Isometric Exercises: Everything You Need to Know
Isometric Exercises: Everything You Need to Know

If your workouts always have you moving, it may be time to add some isometric exercises to take your results to the next level.

“Isometric exercises increase the target muscle’s time under tension, which is a key growth stimulus,” explains Openfit Senior Fitness and Nutrition Content Manager Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S.

 

What Is Isometric Exercise?

Put simply, an isometric exercise is one that involves muscle engagement without movement. Instead, you pick one position and hold it.

One example of isometric exercise that immediately comes to mind for most people is the plank. And that exercise alone proves that even if isometric exercises look easy, they’re anything but. Holding a position for 5, 10, 30 seconds or more takes a lot of work and, unlike your traditional up-and-down exercise, they don’t give you a break.

That’s part of what makes isometric exercises so great for people with tight schedules or anyone looking to be as time-efficient as possible. Isometric exercises allow you to train your body, hard, in minimal time with little to no equipment. Another perk for those working out at home is that the lack of movement makes isometric exercises easier to perform in tight quarters — without bumping into or knocking over anything.

Isometric vs. isotonic exercise

They sound similar, but isometric and isotonic exercises describe different forms of muscle actions. Obviously they share the same prefix, “iso,” meaning “same.”

Isometric exercises describe those in which a muscle’s length remains constant. For example, in a plank or wall sit, the muscles are working, but not actively changing lengths.

Isotonic exercises, however, require the shortening and lengthening of muscles — but while maintaining the same tension. For example, when you lower into a squat, muscles lengthen or act eccentrically. As you stand back up, the muscles shorten, acting concentrically or contracting, explains Layne Nordquist, C.P.T., a master trainer with VASA Fitness in Denver.

The resistance placed on the body is another critical component of isometric vs. isotonic exercises. In isometric exercises, the load placed on a given muscle is equal to the force the muscle generates — hence the “hold it right there” stalemate.

In isotonic exercises, however, the amount of force generated by the muscle changes — even if the tension stays the same. In the eccentric phase, the force placed on the muscle is greater than what’s generated by the muscle. In the concentric phase, the force placed on the muscle is less than what the muscle generates.

Interestingly, your body’s muscles are stronger acting isometrically than they are concentrically, according to Nordquist. Think about it: It’s easier to hang out at the bottom of a lunge than it is to get up out of it.

 

Benefits of Isometric Exercise

Once you understand the differences between isometric and isotonic exercises, the unique strengths (and even weaknesses) of isometric exercises become increasingly clear.

Isometric exercises allow you to perform muscle actions in which you’re naturally strong. And because your body is physically able to hold these positions, you’re able to add more time under tension than you could by performing isotonic sets for the same amount of time.

However, there are limitations to not working your body through concentric and eccentric muscle actions as well.

“Because isometric exercises require you to hold a specific position, they build strength only in that position,” Thieme says. “That can be beneficial if you’re trying to overcome a sticking point (i.e., the toughest part of an exercise, such as the bottom of a bench press).” It can also come in handy when someone is recovering from an injury or has musculoskeletal issues in which moving through one’s full range of motion is painful or contraindicated.

However, you would have to perform countless reps — each at an ever-so-slightly different joint angle — to build strength through your full range of motion with isometric exercises. It’s much more functional and practical to use isotonic exercises to develop strength through the full range of motion. “Also, because they’re performed in a static position, they also won’t help you improve speed, explosive power, or athletic performance,” he says.

For that reason, it’s best to use isometric exercises as a complement to your current exercise routine, rather than as a replacement for all isotonic exercises. By combining isometric and isotonic exercises, you can best reap the benefits of both training styles, Nordquist says.

Here are some of the benefits of isometric exercises.

1. Overcoming sticking points

By training the hardest part of each exercise, you remove bottlenecks to better performance.

2. Injury recovery

Strengthen your muscles while avoiding painful movements.

3. Better blood pressure

Research suggests that isometric exercises improve blood pressure as well as, if not better than, aerobic and isotonic exercises.

4. Stability

Work your body’s stabilizer muscles to improve joint health and function.

5. Core strength

Train your core to resist movement and keep your spine in healthy alignment.

 

11 Isometric Exercises for Total-Body Strength

These isometric exercise examples are great foundational moves to add to any strength-training routine. When performing these and any isometric exercises, it’s important to emphasize form first and foremost. Even if you can hold a plank for one minute, what really matters is the time spent holding it with full-body tension and good form, even if it’s for only 15 seconds. (No hanging in your joints!)

The same goes for all of the following isometric exercises. Aim to bring yourself to fatigue, but not failure, with each.

Plank

how to do a plank | woman | forearm

  • Get on all fours with your feet together, your body straight from head to heels, and your hands in line with (but slightly wider than) your shoulders.
  • Clench your glutes, draw your shoulders down, and brace your core to lock your body into position.
  • Hold until fatigued. (Can also be performed on forearms and on each side.)

 

Low squat

Plank to Low Squat

  • Stand tall with your feet hip- to shoulder-width apart and your hands by your sides, toes pointed forward.
  • Keeping your back flat and core braced, push your hips back, bend your knees, extend your arms forward, and lower your body as far as possible.
  • Hold for time.

 

Wall sit

wall sit isometric exercises

  • Stand with your back against a wall, your feet hip-width apart and your hands by your sides.
  • Slide down the wall until your hips and knees are 90 degrees, with your shoulders and butt touching the wall.
  • Hold until fatigued.

 

Isometric push-up

isometric push up isometric exercises

  • Get on all fours with your feet together, your body straight from head to heels, and your hands in line with (but slightly wider than) your shoulders.
  • Bend your elbows so that your upper arms flare out diagonally from your torso (you should form an arrow when viewed from above).
  • Lower your body until your elbows form 90-degree angles, and hold until fatigued.

 

Static lunge

static lunge isometric exercises

  • Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and your hands at your sides.
  • Keeping your chest up, shoulders back, back flat, and core engaged, take a large step forward with your right foot. Lower your body until your front thigh is parallel with the ground and your left knee is bent 90 degrees.
  • Hold until fatigued, performing equal reps on both sides.

 

Dumbbell curl with static hold

dumbbell curl with static hold isometric exercises

  • Stand holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides, palms facing forward.
  • Keeping your elbows tucked and your upper arms locked in place, curl the dumbbells until your forearms are parallel to the floor.
  • Hold until fatigued.

 

Isometric bench press

isometric bench press

  • Lie on a flat bench holding a pair of dumbbells directly above your chest with your palms facing forward. Your head, upper back, and butt should touch the bench, and your feet should be flat on the floor.
  • Slowly lower the dumbbells to the sides of your chest, keeping your elbows close to your body.
  • Stop when the weights are a few inches above your chest, and hold until fatigued.

 

Dead hang

dead Hang isometric exercises

  • Grab a pull-up bar with an over- or underhand grip, your hands shoulder-width apart.
  • Allow your body to hang with your legs crossed behind you or toes pointed toward the floor.
  • Hold until fatigued.

 

Scapular retraction

scapular retration isometric exercises

  • Grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip, your hands shoulder-width apart, and let your body hang.
  • Draw your shoulders down and back to raise your shoulders just slightly toward the bar.
  • Hold until fatigued.

 

Flexed-arm hang

flexed arm hang isometric exercises

  • Grab a pull-up bar with an underhand grip, your hands shoulder-width apart, and let your body hang.
  • Pinch your shoulder blades down, then bend your elbows until your upper arms are parallel to the floor.
  • Hold until fatigued.

 

Hollow-body hold

hollow body hold isometric exercises

  • Grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip, your hands shoulder-width apart, and let your body hang.
  • Pinch your shoulder blades down, and position your feet just in front of your body, with your legs straight. Engage your core. Your body should form a gentle C shape.
  • Hold until fatigued.
K. Aleisha Fetters

About

K. Aleisha Fetters is an experienced nutrition and fitness writer and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist.