The isometric squat is an advanced training method that can drastically increase strength in your sticking points if used properly.
So, what is an isometric squat? The isometric squat is a variation in which you squat with maximal effort against safety pins, 5-10 inches above the bottom of your squat. Beginners can regress this to isometric bodyweight holds or isometric belt squats. Intermediates can use isometric squat holds or extended pause squats for similar benefits.
If you are going to use the isometric squat, it’s important you understand the technique and how to program it. Let’s dive into those details now!
Isometric Squat: Overview
The isometric squat is a variation where the lifter remains motionless and creates an isometric contraction of the muscles.
There are several progressions of this exercise ranging from bodyweight holds, to squatting into safety pins at a set height.
Beginners may use isometric bodyweight squats to develop more positional awareness in the bottom of a squat – holding this position statically for a set period of time.
More advanced lifters will set the safety pins in the rack (I recommend 5-10 inches out of the bottom of the squat) and will squat the bar as hard as possible against the safety pins while maintaining the position of their legs and torso.
Isometric exercises tend to be prescribed for a duration of 10-30 seconds.
The two biggest factors to consider with the advanced progressions:
- Replicate and maintain position: Isometrics are often used to reinforce positioning. So you need to ensure you are replicating the position you would be in during a normal squat. Maintaining this position throughout the lift is equally important, as they lose their benefit if you perform them in a poor position.
- Ensure maximal effort: Isometrics should be treated as a maximum effort lift. Passively squatting into the pin will reduce the benefit. So ensure that you are squatting into the pins with as much force as you can.
Muscles Worked: Isometric Squat
The muscles worked in the isometric squat are the:
- Adductor Magnus
- Abdominals and Obliques
- Upper Back and Lats
The muscles worked are the same as the normal squat, the exact height of the safety pins will influence which muscles are targeted more.
Generally speaking, if the pins are set lower, you will activate your quads to a greater extent. If the pins are set higher, you will activate your glutes to a greater extent.
Where you set the pins for an isometric squat, and which muscles are worked, will depend on the area of range of motion that you want to work the most.
Our article Muscles Used In The Squat (A Complete Guide) provides further explanation of the effects that different variations and positions have on the muscles used.
4 Different Types Of Isometric Squats
There are four different types of isometric squats, ranging from beginner to advanced. Once you master the first progression, you can move onto the next.
Progression #1: Bodyweight Isometric Squat
The simplest form of isometric squat is the bodyweight variant. These are great for beginners to explore the bottom of a squat without the added load and become more familiar with the positions and balance needed.
Focus should be upon keeping the centre of mass over the mid foot, not shifting your weight too far forward onto your toes or too far back onto your heel.
Taking your normal squat stance, descend to the bottom position of the squat (think hip crease just below the top of your knee) and hold this position for the prescribed amount of time.
Want more resources on squat stances:
- Narrow Stance Squats: Pros, Cons, & Should You Do It?
- Wide Stance Squats: Pros, Cons, & Should You Do It?
Progression #2: Isometric Belt Squat
If your gym has a belt squat available this is another good option that allows for maximum effort without the more awkward set up.
Set the belt squat to lock out 5-10 inches above the bottom of your squat, alternatively if you cannot do this with your machine, set this as the bottom of the range of motion and load up more weight than you can lift.
From here set up with your normal squat stance, replicate the position of your normal squat and squat with maximum force for the prescribed amount of time.
These are easier than the two below variations as the load is only through the lower body (not the low and mid-back) making it far easier to maintain a consistent position.
Don’t have access to a belt squat? Check out my article on 9 Highly Effective Belt Squat Alternatives.
Progression #3: Isometric Squat Hold
Another quicker option is to perform isometric squat holds.
Setting up as to do a normal squat, but instead of performing the full range of motion, squat down to 5-10 inches above the bottom of your squat and hold this position for the required amount of time.
Start light with these as they are surprisingly challenging; sets of 10-15 seconds at 30% will be a good start point and look to progress the time and/or load over the following weeks.
Progression #4: Isometric Squat To Pins
This is the variation that comes to mind when discussing isometric squats.
Lifters will squat against the safety pins set 5-10 inches above the bottom of the squat with maximal effort while maintaining the position that replicates their normal squat.
These are a more advanced option and require more of a set up process. I’ll discuss how to set up an isometric squat to pins below.
How To Do An Isometric Squat To Pins
Step 1: Set Up The Power Rack
You will need a power rack to perform an isometric squat to pins, along with two sets of safety pins.
Perform a squat and set one pair 5-10 inches above where the barbell is during the bottom of the squat.
Set the second pair 1-2 holes below this with the barbell on; you will use this height to rest and un-rack the barbell from.
Step 2: Get Set Up Under The Bar
Set up under the barbell, with a stance, bar and grip position that replicate your normal squat.
This may be awkward initially as you are setting up in the bottom of the squat, but with practice will get easier.
Step 3: Un-Rack And Squat Into The Pins
From here you can squat the bar up into the second set of safety pins, once in contact you should squat with as much force as you can produce for the duration of the set.
Ensure that you are in line with your normal bar path, directly over the mid-foot.
You can read more about the bar path for squats in our article What Is The Best Bar Path For Squats? (Science Backed)
Step 4: Maintain Position
As you are squatting into the pins you need to be maintaining a consistent position.
It can be easy to let your hips rise or upper back to round due to squatting with maximum effort.
Aim to replicate the positions you would see during a normal squat – hips and knees extending evenly, knees staying forward and maintaining your brace.
At the end of the prescribed time, return the barbell to the rack.
3 Benefits Of The Isometric Squat
The benefits of the isometric squat are:
- It can improve position in various ranges
- It can improve squat strength
- It provides training novelty
It Can Improve Position In Various Ranges
I recommend performing the isometric squat 5-10 inches above the bottom of the squat as this is where many lifters fail their squats.
In this range many lifters also see various technical deviations, such as: knees caving in, hips shooting back and up, back rounding or losing your brace.
Heavy squats challenge your ability to maintain position under that load.
Isometric squats provide the opportunity to practice maintaining these positions under maximal effort scenarios, without the need for maximal loading.
This is the primary reason I would program isometric squats for a lifter.
It Can Improve Squat Strength
Isometrics squats can be a great tool for advanced lifters to improve their overall squat strength.
This was demonstrated in this study where knee tendon strength and stiffness was improved after doing isometric squat training.
However, it is important to ensure that you are setting up the isometric squat to replicate the positions you are weakest in, fail at or that are most difficult to you.
By spending more time in these positions, and specifically applying maximal force within them helps you develop skill and better positional awareness within them.
Set the pins 3-5 inches below where you would usually fail the squat. This is where the bar will begin to slow down, rather than targeting the exact point at which you fail.
It Provides Training Novelty
Isometrics allow for a novel training stimulus which is useful to many lifters.
Lifting can become monotonous with repeated training programs and variations, isometrics off a novel and potentially fun element to training for many lifters.
These also do not require their own session either and can be added on following your usual squat training.
Using this as a secondary exercise can help improve training enjoyment and investment.
Looking for more squat variations? Check out my article on 9 Squat Accessories To Improve Strength & Technique.
3 Drawbacks Of The Isometric Squat
The drawbacks of the isometric squat are:
- Setting up can be awkward
- You need a power rack
- Using lighter loads
Setting Up Can Be Awkward
Setting up with a bottom-up approach in the squat can be difficult and make it awkward to replicate the stance, grip and bar positions you would usually use.
I have found a training partner can be incredibly helpful here.
I set up for the squat as usual, walk it out and squat down to the bottom position and then
having my training partner put the safety pins in place for me.
Due to the lighter loads you will be able to hold the bottom position while they do this without detriment.
You Need A Power Rack
Most gyms will have access to a power rack and safety pins, however, without one, you will not be able to perform the isometric squat.
However, you could use regressions of the isometric squat to pins, by using static holds or a belt squat machine.
Using Lighter Loads
Lighter lifting is a necessity within a good program, but given that these are typically performed with 30-50% of your maximum squat, it is likely significantly lighter than your usual squat training.
Some lifters may find this difficult to engage with mentally, or not even consider it as an option as it may seem boring.
Who Should Do An Isometric Squat?
With the regressions provided, anyone can benefit from an isometric squat.
The isometric squat hold and isometric squat to pins should only be performed by advanced lifters.
These are highly challenging due to trying to maintain positions along with maximal force output, and thus are very easy to perform in effectively. Lifters with extensive understanding of their own lifting can benefit from these though.
Body weight isometrics and belt squat isometrics can be great for beginners in helping them establish the positions and force needed to be applied during the squat.
However, many lifters would likely benefit more from performing variations closer to a normal squat.
The isometric squat can be used to address a variety of issues as discussed above, but this can be more easily achieved by targeting specific weak ranges through manipulating tempos, pauses and accessory squat movements.
How To Program An Isometric Squat
Performing the isometric squat with just a 20kg barbell is the best place to start. As these require maximal force for an extended period of time, practicing maintaining positions while doing this is best done without load initially.
From here, once you have practiced performing them correctly and maintaining the positions required you can look to add loads of 30-50%.
Powerlifters and other strength orientated athletes should aim to increase load while decreasing the time under tension.
A starting 5-week progression scheme:
- Week 1: 30% of 1RM for 30s holds
- Week 2: 35% of 1RM for 25s holds
- Week 3: 40% of 1RM for 20s holds
- Week 4: 45% of 1RM for 15s holds
- Week 5: 50% of 1RM for 10s holds
For those with more positional focused goals rather than maximum strength, you can aim to increase the time under tension with a continuous load.
A starting 5-week progression scheme:
- Week 1: 40% of 1RM for 10s holds
- Week 2: 40% of 1RM for 15s holds
- Week 3: 40% of 1RM for 20s holds
- Week 4: 40% of 1RM for 25s holds
- Week 5: 40% of 1RM for 30s holds
Isometric Squat Alternatives
If you cannot access a power rack, confidently perform the isometric squat, or simply want to broaden your options for address similar benefits, there are a multitude of exercise variants to choose from.
The below list provides options for you to address similar weakness and develop the same skills as with the isometric squat.
A pause squat is performed just like a normal squat, but with a pause, usually at the bottom.
However, you could manipulate the location of that pause, just like you can vary the position you set the pins for an isometric squat.
I find extended (2-3 second) pauses in the bottom of a squat have great carry over to many lifters squat strength and ability to maintain position.
The tempo squat is a variation performed with slowed down portions of movement, typically a slower descent, a pause at the bottom and a normal upward phase.
This allows an increased time under tension and time spent within the positions that challenge your ability to maintain them.
I frequently programme these with a 3-2-0 tempo; meaning a 3 second descent, a 2 second pause and an upward phase as quick as you can.
Want to know more about the tempo squat and how to program it? Read my article 7 Reasons To Do Tempo Squats (Plus How To Program It).
Frequently Asked Questions: Isometric Squats
Can You Build Muscle with the Isometric Squat?
Similar to other squat variations, the isometric squat targets the legs, back and core muscles. These same muscles are still producing force, however, are contracting isometrically (without movement). This type of contraction does not cause the same muscle tears as other dynamic variations do, which is turn limits the muscle building potential.
Does the Isometric Squat Carryover to Regular Squats?
The isometric squat can carry over to the squat. This is due to improving the ability to maintain positions while exerting maximal force more effectively. However, with any training intervention, there are always countless interferences that have affect. The best option is to trial and find out.
The isometric squat is a variation in which you squat with maximal effort against the safety pins, typically 5-10 inches above the bottom of your squat. This is suited most to advanced lifters. Beginners may regress this to isometric bodyweight holds or isometric belt squats. Intermediates may use isometric squat holds or extended pause squats for similar benefits.
Other Helpful Squat Guides
- Tabata Squats: How-To, Common Mistakes, & Workout Sample
- Ultimate Front Squat Guide (Technique, Benefits, Tips)
- High Box Squat: 5 Reasons Why It Makes Sense
- 6 Cambered Squat Bar Benefits (And, How To Train With It)
- Hatfield Squat: What Is It? Technique, Benefits, Muscles Used
- Cossack Squat: What Is It? How To Do It? Benefits
- 7 Benefits of The Zercher Squat (Plus, 3 Drawbacks)
- Jefferson Squat: How-To, Benefits, Should You Do It?
- 4 Reasons To Do Safety Bar Squats (Plus, How To Program It)
- Partial Squats: Benefits, Muscles Worked, Are They Safe?
- How To Pause Squat (Technique, Benefits, Muscles Worked)
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.