilateral External Rotation (Elbow on Knee): 3 x 6-8 reps, 4010, 90s rest
  • B1) Flat Barbell Press (Mid Range): 3 x 4-6 reps, 1016, 90s rest
  • B2) Unilateral Trap 3 Raise (Bent Over): 3 x 6-8 reps, 4010, 90s rest
  • C1) Flat Barbell Press (Top Range): 3 x 4-6 reps, 1016, 90s rest
  • C2) Unilateral Lateral Raise (Bent Over): 3 x 6-8 reps, 4010, 90s rest
  • D) Flat Barbell Press (Full Range): 1 x 4-6 reps, 4010, 90s rest

Other similar methods I’ve seen utilised is one at Westside barbell whereby you put 70-80% of 1RM on the bar and then tension is applied as fast as possible into the pins for 6 seconds. You would set the workout very similar to the isometronics one above.

Bob Hoffman was an early proponent of isometrics. He had a protocol whereby you would perform 1 x 10 sec maximal isometric for a pull, squat and a press, for 1-3 x positions each and that’s the session done. Talk about time efficient workouts.

Potentiation Protocols

Potentiation protocols are designed to activate the nervous system and enhance recruitment of the subsequent lift(s). In simpler terms, you’ll lift more in the subsequent series than if you didn’t perform the potentiator which in this instance is a maximal isometric.

Option 1: 3 x Isometric sets, 4-5 mins rest, 4-6 sets of speed work with accommodating resistance

  • A) Flat Barbell Press (Bottom ROM): 1 x 4-6 mini reps, 1016, 180s rest (maximal isometric on last rep)
  • B) Flat Barbell Press (Mid ROM): 1 x 4-6 mini reps, 1016, 180s rest (maximal isometric on last rep)
  • C) Flat Barbell Press (Top ROM): 1 x 4-6 mini reps, 1016, 180s rest (maximal isometric on last rep)
  • D) Flat Barbell Press with Chains (Full ROM): 5 x 3, 21X1, 90s rest

Option 2: 3 x Isometric sets, 4-5 mins rest, 4-6 sets of Rate of Force Development/Plyometric

  • A) Back Squat, High Bar (Bottom ROM): 1 x 4-6 mini reps, 1016, 180s rest (maximal isometric on last rep)
  • B) Back Squat, High Bar (Mid ROM): 1 x 4-6 mini reps, 1016, 180s rest (maximal isometric on last rep)
  • C) Back Squat, High Bar (Top ROM): 1 x 4-6 mini reps, 1016, 180s rest (maximal isometric on last rep)
  • D) Depth to box Jump (Low box to high box): 5 x 5, X0X0, 120s rest

Option 3: 3 x Isometric sets, 4-5 mins rest, Rep PB/AMRAP

  • A) Barbell Deadlift, Clean Grip (Bottom ROM): 1 x 4-6 mini reps, 1016, 180s rest (maximal isometric on last rep)
  • B) Barbell Deadlift, Clean Grip (Mid ROM): 1 x 4-6 mini reps, 1016, 180s rest (maximal isometric on last rep)
  • C) Barbell Deadlift, Clean Grip (Top ROM): 1 x 4-6 mini reps, 1016, 180s rest (maximal isometric on last rep)
  • D) Barbell Deadlift, Clean Grip (Full ROM): 1 x 4-6, X1X1

Alternating Protocol

By alternating a maximal isometric and the full range of movement you will transfer the improvement in signalling from the isometric to carry over into the full range of movement. Your brain and nervous system are stimulated to understand what is happening in the isometric and then perform and learn it with the full range.

Option 1: Weakness enhancement

  • A1) Maximal Isometric at designated weak range (Bottom/Middle/Top): 3-5 x 1 rep at 4-6 seconds, 4-5 minutes rest
  • A2) Full Range of movement: 3-5 x 3 reps, 4-5 minutes rest

Example workout for someone with a weakness just above the knee on a deadlift

  • A1) Deadlift Maximal Isometric (Isometric occurs a top of patella): 3-5 sets x 1 rep, 1016, 4-5 minutes rest
  • A2) Deadlift: 3-5 sets x 3 reps, X1X1, 4-5 minutes rest

Option 2: No major weakness

  • A1) Maximal Isometric at each range (Bottom/Middle/Top): 1 rep at 4-6 seconds, 4-5 minutes rest
  • A2) Full Range of movement: 3 reps, 4-5 minutes rest

Example workout for bench press

  • A1) Flat Press Maximal Isometric (Isometric at Bottom ROM): 1-2 sets x 1 rep, 1016, 3-5 minutes rest
  • A2) Flat Press: 1-2 sets x 3 reps, 31X1, 3-5 minutes rest
  • B1) Flat Press Maximal Isometric (Isometric at Middle ROM): 1-2 sets x 1 rep, 1016, 3-5 minutes rest
  • B2) Flat Press: 1-2 sets x 3 reps, 31X1, 3-5 minutes rest
  • C1) Flat Press Maximal Isometric (Isometric at Top ROM): 1-2 sets x 1 rep, 1016, 3-5 minutes rest
  • C2) Flat Press: 1-2 sets x 3 reps, 31X1, 3-5 minutes rest

*Isometronic style mini reps plus the isometric can also be utilised instead of a straight maximal isometric.

Contrast Protocols

These protocols are very similar to the potentiation protocols but are performed in a superset fashion. This means you move from the maximal isometric directly into the next movement within ten to fifteen seconds. Both take advantage of the post tetanic potentiation effect, but the contrast protocol is different in that it goes from the isometric to a quicker movement pattern and mainly takes advantage of high speed strength. The potentiation method doesn’t necessarily have to move to high speed strength. This protocol could also be considered as static-dynamic pairings.

Isometric to Explosive Strength

  • A1) Incline Back Extension (Manual Tension): 5 x 1 rep at 1016, 10s rest
  • A2) Box Jump from Seated: 5 x 3 reps at X0X0, 180s rest

Or

  • A1) Back Squat Isometric at each range (Bottom/Middle/Top): 3 x 4-6 mini reps plus 1 maximal isometric for 4-6 seconds, 10s rest
  • A2) Depth Jump: 3 x 3-5 reps, X0X0, 240s rest

Isometric to Speed Strength

  • A1) Deadlift Isometric at each range (Bottom/Middle/Top): 3 x 4-6 mini reps plus 1 maximal isometric for 4-6 seconds, 10s rest
  • A2) Deadlift against Chains: 3 x 3-5 reps, X1X1, 240s rest

Or

  • A1) Flat Barbell Press Isometric at each range (Bottom/Middle/Top): 3 x 4-6 mini reps plus 1 maximal isometric for 4-6 seconds, 10s rest
  • A2) Flat Barbell Press (Banded): 3 x 3-5 reps, 21X1, 240s rest

*Note: those familiar with my readings know I’m not a fan of performing speed strength without accommodating resistance so all examples would include this.

Yielding Protocols

Yielding isometric protocols would involve a pause on eccentric or concentric portion of the movement for a specified amount of time in seconds. The pause occurs with just a weight instead of into an immovable object like pins on a power rack.

Intra rep isometric hold on concentric or eccentric for 1-6 pauses/positions

Against weight only

  • Back Squat: 5 x 1 rep, 30-010, 180s rest (Pause at 3 x different points for 8 seconds each, training partner/coach calls the pauses and counts the seconds)

Against manual resistance

  • Flat Barbell Press: 5 x 3 reps, 3112, 180s rest (Each repetition pause on concentric range at halfway where training partner/coach applies manual resistance for 2 seconds, complete concentric)

Last repetition isometric holds

Once you’ve hit concentric failure you take advantage of being stronger on the eccentric and pausing at 1-6 positions for set times and maximise time under tension for the set.

In full stretch at end/beginning of session

When conversing with an Olympic Weightlifting colleague, who just this month in training snatched the biggest weight of all UK lifters, we spoke about weightlifters who would pause for extended times in the bottom of a squat before performing their standard session. This lifter would do it for anything up to 5 minutes with 140kg! He did this to enhance and improve his positioning/mobility.

Heavy supports

These could also be considered isometric holds. You un-rack a supramaximal weight and hold it just short of lockout for a specified time. The goal is to make the weight feel normal to the body and/or potentiate the next set.

 

If you’re feeling really devilish you could even mixed both overcoming and yielding isometrics into one set. Note that this is very demanding and taxing to your nervous system. For example squat against pins then have someone push you down whilst you’re still contracting and trying not to move.

  • 4-6 seconds against pins
  • 4-6 seconds with someone pushing you down

Notes on Periodising Isometrics

Overcoming isometrics are more neurally demanding therefore you would want to use more sparingly than yielding isometrics. Using them week in week out will lead to fatigue rather than adaptation. Successful applications I have used are to adopt them for one to two lifts in an intensification phase. I have also used them after a maximal effort/relative strength series/exericse for 1-3 sets like in the below video, again usually in intensification phases.

I’ve read that Westside barbell has used them 6 hours post dynamic workout as a second workout of the day. They would perform for 6 different positions for 6 reps with a 3-6 second isometric. Using isometrics as a second workout of the day I have done and is highly rewarding in terms of strength gained.

Conclusion

If you want to obtain inhuman levels of strength then you need to keep challenging your nervous system. Your body loves to adapt. It’s bloody good at it! If you keep giving it the same stimulus it won’t bat an eyelid at it. My biggest frustration is hearing of lifters that have stalled or haven’t achieved a personal best for years.

There are so many variables at your disposal there is no excuse in stalling. Isometrics is one of them and it sits high on the expansive list one alongside eccentrics. I hope you enjoy using the above protocols and I look forward to hearing about your progress.

Article written by: Tom Hibbert

Published on: 26/8/2019

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