The Classic Iso Hold Is The Secret to Pushing Your Gains Even Further - Men's Health Magazine Australia

The Classic Iso Hold Is The Secret to Pushing Your Gains Even Further

Thanks to innovative trainers and TikTok challenges, the classic iso hold has returned, and it’s the secret to unlocking next-level muscle and strength upgrades.

Not a single muscle is moving – and yet every muscle in your body is working overtime. Yes, this is what happens when you dare to do the ab-destroying move pictured right, a paused Romanian deadlift. It looks simple: grab a pair of dumbbells, push back your butt and lower your torso. But in reality, your shoulders and forearms never stop working, and your abs, obliques, lower back extensors and midback muscles are all roaring to life – and never getting a break.  

It’s a burn quite unlike anything you’ve experienced in a workout before. And it’s this feeling that just may supercharge your muscle and strength gains – and help protect your body against injury. The paused Romanian deadlift is an example of an iso hold, a style of exercise that’s growing in popularity. 

Muscle science has long preached that muscles do three things under load. During a biceps curl, you push your muscles to do two of them: when you lift the weight (and your biceps balls up), the muscle shortens, a concentric contraction. Then, when you lower the weight, the muscle lengthens, which is an eccentric contraction. 

Your muscles are also capable of a third contraction, and this is often overlooked. Imagine holding a curl halfway between fully flexed and relaxed. Your muscle is bracing to maintain this position. This is an isometric contraction – and thanks to a vanguard of creative trainers, as well as the rise of gymnastics on Instagram and TikTok, there’s a good chance you’ve seen plenty of wild iso holds in your social-media feeds. 

For decades, the only isometric moves you’d see in your gym were yawners like planks and wall sits. But today’s isometrics fly past such monotony.

That makes them a ticket to major muscle, says neurophysiologist Chad Waterbury, because iso holds activate even more force-generating motor units in every muscle than classic contractions do. “Strength and muscle gains depend on how many motor units in your muscles you recruit,” explains Waterbury. 

Gymnasts perform the most eye-catching moves, fighting through V-sits and L-sits and evolving classic holds into viral TikTok challenges, like the handstand pants-off challenge. You’ve probably also seen the dragon flag challenge, daring you to glue only your shoulders to a bench while extending your torso and legs straight out, holding a position once popularised by Bruce Lee. The boutique gym Orange Theory is leaning into the trend, too, with an entry-level challenge that features five exercises you hold for two minutes each: a sumo squat, a high plank, a boat, a lunge and a single-leg raise with your arms outstretched holding 2.5-kg weights. 

Those challenges are possible because iso-hold training leads to the kind of strength that makes lifting your bodyweight easy. Spend enough time in any iso hold, whether using your bodyweight or gym weights, and you’re teaching your body to be comfortable in one position, says trainer Dave Durante, a former Olympic gymnast. That differs from standard strength-training moves, like bench presses and squats, in which you rarely need to hold any moment of the contraction. That difference matters.  

Which is why many trainers are embracing iso holds. Whether you’re doing bench presses, squats or curls, you’ll often encounter “sticking points,” portions of the movement that you struggle to muscle past. Top coaches like Tony Gentilcore and Ebenezer Samuel use iso holds to beat those sticking points and to reinforce the tight form that leads to muscle and strength gains. 

Picture yourself under a barbell bench press, struggling to lift the bar halfway up your chest. Gentilcore might fix that by having you hold a loaded bar at that halfway point (with a spot, of course). “The idea is you’re going to force the body to adapt to supporting weight in that position,” he says.

It’s a counterintuitive game plan: build the strength to move more weight by owning a position completely devoid of movement. Here’s how to use the technique to hit your muscle goals. 


When exactly should your muscles press pause? Use these four approaches in your training at least once a week and watch the gains pile up. 

The Principle: Mid-Rep Hold

Adding a pause in the middle of the lifting portion of a rep prevents your body from“cheating,” says Samuel. “Sometimes we accelerate past challenging parts of lifts with a little body rock. You can’t do that with a mid-rep pause.”

Your Move: Paused Romanian Deadlift


Stand holding dumbbells at your hips. Keeping the dumbbells close to your shins, push your butt back and lower your torso until you feel your hamstrings tighten. Pause. Begin to stand up, pulling the dumbbells to just below your knees. Pause here for 2 seconds. Stand all the way up, squeezing your glutes. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 8.

The Principle: Iso to Reps

Starting a classic strength exercise with a 10-second iso hold in a weak position trains your body to master the movement in that position. When you begin doing traditional reps, you’ll carry that mastery into your next set.

Your Move: Parallel Paused Biceps Curl to Reps


Stand holding dumbbells at your sides. Curl both dumbbells up until your forearms are parallel to the floor, palms facing the ceiling. Pause and hold for 10 seconds, keeping your palms facing the ceiling. Lower to the start and do 10 full-range-of-motion dumbbell curls. Do 3 sets.

The Principle: The Survival Hold

You’ve done planks and wall sits before, and sure, those are isometrics, too. But an ultra challenging hold, like those often done by gymnasts, pushes even more total-body muscle recruitment. “Wall sits are great, but after a while they’re easy,”says Samuel. “You can’t have a motor unit not firing when you do, say, a handstand or an L-sit.”

Your Move: Tuck L-Sit


Sit on the floor, hands on parallettes or hex dumbbells set directly below your shoulders. Squeeze your shoulder blades, straighten your arms, and drive your shoulders away from your ears. Tighten your abs, lifting your feet off the floor and pulling your knees to your chest. Hold for as long as you can; aim for 10 seconds. Do 3 sets, resting 1 minute between each.

The Principle: The Weak-Point Hold

“By slowing down skills and pausing,” says Durante, “an athlete is able to create awareness of their body in space and can make adjustments more easily.” That’s why many trainers push you to pause during the most challenging moments of key strength moves. You’ll pile up time under tension and gradually trust yourself in those positions.

Your Move: Archer Pushup Hold



Get in pushup position, abs and glutes tight, hands wider than shoulder width, fingers pointed outward. Keeping your right arm straight, bend at the left elbow and shoulder, lowering your chest to within an inch of the floor. Squeeze your shoulder blades and hold for 5 to 10 seconds. Press up. Repeat on the other side. That’s 1 set; do 3.

A version of this story originally appears in the January 2022 issue of Men’s Health Australia.

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