Advanced lifters require more extensive bench press variations.
The isometric bench press is one such variation and can be used to break through training plateaus.
What is an isometric bench press? The isometric bench press is a variation that requires a power rack. The safety pins are set 3-5 inches above the chest and the barbell is pressed with maximal force against these for 15-30 seconds. The isometric bench press is used by advanced lifters to improve bench press strength within certain ranges of motion.
In this article, I will…
- Explain how to set up the isometric bench press
- Cover its benefits and drawbacks
- Give insight into how you can program it
Isometric Bench Press: Overview
The isometric bench press is a variation of the bench press in which the lifter presses the barbell against safety pins, remaining motionless, and creating an isometric contraction of the muscles.
This can be done with simply the load of the bar, or progressed with added load.
With the safety pins set in the rack (I recommend 3-5 inches off the chest) the lifter will press the bar as hard as possible against these while maintaining the position of their arms and torso for the prescribed amount of time.
Isometric exercises are usually prescribed with a duration of 10-30 seconds. I tend to stick within the 20-30 second range as this limits the load that can be used while still challenging the lifter’s position throughout the lift.
The two biggest considerations here are:
- Maintaining position throughout the lift: Isometrics are often used to reinforce positioning, they lose this benefit if you perform them in a poor position.
- Maximising effort in the press: Isometrics should be treated as a maximum effort lift, you should be pressing into the safety pins with as much force as you can while maintaining the correct position.
Muscle Worked: Isometric Bench Press
The muscles worked in the isometric bench press are the:
- Pectorals (Chest)
As per the normal bench press, the isometric bench press will primarily work the chest, shoulders and triceps.
Depending on where you set up the safety pins, this will change which muscles are targeted more.
A higher isometric press will result in less chest and more triceps, and a lower isometric press will result in more chest and less triceps.
Our article Muscles Used In The Bench Press (A Complete Guide) further explains how certain variations and positions can affect the muscles used.
How To Do An Isometric Bench Press
Step 1: Set Up The Bench and Power Rack
You will need access to a power rack in order to set up the isometric bench press.
Place the bench in the middle of the rack and set up in your usual bench press position.
Bring the bar down to your chest and see how this lines up with the pin options in the rack. You will need to set the safety pins 3-5 inches higher than this position.
The pins should be set just below the position you would usually fail a bench press.
You could also set them higher to work on your lockout strength by having the safety pins 3-5 inches below your lock out height.
Set the J-Hooks in just below the safety pins to un-rack the barbell from
Step 2: Set Up On The Bench
Once the equipment is set up you will be ready to start lifting.
Set up on the bench as you would for a standard bench press, with your normal grip and stance width.
The only change is that you will want to set up further under the bar than a usual bench press as you are un-racking from a lower height.
Step 3: Un-Rack The Bar
With the bar being set lower in the rack than usual it may be easier to get a spotter to help lift the bar out for you and guide it into position.
Bring the bar out to the point you would usually touch your chest – for most this is between your nipple and your sternum.
Step 4: Press The Bar Into The Safety Pins
From the chest you can press the bar carefully into the rack, once in contact you should press with as much force as you can for the duration of the set.
Ensure that the point you are pressing against is correct and in line with where you would usually be at that point in the standard bench press.
This is why starting with the bar in the position you would usually press from is important, as it sets you up to replicate the normal bench press bar path.
Step 5: Maintain Position
As you are pressing against the rack you want to be maintaining your position throughout the lift.
When you are pressing with maximal effort it can be easy to slide out of position, flare your elbows or lose your shoulder position.
Aim to keep your wrists and elbows stacked under the bar and keep pressing back – think a diagonal line from your chest towards your eyeline.
Keep your shoulder blades pulled back and down – this will help maintain the depression (down) and retraction (back) of the scapula.
At the end of the prescribed time frame, return the barbell to the rack.
3 Benefits Of The Isometric Bench Press
The benefits of the isometric bench press are:
- It can improve position off the chest
- It can improve bench press strength
- It can be included for training variety
It Can Improve Position Off The Chest
I recommend performing the isometric bench press 3-5 inches off the chest, and improving position as you press off the chest is why.
In heavy bench press reps your ability to maintain position under that load is challenged.
Many lifters have a weakness off the chest, and this can come down to their ability to maintain the position they usually press from.
Lifters will have elbows flaring, shoulders slipping out of position, wrists not staying stacked or arches collapsing under these heavier loads.
The isometric bench press allows you to get better at maintaining these positions while applying maximal force to the bar within the exact positions that challenge this the most.
This is the number one reason I would program the isometric bench press.
Read our article, Is Your Bench Press Weak Off The Chest? for 6 more things to try and improve your bench press.
It Can Improve Bench Press Strength
The isometric bench press is great for improving overall bench press strength.
You will need to set up the isometric bench press so that you are pressing in the positions you are weakest in, usually fail or find increasingly difficult.
The isometric bench press allows you to spend more time in these positions and train the skill of applying maximal force throughout them.
You can target being weak off the chest, by setting the safety pins close to your chest.
Lockout strength can be improved by setting the pins 3-5 inches below your lock out.
If you consistently fail your bench press reps at the same position, look to perform isometrics 2-3 inches below this point. You need to set up below where you fail as this is where the bar will begin to slow down during those reps, not exactly where you fail.
It Can Be Included For Training Variety
Where some lifters will thrive off repeated variations and more simplified training, others need variety to enjoy and progress their training.
Isometrics do not always need a dedicated session either.
They are quicker than performing multiple sets and reps of a normal bench press and you can add them on as a secondary exercise after your other bench press training to keep interest high.
3 Drawbacks Of The Isometric Bench Press
The drawbacks of the isometric bench press are:
- It can be awkward to set up and get into position
- You need a power rack
- Lighter loads required
It Can Be Awkward To Set Up And Get Into Position
Due to the barbell being in the rack at a far lower position than usual, your set up may be hindered, which in turn affects the positions you can achieve.
I personally set up with my grip set on the barbell and use the barbell to pull myself into position. I cannot do this with an isometric bench press set up.
A fix I found for this though is by having a training partner help me.
I set up on the bench as usual with my usual rack height, bring the bar down to my chest and have my training partner put the safety pins in place for my isometric afterwards.
As you are using lighter loads it will not have a negative affect holding the load for a short period of time on your chest first.
You Need A Power Rack
Without a power rack and safety pins, you will not be able to perform the isometrics bench press.
While most gyms tend to have these available, not everyone will.
Lighter Loads Required
Lighter lifting, especially variations like this that still require maximal force, are a necessary part of training.
However, given that these are typically performed with 40-50% of your maximum bench press, they are likely the lightest bench press training many lifters will perform.
To some lifters this can seem boring, and they may struggle to mentally engage with training because of it.
Who Should Do An Isometric Bench Press?
The isometric bench press should only be considered by more advanced lifters – those with extensive training histories and a deeper understanding of their lifting.
The chances of performing the isometric bench press ineffectively with poor position is high due to the challenging positions you are trying to maintain with maximal force output.
Many lifters would benefit more from performing a variation closer to their competition bench press.
While the isometric bench press can be used to target specific weaknesses, this is more easily achieved by using varying ranges of motion or target specific weak ranges through tempos, extended pauses or extended ranges of motion.
How To Program an Isometric Bench Press?
I recommend starting the isometric bench press with just the 20kg barbell. Practice getting into and replicating the positions of your normal bench press and exerting maximal force against the pins at various points.
Once you have practiced the correct execution and identified where to set up the safety pins you can look to add loads of 40-60%.
For those with strength goals, such as powerlifters, I recommend a format of increasing load and decreased the time under tension.
Start with this 4-week progression scheme:
- Week 1: 45% of 1RM for 30s holds
- Week 2: 50% of 1RM for 25s holds
- Week 3: 55% of 1RM for 20s holds
- Week 4: 60% of 1RM for 15s holds
Alternatively, if your goals are to improve positioning more than strength you can look to progress the time under tension while keeping the weight the same:
- Week 1: 45% of 1RM for 15s holds
- Week 2: 45% of 1RM for 20s holds
- Week 3: 45% of 1RM for 25s holds
- Week 4: 45% of 1RM for 30s holds
Isometrics Bench Press Alternatives
If you do not have access to a power rack, cannot confidently get into position, or simply want an alternative variation for similar benefits, there are multiple exercise options available.
The below is not an exhaustive list, however, provides options for you to reap the same benefits as the isometric bench press.
Dumbbell Bench Press
The dumbbell bench press is a great variation for improving positioning and strength in the bench press.
Compared to a barbell, the dumbbells require you to maintain stability throughout the range of motion and challenge your ability to stay in position, especially as you press off the chest.
Similar to the isometric bench press, these are great to challenge those that struggle with elbow flare or shoulder positioning in the bottom of the bench press.
I recommended performing the isometric bench press 2-3 inches off the chest if you were weak on or off the chest. The Spoto press can be used to replicate these positions as well.
Set up and perform your bench press as usual, but instead of pausing on the chest, you pause 2-3 inches off the chest.
As you are not touching the barbell on your chest and pausing more freely, there is an increased demand for you to maintain position and remain stable in the pause.
This will have similar benefits to performing an isometric bench press in this range.
Tempo Bench Press
The tempo bench press is a bench press performed with a slowed down portion of the rep. This is commonly programmed with a slower descent, extended pause and normal upward phase.
For example, a 3 second descent, a 2 second pause and then pressing the bar upwards as quick as you can.
The similarity here is the increased time under tension and time spent within the positions on and close to the chest.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can You Build Muscle With the Isometric Bench Press?
Similar to other bench press variations the isometric bench press targets the chest, shoulders and triceps. The same muscles are still producing force, however they are contracting isometrically (without movement). This type of contraction does not cause the same muscle tears as other dynamic variations do, which in turns limits its muscle building capability.
Does the Isometric Bench Press Carry Over to the Bench Press?
The isometric bench press can carry over to the bench press. This is usually due to improving the ability to maintain positions and exert maximal force more effectively within the bench press. However, with any training intervention, there are always countless interferences that have affect. The best option is to trial it and find out.
Check Out Our Other Bench Press Guides:
- 6 Decline Bench Press Benefits (Plus, 1 Drawback)
- 8 Close Grip Bench Press Benefits (Plus, 1 Drawback)
- Reverse Grip Bench Press: How-To, Benefits, Muscles Worked
- 3-Board Bench Press: Technique, Benefits, How To Program
- Reverse Band Bench Press: How-To, Benefits, Why Do It?
- Dead Bench Press: How To, Benefits, Muscles Worked
- Touch and Go Bench Press: Should You Pause or Not?
- The Slingshot for Bench Press (Complete Guide & Review)
- Cambered Bar Bench Press: Benefits, How-To, Technique
The isometric bench press is a variation in which you press the barbell with maximal effort against the safety pins. This is usually set up 3-5 inches above the chest. Lifters with a weakness off the chest will benefit from a lower position; 2-3 inches off the chest. Those that want to address their lock out strength should set the safety pins higher; 3-5 inches below their lockout.
About The Author
Jacob Wymer is a powerlifting coach and PhD Candidate in Biomechanics and Strength and Conditioning, researching the application of barbell velocity measurements to powerlifting. He is involved in powerlifting across the board, from athlete to meet director. Jacob runs his coaching services at EST Barbell. You can also connect with him on Instagram.