If you want to make progress in the gym, you need to have at least a cursory understanding of how your body functions. Knowing the design and functionality of a machine as complex as the human body can help you use it optimally in the gym.
Believe it or not, there’s more than one type of muscular contraction. The concentric portion involves shortening your muscle fibers, the eccentric is the controlled lengthening of the tissue, and an isometric contraction is a static, non-moving engagement of the muscle itself.
Isometric training may not be as exciting as quick, adrenaline-boosting moves like deadlifts or clean and jerks, but they can be beneficial for gaining more strength, flexibility, and muscle. Here’s how isometric training can kick your workouts — and results — up a notch.
What is Isometric Training?
Isometric training is the contraction of the muscle without any movement of the joint. Isometrics can be especially helpful during the middle portion of a movement — say, when a barbell is at knee level during a deadlift — because this tends to be the weak link for most athletes.
Most lifters actively avoid working where they’re weakest. That’s where isometrics come in — they have an extremely effective, yet underutilized ability to improve the smoothness and efficiency of a lift’s entire range of motion.
Studies suggest that isometric training can build muscle mass, provide more safety when performing ballistic movements that can transfer to sport activities, and be potentially beneficial for rehabilitation as well. (1)
Benefits of Isometric Training
Now that you know exactly what isometric training is, let’s talk about the benefits. Whether you’re looking to up your game in the gym, are merely a novice exerciser, or are starting fresh after an injury, there are plenty of reasons to incorporate isometrics into your routine.
Improve Athletic Performance
Isometrics may help improve your weak areas, but studies suggest it can also improve athletic performance such as running, jumping, and biking without overly fatiguing your muscles. In this case, sport-specific movements that mainly use isometric contractions such as rock climbing, mountain biking, wrestling, skiing, horseback riding, gymnastics, and more can benefit from performing isometric exercises. (2)
When you perform an exercise like a squat, it’s easy to lose tension at the bottom or at the top of the movement. However, if you perform pause squats or isometric squats, you can increase the tension in your legs, back, and core. Isometric exercises dramatically increase time under tension, which helps to build muscle. Studies suggest that the more a muscle is under tension, the greater chance it has for it to grow. (3)
Injury Prevention and Recovery
If you work out regularly and get injured, it’s easy to get frustrated about missing workouts. Isometric exercises can be a great way to get your training in without hampering your recovery. Studies suggest isometric training can be effective in reducing pain and may also be beneficial for maintaining strength for athletes with a limited range of motion. (4)
Injuries or accents can happen at any moment, but tend to correlate with drastic momentum and uncontrolled lengthening of the tissue. Since isometrics don’t involve either, they can often be performed even while physically impaired.
Many factors can play into improper form, such as lack of knowledge or lack of strength in a particular area. Performing isometric exercises may help refine your technique due to the many benefits they’re able to provide — increases in strength, flexibility, and mind-muscle connection.
If you can learn to hold an isometric position with correct form while loaded up with a bar, you’ll surely become more comfortable in that or other sticking points in which you feel most vulnerable.
Engage Muscle Fibers
It turns out that isometrics are fantastic at recruiting muscle fibers as well. Studies suggest that maximal isometric contraction of the quadriceps results in over five percent more muscle fibers activated than during a maximal eccentric or concentric action. That means isometric training can improve your ability to recruit motor units, which could increase strength and power production overall. (5)
Develop Mind-Muscle Connection
Warming up with isometric exercises could help muscles to fire appropriately. Studies suggest that there could be a beneficial connection between isometric contractions and neuromuscular function, specifically in the corticomotor pathways — motor functions controlled by the cerebral cortex. (6)
By this theory, incorporating isometric exercises in your warm-up may help to prime your mind-muscle connection, which should increase the value you get from your training overall.
How to Implement Isometric Training
There are a few ways to work isometrics into your routine. Depending on how you use them, you’ll have access to different benefits, as well as some added variety to your training. Below are a few solid ways to plug isometrics into your workout.
As a Warm-Up
To warm-up for your lifting proper, you can add in some isometric work to your lighter sets. For example, when you’re getting ready to deadlift, doing some extended holds at any position that feels unstable will help bolster your comfort and strength later on when the weights get heavier.
Another method is supramaximal loading, which is a kind of post-activation potentiation. This involves loading a bar with significantly heavier weights than your one-rep-max and holding it still for a period of time.
In the bench press, you would unrack the bar — likely with a reliable spotter — and hold it at arm’s length. In the squat, you’d load up your barbell and unrack it only to stand still, bracing hard against the ultra-heavy weight. Some tactically-implemented supramaximal work will help you stay prepared for any weight you must lift in your program.
Presses and Pulls
Pulling or pressing into an immovable object is another way to improve isometric strength. Take the bench press: you can set up safety pins in a squat rack at the height where you’re weakest in the movement and press the bar into those pins as hard as you can.
Isometric pulls or presses may help you develop more force when you go to test your actual max — just remember that getting strong in those positions aren’t worth much if your form is flawed.
For Increased Mobility
Yoga isn’t the only way to get flexible. Your muscles are malleable, but often need to be placed under mild stress to effectively lengthen over time. Static stretching is a mainstay practice in flexibility training for a reason, and the same principles can be applied with a weight in your hands.
If you want to squat deeper, extended pauses in the bottom of your range of motion with a very light weight can help open up your hips. The same is true for your back — you might find that lat or shoulder tightness alleviates after thirty seconds of hanging from a pull-up bar.
Best Isometric Exercises
Some of your favorite exercises can be turned into isometric exercises to increase time under tension. Whether you decide to perform them with or without weight, you’ll still take home the benefits.
The weakest part of your squat might just be what’s holding you back from adding heavier weights or getting a full range of motion. Whether your weakness is flexibility or that stubborn sticking point, an isometric squat can help improve both. Holding a squat for a longer period of time can help build muscle in your quads, glutes, and hip flexors, ultimately making your squat stronger.
Isometric Bench Press
The bench press is one of the best upper body exercises out there, and an isometric bench press can improve it even further. In order to refine your pressing position, hold the barbell about three to five inches above your chest. This can help strengthen a weak chest and lead to better positioning of the elbows and shoulders when pressing heavy weights.
To improve your lockout position, hold the barbell three to five inches below where you would normally lock your elbows out. This can help strengthen the muscles used to finish the lift and help improve your bench press as a whole.
In order to improve your pull-up, you must strengthen the muscles involved. The back muscles are a huge contributor to the pull-up and holding it at the top of the rep can help build strength, endurance, and facilitate proper form. By strengthening the back, you won’t have to rely on the smaller muscles in your arms to do the work and can bust out more reps.
Back muscles, such as the lats and the traps, contribute to good posture. When exercised regularly, they can help remedy slouching and spine stability. So if you’re still trying to get past that first pull-up rep, try performing isometric holds at the bottom.
The hollow hold targets the low back, quads, hip flexors, and the muscles in your abdomen — the transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, and the obliques. A weak core can cause several problems that can affect your daily life, such as poor posture, back pain, balance and stability issues, and a greater risk of injury. Performing the hollow hold can help improve core strength and stability, which helps to alleviate these problems.
Core strength can also transfer to improving other lifts such as the deadlift since you need core stability to maintain proper form with heavier weight.
Isometric Split Squat
If you’re an athlete, speed and strength are important to train equally. Since the split squat simulates motions like running and sprinting, it can transfer to athletic performance. The glutes, hamstrings, and quads are all muscles used in running, and those are the same muscles that can be strengthened by the split squat.
This exercise is isometric, but it is also unilateral, which contains its own benefits. One of which being an equal amount of muscle growth and strength on each leg. The isometric split squat can work both legs equally — a benefit you miss out on with the standard bilateral squat.
The plank is a popular isometric exercise, and for good reason. It can increase core strength and stability, which is crucial for improving posture, enable better and safer lifts, and augment balance and coordination. Strengthening your core may also help alleviate back pain in some cases.
Along with the core muscles, the plank also works the traps, rhomboids, lats, shoulders, and arms, making it a great upper body workout. An added benefit is the plank requires no equipment other than your own body weight, so it can be done anywhere.
The Big Picture
It may seem counterintuitive to purposely use isometrics as a training tool. After all, most athletes are interested in moving their barbell, not halting it. However, every lift has a midpoint — and that’s usually where you’re weakest.
If you lose tension in your deadlift as it passes your knee, get pinned in the bottom of every heavy squat, or just can’t seem to get your bracing down, you might want to look into adding isometrics to your workouts.
- Oranchuk, Dustin, Storey, Adam & Nelson Andre. Isometric training and long-term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 2019; 29(4). DOI:10.1111/sms.13375
- Lum, Danny, Barbosa, Tiago M. Effects of Isometric Strength Training on Strength and Dynamic Performance. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 2019; 40(6). doi: 10.1055/a-0863-4539
- Burd, Nicholas A, Andrews, Richard J, & West, Daniel WD. Muscle Time Under Tension During Resistance Exercise Stimulates Differential Muscle Protein Sub-fractional Synthetic Responses in Men. The Journals of Physiology. 2012; 590(2) doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2011.221200
- Rhyu, Hyun-Seung, Park, Hun-Kyung, & Park, Jung-Sub. The Effects of Isometric Exercise Types on Pain and Muscle Activity in Patients with Low Back Pain. Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation. 2015; 11(4). doi: 10.12965/jer.150224
- Babault, Nicolas, Pousson, Michel, & Ballay, Yves. Activation of Human Quadriceps Femoris During Isometric, Concentric, and Eccentric Contractions. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2001; doi.org/10.1152/jappl.2001.91.6.2628
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