Anytime you hit a lift, you’re thinking about lifting it and then lowering it. Those up and down movements are known as concentric (up) and eccentric (down) phases. But there’s a third phase that doesn’t get much attention from the general lifting population — isometrics. Isometrics is a fancy way of saying “pause.” It refers to a static hold, and though they’re anything but dynamic, isometric exercises can yield significant results.
By performing exercises with pauses or doing movements that have you hold tight in one spot, you’re teaching your body control. You’re also strengthening supporting and stabilizing muscles, which will help your standard lifts when appropriately trained. Not sure where to start, or convinced that you even should? No worries. Keep reading for a more comprehensive description of isometrics and 11 exercises to try.
The Best Isometric Exercises
- Paused Squat
- Paused Bench Press
- Paused Deadlift
- Standing Isometric March
- Trap Bar Farmer Carry
- Single-Arm Farmer Carry
- Overhead Carry
- Front Plank
- Side Plank
- Ab Wheel Rollout
- Bear Crawl Isometric Hold
Whether performed with one’s body weight or a barbell, the squat is a staple movement pattern in nearly every trainee’s repertoire. The paused squat is more of a modification than a new movement. The lifter pauses at the bottom of the lift, removing momentum from the bottom, so they have to produce more force to stand back up. You can pause anywhere during the squat, but it’s common to break at the bottom. Most will find the bottom to be the weakest position.
Benefits of the Paused Squat
- If you struggle with a specific part of the squat — for most people, it’s the bottom phase — the pause squat can help strengthen your muscles in that particular spot.
- You’ll accumulate more strength- and muscle-building tension as you’re under the load for a more extended period.
- Pause squats are challenging, so you don’t need to move as much weight as traditional barbell squats to see the benefits.
How to Do the Paused Squat
Perform your squat variation of choice — back squat, front squat, Zercher squat — as you know how. Then, you’ll pause for one to two seconds at a specific part of your squat. If you’re a newer lifter, pause at the bottom of your lift. Once your thighs break parallel to the ground, stop moving. Keep your core braced and maintain tension on all of your muscles; this shouldn’t be a passive pause, rather one fraught with tension.
Like the paused squat, the paused bench press takes advantage of removing constant movement throughout the range of motion to focus on control and precision. The main benefit is that the paused bench press is the usual style of choice within powerlifting competitions — so adding a pause to regular bench press training has great sport-specific carryover. Like the paused squat, the paused bench press typically occurs in the bottom-most range of motion of the exercise (on the chest), but it can be modified to suit the lifter’s needs (IE: Spoto Press).
Benefits of the Paused Bench Press
- If you’re a competitive powerlifter, you have to pause in your bench press in competition, so the pause bench is a sport-specific movement.
- You’ll develop more pressing power as you need to produce more force to get the barbell from a dead stop to over your chest.
- Enhanced technique. The pause bench forces you to slow down the movement and press with control, which means you’ll need to dial in the mechanics of your bench press.
How to Do the Paused Bench Press
As with the paused squat, pause during a specific phase of the lift. When in doubt, pause on the chest. To fully realize the benefits of a paused bench press, allow the bar to come to a dead-stop without sinking any further through the range of motion or settling on the chest. Once the pause is complete, explosively complete the repetitions making sure not to allow the elbows to flare early or lose position on the bench itself.
Are you starting to notice a trend? Isometric training isn’t a complicated method. To reap its benefits, you need to pause during the exercises you’re already performing. And we’ll be that you perform the deadlift regularly. The pause deadlift is a popular deadlift variation among powerlifters and strongmen to develop more strength off of the floor. Typically, the lifter pulls the bar off the ground, pauses at the shin, and finishes the pull. Pausing at the shins creates a lot of tension in the hamstrings and lower back, and fortifying these areas is a must for more effective and efficient deadlifts; they are, after all, critical players in this compound movement.
Benefits of the Deadlift
- You’ll learn how to brace better during deadlifts, essential for protecting your spine while pulling heavy weight.
- Build strength in the hamstrings, glutes, and quads.
How to Do the Paused Deadlift
Perform the paused deadlift by initiating a standard deadlift from the floor. Wait for one to two seconds once the bar has raised to a specific point on the shin. Focus on reinforcing the brace, lat tension, and grip for bar control during the pause before initiating the rest of the lift with the legs to finish the repetition.
A standing march is a great dynamic exercise to challenge the core and one’s gait mechanics when loaded. A person can also use this movement as an assessment tool to check mobility, stability, and proprioception. However, the real value of a standing march comes from freezing mid-way through the repetition. Performing an isometric hold while on one foot immediately forces the trainee to take stock of exactly how much control they have elicited during the exercise.
Benefits of the Standing Isometric March
- You can check how stable and balanced you are on one foot, leading to more awareness.
- The standing march reinforces proper hip, knee, and spinal mechanics for bracing and significant movement patterns.
- This exercise doesn’t require any weight, so it’s very joint-friendly.
- The standing march can be done as a warm-up, between weighted movements, or after a workout for a little added exercise.
How to Do the Standing Isometric March
Assume a comfortable, normal standing position, with your feet about hip-width apart. Actively engage the quads, glutes, and core to stabilize as much as possible before raising one leg into the air to approximately 90 degrees. Flex the foot of the suspended leg up. Pause for a brief isometric contraction in this position for one to two seconds before alternating to the opposite leg. Continue for repetitions.
Isometric training doesn’t always need to be static. Case and point: The trap bar farmer carry. As you walk while holding a trap bar with both hands, your core will constantly work and contract to ensure that your body doesn’t twist and turn in motion. This is a dynamic exercise with many real-life benefits as human beings often find themselves in action and under load (think running through the airport while holding a suitcase in one hand or carrying groceries down the sidewalk).
Benefits of the Trap Bar Farmer Carry
- Integrates isometric core training with dynamic movement.
- The trap bar farmer carry has a lot of real-life carryover, as people are often moving while carrying an off-balance load, even if it’s a light one.
- You’ll train your core to resist rotation, which is a helpful skill for athletes who are constantly running, twisting, and turning. You wouldn’t drive a car without brakes, right? Well, you shouldn’t produce force without having the ability to slow it down, either.
How to Do the Trap Bar Farmer Carry
Perform a trap-bar deadlift to bring the weight into the starting position. Brace your core and begin walking. Keep your shoulders stacked over your hips and aim to move without letting your torso twist side to side. Walk for a set number of steps, and then rest the weight on the ground before starting your next set.
The single-arm farmer carry is a unilateral variation on the farmer carry exercise. While the unilateral (single-side) approach may reduce the load demand on the core, this isometric challenge in many ways is greater than the two-handed version of the farmers carry. By loading only one side of the exercise, the challenge then comes from trying to counter one side, pulling you off-center. In the bilateral version, loading both sides neutralizes this additional challenge on behalf of the trainee, this anti-lateral flexion isometric challenge is usually a weak point for many.
Benefits of the Single-Arm Farmers Carry
- Your core will work hard to prevent your torso from dipping aggressively to one side.
- You’ll develop a lot of core strength as the unilateral load creates an extraordinary amount of core tension.
- Holding a moderately-heavy dumbbell in one hand will help you to develop grip strength.
How to Do the Single-Arm Farmers Carry
Hold a dumbbell in one hand and set your feet hip-width apart. Brace your core and begin walking forward. Do not let your torso dip toward the loaded side. Instead, work to keep your body straight; this is the challenge of the exercise. Walk for a set number of steps and then repeat that same number of steps while holding the dumbbell in the other hand.
The overhead carry is a similar concept to the trap-bar and single-arm carry; however, the isometric challenge is spread further along the length of the core and into the shoulder. The overhead position extends the lever of whatever load selected as it acts against the stabilizers of the shoulders and into the core during each step. Tiny perturbations in each stride turn into a much greater challenge at these joints.
Benefits of the Overhead Carry
- You’ll enhance the stability and integrity of your shoulder joint and muscle.
- You’ll become more proficient in other overhead movements (like the overhead press).
- Your core will work hard in a practical way as you stabilize your body under a heavy load.
How to Do the Overhead Carry
Press two dumbbells or kettlebells overhead and lockout your arms. Maintain a rigid torso and begin walking forward. The goal is not to let your body twist or dip too much to one side. Walk slowly as you support the weight over your body.
The classic front plank may seem vanilla, but it provides some of the best value for no equipment and a learning curve. Planking is likely one of the first exercises to come to mind when considering isometric exercise, and for a good reason. A well-taught front plank is the cornerstone for conceptualizing and implementing full body (isometric) tension across a multitude of exercises, from the paused squat to the overhead carry.
Benefits of the Front Plank
- Develops anti-extension isometric core strength.
- Teaches the ability to generate full-body tension.
- The plank can be performed anywhere with no load.
How to Do the Front Plank
Lie face down with forearms placed ahead of the body on the floor, mimicking the push-up position. With feet together, breathe out as much air as possible to tighten the abdominals. Contract the glutes, quads, and abdominals simultaneously before rising onto the toes and forearms straight. Continue taking shallow, controlled breaths to avoid releasing more core tension than necessary. Hold this position for time.
While the front plank gets most of the glory, the side plank usually provides an even more significant challenge. As with the unilateral farmer carry, a side plank places the trainee in a position that likely isn’t challenged nearly as often — making even unloaded bodyweight versions quite difficult. If the isometric challenge in a front plank is anti-extension, the isometric challenge during the side plank is anti-lateral flexion. The name of the game is to neutralize the body in a straight line against the pull of gravity trying to sag the hip towards the floor.
Benefits of the Side Plank
- It creates a lot of and teaches you to resist against full-body tension.
- Targets and works your core, mainly your obliques.
How to Do the Side Plank
Lie on the floor on one side of the body. Use the forearm to support one end of the body and the knee or foot to support the other. Select either the knee or extended leg position depending on the degree of challenge necessary. Straighten the body while generating isometric tension at the quad, glute, core, and adductors to perform the side plank for time.
The ab wheel is a staple piece of equipment in most commercial and home gyms alike but often gets misused due to a lack of understanding of its technique. The ab wheel is like a dynamic front plank. The front plank is an entirely stationary isometric hold; the ab wheel takes the front plank and forces the trainee to resist losing position while the rest of the body moves throughout the range of motion.
Benefits of the Ab Wheel Rollout
- Integrates front plank technique with a dynamic challenge.
- Integrates hip and shoulder stability.
- This movement requires no additional weight and so it can be performed anywhere.
How to Do the Ab Wheel Rollout
Get on your knees and place your hands on either side of an ab wheel. Position the wheel directly under your chest. Drive your torso forward and extend your arms, so the wheel rolls out in front of you. Let yourself sink toward the floor as far as possible before your back arches. You want to maintain a rigid spine throughout the movement. Once you hold the bottom position for a beat, contract your abs and pull the wheel back into the starting position.
The bear plank is a unique isometric core exercise that has the user support himself on their hands and toes. It sounds simple, but holding a plank with your legs bent at 90 degrees adds some serious tension to your quads in addition to your core. The bear plank creates more full-body tension instead of a standard plank that places more emphasis on the core.
Benefits of the Bear Plank
- Creates full-body tension, especially in the shoulders and legs.
- It’s an exercise that can be done anywhere, so it’s an effective way to build core strength on the road or anywhere.
How to Do the Bear Plank
Assume the quadruped position (facing the floor on the hands and knees). Lock in the shoulders, brace the quads, glutes, core, and shift the center of mass backward. Rise from the knees onto the balls of the feet complete the bear crawl set-up. From here, generate full-body tension in an isometric contraction and breathe deeply for time or a predetermined amount of breaths.
How Isometric Exercises Work
Isometric exercise challenges the full body or its segments to neutralize force. This external force can either be provided by gravity (for example, a front plank) or an implement (for example, the overhead carry).
The primary staple of isometric exercise is to assume a predetermined position and lock in — countering any external forces trying to change that position over time. Isometric exercise can come in the form of anti-spinal flexion, anti-spinal extension, and anti-spinal rotation, or it can specifically challenge a joint. Each joint of the body is a potential point of challenge for an isometric exercise. Joints are designed to move, but the benefit of isometric exercise is to lock a typically mobile joint into a fixed position with the smaller stabilizing muscles being forced to resist movement.
The Benefits of Isometric Training
Whether woven into an exercise or comprising an entire training session, isometric exercise has tremendous benefits to establishing positional strength, refining skill in countless exercise applications, and improvements to mobility and stability.
The paused deadlift perfectly illustrates the benefits of adding an isometric challenge to exercise. One of the most terrifying aspects of the deadlift is experiencing the dreaded cat-back position. A progressively rounding back during a deadlift can set one up for injury due to fatigue or improper skill.
By adding an isometric pause at the known point of the deadlift where rounding may occur, that specific part of the exercise can be reinforced and strengthened without using nearly as much load as a regular deadlift.
Many novice trainees take advantage of velocity rather than technique to plow through challenging ranges of motion. For example, touch and go versions of the big three lifts (squat, bench, and deadlift) often see momentum carrying trainees through points of reduced stability or skill as opposed to precision technique. By adding isometric pauses to these exercises, a person can hone their technique instead of relying on brute force to get a movement done.
Mobility and Stability
Adding isometric holds in lengthened muscle positions is a tried-and-true technique in many mobility routines (for example, yoga). Deep breathing in these stretched positions enhances the stretch by reducing tension and expanding the diaphragm against the tissues being stretched — further squeaking out a small degree of improved mobility. On the other hand, isometric holds in unstable positions, such as on one leg, dramatically challenge proprioception and stability, which can carry over into many skilled exercises or daily movements.
How to Warm Up for Isometric Training
Warming up for isometric training is relatively straightforward. Isometric programming typically lands within a training session as a component of a particular exercise (for example, the paused squat) or at the tail end of an entire training session (for example, front planks).
If the choice is made to have a “stability day,” a simple general warm-up should suffice. Deep breathing drills are a great idea as they will also promote contraction and relaxation of the abdominals, which serve as respiratory muscles and core bracing.
The Final Word
Isometric training can get an unfair shake, with many lifters declaring it tedious, slow, and not worth their time. However, taking a literal pause can make one stronger, not to mention more stable, mobile, and technique-focused. So do your isometric exercises, even if you choose just a couple off of this list.
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