Isometric Exercises

What Is Isometrics?
Isometric exercise is your body’s answer to the question, “What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?” The answer is that your muscles will get stronger without actually moving. If you’ve been doing your homework and reading up on strength training, then you already know that your muscles gain strength when you challenge them to produce more force than they’re used to. This is typically done by forcing them to move against resistance or weight, like when you do a bicep curl while holding a dumbbell. As you gradually increase the weight or resistance, the muscle responds by getting stronger.

But muscles don’t actually have to move this added weight in order to get stronger. If the resistance is so high that they can’t make it move, they can still get stronger just by trying. There are three ways a muscle can contract to produce force (and eventually build strength):

  • concentric contraction occurs when a muscle is contracting while getting shorter. This is the contraction your biceps do, for example, when lifting a dumbbell up during a bicep curl.
  • An eccentric contraction occurs when a muscle is contracting while getting longer. This is the contraction your biceps do, for example, when lowering a dumbbell back down during a bicep curl.
  • An isometric contraction occurs when a muscle contracts without changing its length or causing any movement of the bones to which it is attached. The best example of this is pushing against a wall, or pulling up on a window that is stuck. This is the contraction your biceps do, for example, if you were to pauseanywhere along the lifting or lowering phase of a bicep curl—your muscles are working without shortening or lengthening.

Why Include Isometrics
There are several very good reasons to include isometric contractions in your strength training program. For one thing, real life situations often require the ability to hold yourself in a certain position—carrying several bags of groceries, squatting down to scrub a floor, holding a baby in your arms—and isometrics is a good way to train your muscles to get better at handling those specific positions. For another, isometric training usually involves exerting maximum force, which will activate and train all of the available muscle fibers and lead to more significant improvements in strength in less time.

But perhaps the most significant benefit for many people is that isometric training can literally be done anywhere, without any special equipment at all. All you need is about 10 seconds to do a single, effective isometric exercise, and you can probably do it without anyone noticing you’re actually exercising.

Let’s say, for example, that your day is just too busy for you to break out the dumbbells and do several sets of bicep curls. If you can find 10 seconds, a couple of times during the day, to press your palms together as hard as you can, you can still exercise your arm muscles effectively. If you can sit in a chair with your abs engaged (tightened) and your feet held just slightly off the floor, you’re giving those core muscles a good workout. If that’s too easy for you, just push down on your knees with your hands while trying not to let your feet touch the floor. To work those upper back and neck muscles, clasp your hands behind your neck, elbows wide, and push your head back while trying to push it forward with your hands. With a little creativity, you can think of ways to use one muscle or limb to oppose the opposite one (or find some immovable object in your environment to push or pull against), so that you can give most of your muscles a good isometric workout. As long you exert as much force as you can for at least 10 seconds for each exercise, you’ll get the training benefit.

Adding Isometrics to Your Program
Supplementing your concentric and eccentric strength training exercises with some isometric exercises is ideal. In addition to using isometrics when you don’t have time to do anything else, as described earlier, you can also add them into your regular routine, to make sure you’re really working your muscles to the point of maximum overload.

There are many ways to do this. For example, you can easily turn a regular exercise into an isometric one by simply pausing and holding, somewhere along the range of movement, for a few seconds. In general, it will be harder and result in greater benefit when you hold closer to the very top of the lifting phase or the very bottom of the lowering phase (without actually getting there).

It’s also good to vary the holding point from workout to workout in order to maintain strength through the whole range of motion.
You can also use isometrics to involve additional muscles in some regular exercises too. For example, if you’re doing a plank exercise to strengthen your core muscles, try adding a few isometrics to engage your upper body. Instead of keeping your elbows straight and locked, bend them just slightly and try to hold that position. That will give your arm and shoulder muscles something to do, along with your core muscles.