Even if you’re not familiar with isometric exercises, it’s likely they are already part of your workout routine. A form of static strength training, these types of exercises involve contracting a specific muscle for a long period of time without moving surrounding joints. Sound familiar? One of the most common of the bunch is the equally loved and loathed plank. While isometric exercises sound easy in theory, they are actually quite the opposite—the burn is real.
Ahead, Britany Willams, a barre instructor for Sweat shares everything you need to know about isometric exercises and how to reap the benefits, and Openfit trainer, Julian Daigre, breaks down how to do each move.
What Are Isometric Exercises?
Isometric exercises are specific forms of movement that involve working a muscle without movement or rotation in the surrounding joints. Isometric exercises are static, and include moves like plank holds, wall-sits, glute bridge holds, and more.
Isometric actions are those in which the muscle is not varying in length during the movement, Williams explains. “The force placed upon the muscle in the exercise is the same as the force exerted by the muscle itself,” she says. In other words, they are contractions of a specific muscle or group of muscles.
When a muscle is in an isometric state it can be stabilizing other moving (eccentric and concentric) muscles, but there are also isometric exercises where the body stays static in a stabilizing position where the muscle is not lengthening or shortening over the time. Regardless, isometric exercises require the body to be paused with no movement in a stabilized state. And, like anyone who has ever done a plank knows, they sound much easier than they are.
The Benefits of Isometric Exercises
- They Can Enhance Stability: Williams points out that isometric exercises will help improve your stability, body control, and coordination.
- Less Risk of Injury Compared to Other Exercises: “There is less risk of injury with Isometric exercises than weight movements,” Williams points out. This makes them a great rehabilitation tool for those suffering from any pre-existing injuries.
- Decent Alternative to Weights: Williams also reveals that isometric exercises work well for those unable to perform weighted movements, “by working the muscle’s range of motion without added weight.”
- They Can Be Done Anytime, Anywhere: Can’t make it to the gym? No problem. Since you only need body weight—and possibly a wall—isometric exercises are perfect for those moments you need to squeeze in a workout on the go.
- May Help Lower High Blood Pressure: Studies published in 2014 found that similar to physical exercises, isometric exercises can effectively help lower blood pressure. However, if you do suffer from high blood pressure, speak with your doctor before starting any new exercise.
- Help to Improve Your Strength: “When building a foundation of strength, whether you're new to strength training, coming back from an injury, focusing on stability or fixing any muscular imbalances, isometrics are incredibly useful as they don’t require multiple reps through a full range of motion,” Peloton Instructor Rebecca Kennedy explains.
- They Can Improve Your Mind-Body Connection: When doing an isometric exercise, your nervous system is connecting with your muscles. “Isometrics can help teach or simply improve body awareness,” Kennedy points out.
Williams doesn't consider isometric exercises to be an efficient standalone workout, as performing these exercises alone will not noticeably increase strength or flexibility. “Isometric exercises are a great addition to a well-rounded fitness program but should not be the sole focus of a workout regime.” Also, keep in mind that the strength gains that are made, are typically only in that joint angle and not in the full range of motion, adds Kennedy.
Common Examples of Isometric Exercises
There are many different isometric exercises that Williams recommends:
Come to a plank position with your forearms parallel on the ground, back flat, core engaged and feet hip width apart. Holding the contracting through the core, hold this position for 20-60 seconds, keeping your head down so that your eyes are gazing at the floor between your hands. Make sure your head isn't hanging down so far that you're looking under your body, however; this is key for maintaining neutral alignment throughout the spine, and preventing neck injury.
This can also be completed in a side plank with one forearm on the ground and your hips and shoulders stacked so that you’re open to the side.
Glute Bridge Hold
Lie on your back and bring your feet hip width apart with your knees bent. Contract your glutes to lift your lower body until the hips, knees and torso are all in one line. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds before lowering back down.
Step the feet wider than hip width with the toes facing forward. Shift back from the hips to lower into a squat, keeping the chest upright and the knees tracking over middle toes. Hold this squat position for 20-30 seconds.
Start with your feet hip width apart, facing forward. Step one foot straight back and bend both knees until both knees are bent at 90 degrees with the front knee stacked over the ankle and the back knee right underneath the hip. Hold this lunge position for 20-30 seconds before switching legs.
Bicep Curl Hold
Bring one dumbbell in each hand with the elbows close into the sides of the body. Keeping the palms facing up, bend the arms to 90 degrees and hold this position for 20-30 seconds. This can be done with both arms simultaneously or one at a time.
Superman Hold (Back Extension)
Lie on your front side with your arms and legs stretched long. Contract through the glutes to lift both the arms, shoulders and legs off the ground. Hold this position for 15-20 seconds before carefully lower down.
How to Add Isometric Exercises to Your Routine
Isometric exercises are incredibly easy to incorporate into your routine. Kennedy suggests adding them into your warmup as muscle activations. “For example, if you plan on doing Romanian deadlifts you could do a bodyweight isometric good morning or deadlift prior to holding each one for 6-30 seconds for 1-3 rounds resting in between,” she says. “Or, you could do 2-3 rounds of an isometric push-up held at the bottom of a pushup for 5-15 seconds each if you have heavy chest presses in your workout.”
Isometric exercises can also be pieced together as a set—repeating the same movement 3-4 times—or can be added within a workout as a finisher, Williams adds. “My favorite way to add in isometric exercises is during compound movements. You can hold an isometric hold in a lower body movement (lunge or squat) while focusing on traditional strength training exercises for the upper body (like overhead presses or bicep curls) or vice versa. This way you’re maximizing the work during full body workouts and focusing both on building strength and stabilization.”
Anyone with hypertension should speak with their physician before adding isometric exercises to their workout, Megan Roup, Founder of The Sculpt Society, warns. “Isometric exercises can increase blood pressure and therefore if you deal with hypertension, aerobic exercise is recommended.”
Additionally, Williams points out that pregnant women should consult with a healthcare professional before adding isometric exercises into their routine. As always, if you have any specific concerns (and even if you don't), it's best to speak with your physician before starting up a new workout regimen or trying a new form of exercise.
Isometric exercises are a great way to strengthen muscles and improve stability, especially for those with injuries. They are also super convenient as they can be done any time, any place. However, think of isometric exercise as an accessory to your workout—not the foundation.
Carlson DJ, Dieberg G, Hess NC, Millar PJ, Smart NA. Isometric exercise training for blood pressure management: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2014;89(3):327-334. doi:10.1016/j.mayocp.2013.10.030
Rio E, Kidgell D, Purdam C, et al. Isometric exercise induces analgesia and reduces inhibition in patellar tendinopathy. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2015;49(19):1277-1283. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2014-094386