Isometric exercise is a dimension to fitness that gives it more depths and benefits the body dramatically. While it remains largely unexplored by the casual gym-goer, learning and practicing its technique will add far greater range and meaning to your workouts.
To understand what is isometric, it’s important to understand the other forms of movement that are used in fitness. There are simply 3 categories of exercises/ contraction and they include isotonic, isometric and isokinetic.
In order to move, the muscles of the body contract which means they must either shorten, lengthen, or remain the same. The first category is isotonic, which describes the muscle changing length in two ways- concentrically or eccentrically. Isotonic eccentric contractions occur when the muscles shorten under tension, like the shortening of the bicep during the upward phase of a bicep curl. Isotonic eccentric contractions happen when the muscle lengthens, for example the quads during the lowering phase of a squat.
Isometric contractions happen when when the muscles contract without the lengthening or shortening of the muscles. This is what we call a static contraction. A popular example would be the plank during which the muscles of the core remain stationary but engaged throughout the entire set.
And last but not least are isokinetic contractions. These contractions happens when a muscle changes length during an exercise, but generates movements of a constant speed. You’ve likely seen it done several times while riding or watching others ride a stationary bike- the resistance of the bike is subject to change, but the revolutions per minute remain the same.
Maximal And Sub-Maximal Contractions
Even if the workout isn’t entirely isometric, adding a few iso-exercises into a workout session will do wonders for adding variety and stimulating muscle growth. The beauty is that isometric exercise can be manipulated to suit your workout needs. Isometric exercises can be performed submaximally, meaning they don’t require 100% exertion to be effective.
For example holding your arms out at your side during a lateral raise. The force that you’d use to keep the weight suspended isn’t maximal, considering maximal effort would raise the dombbells higher creating a change in muscle length and joint angle. However if you keep the muscle under tension long enough- maximal effort won’t be necessary because you’ll feel the burn like nothing else.
That’s not to say maximal isometric exercise doesn’t have its place. A common form is static strength training with exercises like pushing against a wall, which causes maximal exertion with no changes of length or position in the muscles or joints.
While maximal iso-exercise is predominantly used for strength conditioning and submaximal for rehabilitation, both can have a profound effect on isometric muscle strength and muscle hypertrophy.
Benefits Of Isometric Exercise
The true value of any form of exercise is in it’s benefits, and isometric exercise has plenty. Physiotherapists often use it for it’s healing properties, developing strength in affected muscle groups without putting too much pressure on an injured muscle or joint. It can also serve as a great starting place for beginners who are new to fitness and want a form of exercise that poses far fewer risks than dynamic exercise.
Relieves Tendon Pain
Isometric exercise is one of the most common (and inexpensive) ways of relieving pain in tendons throughout the body that suffer from tendinopathy. It remains a go-to for physical therapists in the field as a tool for rehabilitation, but even for the casual fitness enthusiast it can be useful for managing minor lifting injuries. When too much stress is placed on a tendon faster than it can recover, the affected area goes through a vicious cycle of disrepair and deterioration.
Putting an inflamed tendon through isometric contractions can help to down regulate its pain response and trigger the healing process.
Another benefit of isometric exercise is its contribution to strength gains. Isometric strength training (IST) has been shown to produce less fatigue while resulting in better angle specific strength improvements compared to dynamic strength training. This can be very advantageous, especially for athletes who:
– Are looking to improve sports related dynamic movements for running, jumping or cycling
– Want to avoid getting too fatigued while still developing positive neuromuscular adaptations
– Want to improve strength at a less than ideal joint angle
To increase muscle hypertrophy with isometric exercise, it’s recommended that you perform IST at around 70 to 75% of the maximal contraction while sustaining that same contraction for 3 to 30 seconds per repetition.
For maximal strength gains, IST should be done between 80 to 100% of maximal exertion while holding the contraction for 1-5 seconds per repetition (1).
Reduces Blood Pressure
While there are several forms of exercise that have beneficial effects on blood pressure, isometric exercise has been known for producing significant improvements in both systolic and diastolic pressures. In two studies measuring contractions of 30% and 50% maximal effort respectively found that all subjects had drastic decline in resting systolic and diastolic blood pressures (2).
Very Little Equipment Is Necessary
A lot of the exercises that are classified as isometric don’t require any equipment. When you think about the popular exercises like planks or wall sits, they are usually body weight exercises with very little equipment needed to create extra resistance.
Exercises like the ever -popular plank get the most shine in the isometric category. However if you can hold a muscle in a static position, there is an isometric exercise for it. You can be sure there is an abundance of isometric exercises for every muscle group. While it would take me a lot longer than you prefer to list them all, I’ve listed a few categories you might find useful on your fitness journey.
Isometric Shoulder Exercises
It’s an understatement to say developing strong , functional shoulders is important. As one of the prime movers of the arm, isometric shoulder exercises are essential for maintaining proper range of motion, , functional mobility, and strength. Here are a few isometric shoulder exercises to get the job done.
Isometric Shoulder Abduction
- Standing a few inches from the wall, touch the outer portion of your hand against the wall. The shoulder on the same side should be a few inches away from the wall.
- You can put a towel between your hand and the wall for added comfort, but with a clenched fist lightly press you’re your hand against the wall. You can add more or less pressure depending on the desired intensity, but either way you should feel the resistance building throughout your arm – especially in your shoulders.
- When the timed repetition is complete, relax your hand to relieve the tension. Perform 10 -15 reps (a few seconds each rep) and switch arms.
Isometric Shoulder External Rotation
- With your body facing perpendicular to the wall, press the outside of your hand against the wall. The difference this time is that your fist should be out in front of you with your arm bent at a 90 degree angle.
- With your fist lightly pressed against the wall and your shoulders a few inches away, begin to drive your fist away from your body. Concentrate on the tension you feel in in your shoulder and rotator cuff.
- Once the rep is complete, release tension from your fist
Isometric Shoulder Flexion
- Stand facing the wall
- Bend your arm at a 90 degree angle with your fist pressed against the wall
- When you’re ready begin driving your fist into the wall, adjusting the intensity as need be.
- After completing the rep, release the tension from your fist and repeat the process.
Isometric Chest Exercises
Besides its rehabilitating effects, few techniques break a plateau in chest growth like static exercises. To be honest, even with very little weight or body weight you’ll find few chest exercises more challenging than these isometric chest exercises. Give them a try and thank me later!
Isometric Push Up
- First assume a standard push up position; feet together, hands a little further than shoulder width apart (parallel with the mid chest), neck, back, and hips straight.
- Lower your body to the business end of the push up with your arms bent at a 90 degree angle and your body a few inches above the floor
- From this point you can complete the reps in many different ways, but one way is to complete 15 to 20 reps and on the last one perform an isometric hold for 10 seconds, finishing the set. You could also try using an iso-hold at the bottom of every rep for 4 seconds for as many reps as you can crank out.
- Repeat again for another set.
Isometric Barbell Press
- Lay flat on a bench with the barbell about 6 inches above your mid-chest line
- Grip the barbell with both hands a little more than shoulder width apart, very similar to the push up. Bend your arms at 90 degrees and make sure there’s a slight arch in your lower back. Push off with from the rack, guiding the bar away from the floor, however refrain from locking out your arms.
- Lower the bar until it’s a few inches above your chest and hold this position for several seconds. The length of time will differ from person to person based on many variables. A good place to start is holding the position for 4 to 6 seconds.
- Push the barbell away from your chest and repeat more reps for as many as you see fit (or as many as you can manage).
Isometric Diamond Push Up
- The diamond push up is very similar to a regular push up with a few exceptions, specifically hand placement.
- Instead of placing your hands shoulder width apart, you’re going to place them both directly under your mid- chest. Both index fingers and thumbs should be touching- creating a diamond shape between them.
- Straighten out your arms at the top of the movement, but don’t completely lock them out
- Lower your body midway between the starting position and the floor and hold that spot for 5 seconds. Lower yourself until your body is a few inches above the floor and hold that for another 5 seconds.
- Raise yourself back to the starting position and repeat the process for another 5 reps
Isometric Bicep Exercises
This is my personal favorite category for static exercises- I find that variety in tempo and duration create unmatched levels of intensity. If you’re new to isometric bicep exercises, keep the weight light and manageable. I promise if you give each rep long enough you will feel the burn.
Isometric Concentration Curl
- Sitting on a bench or elevated surface, separate your knees wide enough to rest your arm comfortably between the two.
- With a dumbbell in hand, place your left elbow on your knee with your arm relaxed and pointing towards the floor.
- Raise the dumbbell until it creates a 90 degree bend in your arm and is parallel with the floor. Hold this position for 15 seconds. Use your knee to stabilize your arm and prevent it from moving- you’ll want to keep it as still as possible.
- Repeat this for 8 repetitions and switch arms.
Single-Arm Isometric Bicep Curl
- Either sitting down or standing up hold two dumbbells at your side in a neutral position
- Curl the dumbbells until your arm is at a 90 degree angle. Grip the dumbbells as tight as you can to stimulate peak contraction.
- Hold this position for 10 seconds. Lower the dumbbells back to your side briefly for recovery and repeat for another 8 repetitions. Adjust the rep range and isometric hold as you see fit.
Isometric Ab Exercises
Isometric ab exercises are a great way to take ab workouts to anew level of pain. As if they weren’t difficult enough. Ease your way into them if you’re unfamiliar with static core exercises. Either start by using simplified forms of the same exercise or shortening the length of each rep until you’re ready to advance. Good Luck!
- Lay on your back with your feet together and your hands stretched above you at shoulder width
- Once ready use your core to suspend your legs and upper back about 3 inches off the ground. Keep your breathing stable. Concentrate on engaging the muscles of the core while stabilizing both the upper and lower body.
- Hold this pose for at least 30 seconds, relax at the starting position, and repeat for at least 4 more sets.
- Start by laying belly down on the ground and then prop your torso and legs off the ground by supporting your upper body with your forearms (arms bent) and toes of your feet lifting the lower body
- Straighten out your body so that your neck, back and hips are all aligned. There should be no arching in any part of the spine.
- With this setup hold this position for 1 minute by contracting the muscles of the core. Use these muscles to keep a strict, rigid form throughout the entire set.
- Balance your torso and legs under your right hand (arm straightened) and the outside of your right foot.
- Similar to the standard plank, you’ll want to be sure that your body is in a straight line. Your head, torso, and legs should all be in alignment.
- Hold this position using your core, preventing your hips from sinking to the floor or losing balance
- Hold this position for at least 30 seconds and switch sides
Isometric Hamstring Exercises
Leg exercises present a challenge of there own, but I highly recommend adding a few isometric hamstring exercises into your routine
- Lay on your back with your knees bent and feet firmly planted on the ground
- Raise your hips so that your torso, hips, and thighs are aligned with one another.
- Concentrate on squeezing your glutes at the top of the movement and feeling the contraction in your hamstrings while driving through your heels.
- Maintain this position for at least 10 seconds or until fatigued
Isometric Single-Leg Bridges
- This exercise has the same set up as the isometric bridge, however instead of bending both legs, take your left leg and straighten it so that a straight line travels from the base of your torso to the tip of your left foot.
- Once again concentrate on contracting the glutes and hamstrings while driving through your heels. Hold this position for 10 seconds and the repeat using the opposite leg.