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Isometrics for Muscle Mass: Do Isometrics Build Muscle?

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David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.

Eugen Sandow used isometrics to help build his incredible strength.

Eugen Sandow used isometrics to help build his incredible strength.

Isometrics for Mass

You don’t hear very much about isometric exercises these days, which is a shame as they can be a very effective tool to help you build both strength and muscle mass – provided you know how to use them to achieve each of those particular goals.

Isometrics have historically been used to help build high levels of strength – far more than could be achieved by using ordinary isotonic weight training techniques alone. But they have often been criticized as being relatively useless for increasing muscle mass, which is why they have never become popular in bodybuilding circles. But the reason for this is that the typical duration of an isometric hold is about 7 – 10 seconds, and this is just not sufficient to produce good gains in muscle size.

But when used correctly, isometrics can indeed be very effective for building not just strength, but muscle size too. So in this article I’ll explain what isometrics are, the different types of isometric contractions you can do, and how to use them to build both maximum strength and muscle size too.

What are Isometrics?

An isometric exercise is one where you push or pull against a resistance, but there is no movement of the muscle or joint involved. So isometric training is often referred to as static training. There are two different types of isometric exercise:

Overcoming Isometrics

Here you are pushing or pulling against an immovable object, e.g. pushing against a door frame while bracing your back against the opposite side of the frame, or pushing a bar against the pins of a rack. So you are attempting to move the resistance, even though that is impossible.

Yielding Isometrics

Here you are holding a weight at a certain point in the range of motion of an exercise, e.g. holding a curl movement at about mid-way point, for a certain amount of time. In this instance you are not attempting to move the load, but to prevent its movement.

The two techniques will not have the same effect, as the neural patterns used in each are different. Overcoming isometrics can have a bigger impact on concentric strength gains, whereas yielding isometrics may affect eccentric strength and muscle mass to a greater extent.

There is however a degree of overlap between the two methods. For instance, if you are holding a weight for a certain length of time, you may have the ability to complete the movement when you start it, but once you have held it for a time you’ll find that if you try to complete the movement now you will not be able to. However you may still be able to hold it in place for several seconds longer.

You can also apply isometric holds for different lengths of time – anything from 3 seconds to a minute or more. And again this will produce different effects. Shorter duration holds with a greater resistance or effort (maximum intensity isometrics) produce greater gains in strength with little or no increase in muscle mass. Whereas longer duration holds with a lower resistance (maximum duration isometrics) produce greater gains in muscle size with far less increase in strength.

Isometrics for Maximum Strength

For maximum strength development you should use short duration holds (3 – 7 seconds) with a high level of effort or resistance. You can use either overcoming or yielding isometrics, but overcoming isometrics are best suited to this purpose. If you do use yielding isometrics however, you would use a weight that is about 5 – 15% above your one rep max for the exercise concerned.

With isometric movements the strength you develop is very specific to the joint angle being trained, though it does have some carryover up to about 20 degrees either side. For this reason you will need to use 2 or 3 different positions within the range of movement of the exercise, i.e. mid-range, at (or close to) the top position and a couple of inches from the bottom position. Unless of course you are simply using isometrics to overcome a particular weak point in a movement, in which case you can concentrate on that position alone.

This type of isometric training is unlikely to produce much in the way of increased muscle size, but it is excellent for developing tremendous strength together with increased muscle density.

Isometrics for Maximum Muscle Mass

In order to increase your muscle size you will need to employ longer duration isometric holds (anything from 15 to 60 seconds works well) with a lighter load. Again, either overcoming or yielding isometrics can be used, but yielding isometrics with a load of 60 – 90% of your one rep max works best.

You can employ longer duration yielding isometrics for increased muscle mass in three different ways:

1. Stand Alone Isometrics

This is where isometrics are the only type of training you do in a particular workout. Just select one exercise per body part, and two or three positions for each exercise. Select an appropriate weight and do 2 or 3 sets of each exercise in each position. Do all your sets for a given position before moving on to the next one, and keep your rest periods between sets relatively short (about a minute) for maximum hypertrophic response.

2. Post-Fatigue Isometrics

Here you do an isometric hold at the end of a regular set of an exercise. So after you’ve done your prescribed number of reps, simply hold the weight at the mid-point of the movement for 15 - 20 seconds before you finish your set.

This method is very taxing, so you should only perform it on the last set of each exercise. But it does thoroughly exhaust all your muscle fibers, providing a massive growth stimulus.

3. Pre-Fatigue Isometrics

I would not advise that you use this method (or any other pre-fatigue technique) with compound exercises, as it will seriously hamper strength gains. But it can be used with isolation exercises and is particularly beneficial for small body parts such as the arms and shoulders.

The method involves performing a superset consisting of an isometric hold followed by a regular set of an exercise for the same body part. E.g. you could do an isometric hold with a cable curl and follow it with a regular set of barbell curls. Do the cable curl at three different positions, and follow each with a set of about 10 reps of barbell curls. Just one or two sets at each position will be plenty; and again this is a technique that will thoroughly exhaust the muscles and produce rapid gains in muscle size.

Although the stand alone method is probably the best, any of these three methods will produce great gains in muscle size in a relatively short space of time. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you can just use isometrics for all your training from now on, as that will not give you the best long term results. But use these techniques as part of your overall training strategy and you will be able to build both your muscle strength and size to levels you would never have previously thought possible.