This is your ultimate guide to isometric training.
(Bookmark for future reference. You'll find yourself coming back here often.)
In this guide, you will learn all things isometric. What it is. How it works. And why you should care.
You'll learn the best isometric exercises and how to train the right way. When it comes to isos form is essential. If you mess up the form you won't get any benefits.
So pay attention to the details.
You can think of these exercises as "tools". You can use tools to do different things.
In the same way, you can use these exercises for different goals. Isometrics can help you build strength, muscle mass, endurance, and much more.
It depends on how you use them and what your goals are.
They are even useful for injury rehabilitation and injury prevention.
You can train isometrics at home with minimal (and even with zero) equipment. There are always options to change the exercises and make them work without equipment.
A word of caution though: this is the ultimate isometrics guide and it will take some time to go through.
So bookmark this page and come back often. It's the foundation of your future isometrics training.
So, let's dive deep into the world of isometrics.
This guide could change your fitness journey for the rest of your life. It changed my understanding of fitness and health in general when I learned about it.
The same might happen to you. So stay tuned and let's find out.
Table of Contents
What Are Isometrics?
Isometric exercising is a way of training that emphasizes static contractions.
The main thing you are doing in an isometric exercise is a "hold".
A hold is static in nature. It means that there's no visible movement. But you are still applying force against a resisting force. Like in all strength training exercises.
Not ALL isos are static though. There's also "pull" and "push" dynamic isometrics. But more on that later when we discuss different types of isometrics.
Generally you don't see visible movement in an isometric exercise. There is no lengthening and shortening of the targeted muscle. Instead, the muscles remain at the same length throughout the movement. The challenge is to keep the same position for the designated period.
Unlike most other exercise types in isometrics you measure Time Under Load (TUL.) Not "reps".
For example the target TUL on a chin-up hold (with arms bent at 90 degrees) could be 90 seconds. No need to count "reps".
Do Isometrics Work?
Isometrics are super effective. But like I mentioned before you must follow perfect form. If you don't, they are not effective.
You can use isometrics in combination with other training tools. There's no need to be fanatic about it and ditch everything else.
Be smart and take what works best for you.
Variety is an important thing too. Keeps your body guessing and adapting to different challenges. So don't obsess over ONE routine because your body will get used to it and your results will plateau.
The cult-like approach is ruining fitness, as people take sides for no reason. Use every type of training tool available that suits your goals.
Do isometrics work? Yes, they do.
You can use isometrics to:
- get bigger
- get stronger
- gain strength
- condition joints and avoid injuries in martial arts and combat sports
- rehabilitate injuries
- prevent injuries in general
- reverse the damage of bad posture and excessive amounts of "sitting down"
- improve cardio
- build endurance
You could say that they have all the benefits of training in general with one advantage: they are safe.
They have one disadvantage though: they can be tricky to learn. And hard to get right. And if you mess up the correct form you won't get the benefits.
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The History Of Isometrics
When it comes to fitness training it is very hard to tell who "invented" something.
You can see isometric-like movements in many sports (like gymnastics.)
Take the iron cross. One of the most iconic and the most difficult moves ring gymnasts do. It's a good example of an isometric hold.
Yoga has many poses that look and feel like isometrics. And it's been around for thousands of years.
Martial arts traditions also use isometrics. Buddhist monks have used this form of training for centuries too.
Meet Alexander Zass, The Iron Samson Who Popularized Isometrics
It may be impossible to know who invented something in fitness. But it's easier to know who popularized it.
For example, Pavel Tsatsouline introduced kettlebell workouts in the western world. He didn't invent them. But he was the guy who made them famous in the US and the rest of the western countries.
In the isometrics world, Alexander Zass is that guy.
This Russian was a very famous strongman, also known as the (Amazing, Iron) Samson. His feats of strength were very famous in the years after WWI. He fought against Austria and fell prisoner many times.
(He managed to escape his guards on several occasions!)
During his jail time, he trained by trying to push and bend jail bars. Which is how he discovered isometrics.
Although (most likely) an urban legend... the story goes that he actually succeeded in breaking chains and bending bars. He later repeated the feat as a public spectacle on his popular circus performances.
The Iron Samson put isometrics in the spotlight. After him, many others came up with new ideas on how to use isometrics with effective results.
We are lucky because they did all the hard work and now we get to enjoy the benefits.
Present In The Modern Times Too
Nowadays, you can find isometrics everywhere. Yoga and Pilates' classes are more popular than ever, but so is Calisthenic training.
You can see people performing "flags" and other types of holds on bars in every park. Gymnasts practice isos as much as they always did, and so do martial artists.
Even regular fitness enthusiasts use isometrics in their training. Most of the times without knowing that they are doing it. We'll get to this point later.
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Different Types Of Isometrics
Some of these terms can be a bit confusing. So let's go through one at a time.
Isometric Presses, Pulls and Holds
An isometric "press" or a "pull" is like a regular dynamic exercise.
For example, when you do a bench press, you are pushing the barbell away from your chest. When you do a row, you are pulling the weight towards your chest.
When you do an isometric pull you hold on to an object you can't move to pull it towards you as hard as you can.
Or, you can stand next to a wall, pushing it as hard as you can, which would be an example of an isometric push.
It will look like you are not doing anything. Neither you nor the wall is moving, but you are actually exerting your maximal effort. This is what Alexander Zass did with those jail bars.
Holds are something you see in isometrics more often. A good example is the bird dog pose, or the hollow-body hold, but also the regular plank and side planks. Many yoga poses are isometric holds too.
You can also find combinations of these variations alongside regular exercises. For example, you can do a classic pulling movement such as a chin up, and do an isometric hold on top. Or, you can do a classic pushing movement such as pushup, and do an isometric hold at the bottom.
We will tell you later why combining these might be a good idea.
Overcoming Vs. Yielding
Overcoming isometrics involve an amount of weight or an object you can't move. Your job is to exert maximal tension trying to move it regardless. A good example would be pushing a wall with full force.
Yielding exercises involve weights you can move. But instead of going through the full range of motion you stop at a certain point. Holding the position for a prescribed amount of time.
Weighted And Unweighted Isometrics
You can do isos with or without weights. No weights isometrics is the better option for seniors and beginners.
As your strength increases you can start adding weights.
Benefits Of Isometric Training
#1 Isometrics Are A Safe Way To Train
With isometrics your muscles don't lengthen or shorten. Your joints remain in the same position during the exercise.
This reduces injury risks.
Isometrics are an essential part of almost any rehabilitation.
Even patients that suffer from severe conditions such as osteoarthritis. They can practice isometrics with minimal risks.
Isometrics are a great way to strengthen tendons, joints, and bone density.
This is often neglected, as most athletes focus on muscles alone. But having strong tendons, joints, and bones is essential to prevent catastrophic injuries.
If you have injuries, it is often not recommended to perform dynamic exercises. Isometrics are safe and a great way to avoid further muscle decay caused by inactivity.
Isometric training is safe for any age group and is a much safer way of exercising for people who have injuries. The risks are minimal, and the benefits can be huge.
#2 Isometrics Are Very Easy To Learn And Perform
Most isometric movements are straightforward to learn, which makes them safe. Unlike many isotonic/dynamic exercises you often do while working out.
Even some bodyweight exercises are more complicated than isometrics. Like traditional push-up or pull-up.
In dynamic movements you need to maintain proper form through the whole exercise. And as you get tired, you are more likely to make mistakes and compromise your form, which can lead to injuries.
In isometric holds there is no movement. You need to hold the same position or push/pull without moving. So a lot less can go wrong, and if you get tired, you stop, without any risks.
This makes the exercises easy to learn. You only need to look at a picture and know which muscles you should focus on activating.
So with isometrics, there is no "this is too technical!" excuse, as anyone can learn how to execute a proper hold.
#3 Isometrics Don’t Need Any Equipment
While you can use isometrics with equipment. You can train every muscle in your body without equipment too.
And this is one of the main benefits.
You can do it at home, in your hotel room, even sitting at your desk.
I even did full training iso routines sitting in a plane!
You save time and money because you don't need a gym membership. And you can do it anywhere you want.
Remember Alexander Zass...
He trained in a jail cell.
There is no reason why you can't do some isometrics on the balcony of your hotel room or pretty much anywhere!
#4 Isometrics Improve Mobility, Flexibility, Body Awareness And Posture
Again, most people who are looking to get into exercise only think about muscle size and strength.
But there are so many other aspects of fitness and healthy living that are important.
And isometrics help in many different ways.
Everyone knows that yoga and pilates improve mobility and flexibility. Isometrics are one of the central components of these practices.
Most yoga poses get you in an uncomfortable position and you have to stay there for a few breaths/seconds.
You are challenging the boundaries of your range of motion. Stretching and lengthening your tissues, making you more flexible and mobile.
Additionally, isometrics are excellent for becoming body-aware. Creating force and tension without movement develops your muscle awareness.
You become aware of muscle groups that you've been ignoring and neglecting.
You can translate this new skill to other areas of training. You'll find that you improve your performance in other sports or non-isometric training.
Also, you'll find that your core is active in almost all isometric exercises. This helps your posture and prevents common lower back problems.
#5 Improve Performance
Isometrics are great to break through plateaus and improving performance in diverse activities.
They can help you to beat your personal records.
For example if you notice that the bottom of the barbell squat is a weak point. You can consider doing an isometric hold with lighter weights.
This will strengthen your joints when stressed under that angle.
You will be able to push through the sticking point much easier when you load your max. This will help you break through plateaus and reach your personal best.
Isometrics improve strength, flexibility, and mobility. So you will be much more agile on the field, which gives you an edge over your competitors.
Isometrics help you get the most out of your body in the safest way.
#6 Benefit Chronic Conditions
Isometrics are a part of almost every rehabilitation program.
There's a good reason for that—it's low-impact. You will hardly find any type of training to be more beneficial to your joints than isometrics.
Isometrics also help you to learn proper breathing technique. This is a great way to reduce stress and other chronic conditions.
Blood pressure, cholesterol, the stress in general, are a byproduct of the modern way of life. Isometrics training can help you with that.
By no means you should replace your medical doctor's advice with isometrics. If you have any of these conditions ask your doctor. If they allow it, include isometrics in your daily lifestyle. And enjoy the many benefits.
Isometric Exercises For Different Muscle Groups
In this section, we list exercises that target various muscle groups.
This will give you ideas on how to start if you never tried this before.
Isometrics For Quadriceps
For quads, we will keep it simple and choose squats.
An isometric hold at the bottom of the squat will help you get stronger in the toughest part of the exercise. This will have a significant impact on breaking your plateaus.
If you don't want to use weights you can do do a wall sit.
It's a great squat-like movement that strengthens your quads, without compromising your knees.
Straight Leg Raises
If you find squats hard or you have injuries or bad joints you can do straight leg raises.
You can still strengthen your quadriceps through straight leg raises.
Raise your leg from your hip and holding it up against gravity. You will strengthen the quad without putting any pressure on your knee.
This is why you can find straight leg raises as a part of every knee rehabilitation routine. As you get stronger, you can start introducing light ankle weights. It will make the exercise tougher.
Isometric Hamstrings Training
For this one you will need someone to hold your leg for you. Or you can use a couch or a bed so you can lift yourself off the ground.
Isometric Glutes Exercises
To target glutes with isometrics, you can do the glute bridge with a towel.
Glute bridges are an essential movement for hitting your glutes. You can do them with or without weights.
With this one you will feel your glutes muscles working hard. But you will also find that many other exercises on this list target the glutes too. This is a big plus, considering that these muscles are not used enough, as we sit too much.
Isometric Core/Abs Exercises
Planks And Side Planks
Planks are a classic example of isometric training. You are likely doing them already. They are a part of any great core workout.
Planks "teach" you to stabilize the spine. This helps you in so many different ways.
There are many different ways you can do planks, some more challenging than the other.
In the regular plank the primary target is your abs area.
In the side plank the primary target is your obliques.
Bird Dog Pose
The bird dog pose is a great way to strengthen your core. Not only abs but the muscles of the lower back and glutes too. Working these muscles will do wonders for your spine.
Take it as your medicine against excessive sitting. (The most widespread modern health destroying habit?)
Lower Back Isometric Exercises
Prone cobra activates your lower back and glute muscles and is easy to perform.
It also reverses all-day sitting damage. Anyone with a desk job should do it.
Shoulder Isometric Exercises
It's a bit tricky to activate shoulder muscles with isos. Takes a bit of skill and body awareness. Because shoulder muscles are best activated in the overhead press position.
But isometrics are great for hitting shoulder muscles that are often neglected.
Muscles involved with internal and external rotation, critical for preventing nasty shoulder injuries.
With a simple towel you will be able to hit most of your shoulder muscles.
Isometrics Exercises For Arms
For biceps you can do isometric biceps curls. For triceps, you can do isometric triceps extension.
That's a great way to target your arm muscles without moving your elbows.
You can add a dynamic element. Do triple-stop biceps curl and triple-stop triceps extension. This is an awesome way to hit your muscles hard, which you will feel after completing a couple of reps.
Neck Isometric Exercises
Neck training is often neglected. It's very beneficial, as it can reduce the pain you get from sitting, and improve your posture.
You don't need any equipment, you only need to resist your neck movement with your hand. You can also stand with your back flat against the wall and push your head back into it. Or do it on your side.
Neck strengthening is very important for wrestlers and grappling athletes in general.
Jaw Isometric Training
Squeeze your teeth hard into something.
Or prevent your mouth from opening by holding your lower jaw with your hands.
Jaw strengthening is critical for boxers and combat sports athletes in general.
CAUTION: You risk to damage your teeth. Use maximal caution or avoid jaw training altogether unless you know what you are doing.
Isometric Chest Training
To train your chest practice the isometric pushup hold.
If you can't do it from the regular pushup position, you can place your hands on a higher surface. Such as a couch, chair, or a bench, which will reduce the amount of weight you lift.
You could also keep your knees on the floor to make it easier.
As you build up your strength try to progress to the most difficult version of this exercise.
Upper Back Isometric Exercises
The upper back suffers a lot when you spend a lot of time sitting.
So we will give you different options to reverse the damage and get you feeling great.
I-T-W-Y exercises are all named by shapes of letters that you make with your arms.
They hit the posterior chain muscles of your upper body.
Engaging these underused muscles helps prevent injuries and improve posture.
Jeff Cavaliere hates planks, but he loves reverse planks, as shown in the video. The exercise will help you hit your upper back muscles hard, but also glutes.
These exercises are much harder than they look. We recommend you start doing them no matter your fitness level.
Isometric Lats Training
Targeting lats with isometrics is a bit tricky. If you are not strong enough to do pull-up iso holds, or don't have the bar to do it.
My favorite way is to use a towel. Grab both ends of the towel with your hands and use something to lock the towel in the middle. It could be even your own feet if you are sitting down.
With your elbows tight to your core engage your lats while pulling from both ends of the towel.
Calves & Ankles Isometric Exercises
Do isometric calf raises. Strengthening your calves will help you stabilize your ankles. This is very important to prevent common ankle sprains.
How To Perform Isometric Exercises?
The idea is to hold each position for a specified period. If you are a beginner, you can start with 5-10 seconds, depending on the movement. Hold for 5 seconds, relax, that is one repetition. Look to do at least 30-60 seconds of activity per exercise.
As you get stronger start eliminating the rest periods.
There's different theories on this.
Some people argue that the goal of your workout should be to achieve muscle failure.
If you follow this school of thought you will hold your isometric until your muscle fails.
A different group of people claim that you should stop before your muscle fails. Doing this has the benefit of being able to rest and perform new sets. With this approach a typical workout will accumulate more TUL than a workout of the first type.
(TUL = Time under load.)
It is probable that increasing TUL produces higher muscle gains (but equal strength.)
As you get stronger, increase the amount of time you spend per repetition/set.
If you find it easy, you can manipulate your position or even add weights to make it more challenging.
Isometrics For Beginners—Three Exercises To Start With
If you have no experience with isometrics, it is best to start simple doing these three exercises:
- I-T-W-Y raises
- Isometric squat holds
Planks target your core muscles.
I-T-W-Y raises hit your upper back.
Isometric squats target your lower body muscles.
These three drills combined engage almost all major muscle groups.
You will get stronger fast. Once you do, start introducing other exercises from the list.
Isometrics For Seniors
Seniors can also do the exercises we intended for beginners in the section above.
But it is a good idea to replace the squats with straight leg raises.
This is a very friendly exercise that will let you train your quads even if you have knee pain.
Doing I-T-W-Y raises will help you strengthen your upper back muscles. You don't have to do all the versions at once if it is too difficult.
One or two per day to get started is OK.
As for the planks, try holding the position for a few seconds at a time until you get comfortable with the drill.
You will notice that your core gets stronger very fast. No matter the age, and you will be able to hold the plank position for longer.
Isometrics And Other Common Forms Of Training
Isometrics Vs. Lifting Weights
Isometrics are often considered to be weight free. But you can use them with weightlifting exercises as well.
For example the isometric squat, which you can do with a barbell or dumbbells, as well as resistance bands.
As for the benefits and drawbacks, you are much less likely to get injured when doing isometrics. All exercises with weights carry a certain risk, and learning the proper form is much harder.
Some people argue that it's easier and faster to get results with weight training. It may be a good idea to mix both weights and isometrics to get to ultimate results. You should decide what works best for you.
Isometric Vs. Isotonic
When you do isometric exercises, there is no movement and your muscles don't change in length.
Isotonic contractions involve shortening of the muscle which creates movement. Isotonic exercises are the type of training you see more often.
Examples of isotonic exercises are: squats, pullups, pushups, deadlifts.
The main benefit of isotonic exercises is taking the muscle through its full range of motion.
It supports everyday activities and improves flexibility. It's also a superior form of exercise if building muscle mass is your #1 goal.
But isotonic exercises put more stress on the joints. This can be problematic if you have injuries or chronic conditions.
The best approach is not to be dogmatic about it and take the best of each type of training.
Isometric vs. Concentric vs. Eccentric
"Concentric" and "eccentric" refer the type of movement in an isotonic exercise.
A concentric movement corresponds to the shortening of the muscle. An eccentric movement to the lengthening of the muscle.
There is another interesting fact here. You can produce the most force in this order:
- When doing an eccentric contraction (Push)
- When doing an isometric contraction (Hold)
- When doing a concentric contraction (Pull)
Isometrics Vs. Yoga
Isometrics are a central part of yoga, so there is no "vs." here, yoga and isos are allies.
There is a difference in approach. Yoga is more geared towards mobility and flexibility. While isometrics is more strength oriented.
Also, Yoga has a spiritual side which may or may not be of interest to isometrics enthusiasts.
Isometrics And Martial Arts
Martial artists have been using isometrics for a long time. Buddhist monks used isometrics for centuries. It's why it's a popular form of training among kung fu practitioners.
Kung-fu fighters often train while holding a quarter-squat or lunge pose. It challenges their lower body muscles and their core. They hold on this position while their arms throw punches.
As for other martial arts, isometrics are popular among Jiu-Jitsu and MMA athletes.
It makes for a great sport specific strength and conditioning program. It helps train good breathing patterns, and it prevents many injuries. Plus it improves mobility which is a key aspect of grappling.
Where Can I Train?
You can do isometrics anywhere, at your home, at the park, in the gym, even in hotel rooms. This is one of the most flexible ways of training, and the location is almost irrelevant.
Do I Need Any Equipment?
You can do isometrics without any equipment, and it won't affect the quality of your workout. Having equipment will make your workouts even better. It will let you perform standard isotonic exercises with isometrics. Taking your training to a different level.
How Often Should I Train?
Isometrics don't strain your muscles as much as isotonic workouts. They don't tax your central nervous system that much either. That means you can do isometrics more often, even every day without overtraining.
It depends on how you structure your program.
If you are a beginner, you don't want to push yourself too hard. Training two or three times per week is a reasonable option.
Once you get used to the movement, you can start doing them every day.
Make sure you don't overtain. Do opposite muscle groups on consecutive days and you will be fine.
Are There Any Risks?
Every type of exercise carries a certain amount of risk. With isometrics, the risk is small because your joints aren't moving at all.
Still, accidents can happen if you are not careful. Stay focused and perform exercises with proper form.
Is It Good For My Blood Pressure?
Isometric exercises don't raise your heart rate as much as other forms of activities. You focus on holding a single position while you breathe deep and relaxed. It can work alongside your therapy, helping you control your blood pressure.
But, any kind of exercise will increase your heart rate and your blood pressure with it.
Isometrics is not a cure for hypertension. Please, please, please consult your doctor before trying anything on your own. Ok?
Can I Get Ripped?
You get ripped when you lower your body fat percentage.
So doing isometrics alone won't get you ripped. You need proper nutrition, and you need training. But, isometrics can be an important part of that.
Can I Do It If I’m Pregnant?
This is a tricky question, and it is best to ask your doctor before doing anything during pregnancy.
Studies show that isometrics during pregnancy can have an effect on blood pressure. Which means that you need to be extra careful. Don't compromise your and your baby's health by doing anything on your own, ask your doctor first.
Please, please, please ask your doctor for professional advice!
Is It Safe To Do Isometrics After My Mastectomy?
This question is too sensitive. We can't give you an answer before telling you to ask your doctor.
Are They Effective For Bodybuilding?
Doing isometrics to build muscle is effective. Especially for advanced lifters who are hitting plateaus. But isometrics can't replace dynamic exercises. If your main goal is increasing muscle mass they can help to get you to your goals faster. They play a role in a bigger picture of your training regime.
Do Isometrics Improve Endurance?
Isometrics can't improve cardiovascular endurance like, for example, cycling and swimming can. For that, you need to perform cardio.
They improve muscle endurance and strength, as well as mental toughness.
Holding the same position for 90 seconds or so will test your resilience. Making you stronger both in your body and mind.
Can Isometrics Help With Cervical Spondylosis?
With age, bones and muscles start deteriorating. Cervical spondylosis or similar neck issues might occur.
consult your doctor and ask about implementing some isometrics. It can help you strengthen the neck muscles. But please consult your medical doctor about it.
Are They Safe For Cardiac Patients?
Isometrics can affect blood pressure. Whether they are safe for cardiac patients is something your doctor must decide. Cardiovascular diseases are not a joke. Never start exercising on your own if you suffer from these conditions.
Can They Help With A Vasovagal Syncope?
Vasovagal syncope causes an abrupt drop in blood pressure, causing you to faint. Isometrics may help increase blood pressure, which can prevent you from fainting. It is definitely worth a try.
What Isometrics Can I Do After A Hip Replacement?
Hip replacement is a serious surgery that has a lengthy rehabilitation process. You are likely to suffer from muscle atrophy. Your doctor might suggest you to start doing them as soon as possible. This will prevent muscle decay and speed up recovery.
But don't do anything on your own, as you don't want to aggravate your condition by exercising too early.
Bottom Line: There Are Many Reasons To Include Isometrics Into Your Routine
Isometrics are a fantastic opportunity to get stronger and healthier in a safe way.
You can practice them anywhere and you don't need equipment.
They will keep you injury free and enjoying a great quality of life.
So what are you waiting for?
If bending jail bars Alexander Zass style is too much, go do a few sets of 30-second planks.
Let us know in the comments below how that felt.