Overcoming Isometrics, recruiting more motor units

If you are anything like me, there will be a time in your training when you’ll reach a weird type of plateau in your lifts:

You should be able to lift more weight, but your muscles refuse to contract!


This issue often occurs on movements where your body tends to utilize every bit of rebound it can gather and relies on a mix of tendon elasticity and stretch-reflex to move the weight.

In my case… it was at the bottom of the squat.

Because I was so used to bouncing off the bottom thanks to the stretch reflex, I simply lost my ability to maximally contract my leg muscles from a static position. While this did not seem like a big deal in the beginning, it quickly led me to the worst plateau I ever experienced!

Fortunately for me, there were several solutions to this particular problem. One of them being pause squats.


Pause squats are the same exercise as a squat but with a dead stop at the bottom. Simple, yet effective, they eliminate the stretch-reflex from the movement and train your ability to recruit voluntarily your motor units.

While this type of paused exercise will undoubtedly yield some results, I would like to present another solution today:

Overcoming isometrics[1]

Overcoming isometrics are exercises where you attempt to move the immovable. In other words, pushing, or pulling against a weight too big to move at a specific point in the range of motion.


Why isometrics for sticking points?

When we encounter a weaker point in our lift, be it a bench press, deadlift or squat, we tend to accelerate before the sticking point in order to skip over the obstacle.

This tendency allows for short term results, as the overall musculature does get stronger anyway. But it fails to address the real problem: We are spending no time in the range of motion where we are weak.

That’s right, apart from the maybe the last couple of reps when we grind our way through, we may only spend about a couple second at most in this crucial part of the lift… Leaving it mostly untrained.


Isometrics on the other hand, allow us to spend a very long amount of time in these problematic positions.


When to use isometrics?


Isometrics are a safe way to train at higher intensity on a particular point of a range of motion. Therefore, they are perfect when you feel weak only at one point during an exercise and when failing this exercise could lead to injury.


In the squat for example, enduring failed reps after failed reps will lead to higher fatigue and could lead to injury. In that case, using isometrics to improve a specific sticking point may be advisable.


However, this type of exercise will only be effective for a limited amount of time. Once the body has adapted and manages to recruit a near maximum of motor units, improvement will inevitably stop. After this point, continuing this type of training will be not only be useless but could also impact your normal training and therefore reduce your overall gains.


For this reason, I suggest using isometrics only sporadically and for limited amount of time. They can be used to train the neural adaptations in a time of recovery but are not to be used long term.


If isometrics fail to improve your power at a sticking point, please consider that an overall lack of strength or technique may also be the source of your problems.



How to do overcoming isometrics?


In the case of squats, it could be a pin squat with supramaximal load. Here are the steps of this exercise:

Load the bar with 120% of your 1RM

Set up the safeties so you will reach them at the bottom of your squat, without compromising your posture

Assume a squat position and lower the weight, as slowly as possible, to the safeties

Take a 1 second

[1] https://www.t-nation.com/training/isometrics-for-mass

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