Isometric Exercise: 5 ways holding still can make you stronger

Most gym goers are familiar with the typical exercises: squats, bench press, sit-ups, etc. All the good stuff that has you moving through space, using your muscles to contract and bend/rotate all the different joints in your body. But there’s another class of exercise that you’re probably familiar with, even if you don’t know it: isometrics.

When your body moves through space at a relatively steady pace, such as when you do a dumbbell curl, we call that an “isotonic” movement. The movement happens because the muscle lengthens and shortens through the range of motion to cause movement. On the other hand, you can also exert force by contracting your muscles but not moving them. These are called “isometrics”, and the most well known example is the abdominal plank. You’re not moving, but you can’t argue that you’re not working!

Any muscle group can be contracted without moving it. Usually this requires you to try to move an immovable object, so that you can put as much force into it as possible without losing the position. For example, instead of trying to curl a barbell, what if you tried to do the same motion but against a metal rod chained to the floor? Why don’t we let Bruce Lee show you the difference…

bruce-lee-lifting

Isotonic Barbell Curl

bruce-lee-isometrics

Isometric Curl Hold

Get the idea? All you need to do is change the positions as you like, contract against the “immovable object” and voila! You’ve got isometric training.

So, why bother?

(Below I’m going to refer to “isometric movement” and “standard movement”. Standard just refers to the isotonic movements we’re used to, but it can get confusing to see isometric and isotonic next to one another too often.)

You get better at “turning on” muscles.

Studies have shown that you can recruit more muscle fibers during an isometric movement than you can during a standard movement (Babault et al. 2001). Not only does this allow you to put an overall increased amount of strength into the contraction, it also lets you brain get better at directing the movement. This yields two benefits. First, you get stronger overall because you’re using more muscle, which increases the amount of overload you can put on one muscle group, which leads to better overall gains. Second, when you learn to move better, you become more efficient, which can also improve strength. We see this most with “newbie gains”, or that period of time when you first learn a new move and progress in proficiency very quickly.

You can strengthen a move at the weakest point.

Your muscles tend to be strongest at certain points, usually when they are fully contracted and working hard. For instance the barbell curl we talked about before is strongest (i.e. exerting the most force) midway through the movement. Your biceps are slightly weaker at the bottom, and again at the top, of the motion. Isometric training lets you prolong the time you spend in the weaker parts of a given contraction, making you better able to exert force in that position. Translation? You get stronger in smaller parts of the lift, to help with the whole lift itself.

You can “max out” longer.

In standard movement you only get a portion of a second at maximal contraction, which is where strength building and adaptation really occur the most. By using isometrics you can spend more time actively contracting at your maximal force but without the danger of doing so through a large range of motion.

You can add them to your normal routine.

You don’t need to add much isometric work to your regular routine to see great benefits, and you can put them in right on top of your normal workout. For instance, after finishing your working sets of overhead presses, you can add a static hold at the bottom, middle, and top of the press by putting more weight on the bar than you can lift, and then pressing against it as hard as possible for 10 seconds at a time. Adding 10-20 seconds of static hold in each position is plenty to see increased gains.

They’re quick and simple.

You only need another 60 seconds or so to add isometrics to a given movement. If you only do 2-3 major lifts during a workout, that’s only a net gain of a few minutes of work, plus a few minutes of set-up. All you need to know is: what muscles do I want to target, and how can I hold the position I need for the whole 10 seconds without moving whatever it is I’m pushing against?

I recommend a squat rack for training isometrics on many movements including presses, squats, and even deadlifts. You can easily place the J-cups at different heights in support of your hold position, and then load up the barbell past your max weight. For something like an overhead press, a high squat rack position plus kneeling will do the trick!