Isometric Training for Athletes

TAGS: John Gaglione, isometric, sport, athlete, training

When it comes to sports, most people know that it's pretty important to be explosive and produce a lot of force. This is why in most training programs we can find various forms of strength training and plyometric exercises designed to help the athlete produce more power. I covered many of these exercises in my upper body power training series.

When we raise a weight, we call this the concentric phase of the lift. In other words, a concentric contraction when the force applied is enough to overcome the resistance. When this happens, the muscle shortens as it contracts. This is certainly a very important type of contraction, but there are many other types of contractions that can be important for sports. Two other types of contractions that are often overlooked are called eccentric and isometric contractions.

An eccentric contraction is when the muscle lengthens while under tension due to an opposing force being greater than the force applied by the lifter. The eccentric phase is when the lifter is lowering the weight. There are many applications for both types of contractions for sports and just general strength training. Both eccentric and isometric variations have their place in a solid lifting program and can help the body learn to use the muscles to stabilize and control movements.

Isometric training: Be able to absorb and resist forces

An isometric contraction is when force is applied without changing the length of the muscle. In an isometric contraction, the force matches the load exactly, therefore no movement will occur. Isometric contractions have a lot of merit because they teach an athlete to resist movement. Often times in sports, athletes need to resist an opponent pulling or pushing them in a certain direction, and they must learn to stabilize their body in order to stay in a good position. Combat athletes need to absorb impact from punches and leg attacks as well. Isometric exercises can help increase strength as well as rock solid stability.

Isometric contractions, much like eccentric contractions, can be used as a way to modify an exercise to fit the individual needs of an athlete. A person may not be able to perform a pull-up, but he can hang on the bar for a given amount of time. This will work the same muscles as a normal pull-up but in a static fashion versus a dynamic one.

To get the most out of isometric training, the athlete should strive for perfect form and create tension throughout the entire body in order to maintain that form. The athlete should be maintaining a static position (not moving) and keeping good posture for the entire duration of the set. As the athlete gets more advanced and the sets become longer, form will start to break down. It's important for the coach to give the athlete cues in order for him to get back in a good position. The coach should use his best judgment on whether or not to terminate the set. It may or may not be when the athlete's muscles fail. Often times, it is when the “mind” fails.

When isometrics are performed for extended periods of time, they are also a very effective exercise for building mental toughness. Long isometric holds require a lot of mental focus, especially when the body starts to fatigue. Isometric holds are also a great way to challenge a group of athletes in a completive setting. Athletes will push much harder when they're competing against each other, and they will beat records even faster than you can imagine.

Flex arm hang:

Iso push-up:


Isometric emphasis training: Static contraction overcome by a dynamic contraction

Isometric emphasis training is a great way to build an explosive start out of the bottom portion of a lift. By pausing in the bottom of a movement for a long period of time, any momentum built up during the eccentric phase of the lift is killed. The lifter is forced to have a much stronger concentric contraction as a result because he can’t take advantage of the stretch reflex effect. This is great for body weight exercises as well. In powerlifting competitions, athletes are actually required to pause in the bench press portion of the completion (once the bar is motionless, they will receive a press command), and often times if athletes aren't used to pausing reps in training, their numbers will drop considerably.

I love to teach the pause bench press to athletes because it forces them to control the weight on the way down. This also eliminates any chance the athlete will bounce the weight off the chest in order to get an extreme rebound effect. I've found that when the athlete goes back to a traditional “touch and go” bench, his form is much better and safer as a result.

Another great method for implementing isometrics with barbell lifts is the pause squat. Many powerlifting greats including Chris Taylor and John Bernor use this as a staple assistance exercise in their programs. It teaches the athlete to get to proper depth on each rep and builds a tremendous amount of stability and power out of the “hole.” The reason for this is because the lifter sits in the bottom long enough that he really can’t take advantage of the stretch reflex effect. The lifter is forced to contract his muscles much harder in order to generate enough force to get moving again. Chris and John both squat extremely explosively even with loads in excess of 800 lbs, and they really show what this exercise can do for a lifter.

Lifts with pauses in the bottom position can help strengthen stability in the bottom position of a lift. It's a great way to help athletes control their movements. It's much harder to “cheat” in a lift that is paused. Pauses can help gain stability and explosiveness in the bottom position of an exercise. This is a very good method for training combat athletes because often times they might have to hold static positions and then reverse the motion and go into a more dynamic position while fighting.

Long pause dumbbell bench:

Long pause neutral grip pull-up:

Long pause rope pull-up:

Isometric explode: Be able to resist movement and then explode!



Iso-explode training is the most advanced and most functional method for using isometrics with combat athletes. The athletes use a high tension and often loaded isometric and then drop the weight and immediately go into an explosive movement. This is very specific to their sport. For example, an athlete in a static position in the clinch would explode for the take down. Another example is an athlete controlling an opponent’s arm and then exploding into an arm bar or triangle attempt. This happens all the time in sport but very rarely do we see people do isometric training and go directly into explosive training in strength and conditioning programs.

Implementing chains, dumbbells, and kettlebells for iso-explode variations are very effective because they can be loaded and unloaded in a short amount of time. Kettlebells or dumbbells can be dropped for lower body moves, and chains can be taken off by the coach for upper body moves. The only time I would use dumbbells for upper body exercises would be to load an iso-explode pull because the athlete can quickly drop the weight between his legs. There are methods that can work, but I find this is a pretty good start for most people.

The goal of these exercises is to make the isometric exercise extremely difficult and then unload the athlete quickly so he can be as explosive as possible. In the beginning, I recommend trying out these moves unloaded to get the form down. Then progress to more weight as you would with any other exercise.

Iso-explode exercises help teach athletes to resist an opponent's movements and change directions explosively to counter with their own movements. Iso-explode is the ultimate variation for training combat athletes who need to be able to produce explosive movements and resist movement. Isometric exercises can be implemented with beginners and advanced athletes alike. Start implementing some of these variations in your program and watch your strength and stability increase!

Here are some examples of iso-explode exercises.

Iso-explode chain push-up to clap push-up:

Iso-explode kettlebell front RFESS(BSS) to RFESS jump:

Iso-explode close grip pull-up to clap pull-up:

Iso-explode front squat to squat jump:

Iso-explode glute bridge to broad jump:

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