How to increase strength without moving any weight

As part of our Biohacking Masterclass Series, we will explore a number of different techniques and practices to improve your daily performance. This series will range from obvious subjects like exercise and nutrition to fringe subjects like breathing techniques and sleep hygiene. 

In our last article, we discussed the concept of “work capacity” and why it’s one of the most important aspects of fitness. We broke down the three phases of a lift: concentric, isometric, and eccentric. 

As a refresher: 

  1. Concentric contractions: This portion of the lift is when the muscle contracts and shortens. In any movement, this is the ‘lifting’ part. 
  2. Eccentric contractions: This portion is where the muscle lengthens under tension. In any movement, this is the lowering and stretching part. This is the phase when the majority of muscle damage happens. 
  3. Isometric contractions: This occurs when the muscle contracts, but there is no movement between lengthening or shortening of the muscle. An example of an isometric contraction is when you are holding a position, such as in a plank or wall-sit. 

If you missed the connection between work capacity and concentric contractions, go back and read the rest of that article. As we briefly highlight in point #2, eccentric contractions are what contribute the greatest amount of muscle damage to your lifts. These have a time and place, particularly when your focus is pure muscle growth without significant consideration for immediate increases in strength. Finally, isometric contractions (or isometrics) were not discussed in detail, but they play a crucial role in the production of force throughout the other phases of lifts. 

While the strengthening benefits of isometric movements alone are highly contested, there is an underutilized form of isometrics that can help you increase your strength in full range of motion (ROM) lifts. “Overcoming isometrics” is an overcomplicated way of saying a lifter is pushing or pulling against an immovable object. If performed for 5-10 seconds, overcoming isometrics force your body to recruit all of your available muscle fibers, which rarely happens in any other exercise. In addition to the strong hypertrophic stimulus caused by intramuscular tension, the body’s response to using 100% of its available motor units includes a phenomenon called “post activation potentiation” (PAP). Identical to the process we discussed in our plyometrics article, the PAP generated by overcoming isometrics is particularly valuable when paired with subsequent full ROM lifts. 

Termed “contrast training”, this process enables your body to ‘recall’ the high percentage of muscle-fiber-recruitment from overcoming isometrics and leads to an immediate increase in force generation through a full lift. For example, if you perform an overcoming isometric squat variation, you can push the bar directly into an immovable pin/bar at any point of your squat. Many of us have common “sticking” points where we struggle to move the bar in a typical heavy back squat, and this is where you might initially set your pins. After pushing the bar into the pin for 5-10 seconds, rest briefly. Finally, remove the pin and perform a full ROM heavy back squat (and be amazed at the immediate increase in strength). 

In several studies, performing overcoming isometrics as a precursor to explosive contrast training resulted in a greater PAP than isotonic methods, such as a standard heavy back squat or bench. Overcoming isometrics are a great addition to your strength training days, and they have a ton of utility across deadlifts, bench, squats, and more. If you can find a way to create an immovable object through any of your exercises, you can take advantage of the tremendous PAP in those same lifts.