Back in the 1960s, the iron game world was a lot smaller than it is today. Now, we’re nearly overwhelmed by choices — what websites to read, which barbell is best, what shoes to wear, and dozens or hundreds of other products, news sources, and more. Sixty years ago, there was really only one game in town when it came to most of that stuff (at least in America), and Bob Hoffman owned it.
He produced the most commercially-successful barbell from his manufacturing headquarters in York; published one of the most popular muscle magazines, Strength and Health; and probably contributed more to the strength world than any other individual in the world at that time.
So when Bob published an article in his magazine titled, “The Most Important Article I Ever Wrote,” a lot of lifters listened. The article was about “functional isometric contraction,” a new training method being pushed hard by Dr. John Ziegler — yes, the same Ziegler who has been credited with introducing anabolic steroids to American lifters. If you’re not familiar with them, isometric exercises involve exerting force against a heavy weight without actually moving it, and, according to Ziegler and Hoffman, it was “the greatest system of strength and muscle building the world has ever seen.”
Author’s Note: Hoffman later went on to write an entire book about the method, which you can check out — here!
As it turned out, though, the steroids were the most important part of the system — isometrics, on their own, didn’t build too much strength or size, especially compared to conventional training. For that reason, isometrics have mostly fallen out of favor, although, they’re still used in special circumstances. For example, astronauts sometimes rely on isometrics to maintain some strength and muscle tone in space, where it’s impossible to perform conventional resistance training due to the whole “no gravity” thing. But short of extreme circumstances, isometrics aren’t that valuable.
…Or are they?
Timed holds are a form of isometric exercise that can have a lot of benefit for the powerlifter. While it may seem silly to think that merely holding a heavy weight can help you to actually lift it, that actually is the case — as long as your isometric work directly addresses a weakness and comprises only a small portion of your training. Big “ifs,” for sure, but still a topic worth exploring.
Let’s start with the most obvious benefit: Confidence. Have you ever un-racked a PR attempt on squat or bench, only to find that you immediately start second-guessing your ability to lift it because that sucker feels heavy?
A big part of that doubt comes from the fact that you’re trying something new, something you’ve never done before. But if you’ve held the weight half a dozen times before you actually try to lift it, it’s a little less new, and you’ll probably have a little more confidence about your ability to complete the lift.
But isometrics can have more specific benefits, too:
- Squat: Un-racking a heavy weight ain’t easy! However, practicing un-racking — and walkouts, if your federation requires them — will help you to develop your ability to balance your weight over your foot. Remember, you want to distribute your weight evenly over your big toe, little toe, and heel; this can be difficult, especially on a maximal lift. Furthermore, you’ll need to keep a strong brace throughout the hold, which is not a bad way to squeeze in a little extra ab training.
- Bench Press: Bench legend Jennifer Thompson is a big fan of timed holds on the bench, so you know they must work! Holding a heavy weight on the bench helps you to develop the stabilizing muscles of the shoulder girdle — the tiny muscles that can be difficult to train individually, but help you to keep a good torso position, especially during the descent.
- Deadlift: If you ever have grip issues on the deadlift, your best bet is to throw in some timed holds at the top of the last rep of each set. And if you’re training heavy, stabilizing that weight will require you to keep your glutes and abs tight — just like with the squat, a good opportunity to squeeze in a little extra work for those muscle groups.
Adding Timed Holds to Your Routine
The nice thing about timed holds is that you can easily add them to any program without a lot of adjustments, because they won’t take a significant bite out of your recovery, and they can be trained with movements that you’re already performing anyway. However, because they do involve the use of very heavy weights, you need to be careful adding them to your program.
Follow these steps, and you’ll do just fine:
- Start slow. You don’t want to just jump into a squat walkout or bench hold with 100 pounds over your 1-RM. Instead, start at about 90% of your 1-RM, and progress in 5% jumps each week until you get to a load that’s challenging.
- Minimize overlap. When you’re programming timed holds, make sure to perform them immediately before or after your top sets on the squat, bench press, or deadlift. You don’t want to have to do a ton of extra warm-ups, because those will exhaust you.
- Set limits. Timed holds deliver a lot of bang for the buck, so you don’t want to or need to overdo them. Instead, limit yourself to 1 or 2 holds per training session, for 10-20 seconds per hold, max.
Here’s an example of what a timed hold workout might look like for squats:
- Competition squat: 135×10, 225×8, 315×5, 405×3
- Walkouts: 10 second hold with 455 (warmup) and 505
- Competition squat: 425x3x5 (work sets)
Alternatively, you can perform all your squats first, and then immediately move on to crank out all of your walkouts. That’s entirely personal preference.
Have you gotten good results from timed holds? Share your strategies in the comments!
Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.