Can you trick your body into instantly becoming stronger and faster? It sounds like a gimmicky sales pitch, but it’s entirely possible. The answer: overcoming isometrics.
What are overcoming isometrics?
Overcoming isometrics involve trying to move an immovable object with maximum effort. These isometric (i.e., no movement) muscle contractions allow you to put every ounce of effort and energy into the movement, which recruits as many motor units and muscle fibers as possible. These motor units and muscle fibers stay “on” for a period of time after performing the overcoming isometric, leaving you temporarily stronger and faster via an effect called post-activation potentiation.
You can also use overcoming isometrics to beat a tough sticking point during your lifts. For example, many lifters get stuck on the Bench Press a few inches off the chest, or stall about halfway up on their Squats. Overcoming isometrics teach you to push hard and stay tight during these sticking points, which can help destroy these weaknesses.
Overcoming isometrics might not look all that impressive at a glance, but they offer real benefits that athletes and lifters can utilize to lift heavier, jump higher and gain greater explosiveness.
The Force-Velocity Curve
To understand why overcoming isometrics are so effective, it helps to understand the relationship between force and velocity. Quite simply, the faster you move an external load (such as a barbell), the less force you can develop, and the slower that load moves, the more force you can develop.
Let’s use squatting as an example. The heavier the weight on the bar, the slower it moves. You cannot move 95% of your one-rep max as fast as you can move 75% of your one-rep max. You might try to move it quickly, but the bar slows down because it requires more force to lift the heavier load.
On the other hand, a vertical jump must be done quickly to jump high. If you try to jump slowly, your feet simply won’t leave the ground. It’s a similar movement to a Squat, but the force produced is much lower because of the increased speed of the movement.
Overcoming isometrics occur all the way at the force end of this curve. Because the movement speed is literally zero (remember, isometric means the load isn’t moving at all), you can develop maximal force.
Don’t Move a Muscle
To perform overcoming isometrics, you need a barbell and a power rack with safety pins, rails or straps—anything that allows you to push or pull the bar against it with maximal effort. Set up the pins so the bar ends up directly in the range of motion that you want to target.
For Squats, this may be the point where your hips are just above parallel:
For Bench Press, this may be the point where the bar is just a few inches off the chest:
For the Deadlift, it may be at the point where the bar’s at mid-shin:
Those are common sticking points for many lifters, but you can experiment with the exact placement of the pins to target any weak point you desire. The barbell does not need to be loaded.
Once you’ve set up the pins, perform the movement by driving the bar into the pins as hard as possible. Imagine trying to snap the bar in half or bend it around the pins. Bonus points if you have a coach or training partner shouting at you for encouragement (don’t laugh, this actually helps). Push like your life depended on it for 5-10 consecutive seconds, then stop.
Remember, the main benefit of overcoming isometrics is the role they play in post-activation potentiation. Overcoming isometrics can be a phenomenal way to fire up your nervous system and tap into all those fast-twitch muscle fibers to help you lift heavier, jump higher, etc. So after you perform your overcoming isometric exercise, you’ll want to immediately perform a related movement to take advantage of your temporarily enhanced strength and power. This is called contrast training.
If you’re performing a powerlifting exercise such as a Squat, Bench Press or Deadlift, it’s best to combine overcoming isometrics with “speed work” in the range of 60-80 percent of your 1-rep max. Use a weight you can lift with perfect form and good bar speed. For example, contrast training for the upper-body that utilizes an overcoming isometric might look like:
- Overcoming Isometric Bench Press: Push as hard as possible for 5 seconds
- Speed Bench Press: 3 reps at 70% of 1RM, moving the bar as fast as possible
- Rest 2-3 minutes and repeat for 3-5 sets
Contrast training can also be applied to jumping movements to build power for team sport athletes. For example you could pair a squat overcoming isometric with a vertical jump or a deadlift overcoming isometric with a broad jump. You can even do single-leg work, such as outlined here:
- Overcoming Isometric Split Squat: Push as hard as possible for 5 seconds
- Split Squat Jump: 3 reps, trying to jump as high as possible
- Rest 2-3 minutes and repeat on the other leg. Perform 3-4 sets per side
How to Use Overcoming Isometrics
Overcoming isometrics are best used once a lifter or athlete has mastered basic lifting technique and has built an appreciable base of strength. If someone can’t squat their own body weight or can’t do a Push-Up with perfect form, I believe they’ve got no business doing overcoming isometrics.
The time of year and proximity to one’s competitive season becomes important as well. Overcoming isometrics are extremely taxing on the nervous system, and as simple as they seem, they can wipe out an athlete if performed too often or at the wrong time. In general, athletes should use overcoming isometrics within 8-12 weeks of the start of their competitive season when building and displaying power is the most important.
For example, a football player would benefit most from using overcoming isometrics in the early to late summer, just before their season starts in the fall. The winter and spring should be spent building more general strength qualities before dialing in power and explosiveness closer to the season.
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