When advanced powerlifters have plateaued on their deadlift progress, they routinely regain lost ground using the isometric deadlift.
So, what is the isometric deadlift? The isometric deadlift is a variation that requires the use of a power rack. The safety arms are put at the desired height and the lifter deadlifts the barbell upward. When the barbell makes contact with the underside of the safeties, the lifter then pulls against the resistance for a prescribed amount of time.
While the isometric deadlift might not look all that complicated, its use is highly reserved for advanced-level lifters due to its capacity for technical error by adding too much weight. Notwithstanding, there are other ‘easier’ deadlift variations that can help you break through your deadlift plateau first.
In the article below, I’ll share the detailed instructions on the isometric deadlift, its benefits, and a few drawbacks to consider.
What Is An Isometric Deadlift?
As a variation of the straight bar conventional deadlift, the isometric deadlift manipulates the difficulty of the exercise by presenting a physical barrier for the lifter to pull the bar against — in a way, this is comparable to doing a deadlift with chains or deadlift with bands.
With a reasonable load on the bar to start (as low as 45% of 1RM), the lifter will deadlift it off the floor until the bar makes physical contact with the bottom edge of the safety arms. From here, the lifter will maintain their straight-back, hinged position and pull the bar as hard as they can against the pins.
The exact duration of the isometric can last anywhere from 15-30 seconds. Typically, the 20-30 second range is preferable as 15 seconds tends to allow too heavy of a load — often resulting in compromised technique as the lifter continues to hold.
The two biggest keys to success with this exercise are:
(1) maintain the hold position tightly, and
(2) do not compromise your position by allowing your back to round over as the duration progresses.
Overall, the isometric deadlift is seen as a more challenging deadlift variation because it requires:
• More endurance in the lower back, hamstrings, and glutes
• Higher amounts of upper back strength
• Greater levels of grip endurance
• Increased amount of grip strength
Check out my article on the 8 Deadlift Progressions From Beginner To Advanced.
Muscles Worked: Isometric Deadlift
The muscles used in the isometric deadlift are the:
- Trunk musculature (abs and lower back)
The isometric deadlift emphasizes the glutes, hamstring muscle group, along with the quadriceps. Considering the amount of isometric contractions occurring during the exercise, there’s a significant amount of lower back and ab activation as well.
Additionally, the lifter is also significantly hinged forward during the bar’s point of contact against the barbell. This results in the trunk musculature brunting the majority of the load.
When it comes to the upper body, the isometric deadlift pinpoints the lats, traps, and rhomboids.
Dive into this full guide on the deadlift, complete with a specific section on the muscles used in the deadlift — a must-read for all lifters.
4 Benefits of The Isometric Deadlift
The benefits of the isometric deadlift are:
• It can enhance your back strength
• It can be included for variety’s sake
• It can drive up your conventional deadlift
• It can improve your grip endurance
1. It Can Enhance Your Back Strength
The isometric deadlift demands a time under tension that is often brushed aside as “no big deal”.
That said, many lifters are delighted when they experience serious gains in their ability to maintain a flat-back position when performing their regular conventional deadlifts.
As it turns out, lighter weights that are held for long static durations can provide a new stimulus that differs from the adaptations obtained by heavy strength work (sets of <5 reps).
Struggle with straight-back positioning on the deadlift? Don’t miss out on how to keep your back straight while deadlifting.
2. It Can Be Included For Variety’s Sake
It’s true, some lifters thrive off monotony. However, lacking in exercise variety can limit your strength gains while hampering your mindset about your training.
Including a new “batch” of exercises every 4-6 weeks not only keeps you on your toes from a mental standpoint but also provides a novel stimulus from which your body must newly adapt to.
If you find your standard conventional deadlifts are getting stale lately, consider mixing it up by including the isometric deadlift in your next training program.
3. It Can Drive Up Your Conventional Deadlift
The beauty of the isometric deadlift lies in its unique adaptations from the static contraction nature of the exercise, and its versatility.
For instance, you can benefit from this exercise regardless of where your sticking point is in the deadlift. Struggle just below the knees? Set the safety pins around mid-shin. Miss your deadlifts near lockout? Position the safety arms so they stop the bar just above your knees.
In these two examples (along with other iterations), you’ll develop strength in the zone leading up to your exact sticking point. Over multiple weeks of consistent training, the hope would be to have enough strength improvements to maintain a fast enough bar speed to breeze past your previous sticking points.
Check out my other tips for improving your sticking points in the deadlift:
- Weak Off The Floor In The Deadlift? Try These 7 Tips
- Weak In The Middle Of The Deadlift? Try These 5 Tips
- 10 Tips To Improve Your Deadlift Lockout
4. It Can Improve Your Grip Endurance
It’s not rocket science that holding onto heavy loads for a longer time than usual will likely result in improving your grip endurance.
This is the exact phenomena occurring in the isometric deadlift: longer time under tension provides a novel stimulus that enhances the lifter’s ability to hold onto heavy objects for extended time frames.
While the isometric deadlift might not improve your skill at holding onto a maximum deadlift (1RM) attempt — after all, grip strength is a different skill entirely — it will most certainly make it easier to hang onto pull-up bars, >10 rep sets for deadlift accessories and countless row variations.
3 Drawbacks Of The Isometric Deadlift
Without a doubt, the isometric deadlift is a fantastic exercise. That said, it does come with a few drawbacks to be aware of:
- Grip fatigue
- Lighter loads required
- Low back fatigue
1. Grip Fatigue
In the isometric deadlift, there is unlikely to be a major lack of grip strength since the weights being used are significantly lighter than the usual deadlift numbers.
However, the time required to hold onto the barbell might challenge your endurance muscle fibers to the point where they become the limiting factor on this exercise.
As a result, you might have to accept that you’ll have to lighten the load even further and miss out on better adaptations or use straps for your working sets.
If your deadlift suffers because you have a weak grip endurance, consider checking out my review of the 7 Best Hand Strengtheners.
2. Lighter Loads Required
Due to the longer-than-normal time under tension in the isometric deadlift and the lighter weights this demands, some lifters might struggle mentally to stay engaged with the exercise.
This issue might seem trivial, but the “Type A” lifters will sometimes present with not being able to accept training with lighter loads — even when a difficult exercise variation requires it.
This is often the case when these lifters are used to pushing close to failure frequently and complain of “not getting a good workout” if they’re not lifting maximal weights.
Time to invest in lifting straps? Make sure to get the best pair for you, by checking out my review of the Best Lifting Straps.
3. Low Back Fatigue
Similar to grip fatigue, the low back muscles can also fatigue quickly in the isometric deadlift.
Considering that these muscle groups are not used to holding an extended static contraction under load as they are in this exercise, some lifters might complain of a sore lower back in the days after they perform the exercise.
The remedy here is in appropriate load selection and avoiding training too close to failure, as this will also increase the risk of injury and further stagnation of progress.
How To Do An Isometric Deadlift
Let’s analyze what the correct technique looks like for this exercise.
Step 1: Set The Bar And Power Rack
Before even beginning to set your stance, it’s critical to position the barbell correctly in the power rack.
Ensure the bar sits roughly in the middle of the rack’s footprint so that it doesn’t scrape up the front or rear uprights.
You should have the safeties set slightly lower than your sticking point in the deadlift, not the actual position at which you fail your reps. Remember that just because you fail at knee-level, the bar actually began slowing down somewhere near the middle of your shin.
As a result, double-check that the height of your safeties will adequately address your deadlift weak point.
Step 2: Set Your Stance
Once you have the bar, rack, and safeties established, it’s time to set your stance.
Typically, a stance that places your feet about hip-width apart and toes angled outwards slightly will work for the vast majority of lifters.
During the time in which you’re adjusting your foot stance, confirm that the barbell is placed directly over the middle of your feet. This is essential in a proper pull because it will likely result in the best chance to produce an efficient, vertical bar path.
From this point going forward, it is absolutely critical that the barbell does not roll forwards or backwards from the position you just placed it in. Basically, you have specifically positioned the bar over your centre of gravity to ensure it feels easy when you lift it.
Remember, do not move the barbell from here on out.
Step 3: Grip The Barbell
The next step is to physically grip the barbell.
To do this, begin by hinging backwards in order to stick your hips back nice and far. Allow your chest to come forwards as you swoop down to place your hands on either side of the barbell.
Your hands should be just outside your legs on either side of the barbell — this should mimic the standard grip that you use during the regular conventional deadlift.
Step 4: Shins Against The Bar
From here, you’ll want to place your hip joints in a better position that allows your glutes, hamstrings and quads to exert more force.
Keeping your hands on the bar — still without moving it — allow your knees to bend until you can feel the steel of the barbell against the front of your shins.
Upon contact of your shins and the barbell, avoid dropping your hips any lower (it’s common to unconsciously sink your hips down ever lower during this step).
Step 5: Stick Out Your Chest
Now that your lower limbs are correctly positioned to maximize force, this is a great time to straighten your back — in order to use your legs to lift the load, instead of your back.
With the bar staying still and your hips locked into place, stick your chest outwards. This cue will almost always result in a rounded back transitioning to a straight back angle.
However, recall that a number of lifters respond better to different cues. For instance, instead of “stick your chest out”, you can use the cue “lift your chest” in order to achieve the ideal neutral position for your back.
Step 6: Drag It Up
Finally, you can start to move the barbell now.
When you’re all set, push the floor away from you in order to initiate the correct joint sequencing. Keeping your arms straight at all times, envision yourself physically dragging the barbell up the skin of your shins and thighs.
Step 7: Push & Hold Against Safeties
As the bar ascends, it will reach the point where it makes contact against the bottom edge of the safety arms.
Once you feel this gentle contact against the bar, double your efforts of pushing the floor away.
This should drive the barbell even harder against the safeties. You will hold this uncomfortable position for 15-30 seconds, depending on what is programmed in your training.
At the end of the prescribed time frame, simply set the barbell down.
Who Should Do An Isometric Deadlift
Only advanced lifters should attempt to include the isometric deadlift in their training.
This is because the likelihood for technical error is heightened due to the amount of lifters that accidentally place too much load on the barbell. In fact, it’s likely more effective to simply deadlift more often during the week with a similar stance as your competition-style.
Due to the enhanced specialist nature of this exercise, there are more practical ways to achieve the progress that the lifter desires. This includes performing targeted weak range of motion exercises to strengthen the lifter’s lagging ROM.
For these reasons, beginner and intermediate athletes should opt for other deadlift variations first, before trying out the isometric deadlift.
How To Program An Isometric Deadlift
When first starting out with the isometric deadlift, I’d recommend beginning on the lighter end by loading as little as 45% of your conventional deadlift 1RM on the bar.
The primary reason being is that the chance of technical error with this exercise is extremely high, especially when straining maximally against an immovable object (the safety arms). Obviously, the duration of your isometric hold also plays a huge factor here in the difficulty and feasibility of a workout featuring the isometric deadlift.
For powerlifters and strength athletes, I would suggest the following format of increasing the load as you decrease the time under tension:
- 45% of 1RM for 30s hold in Week 1
- 50% of 1RM for 25s hold in Week 2
- 55% of 1RM for 20s hold in Week 3
- 60% of 1RM for 15s hold in Week 4
Alternatively, you could follow the opposite format by progressing the time under tension while keeping the weight the same:
- 45% of 1RM for 15s hold in Week 1
- 45% of 1RM for 20s hold in Week 2
- 45% of 1RM for 25s hold in Week 3
- 45% of 1RM for 30s hold in Week 4
Isometric Deadlift Alternatives
In the event that the isometric deadlift is not feasible for you for whatever reason, there are multiple alternatives that can be selected.
The suggested exercises below are in no way an exhaustive list, but all can be accommodated to target various sticking points throughout the range of motion.
Paused Conventional Deadlift
We wrote a full guide on the paused deadlift, which breaks down how to implement it into your program.
We wrote a full guide on the deficit deadlift, which breaks down how to implement it into your program.
Frequently Asked Questions
Anytime the topic of isometric deadlifts arises, I receive questions — here are the ones that are asked the most frequently:
Can You Build Muscle with the Isometric Deadlift?
Similar to other deadlift variations, the isometric deadlift targets the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, back muscles, lats, traps, and abs. While these muscle groups are still being worked, they’re stimulated using an isometric (an unmoving) contraction. This type of contraction does not result in the same microtears occurring as standard dynamic movements do, likely blunting its muscle building ability.
I Get Bloody Shins When Performing This Exercise, Why Is This Happening?
This is likely occurring because you’re positioning your hips too low during your set-up. Ensure that once you set your stance and your shins make contact with the bar, your hips should immediately “freeze” in place from there on.
Check out our article on how to fix bruising your shins in the deadlift.
Does Strength Gained in the Isometric Deadlift Carryover to Normal Deadlifts?
Many lifters notice an uptick in their regular deadlift performance following a training cycle with the isometric deadlift. That said, there are countless inter-lifter differences that can result in an accessory exercise performing well or flopping altogether. The best way to find out is the old tried-and-true: test it out for yourself!
Do You Recommend Using Straps for the Isometric Deadlift?
For most lifters, yes. The sheer length of the 20-30s pull against the pins will likely fatigue the lifter’s grip faster than usual, resulting in the grip being one of the limiting factors. However, the significantly lighter load used might not be troubling for lifters with stronger-than-average grip. Try going strapless to start, but don’t hesitate in using them if you need.
Are Isometric Deadlifts More Optimal than Normal Deadlifts?
For most lifters, no. The dynamic movement of the regular deadlift is extremely tough to beat, this applies to its close variations as well.
The isometric deadlift is a unique deadlift variation which uses a lighter load (45-75% 1RM) that is pulled against the base of spotter arms/pins. It is commonly used amongst advanced trainees to blast through deadlift sticking points.
While it has some drawbacks, its versatility in targeting multiple sticking points and variability in time under tension can provide serious gains — helping you hit new all-time personal bests.
About The Author
Kent Nilson is an online strength coach, residing in Calgary (AB). When he’s not training, coaching, or volunteering on the platform at powerlifting meets, you’ll likely find Kent drinking coffee or enjoying his next Eggs Benedict. Connect with him on Facebook or Instagram.