There is more to resistance training then just lifting things up, and putting them down. When the weights get heavy and the lifts get technical, strength training is no longer a rhythmic and monotonous task. It becomes an art form: its execution open to interpretation and analysis, its improvement hard-fought and glorious. This perspective holds no more truth than for the sports of Olympic weightlifting and Powerlifting, where athletes work months and years to add 5 kilograms to their barbell, maybe. Though we may not strive to be Olympic athletes, these methods have found a place in the strength training we do for the general population, and have indeed been shown to be effective.
Now that we have established that there is more to lifting weights then just going up and coming back down, we can begin to analyze the way in which we lift weights. This becomes especially important when a new trainee shifts to barbell training. The loading potential of a barbell allows it to become perhaps the most important tool in a trainee’s arsenal. The barbell is his tool, and the squat and deadlift will quickly take their place among his exercises of choice. His pursuit of progress and strength will eventually stall, and assuming his form is decent, this might be the right time to tweak his approach.
Weightlifters and Powerlifters switch and tweak their methods regularly. But I’m not asking you to start utilizing specialized equipment like chains or bands. I simply want you to focus on your connection with the bar, because it’s time to do more than lift it up and put it down.
Most strength training takes place in the realm of concentric and eccentric muscle actions. When a muscle contracts and shortens at the same time, this is known as a concentric contraction. Think about going up on a deadlift. When a muscle contracts and lengthens, this is an eccentric contraction. Think about going down on a deadlift, with control. There is a 3rd type of contraction, however. Isometric contraction, when a muscle contracts but doesn’t change in length, have been underutilized in training approaches. This is quite a shame, because it is in fact quite useful.
In a classic research article, Brad Schoenfeld outlined the 3 mechanisms responsible for muscular hypertrophy (getting big, or getting toned, depending on who you ask): mechanical load, muscle damage, and metabolic stress. In simple terms, isometric training primarily works by increasing your time under tension, which then produces metabolic stress in the muscles working—the burning sensation during the lift, and the pump in the muscles you feel afterwards. Let’s use this to our advantage. Here are 3 simple ways to put isometric holds to good use…because believe it or not, even holding a heavy barbell in place does something.
1) Stop and hold at the bottom
One way to utilize isometric training is quite simply, by stopping and h
olding the weigh
t at the bottom of the lift for some amount of time. Using the squat as an example, the bottom is not the place to lose your tension and old over with the bar on your back. Stay tight and hold that bar in place. Try holding for 3 seconds. It won’t feel very nice, but you’ll certainly feel your entire body working hard to hold that bar still. This is also a great time to really get comfortable with the bottom of a squat. It takes a ton of mobility to get there in the first place, and holding the bar tight down here will help you improve your mobility. Now, lift the bar back up. How much harder was that? The isometric also takes away your momentum from the descent into the squat, making it that much harder on the way up. When it’s hard, it’s usually working.
2) Stop and hold in the middle
Do you see where this is going? Remember how I told you to focus on your connection with the bar and the way it comes up. Was there a point in the middle where your lift felt slow, where you really had to focus in order to power through? That was probably a sticking point for you: this is where a lot of people fail to complete their reps. It’s the weakest point in the movement. Let’s go back to your squat. Take the weight down a bit. Squat down, and on the way back up, stop and hold at your sticking point before you finish the rep. Holding an isometric here works in much the same way as holding at the bottom, and should be even more brutal. Stick with this method for a bit, and that sticking point won’t be sticky for much longer.
3) Stop and hold at the top
I can argue that many people are not fully reaping the benefits of barbell lifting because they are cheating their range of motion. One common mistake I see is not locking out a lift fully. When you finish your squat, your hips should be fully extended, your glutes squeezed, and your posture tall and upright. Hold this position. If you’re not bracing your core and staying tight, you’re probably doing it wrong. You want this position to be strong, because after all, it is the most stable position in this entire lift. The better you can lockout and hold your lift, the more weight you can handle during the movement itself.
The next time you lift, take note of your connection with the bar, and the way the bar comes up. I’m sure you’ll find a weak spot where you can hold that bar in place, and make the exercise that much harder. Stick with it, and you’ll be powering through the lift in no time. Enjoy! Or curse me in your sleep, at least you’ve done something awesome.
By Jeremy Lau
Jeremy Lau is a Staff Coach at Halevy Life.
Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and is currently pursuing his M.Ed. in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.
As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.