7 Isometric Exercises for Bigger Gains
Quit moving (at least for a moment) to experience the upside of isometrics.
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Working out is all about motion — we run, we jump, we push, we pull, we lift. But dynamic training is not the only way to get results, and sometimes coming to a dead stop is exactly what you need to move ahead.
If you’ve ever held a plank or struck a pose in yoga class, you’ve done an isometric exercise — a move in which you’re holding a fixed position against resistance. But most people don’t consider isometrics to be as effective as traditional isotonic (dynamic) training, in which you’re contracting or extending a muscle against resistance — but they could not be more wrong.
Science is on board with isometrics as a training modality, and proven benefits include increased muscular strength, better athletic performance, enhanced neuromuscular efficiency, and improved tendon and joint stability. What’s more, isometrics rarely trigger delayed onset muscle soreness like traditional isotonic movements, meaning you can recover faster and get to the gym more often.
Pause With A Cause
There are four main styles of isometric training to choose from, which are listed below in increasing order of difficulty:
- Sensory isometrics involve holding a contraction using light resistance to improve neural connections without fatigue, helping improve speed and prevent strength imbalances.
- Yielding isometrics require you to hold a contraction for a set length of time with submaximal weight, usually in a position of weakness in a movement, such as at the bottom of a squat or a few inches above your chest in a bench press. This causes the tendons attached to the target muscles to “creep” — e.g., expand and lengthen in a controlled and careful manner — under that load.
- Non-yielding (aka overcoming) isometrics involve pushing or pulling as hard as you can on or against an immovable object, such as pushing against a wall or pulling on a rope wrapped around a fixed pole.
- Oscillatory isometrics are a very advanced iteration in which you perform a static hold using the target muscle(s), then follow with a full release of tension while moving within a small 3- to 5-inch range. This trains your opposing muscle groups to work in concert, for example your quads flexing while your hamstrings relax.
The kind of isometrics you choose to implement depends on your goals. “Sensory isometrics using light bands is a great starting point,” says Hannah Eden, co-owner of PumpFit Club in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and founder and CEO of Hannah Eden Fitness and Serene Soldier Inc. “They are extremely basic and are a great way to start connecting the mind with the body.”
On the other hand, if you’re looking for muscle growth, you might want to try yielding isometrics. “Here, exercises are performed with 70 to 80 percent of your one-rep max,” Eden says. “You’re fighting against gravity, resisting elongation of the targeted muscle … for 20 or more seconds. This floods the area with blood and muscle-building metabolites, providing stimulus for growth.”
Strength workouts aren’t the only aspect of fitness that can benefit from isometrics. “Cardio activities involve repetitive movements, sometimes with higher impact, and cross-training with isometrics builds strength in a low-impact and controlled way,” says Jess Sims, NASM-CPT, Peloton Tread instructor based in New York. “They can also help with rehabbing injuries because you’re not changing your joint or muscle positioning.”
“Adding isometrics into my athletes’ programming at least once per workout has been a huge game changer in terms of being more explosive,” adds strength and performance coach Matthew Pendola, EXOS performance specialist and owner of Pendola Training in Reno, Nevada.
Ready to give isometrics a whirl? Try these expert-designed variations on seven popular exercises and prepare to move less — and gain more.
Sustain Your Stationary Lunge
Isometric Style: Yielding
Lunges seem simple enough, but they can quickly become a balancing challenge, especially if you’re holding dumbbells at your sides or a barbell across your back. Ditch the weights and instead grab a rod or pole for this move, suggested by Pendola.
Stand with your back to a wall and hold a dowel or PVC pipe vertically with both hands, placing one end securely on the floor. Extend your right leg behind you and press your heel flush against the wall, toes on the floor. Bend both knees and lower into a deep lunge until both legs make 90-degree angles. Hold here for 20 to 60 seconds, then stand back up. Repeat on both legs.
Tip: “Be sure to stand at the exact same distance from the wall when doing the opposite foot,” Pendola advises. “This can help correct leg-length discrepancies and asymmetries.”
Power Your Pull-Up
Isometric Style: Sensory
Sure, some freaks of nature can pump out dozens of pull-ups at a stretch, but for the rest of us plebes, this military staple remains a challenge. “Isometrics help your body ‘learn’ the top position of a pull-up to recruit the necessary muscles, ligaments and tendons to execute a complete repetition,” Sims says.
Take an overhand grip on a pull-up bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart. Jump or pull yourself up so your chest is at or above the bar in the top-most position of a pull-up. Your shoulder blades should be pulled back, elbows down, body straight, legs together and core tight. Hold for 10 seconds, breathing deeply, then release and drop to the floor. Begin with two to three sets of 10-second holds, and work to increase the duration over time.
Tip: Play with your grip, switching from overhand to supinated or even neutral, Sims suggests.
Strengthen Your Back Squat
Isometric Style: Non-Yielding
Isometrics can help you overcome your strength sticking points, such as driving out of the hole in a squat. Practicing static holds in the bottommost position under load can incite neuromuscular adaptations and translate to a stronger concentric upward drive. This move, recommended by Eden, requires a barbell, a power rack and two sets of pins — or one set of pins and two J-hooks, as shown.
Set the J-hooks and the barbell at the height of your typical squat sticking point. Set the pins above the hooks in the next hole or two up. Assume your squat position under the bar with your feet shoulder-width apart and turned out slightly, hips low and back straight. Actively drive the bar upward against the pins with max force for five to eight seconds. Rest 30 to 60 seconds before repeating.
Tip: If your goal is to increase strength, Eden suggests performing this sequence at three positions: at the bottom, the midpoint and the point just below standing upright. Perform three five- to eight-second holds in each position.
Boost Your Bench Press
Isometric Style: Non-Yielding
The same trick Eden suggests for the squat works for the bench press, leveraging non-yielding isometrics to target your sticking point. “I recommend doing isometrics before your actual chest training or on a separate day so you’re able to implement maximum force without being overly fatigued,”
Place a flat bench inside a power rack and position a set of J-hooks and the barbell at your sticking point. Set the pins in the next hole up and lie faceup on the bench with your feet flat on the floor. Take a wide overhand grasp on the bar and drive it upward against the pins with maximum force. Perform three sets of five- to eight-second holds, resting at least 30 seconds in between.
Tip: For a change of pace, or to hit your muscles from new angles, use an incline or a decline bench.
Perfect Your Plank
Isometric Style: Sensory
Love ’em or hate ’em, planks are a core staple, developing strength and stability in your abs, hips, glutes and shoulders. But as you improve, you will want to implement variations such as this one, suggested by Pendola, to keep progressing.
Get into a plank with your hands directly underneath your shoulders and your legs extended behind you so your head, hips and heels align. Hold here and create tension by “pulling” your feet toward your elbows and vice versa — without actually moving — for 30 to 60 seconds. Then lift one limb at a time parallel to the floor and hold it there for 10 to 30 seconds.
Tip: Make sure you engage your glutes and quads so your hips don’t sag, which could cause an injury, Sims warns.
Crank Up Your Curl
Isometric Style: Non-Yielding
Nothing beats a barbell curl for full biceps stimulation. “Do this move before your regular sets of curls to warm up the muscles and stimulate them at that common sticking point,” Pendola says.
Set the pins an inch or so below the level when your forearms come parallel with the floor. Grasp a barbell with a shoulder-width grip and keep your arms pinned to your sides as you drive the bar up against the pins at max effort for five to 10 seconds. Rest 20 to 30 seconds, then repeat.
Tip: For balanced arm development, perform this same move for a triceps barbell extension.
Develop Your Deadlift
Isometric Style: Non-Yielding
As with the bench press and squat, the deadlift can be accentuated using isometrics. This three-position deadlift from Eden is a challenge, but it’s well worth the effort.
Load a barbell on the floor with so much weight that you can’t lift it, even a little bit. Stand with your feet underneath the bar, push your glutes back, then bend your knees to take a shoulder-width underhand or mixed grip on the bar outside your legs. Pull upward against the bar for five to eight seconds at 100 percent effort for three rounds. Then unload the bar and reload it in a power rack at the midpoint of your deadlift and repeat the above sequence. Finally, set the bar in the rack at a point just before lockout and repeat once more.
Note: Don’t mix isometric holds with traditional deadlifting. Excessive intensity and possible overexertion can put you at risk for injury, so put them in separate workouts a few times a month.
Tip: “Once you’re familiar, add a plate beneath your feet,” Eden says. “This elevates you slightly and puts you in a deficit position as you try to lift the load from the floor.”
The guys in the white lab coats have a few things to say about the benefits of isometrics.
- They recruit more muscle fibers: A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that isometric training recruits more than 95 percent of the motor units in a working muscle group versus only 88 percent in a traditional isotonic (dynamic) movement.
- The benefits aren’t angle-specific: Isometrics actually translate throughout a muscle group, according to researchers in Japan: Subjects performed plantar flexion resistance isometrics three days a week for four weeks at just one angle (20 degrees). However, they saw strength gains at multiple angles that were not trained.
- A little goes a long way: A study published in The Journal of Applied Research showed that a seven-minute isometric routine led to a 20 percent strength increase in just one month.
- They make your heart happy: A 2014 meta-analysis of research published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings concluded that isometric resistance training lowers systolic and diastolic blood pressure significantly more than aerobic or resistance training.
Don’t Hold Your Breath
Yes, with isometrics, you should hold your position — but not your breath. “Since there’s no actual movement being produced, sometimes we forget to breathe,” Sims says. “Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth for the entire duration of the hold.”
“Perform deep, diaphragmic breaths and focus on expanding your ‘inner balloon,’” Pendola adds. “This translates to better control during regular heavy lifts, and you’ll have a much stronger core once you have better control of your breathing.”