At the root of any exercise program is the ability for a person to perform muscle contractions, the aim being to develop harder contractions over time through a process fitness experts call progressive overload. An improved ability to contract harder and faster translates into lifting more weight than before, producing many benefits for both the athlete and the average gym goer. These benefits include not just increased muscle size & strength, but also improved explosive power, stability, balance and posture, producing an overall improvement in sports performance.
When dealing with isometric training, it is useful to know what it is, how it is different and why it is beneficial to the athlete. These topics are answered in this month’s issue as we tackle the subject of isometric training and why you need to include it in your training regimen. We also include various isometric exercise options that make a great addition to ant standard strength training program.
Isometrics defined and how it differs from conventional Isotonic training
Much like a typical muscle contraction, an isometric contraction is any activity where the muscle fibers are producing tension but the limb(s) in question are not moving. In a standard (isotonic) contraction, the muscle contracts in order to move the source of resistance (ie. a weighted object) on the end of a lever (ie. an arm or leg) from point A to point B.
Isometric training therefore, is any form of training, whether weighted or bodyweight, where either an intentional effort is made to hold a weight in place through the application of constant muscular tension (a static hold), or an attempt is made to move the weight but it is far too heavy to actually move. In both cases, the muscle is under constant tension but the limbs are not moving. It is useful to note therefore that only an isotonic exercise will employ concentric (flexion) and eccentric (relaxation) contractions.
Benefits of Isometric training
The benefits mentioned earlier are the outcomes of a committed individual following a training program designed to address one or multiple objectives. The goals may vary from person to person, however isometric training can benefit all individuals of all fitness backgrounds, including those undergoing rehabilitation.
Isometric training plays a pivotal role in reducing the risk for injury as a person can generate contractions 20% stronger than during regular concentric contractions.1 The difference in this increase is due to the unchanging nature of the strength curve experienced with isometric training, thus leading to stronger contractions. Stronger contractions, repeated over and over, ultimately enhance load bearing ability by stabilizing vulnerable joints like the knees, increase core stiffness (when trained isometrically) and improve ballistic distal limb movement.2 All three are vital to the proper and safe execution of any sporting activity, which of course includes weight lifting for the thousands of average Joe’s and Jane’s hitting the gyms on a regular basis.
Putting Isometrics to good use
When thinking about isometric exercises, the most common ones that come to mind are typically the plank and wall sit, and perhaps less commonly the glute bridge hold and full body “V” sit.3 All of these are great options, with a number of progression levels available if you are just starting out.
But you do not need to limit yourself to just a few exercises. By knowing that an isometric exercise is anything where you apply constant tension against a resistance while keeping your body still opens up doors for creativity. In doing so, we may borrow examples from other fitness disciplines (like martial arts) where certain exercises have been employed for centuries in the training up of some of the most resilient warriors on earth. The best part is that many of these exercises do not require any equipment and instead use common elements available just about anywhere.
Common Isometric exercises
Planks – any and all variations
Wall sits – add weight to increase difficulty
V holds – hold out your arms farther away from the midpoint to increase difficulty
Glute bridges – add weight to increase difficulty or modify it with an additional heel raise
Overhead holds – anything from a water bottle to a log will do! You can even try running while holding this overhead position (think of soldiers running while holding their rifles over their heads)
Not-so-common Isometric exercises
Wall push – face a solid wall (brick or concrete) and place your hands in a push up position against it and try to push the wall down!
Prayer pose – contract your arms and chest while in the prayer pose to strengthen these muscles
Horse stance – a more extreme version of the squat, if you have the hip mobility. Otherwise go with a standard squat and throw on a sandbag or add another isometric to it (ie. horse stance + overhead hold)
The above examples are all in addition to standard isometrics you can perform with weights at the gym. Whichever you pick to try out, be sure to allocate time for these in the same manner you would for your warm up and stretching portions of training.
1 Frederick C. Hatfield, Fitness: The Complete Guide (Carpinteria: International Sports Sciences Association, 2013), 129.
2 Lee C.Y. Benjamin and Stuart M. McGill, “Effects of Long term Isometric Training on core/torso stiffness.” The Journal of Strength and Condition Research, Volume 29, no. 6 (2015): https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2015/06000/Effect_of_Long_term_Isometric_Training_on.8.aspx.
3 Jesica Salyer, “5 examples of Isometric exercises for static strength training.” Healthline (2016): https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/isometric-exercises#6.