Isometric Holds For Mass Gain

Two of the “most internet-searched” body-parts in terms of developing hypertrophy are calves and biceps. Not hard to believe that the average gym goer is not too enthused about the size of his/her calves or arms.

The problem is that search results will probably spit out hundreds of different bicep or calf specialization programs that are based on adding more volume to your already crammed and lengthy training schedule. I’d bet most of those programs are inferior to simply doing a series of isometric holds (when comparing results to actual training time).

Before I dive into a discussion on isometric holds, let me give some preface to why I recommend these above a lot of other training methods.

I always tell people to train to their goals and to mimic what other greats in their field do.

Want to be maximally strong, for example? Copy some of the strongman greats like Derek Poundstone or Mariusz Pudzianowski.

Want to be explosive? Train like an NFL linebacker.

Want to be a powerlifter with huge bench, squat, and dead numbers? Copy someone like Jim Wendler.

So what if you want killer calves and huge biceps? You need to train like athletes that have amazing muscular development in those areas. In my opinion, there is no better place to look than dancers and gymnasts.

isometric holds

What are dancers and gymnasts doing in their training that lead to so much development in their calves and biceps? Lots and lots of time under tension using isometric holds.

Isometric holds do two things:

  1. Recruits the largest motor units for maximum contraction
  2. Forces you to have mind-muscle connection by increasing the neural drive between your brain and muscle
    • Most full range of motion reps on a given movement only take a few seconds to complete, limiting the amount of time under tension. However, with isometric holds, tension durations last up to 10 seconds.

There are three things to consider when doing isometric holds:

#1: Do Them As Separate Workouts

Since isometric holds recruit your largest motor units, you need to perform them when you are at your freshest and free from fatigue. This means you need to do them on separate days from your normal workouts, or at least 4-6 hours apart from your typical training.

#2: 10-Second Holds for 5 Sets

In Verkhoshansky’s Supertraining, he promoted up to 10 minute sessions of isometrics. What I recommend is working up to 5 sets of 10-second holds in various positions (focusing on different muscle groups), not to eclipse 10 minutes total in duration for an entire isometric workout. You may have to start out with 2-3 sets of 4-6 second holds, but over time work up to 5 sets of 10 second holds.

#3: Progression is Frequency

Do not surpass 10 second isometric holds. It’s not necessary and if you’re doing them properly, you’ll find that more than 10 seconds may be too much for your CNS. Instead, to progress, train isometric holds more frequently. Think back to my dancer and gymnast example. They train isometric holds daily, so as you progress, think about training holds 4-6 times per week in addition to your normal strength training.

isometric holds

The following is a list of holds based guaranteed to boost the muscular development of some of your lagging body parts:

Calves: Single Leg Calf Raise Held at Peak Contraction

This one is simple. Standing barefoot on one leg, spread your toes as wide as possible. Push through the ground as hard as possible, creating an intense contraction in your calf muscle. Keep your leg straight and maintain maximum contraction throughout the hold. Avoid using anything to hold your balance. You would alternate legs for each calf.

Biceps: Single-Arm Hang

For the single-arm hang, you start by hanging from a pull-up bar with an underhand grip and your pinky fingers touching each other. Pull yourself up so that your arms are at 90 degrees. Quickly release one arm and with your free hand, grab your opposite wrist. Maintain this position for the duration of the hold, keeping peak contraction in your forearms, biceps and upper back. Alternate this move with each arm.

isometric holds

Triceps: Dip Peak Contraction

Start in the top position of a dip on parallel bars. Push your palms down into the bar to remove any shoulder shrug and contract your triceps as intensely as possible to lock out your elbow joints. You may add weight to this drill with a weight belt if you master the move with your bodyweight.

Chest: Push-Up Isometric Hold

This is one of my favorite isometric holds. Start by getting in the top position of a pushup, arms just wider than shoulder width and elbows just short of lockout. Brace your entire body as you would during a push-up rep and, without picking your hands up off of the ground, attempt to pull your hands together. Your hands won’t move but your pecs will be intensely activated and at peak contraction. Hold this position for the duration of the hold.

Shoulders: Crucifix

Start with a dumbbell or some other weight in each of your hands. Lift your arms up (palms down) and out to your sides until they are parallel with the ground. Maintain this position for the duration of the hold without shrugging your shoulders.

Hamstrings: 10-20 degree Glut Ham Raise

On a glute ham raise machine, shift your body forward with no hip hinge (your body should be in a straight line from your neck to your knees). You will not need to go very far forward (10-20 degrees probably) before your hamstrings start firing intensely. Maintain this position for the duration of the hold.

If you don’t have a glute ham raise machine, find another piece of equipment that you can hook your heels into. Lat pulldowns work, or if you have a partner to hold you down, that would work as well. Use this picture as reference for the setup of the hold.

nordic hamstring
This isometric hold is also an exception to the rule of training frequency. I would not train this hold more than a few times per week.

Wrapping Up

  1. You can stimulate muscle growth with isometric holds.
  2. There are 3 rules to isometric holds:
    1. Use them as separate workouts
    2. Do up to 5 sets of 10 second holds
    3. Progression for isometric holds is increasing training frequency.
  3. Review the isometric holds exercise list for muscular group specific movements.

So before you embark on a body part specialization program that will add a lot of training time to your schedule, try using isometric holds. Have your doubts? Take a look at a few gymnasts or ballerinas and see how isometric holds contribute to their muscular development…

— Tank

4 thoughts on “Isometric Holds For Mass Gain”

  1. How much rest should be used between sets? Should you do these in circuit fashion or in single set fashion with a little rest before attempting the next set?

    1. Hey Josh,

      Good question! I would do these in a single set fashion with a few mins rest in between sets. Depending on the hold, the contractions can be fairly intense, so focus on quality reps and really dialing in that time under tension.

      — Tank

  2. First off, glad I found this site, lot of interesting reads!

    Second, quick question, am I to pick just one exercise for one 5x10sec set?

    Or is it 5x10sec for each one, or a couple? Seems like it would be just one to meet the 10 minute cap.

    If it’s just one, is it one that I’d want to focus on specifically?

    Thanks, hope I was clear enough, I don’t think I worded my questions the best.

    1. Hey Cody, sorry for my late reply. You are correct, I would pick just one exercise to focus on for the 5×10. As far as which one you choose, just focus on the movement that will target your goals or whatever muscle group you are most focused on developing. Thanks for the question!

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