When we go to the gym, we’re inundated with different weightlifting exercises that rely on a variety of methods for working out. And most of these exercises require you to move—this makes sense, after all. How are you supposed to break down and build muscle without moving your muscles?
The answer lies in static holds, also known as isometric exercises. This training method has a solid track record of getting people results and challenging muscles in new and constructive ways. Add the barbell into the mix, which allows for heavy weights to be used, and you’ve got a one-way ticket to a godlike physique.
Holding a load without moving seems to be counterintuitive at first glance since we’re programmed to think that moving around is what allows for muscle development and strength training. However, properly implementing holds into your routine has some surprising and far-reaching benefits—enough that everyone should consider incorporating some heavier, barbell holds into their routines.
While we’re all familiar with holds such as the wall sit and plank, the barbell adds a whole ‘nother level of tension into these holds. This allows for even more gains that are more optimized for other workouts in the gym.
Static holds are all about increasing the time your muscles are under tension.
Increasing time under tension leads to more muscle breakdown, which leads to more gains. Simple enough, right? But by sustaining tension by holding a position, you’re also training your joints to become stronger and more resilient. This means that you’re more likely to avoid injuries in the future, and this can work for your joint longevity into old age.
There are a variety of holds that you can perform with a barbell, but they’ll all improve your performance in your other lifts. Even things like the bench press, deadlift, and squat can be done as a hold, when you maintain the “peak” position. A lot of this also comes down to the development that your grip strength and forearms get. Grip strength is oftentimes the failure point in exercises such as pull-ups, so improving in this area will allow you to better perform in other, larger lifts.
The final major benefit to holds is that they develop your mental attitude towards training. This happens in several different ways. For example, it can get you used to either lifting or carrying extremely heavy weights (when it comes to deadlifts, squats, and bench presses, for example).
You also build the mind-muscle connection since you’re forced to focus on a single position and the way your muscles engage. This leads to better form and better muscular development. Not to mention that holds can be extremely difficult, which pushes your mental toughness to new heights.
Since the static barbell holds are just that—holds—there are about as many variations as there are ways to hold a barbell. However, most of them rely on stopping the barbell during a particular movement.
First, we’ll take a look at the conventional barbell isometric hold that adopts a curling position. Although these exercises in themselves are good for warming up, it’s best to do a different warm-up beforehand if you’re using heavier weights.
This exercise is a bit more difficult, and you probably won’t be able to load it up as much as the curl hold. This hold targets your delts because you’ll be raising the barbell out in front of you with straight elbows. By doing this, your shoulders are going to have to work overtime to keep the barbell out.
You’ll also be developing your grip strength since your grip will be overhand, palms facing down.
This is one of the best holds for developing both your shoulder stability and shoulder mobility. It’s going to have great carry-over benefits to the bench press, rows, overhead lifts, Olympic lifts, and even loaded carries. Even your lower body muscle groups are going to get some activation since you’ll need to maintain a stable base through your feet, ankles, and hip.
If the knees or hips begin to cave in, the barbell is going to become extremely difficult to hold. Muscles activated include the traps, shoulders, upper back, neck muscles, triceps, grip, spinal erectors, and various other stabilizers in the body.
Another common variation, the barbell deadlift hold promises to increase your performance with the deadlift, and especially hammer into your grip strength. If performed with heavy enough weights, your forearms and grip strength are going to develop like never before.
A variation of the above, the suitcase deadlift is a unilateral movement, training each side of your body individually. This means that you’re going to be able to address any left/right muscle imbalances that could potentially lead to injuries down the road. But more importantly, the weight of a loaded barbell is going to seriously challenge both your forearm muscles and your core.
By only holding onto a weight with one hand and leaving the other side empty, you’re going to be working overtime to keep your body from falling over to the loaded side. If you don’t have a barbell, a dumbbell will work as well. To pull off the suitcase deadlift, simply grab the perpendicular to your body—like you’d grab a suitcase.
As you can probably see, barbell holds are a diverse lot. This means that what works for one won’t necessarily work for the other. For the majority of the time, it’s best to perform these variations like their dynamic versions—the only difference between the hold during one point of the exercise. However, there are some general tips you should keep in mind whenever you’re planning to do some isometric exercises.
Unlike with dynamic movements, you can’t really do holds over a period of repetitions and sets. The way you’ll be able to measure progress and challenge yourself is by pushing the amount of time you can hold for, and also increasing the weight. This means that there’s going to be a lot of variation in how long you hold for, and how often. The key is to load the barbells in such a way that they challenge you over a period of time.
While some holds should be done for between 20 and 40 seconds, others recommend doing static exercises between 10 and 20 seconds.
Most of this will depend on your goals and the type of hold you’re performing. However, don’t overdo it with the static exercises. Most of your training should still be of the dynamic kind, so limit isometric training to about 2 holds per session.
Dynamic exercises are also very important for growing muscle and developing your strength, so make them the priority in your training. Isometric holds are a great supplemental activity to add to your training, but they’re just that: a supplemental activity.
The thing with holds is that you’re going to be able to use more weight than you normally would (unless the position of the hold is your weakest point in the lift). However, this doesn’t mean you should immediately load up the weight plates and go to town. You can still injure yourself, even if you’re only moving to place the barbell down and pick it up again. That’s why you should begin with a weight that’s close to your 1 rep max, but not quite as heavy (90% of your 1RM should do).
Then, progressively put on heavier weights each week until you get up to a point where it’s sufficiently challenging your muscles. Try only increasing the weight by 5% each week so you can get your body accustomed to the heavier and heavier weights. Doing too much too fast is going to kneecap your gains if you end up getting injured.
Using specially made thicker bars is a fantastic way to add some spice to conventional holds. The thicker bar makes it significantly more difficult to hold onto the barbell, meaning that your grip and forearm muscles are going to need to work that much harder to maintain the position.
This is going to be significantly more difficult in holds that have you grasp the barbell with an overhand grip, where the bar’s not resting in your palms. If you don’t want to spend the money on a different, specialty bar, there’s also Fat Gripz which easily slip over regular barbells and provide a thicker, more challenging grip.
When it comes to holds, the world is your oyster. But that also makes it easy to get lost in the sauce. If you want to experience consistent gains that get you where you want to be, you’re going to need some well-defined and achievable goals. If you’re looking to increase your performance in the big three lifts, you should be doing holds that complement those exercises. If you’re looking for grip strength, look no further than holds that necessitate an overhand grip on the bar.
And if you want forearm strength, go for farmer carries and other static holds. A set of well-defined and achievable goals is also going to help you in the mental game of working out. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to know when you’ve reached a point that you’re happy with. While you should always reach for the stars, this can be mentally exhausting in the long run if you aren’t aiming for any milestones.
While barbell holds allow for some heavy loading and specific training that has great carry-over potential to your other lifts, there’s an entirely different world out there with other holds. For example, everyone knows the plank or the wall sit from gym class.
But you can also easily incorporate other pieces of gym equipment depending on your goals and starting fitness level.
Unilateral holds are especially helpful for addressing muscle imbalances and training your grip and forearm strength. Here are three other holds you can do that might work very well for your workout needs.
The pull-up hold is a great progression to regular pull-ups. You can either hang off of the pull-up bar with your elbows straightened and elbows pulled back, or if you’re more experienced, you can try to maintain a position where your chin rests about the bar.
This twist on the classic pull-up is a great way to both work up to performing pull-ups, and can also help to improve your pull-up ability. Your grip is going to be heavily hammered down, but you’ll also feel the tension in your back muscles and your lats—especially if you opt for trying to hold your head above the bar.
Hand grippers are pieces of equipment that use a metal coil to both test and increase the strength in the forearms and one’s grip. They’re relatively cheap and can be done anywhere, which makes them a great tool to have around your desk or couch. If you find yourself mindlessly browsing through media, using one hand with the grippers is a good way to develop static power in your hands and build considerable forearm size.
Also called the Farmer’s Walk, this exercise has been popularized by competitive powerlifters because of its full-body benefits. Not only does it develop your strength, but it’ll also provide a great conditioning workout. All you have to do is carry two heavy dumbbells or kettlebells in either hand and walk for a set distance or time.
This gives you a fantastic cardio workout as well, helping you get big and shredded at the same time.
Although there is a dynamic component to this exercise (the walking), the hold itself develops your grip and forearm muscles. It’s a great inclusion to any workout routine that needs a few more static holds to round it out.
Holds show us that lifters don’t need to go through complex maneuvers to build solid gains. But not only do static holds build solid gains, but they also challenge our muscles in ways that dynamic exercises simply do not. Whatever your workout goals, some isometric exercises can really round out your workout program and your physique.
Add some pre-workout into the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for consistent and incredible gains.