Maximize Tension, Strength, and Growth In Your Chest with This Isometric Bench Press
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
If you’re looking for a horizontal pressing exercise that maximizes motor unit recruitment and creates heightened levels of post activation potentiation (enhanced neural drive), the overcoming isometric barbell chest press is it. Here I have one of my awesome bodybuilding clients Ben Lai demonstrating it on a low incline bench. The incline variation is more suitable when you’re training solo as you can simply clean the weight then sit/lay down with it under the pins without the aid of spotters.
Because you’ll be pressing with maximal effort against an immovable load (safety pins in a squat cage), this allows for the optimization of a physiological phenomenon known as temporal summation. Simply put it typically takes several seconds for an individual to achieve maximal motor unit recruitment. Unfortunately most traditional repetitions end before maximal activation can occur.
The overcoming isometric resolves this as it allows the nervous system to progressively ramp up with each passing second until it reaches maximal recruitment. In other words the first second you may achieve 50% maximal recruitment, the second 75%, then the third second you may finally reach close to 100% activation as you press with maximal intensity against the pins. At this point you’ll experience heightened levels of intramuscular tension build up throughout your upper torso that’s almost impossible to replicate with any other training method.
As an added bonus the high levels of mechanical tension act as a strong stimulus for inducing muscular hypertrophy and size gains in the chest, shoulders, and triceps. This training technique can be used on a variety of movements including bench press, squats, deadlifts, rows, and other exercises as a means of eliminating sticking points or simply to increase neuromuscular efficiency.
Combining Eccentric Isometrics and Overcoming Isometrics: The Best of Both Worlds
When I have my clients and athletes perform overcoming isometrics I also have them incorporate eccentric isometrics using relatively moderate loads (30-50% 1RM) rather than very light loads such as empty bar. In other words they pause in the stretched position with moderate weight before driving into the pins. This helps to ensure a degree of eccentric loading, pre stretch, pre-loading, and muscle spindle activation. This normally wouldn't occur if you were simply using an empty bar or pressing against an immovable stationary load (i.e. trying to press against a wall or a supramaximal load that is set on top of pins that can’t be moved).
This brief eccentric isometric at the bottom position helps to wake up muscle spindles, which enhances sensory feedback and improves body mechanics throughout the set. Most overcoming isometrics don't involve eccentric loading or pre-stretching of the muscles, therefore somatosensory feedback from proprioceptive mechanisms such as muscle spindles are at a minimum. As a result, technique can easily begin to degrade not to mention the lifter’s kinesthetic awareness and proprioceptive feedback is minimal at best during the set.
Besides improving body awareness and somatosensory feedback, pre-stretching a muscle before intense concentric contractions has been shown to decrease the onset of fatigue. As a result the lifter is able to maintain higher quality of movement and higher force production on subsequent reps without form breaking down or excessive fatigue accumulation being the limiting factor.
Why not Greater than 50% 1RM Loading??
When you apply too much load to the overcoming isometric it will keep the lifter from being able to push with same intramuscular intensity against the pins. This is something I've experimented quite a bit with myself and my athletes. Once you start to go beyond approximately 50%, the isometric begins to feel more like a yielding isometric (where you're resisting the weight from dropping further) rather than an overcoming isometric (where you feel like you're trying to break through the pins). It simply begins to feel like a totally different training stimulus from an intramuscularly standpoint.
General Recommendations and Training Protocols
I typically recommend performing 3 sets of 3-4 reps with each repetition using a 3-5 second maximal effort overcoming isometric contraction. In addition, the lifter should try to find a mid-range or moderately stretched position when performing overcoming isometrics as this allows both high force production and maximal motor unit recruitment to occur. In other words the goal is to maximize the length tension relationship principle. Too much or too little overlap in the muscles will compromise force production and activation. So yes the overcoming isometric should feel powerful and forceful while also producing significant intramuscular tension on the targeted musculature. Lower or higher positions can also be periodically employed to work on specific sticking points that lifters may be pre-disposed to on certain portions of their lifts.
Because of the high levels of post tetanic potentiation produced on overcoming isometrics, performing standard heavy pressing exercises after this protocol can allow the lifter to move heavier loads than he or she is accustomed. However a 4-12 minute rest period should be employed before moving to standard pressing movements to ensure fatigue accumulation doesn’t outweigh the potentiation response. The stronger you are, the longer duration you’ll need to allow fatigue to dissipate. However, waiting longer than 10-15 minutes can cause the potentiation response to gradually dwindle.
This technique can be employed on other movements including deadlifts, RDL's, bench press, bent over rows, incline presses, pull-ups, bicep curls, and overhead presses. However, they should be incorporated sparingly due to the extreme strain these place on the nervous system as well as the tension on the structural components of the muscles and connective tissue.
Lastly, if you don't have an open rack/half rack and use a power rack that is closed off on both sides then you'll need the assistance of 2 spotters to help lift the weight to your desired position.