By: Josh Bryant
The masses jumped on board, like a hobo on a ham sandwich, a popular isometric training system that claimed “Train 10 minutes a day and increase your strength by over 30 percent in 10 weeks.”
Unfortunately this system proved to be as useless as tits on a bull frog for gains in size and strength.
Outlandish claims that would make Brian Williams blush are the norm in the strength and conditioning industry. Think about it—if you static stretch, you will never deadlift over 200 pounds and become slower than a geriatric snail on a salted street. Try drinking a gallon of coffee a day and you will live to be 100.
Extreme claims should be taken with a grain of salt, isometrics may not be the messianic savior to the physically flaccid, BUT, properly applied in conjunction with dynamic training, they help you push through sticking points and take any lifts to the next level.
Today we are going to look how they specifically apply to the bench press.
Brief History of Isometrics
Isometrics were popularized by Dr. John Ziegler, the team physician for the York Barbell Club in the 1950s and 1960s. Weightlifting pioneer Bob Hoffman, York Barbell Club owner, made a hell of lot of dead presidents because of his isometric training system.
Hoffman stated functional isometrics “bring superior results faster, with far less effort, in a great deal less time. It will be a body saver because its scientific method builds the maximum of strength and development, with a minimum strain upon muscles, tendons and ligaments.”
The isometrics Hoffman promoted consisted of pushing against an immovable object.
Hoffman and Ziegler coached athletes who broke world record after world record.
Because of results and salesmanship slicker than a harpooned hippo on a banana tree, mainstream athletes started using their isometric training system.
Discus world record holder, Jay Sylvester, and legendary distance runner, Jim Beatty, both affirmed publicly training with isometrics.
Strength training parishioners believed their prayers had been answered.
The Dirty little Secret
Dr. Ziegler, with Hoffman’s blessing, had direct access to his weightlifting team. Ziegler began to experiment straight testosterone shots on York weightlifters and bodybuilders, with subpar results.
Ziegler was persistent and eventually partnered with a major pharmaceutical company and achieved his dream of creating a wonder drug called “Dianabol.”
Dianabol worked like a charm!
After years in the outhouse, Americans were once again in the penthouse of international weightlifting .York poster boy, Bill March, had exclusive access to this wonder drug and was breaking world records every time he set foot on the platform.
The good times were rolling at York!
While Hoffman and Ziegler credited March’s success to training with isometrics, the word about Dianabol got out. Then isometrics were dismissed as a gimmicky and ineffective training method.
Not so fast!
An effective training program beats an elaborate steroid cycle. If you are “on” but train like an idiot, and lack intensity, you will not set world records in a drug-free strength contest.
Bill March, the first American to use Dianabol, would not have set world records naturally. Nonetheless, isometrics played an important role in his acquisition of strength.
Go to any chain gym and you will quickly see hundreds of people that prove steroids do not make everyone a champion.
Isometrics have a localized strengthening effect. This is why the establishment rejects them.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In this case, the treasure is eradicating specific sticking points in the bench press.
Sticking Point Occurrence
As you concentrically push the weight up in the bench press, your objective is to push the bar up as fast as possible. Still, your ability to produce force will change. A sticking point occurs where the ability to produce force is decreased.
One study showed that in a dozen different regions of the bench press force production capabilities differed.
van den Tillaar, R., Saeterbakken, A., & Ettema, G. (2012). Is the occurrence of the sticking region the result of diminishing potentiation in bench press?. Journal of Sports Sciences, 30(6), 591-599
Luckily, we can combat sticking points with isometrics specific to the bench press.
Defining an Isometric Contraction
An isometric contraction is defined as a muscular contraction not accompanied by movement of the joint.
Isometrics can range from static holds to pushing against immovable objects.
I have had great results in training clients, and myself, by pushing against an immovable object. This allows one to produce 15 percent more force than could be produced concentrically! Producing greater amounts of force for longer amounts of time in your weakest regions systematically eliminates sticking points.
Movement Intention Explained
With Compensatory Acceleration Training (CAT), I often talk about movement intention. Simply, meaning to move the weight, as explosively as possible from point A to point B while staying tight and maintaining great technique.
Static holds with heavy weights within sticky regions teach one not to yield or to be on the defensive.
With sticking points, the best defense is a good offense!
By pushing as forcefully as possible against an immovable object in a weak region, not only are you overloading this region but you are also programing your central nervous to be aggressive. This is in line with an offensive movement intention.
By pushing against an immovable object, you will produce a localized training effect within 15-20 degrees of the joint angle you are targeting, i.e. a sticky region.
If isometrics are performed too often or too long, there can be negative consequences to your bench press, like decreased explosive power and adversely affecting your movement pattern.
Avoiding this potential pitfall is done by performing contrast sets in an alternating fashion between bench press-specific isometrics and CAT bench presses.
Josh Explains the Isometric/CAT Contrast Method
This method is performed by bench pressing the barbell to the pins in a power rack at the region you want to specifically target. Push maximal force against the pins for 5-6 seconds. Try to rip the bolts from the ground and push the power rack through the roof.
Now wait 2 to 5 minutes and perform a CAT bench press for 1-4 reps, with a submaximal weight.
You will be more explosive on the CAT because of Post-Activation Potentiation (PAP effect). Yuri Verhoshansky explains it like this, “When you perform a 3-5 RM followed by a light explosive set…to your nervous system it’s like lifting a ½ can of water when you think it’s full.”
Maximal isometrics elicit an unbelievable PAP effect. Jeremy Hoornstra has used isometric contractions prior to setting world records in the bench press.
Jeremy Hoornstra performing an isometric contraction prior to world-record bench.
Not only are you circumventing potential isometric negatives, you are pushing your CAT sets faster than ever, creating higher amounts of force!
More force produced in your weakest points, followed by more force produced on your regular bench presses is a true win-win.
Our best results have come using isometrics in blocks of three weeks, with no more than two consecutive blocks. Here is a sample program.
Isometric CAT/Contrast Routine
- Bench Press 88 percent x 3 reps
- Mid-range Isometric Rest 3 minutes CAT Bench Press rest 3 Minutes 75 percent x 3 reps x 2 sets
- Top-range Isometric Rest 3 minutes CAT Bench Press rest 3 Minutes 75 percent x 3 reps x 2 sets
- Spoto Press-5 reps x 2 sets
- Kaz Press-8 x 4 sets
- Chain Flys-12 reps x 3 sets
- Bench Press 90 percent x 3 reps
- Mid-range Isometric Rest 3 minutes CAT Bench Press rest 3 Minutes 77.5 percent x 3 reps x 2 sets
- Top-range Isometric Rest 3 minutes CAT Bench Press rest 3 Minutes 77.5 percent x 3 reps x 2 sets
- Spoto Press-5 reps x 2 sets
- Kaz Press-8 x 4 sets
- Chain Flys-15 reps x 3 sets
- Bench Press 95 percent 1 x 2 sets
- Mid-range Isometric Rest 3 minutes CAT Bench Press rest 3 Minutes 80 percent x 3 reps x 2 sets
- Top-range Isometric Rest 3 minutes CAT Bench Press rest 3 Minutes 80 percent x 3 reps x 2 sets
- Spoto Press-3 reps x 2 sets
- Kaz Press-6 x 4 sets
- Chain Flyes-12 reps x 3 sets
Week 4 — Deload
Bench Press Isometric Guidelines
- Perform against an immovable, strong, solid structure.
- Perform and eccentric contraction prior to the concentric contraction and then begin the isometric contraction.
- Do not exceed six seconds for maximal isometric contractions. I recommend five to six seconds.
- Perform some sort explosive dynamic work after isometric contractions for the benefit of your central nervous system and positive neural adaptations.
- To maximize benefits, contract as hard as possible or you are wasting time.
- After a workout that contains isometrics, I recommend some breathing exercises, static stretching and/or PNF stretching, and some foam rolling.
- Do not perform for more than 6-8 weeks at a time.
Instead of following the crowd with the newest “Cirque du Soleil” workout fad, give this bare-bone basic method a try. All you need is a power rack, a barbell and a desire to get better. These may not get the most Instagram likes but they have helped over a dozen people under my tutelage bench press 600 raw and some even setting all-time world records.
Get the book Eric Spoto refers to as the “Official Bench Press Bible.”
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