The most popular strength-training exercises are movements where you contract a muscle, and the joints move. For example, when you do a triceps extension, you contract your triceps muscle, and your arm extends and straightens. This type of movement is what you classically think of as a strength training movement. But there’s another type of exercise called isometric exercise, where the muscles and joints you’re working don’t move, but the muscles create tension to resist the force of gravity. An example is a wall-sit.
Why would you want to do this type of exercise? In certain situations, isometric exercises are a worthy alternative to isokinetic or isotonic moves that involve bending or moving joints. You’re probably familiar with these movements and they make up the bulk of your strength-training exercises. Isometric exercises take a different approach.
One of the most popular isometric exercises is the plank, an exercise that works the core muscles. Other isometric exercises include calf raise holds and glute bridges. You probably already include some isometric exercises in your routine, and for good reason, they have fitness benefits. What are the benefits of doing isometric exercises?
Isometric Exercises Improve Stability
Since you’re holding your body in a fixed position when you do isometric exercises, this type of exercise offers a chance to work on body control. The plank is an excellent exercise for working on core control and stability. You can do a high plank, where you position your body at the top of a push-up position with your body in a straight line from palms to toes, or a low plank where your elbows are on the floor and your body is extended behind you in the same manner. Of the two, the high plank is the easier exercise. So, start with high planks and work towards doing low planks. There are also many tougher plank variations you can do for a more intense workout.
They Enhance the Connection Between Mind and Muscle
When you hold your body in a fixed position with your muscles tensed, it’s a chance for your mind and muscle to connect and deepen that connection. As you hold a plank, you become aware of the tension in your core muscles, and by focusing, you can enhance that tension. The same is true when you do another popular isometric exercise for the glutes, the glute bridge. With a glute bridge, you squeeze your glutes to enhance the benefits of the exercise. The harder you squeeze, the more you engage your glute muscles.
Isometric Exercises Place Less Stress on Your Joints
Isometric exercise place less stress on your joints because you’re maintaining a static joint position. Since you’re not contracting your muscles, you’re less likely to experience significant muscle soreness too. Most muscle damage and muscle soreness come from eccentric contractions, lengthening the muscle against resistance. For example, the lowering phase of a biceps curl. When your joints aren’t moving, there’s less risk of joint injury, and your joints sustain less stress.
They’re Convenient (You Can Do Them Almost Anywhere)
One of the biggest benefits of isometric exercises is that you can do them almost anywhere since you don’t need equipment. Have a wall nearby? You can do wall sits by squatting and leaning your back against it. If you have a floor, you can plank and their many variations to work on core strength and stability. How convenient is that? When you lack equipment, you can still get a workout with isometrics and bodyweight exercises.
Lower Risk of Injury
During isometric exercises, you hold your body in a fixed position, which minimizes the risk of injury. This makes isometric exercises helpful for people just starting out, and who aren’t ready to work with weights. Isometric exercises allow more control over the stress on a muscle since you’re holding tension at a fixed length. With strength training exercises where the muscle contracts, the risk of injury is highest at the end ranges of the movement. With isometric exercises, you aren’t subjecting the muscle to changes in angle, thereby reducing the risk of injury.
Isometrics Are Effective for Rehab
Isometric exercises are popular in rehab settings among people who have sustained a serious injury or have limitations from health problems, such as a stroke. Isometric exercises aren’t as beneficial as isotonic exercises (where the muscle contracts and lengthens) for building new strength. They work well for maintaining strength and preventing muscle loss due to inactivity. Because it’s easier to control the amount of stress placed on muscles with isometric movements, it’s safer for tissues that have been injured and for people who have some disability.
They Lead to Less Muscle Soreness
Since you’re not contracting your muscles against resistance, there’s less likelihood of soreness after isometric exercises. As mentioned, the type of muscle contraction most likely to cause delayed onset muscle soreness (sore muscles after exercise) is eccentric contractions, those where you lengthen a muscle against resistance. An example is when you lower a dumbbell while doing biceps curls. Since you’re not shortening or lengthening your muscles or moving the joint, you’re less likely to experience muscle soreness. If you do, it should be milder.
The Bottom Line
Devote some of your training time to isometric exercises, but don’t make them the bulk of your training. They strengthen your muscles only at a single angle. Instead, do various movements that also include some isometrics. It’s vital to challenge your muscles in different ways to keep making strength gains. Most of the movements you do should be isotonic ones, where your muscles contract against resistance, but there’s still a place for isometrics in your strength-training routine.
- Byrnes WC, Clarkson PM. Delayed onset muscle soreness and training. Clin Sports Med. 1986 Jul;5(3):605-14. PMID: 3521903.
- Oranchuk DJ, Storey AG, Nelson AR, Cronin JB. Isometric training and long-term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2019 Apr;29(4):484-503. doi: 10.1111/sms.13375. Epub 2019 Jan 13. PMID: 30580468.
- “Isometric exercises: Good for strength training? – Mayo Clinic.” 21 Mar. 2020, mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/expert-answers/isometric-exercises/faq-20058186.