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, but incorporating isometric exercises into your training can make your gains the opposite of static.
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 regularly-paced lifts when appropriately trained.
Not sure where to start, or unconvinced that you even should? No worries. Here are 15 of the best isometric exercises out there, along with exactly how to do them — and why you should.
Best Isometric Exercises
- Standing Isometric March
- Front Plank
- Side Plank
- Bear Plank
- Hollow Hold
- Ab Wheel Rollout
- Trap Bar Farmer’s Carry
- Single-Arm Farmer’s Carry
- Overhead Carry
- Isometric Split Squat
- Pause Squat
- Pause Bench Press
- Pause Deadlift
- Isometric Rack Pull
- Isometric Pull-Up
What are Isometric Exercises?
Isometric exercises involve holding your muscles steady in a contracted position without moving the joints around it. You’ll lock yourself into a predetermined position — say, the bottom of a squat or the top of a plank— and resist moving out of that position as long as you can (or as long as your program calls for).
These exercises 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. That forces your smaller stabilizing muscles to resist movement — and get a lot stronger in the process.
Standing Isometric March
A standing march is a great dynamic exercise to challenge your core and gait mechanics. It’s an entry-level isometric you can also use as an assessment tool to check mobility, stability, and proprioception.
Benefits of the Standing Isometric March
- You can check how stable and balanced you are on one foot, leading to more movement awareness.
- The standing march reinforces proper hip, knee, and spinal mechanics for bracing and significant movement patterns.
- This move 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 standing position with your feet about hip-width apart. Actively engage your quads, glutes, and core to stabilize as much as possible. Raise one leg into the air to approximately 90 degrees. Flex up the foot of your suspended leg. Pause for a brief isometric contraction in this position for one to two seconds. Alternate to the opposite leg. Continue for repetitions.
The classic front plank may seem vanilla, but it provides some of the best value for no equipment. Planking is harder than it looks, but is likely one of the first exercises that comes to mind when considering isometric work.
Benefits of the Front Plank
- Front planks develop anti-extension isometric core strength.
- You’ll learn how to generate full-body tension, which comes in handy when bracing for heavy lifts.
- The plank can be performed anywhere with no load, or you can progress it by adding weights to the mix.
How to Do the Front Plank
Assume a push-up position with your hands under your shoulders. With feet together, breathe out as much air as possible to tighten your abdominals. Contract your glutes, quads, and abdominals simultaneously. 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. A side plank places you in a position that likely isn’t challenged nearly as often — making even unloaded bodyweight versions quite difficult.
Benefits of the Side Plank
- This move teaches you to resist lateral flexion, which is helpful during powerful, loaded barbell moves.
- Side planks target and work your core, mainly your obliques.
- You’ll combat side-to-side imbalances with this unilateral exercise.
How to Do the Side Plank
Lie on the floor on one side of your body. Use your forearm to support one end of your body. Select either the knee or extended leg position, using either your knee or your foor to support your lower body. Straighten your body while generating isometric tension at your quads, glutes, core, and adductors to hold the side plank for time. Keep your time even on both sides.
The bear plank is a unique isometric core exercise that has you support yourself on your 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 compared to the standard plank, which places more emphasis on your core.
Benefits of the Bear Plank
- The bear plank creates full-body tension, especially in your shoulders and legs.
- It’s an exercise that can be done anywhere, so it’s an effective way to build core and full-body strength with no equipment.
- Learn this move to help you progress toward a bear crawl, a dynamic isometric progression.
How to Do the Bear Plank
Assume the quadruped position, facing the floor on your hands and knees. Lock in your shoulders. Brace your quads, glutes, core. Shift your hips slightly backward. Rise from your knees onto the balls of your feet. Keep your knees as close to the ground as you can. From here, generate full-body tension in an isometric contraction. Breathe deeply for time or a predetermined amount of breaths.
Hollow holds are core-focused variations of planks. Instead of facing the ground with your hands, knees, or toes on the ground, you’ll lie on your back during a hollow hold. You’ll lift your legs and shoulder blades off the ground so you resemble a boat. If you have adequate shoulder mobility and a stronger core, you can perform this hold with your arms reaching back over your ears. You can also scale this movement by keeping your arms straight by your sides.
It’s important to maintain good form here so that you’re not yanking yourself into good position by hoisting your neck up. Try to maintain neutrality in your spine by pretending you’re holding an apple between your chin and your chest.
Benefits of the Hollow Hold
- The hollow hold is a great way to train your body for stability during pull-ups and chin-ups.
- You’ll learn how you maintain an isometric hold without any of your limbs touching the ground.
- This move builds a lot of mental discipline, as you have to fight to maintain excellent form throughout the exercise.
How to Do the Hollow Hold
Lie on your back. Engage your core and your lats. Squeeze your feet together and squeeze your quads. Use your core to raise your legs six inches to a foot off the ground. Find a height that your core feels most actively engaged. Simultaneously, extend your arms over your head with your upper arms by your ears. Use your core to help lift your shoulder blades off the ground. Keep your neck in a neutral position. Breathe and hold the position for the prescribed amount of seconds.
Ab Wheel Rollout
The ab wheel is a staple piece of equipment in most commercial and home gyms alike. 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 you to resist losing position while the rest of your body moves throughout the range of motion.
Benefits of the Ab Wheel Rollout
- This move integrates front plank technique with a dynamic challenge.
- The ab wheel rollout integrates hip and shoulder stability.
- This movement requires no additional weight, 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. 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.
Trap Bar Farmer’s Carry
Isometric training doesn’t always need to be static. Case and point: the trap bar farmer’s 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.
Benefits of the Trap Bar Farmer’s Carry
- This move integrates isometric core training with dynamic movement.
- The trap bar farmer’s carry has a lot of real-life carryover, as people are often moving while carrying an off-balance load.
- You’ll train your core to resist rotation, which is a helpful skill for athletes who are constantly running, twisting, and turning.
How to Do the Trap Bar Farmer’s 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. Aim to move without letting your torso twist from side to side. Walk for a set number of steps. Rest the weight on the ground before starting your next set.
Single-Arm Farmer’s Carry
The single-arm farmer’s carry is a unilateral variation on the farmer’s 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 farmer’s carry.
Benefits of the Single-Arm Farmer’s 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 Farmer’s Carry
Hold a dumbbell in one hand. 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. Walk for a set number of steps. 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 your core and into your shoulder.
Benefits of the Overhead Carry
- You’ll enhance the stability and integrity of your shoulder joints and muscles.
- This move will improve your proficiency 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. 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.
Isometric Split Squat
Split squats — and their even more intimidating Bulgarian cousins — will have you working your hips through a large range of motion all while helping you build massive quad strength. Adding an isometric hold to the bottom of this stationary lunge-like move means even more lower body development.
You can scale this move by opting for a bodyweight-only option or choosing to hold free weights at your sides to progressively overload the move.
Benefits of the Isometric Split Squat
- This scalable move is accessible to many beginners while remaining highly effective for advanced lifters.
- Split squats improve hip mobility and lower body strength at the same time.
- Adding an isometric hold to split squats encourages strength at the end range of motion, especially if you’re opting for the Bulgarian split squat.
How to Do the Isometric Split Squat
Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. Step one foot back. Start bending both legs until your knees hit 90 degree angles. The thigh of your front leg and the shin of your back leg should both reach roughly parallel with the floor. Hold for a few seconds in the bottom position. Rise back to the starting position and repeat. Keep your reps even on both sides.
Whether performed with only bodyweight or a barbell, the squat is a staple movement pattern in nearly every trainee’s repertoire. The pause squat is more of a modification than a new movement. The good news about it is that if your can perform regular squats, you likely already have what you need to add pause squats to your repertoire.
Benefits of the Pause 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 Pause Squat
Perform your squat variation of choice — back squat, front squat, Zercher squat. Pause for one to five seconds at a specific part of your squat. If you want to pause at the bottom, stop moving once your thighs break parallel. Keep your core braced and maintain tension in all of your muscles. Come back to standing after the prescribed number of seconds. Repeat for reps.
Pause Bench Press
Like the pause squat, the pause bench press takes advantage of removing any and all momentum from the bottom of your lift. 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.
Benefits of the Pause 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.
- This move 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 Pause Bench Press
Set up as normal for your bench press. If you’re stopping at the bottom of the lift, allow the bar to come to a dead-stop while very gently touching your check. It should not sink any further through the range of motion or settle on your chest. Once the pause is complete, explosively complete the repetition. Make sure not to flare your elbows early or lose position on the bench itself. Repeat for reps.
The pause deadlift is a popular deadlift variation among powerlifters and strongmen to develop more strength off of the floor. Typically, you’ll pull the bar off the ground, pause at your shins, and then finish the pull.
Benefits of the Pause Deadlift
- You’ll learn how to brace better during deadlifts, which essential for protecting your spine while pulling heavy weight.
- This move builds serious strength in your hamstrings, glutes, and quads.
- To perform this move safely, you’ll have to maintain perfect form, which is great for improving your deadlift mechanics.
How to Do the Pause Deadlift
Initiate a standard deadlift from the floor. Pause for the desired number of seconds when the barbell reaches your shins. Focus on reinforcing your brace and maintaining your lat tension and grip. When ready, complete the lift to standing. Repeat for reps.
Isometric Rack Pull
Rack pulls help you overload your deadlift training. Because you’ll be pulling from shin or knee height instead of from the ground, your range of motion decreases compared to a conventional deadlift. As a result, you’ll be able to move more weight.
Adding an isometric to your rack pull will actually involve stripping weight from the bar instead of adding more. This is an empty barbell movement meant to challenge your positional strength and teach you to pull through sticking points in your lift.
Benefits of the Isometric Rack Pull
- You’ll add some major grip strength to your training without actually overloading your body with more weight.
- The isometric rack pull teaches you to continue working against resistance during your deadlift.
- You can adjust the settings of the pins to challenge various parts of your deadlift, depending on your own areas for improvement.
How to Do the Isometric Rack Pull
Set the pins in a power rack or squat rack to your desired point of resistance. That will generally be at shin height or at knee level. Set yourself up for a deadlift. Pull the barbell up against the pins so that they’re securely stopping the barbell from continuing upward. Continue pulling against the resistance for the prescribed time. Reset and repeat.
Once you’re able to add them to your training repertoire, pull-ups are going to be one of the most important strength- and muscle-building tools in your box. Adding an isometric hold to the top of your pull-up (or even in the 90 degree position) will make an already powerful exercise even more effective.
But even if you can’t yet do a pull-up, you can still perform isometric pull-ups. Grab a resistance band and use it to help you complete your isometric holds.
Benefits of the Isometric Pull-Up
- This move will build an immense amount of upper body and core strength.
- If you can’t yet do a pull-up, performing a jumping pull-up and then holding at the top can help you build up the strength you need for a full pull-up.
- Isometric pull-ups can also be performed weighted, so you can scale these for any skill level.
How to Do the Isometric Pull-Up
Perform a pull-up or jump up until your chin is over the bar. Contract your core and engage your upper back to stabilize your position. Hold your chin over the bar for the prescribed amount of time. You can also add pauses at other parts of the move, such as when your arms are at 90 degrees.
How to Program Isometric Training
There are so many different exercises you can train with isometrics. You can perform bodyweight-only moves — think, planks and pull-ups — or you can add weight to those exercises (weighted planks and weighted pull-ups).
You may also find yourself working with a barbell or trap bar. In that case, some exercises will have a one-rep max (1RM) associated with them (squat, bench, and deadlift). Other moves, like overhead carries, aren’t moves you’ll have a max for. In those cases, train with heavy weights for strength, moderately heavy weights for muscle growth, and slightly lighter weights for endurance.
- For Strength: 4 x 3, 3 to 5 second pause, 80 to 85% 1RM OR 4 x 3 to a few seconds short of failure
- For Muscle Growth: 3 x 6, 3 to 5 second pause, 70% 1RM OR 4 x 4 to failure
- For Endurance: 3 x 10, 3 to 5 second pause, 60% 1RM OR 4 x 5 to failure
For moves that require you to hold a position for a long amount of time — like planks — judge your time based on your own abilities. If the longest plank you can hold is 30 seconds long, try to perform four sets of 20 to 25 seconds. On the other hand, if you can hold a plank for upwards of a minute, you’ll hold each plank for a lot longer.
To progress your isometric training, add some weight to the equation or add more time to your reps. Only increase the intensity of one variable at once. That way, you’ll be adding intensity to your workout without inappropriately overloading your body and increasing your injury risk.
Benefits of Isometric Training
Whether woven into a single exercise or comprising an entire training session, isometric training has tremendous benefits to establishing positional strength, refining skill in countless exercise applications, and improvements to mobility and stability.
Learn to Lift More Weight
The pause deadlift perfectly illustrates the benefits of adding an isometric challenge to your big lifts. One of the most terrifying aspects of the deadlift is experiencing the dreaded cat-back position. While different lifters will have different levels of rounding during their deadlift, adding a pause at moderate weight can help you keep your back in an ideal position when you lift heavier.
Similarly, by adding an isometric pause at any sticking point in a big barbell lift, you can reinforce your technique in that specific part of the exercise. This way, you’ll strengthen any weaknesses without using nearly as much load.
Refine Your Skills
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 lead you to think you can handle more weight than you can without momentum. By adding isometric pauses to these exercises, you can hone your 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 your diaphragm against the tissues being stretched. This improves your mobility and strength at the end ranges of motion. Once again, this can help strengthen your lifts.
That’s not all isometric lifts will do, though. Isometric holds in unstable positions, as with side planks and overhead carries, dramatically challenge proprioception and stability, which can carry over into many barbell exercises and daily movements.
Improve Mental Stamina
Staying calm and strong in the hole of your squat for seconds at a time is a tremendous feat of mental strength and stamina. Training isometrically will dramatically improve your mental discipline during training — because it really does take an intense amount of focus and determination to stay still in a challenging position. Cultivating the mindset that you are capable of grinding through difficult positions and holds can seriously boost your confidence under heavy loads and help you keep your head in the game when you’re grinding through a tough 1RM attempt.
Take a Pause
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 you stronger. You’ll also get more stable, mobile, and technique-focused — not to mention a lot more mentally tough and prepared for the rigors of heavy training. So do your isometric exercises, even if you choose just a couple off of this list.
Featured Image: MDV Edwards / Shutterstock