Static exercises like wall sits, side planks, and body holds help build strength, shorten muscles’ recovery period, strengthen muscle fibers, and build core strength. These workouts, referred to as isometric exercises, are great for strength training and especially effective for people with chronic conditions or injuries for whom the explosive movement of plyometric exercises or standard fitness routines aren’t possible.
Isometric exercises for the upper and lower body are used in rehab and physical therapy and as static strength training. Adding weights or resistance belts will help make them even more effective. To work them into an existing workout routine or weight loss and exercise plan, it helps to understand exactly why isometric exercises are so effective as strength training. Use this article as a guide to isometric training so you can add static strength training to your workout routine today.
(Note: Want our elite trainers to teach you isometric exercises, plyometric exercises and more? Start your Fitplan free trial today!)
What Is Isometric Exercise?
To discern the difference between isometric exercises and other kinds of exercise, it helps to understand how each causes muscle fibers to move. Exercises that cause muscle fibers to stretch are called isotonic exercises. Think of the motion a bicep undergoes in a standard biceps curl or that of the calf in a calf raise. As the barbell moves toward the shoulder in a biceps curl, the bicep shortens. This is called “concentric” and it is really an isotonic contraction. When the barbell is extended, the bicep lengthens. This movement is called an “eccentric” muscle contraction.
In isometric exercises, however, there is no change in the length of the muscle. Muscle fibers resist outside forces and enact bodily movements using tension. This tension is caused by myosin cross-bridge cycling and a protein called actin. Isometric exercises similarly cause tension in muscle fibers but they do so without causing the muscle to change length.
One illustrative example of the static tension in muscle fibers during isometric exercises is the way a hand might grip a stress ball or cup without moving it. Moving the object might require isotonic movement, but just gripping things isometrically tenses muscle fibers. Of course, there are many more complicated isometric exercises to build strength in the larger muscle groups throughout the entire body.
Helpful Hint: For a full-body workout that blends isometric exercises with HIIT, try our Home Workout Series Fitplan!
How Isometric Exercises Target Different Muscle Groups
Isometric exercises can target muscle groups through the entire body and frequently engage more than one at a time. It will vary with the particular stretch and workout routine, but it’s very possible to get isometric exercise benefits in the neck, lower back, and in lower body muscles like the quadriceps and hamstrings.
Studies show that one of the isometric exercise benefits in and around the neck is pain reduction and also indicate that there is an improved range of motion in the neck following several weeks of regular isometric exercise. An isometric exercise for the neck is anything that causes the neck to have to resist against an outside force without moving or turning the neck. This can be done with the hand or by posturing with muscle groups that involve the shoulders and back.
Isometric exercises for the lower back are similar to isotonic stretches but you would normally freeze at a certain stage. For a knee to chest stretch, for example, you would lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Then, you would bring one knee up to your chest at a time. Unlike isotonic exercises, the point of a knee to chest exercise isn’t in the movement of the knee to the chest. Rather, the point of this isometric exercise is in holding the knee to the chest for 15 to 30 seconds. This kind of stretch opens up muscle fibers in the lower back and helps increase the range of motion there.
Isometric Exercise Examples
To more fully explain isometric exercise benefits and how you can include them in your existing workout routine, it might help to give some isometric exercise examples. Here are a few popular examples of isometric exercises in no particular order:
The body hold is one of the most classic isometric exercises there is. You don’t need any equipment to do this exercise unless you want to use a yoga mat, resistance band, or small barbell to make it a bit more challenging.
To get into the proper form for a body hold, sit on your rear with your feet flat on the floor and your knees bent. Raise your arms and legs at the same time so that your body goes into a kind of V shape. Hold this pose for about 15 seconds or as long as you’re able to before you hit the sticking point. That’s one rep. Repeat five times.
The body hold stretches your abdominal muscles and helps build muscle, core strength and stability.
A glute bridge is excellent for stretching the lower body muscle groups. They will work out hamstrings and glutes and greatly improve the appearance of your backside. Just like the body hold, you don’t need any extra equipment at all to perform a glute bridge.
Get into the proper form for a glute bridge by lying on your back with your arms by your sides and your knees bent. Push through your palms and feet to make your hips rise. Once your hips are elevated, clench your glutes and drive your bodyweight out through your heels.
Hold this pose for thirty seconds. You’ll feel your glutes and hamstrings start to fatigue pretty quickly at first, but hold on as long as possible. This exercise builds strength and you’ll find that you can hold the pose for much longer after just a week or two of trying it out regularly. Try five rounds of thirty-second glute bridges or as long as you’re able to hold the pose.
A favorite of physical therapy practitioners such as CSCSs or CPTs, the wall sit is a great isometric exercise for people with knee injuries or chronic conditions like osteoarthritis. It’s easy to do and you can add free weights or a resistance band if you have the balance and strength to do so.
To get into the proper form for a wall sit, lean your back against a wall from about 2 feet away. Lower your body until you are in a position similar to how you would sit in a normal chair. Make sure to have your knees bent at 90-degree angles. Hold it for 15 seconds minimum and repeat this 5 – 10 times.
Wall sits stretch the hamstrings, glutes, and quadriceps. It’s one of the best lower body isometric exercises and it won’t put any stress on the knees or lower back. It strains the hamstrings, quadriceps, and glutes with equal forces on both sides of the body, so you can be sure it will help you build strength and tone the muscle groups in your lower body.
Helpful Hint: To keep working out your hamstrings, check out our 10-Pack Hamstrings Fitplan!
There are a few varieties of plank positions that are designed to build core strength. The side plank, for example, works out the external and internal oblique muscles to the side of the abdomen.
To get into a standard plank position, you’ll be on the floor in a stance similar to the start of a push-up. However, the plank position puts weight on your forearms rather than your hands as a push-up does. The weight in the rear of your body should be on your toes.
Keep your hips level and a straight line through your spine from the feet to the top of the head. The hips should flex forward and you should feel a considerable stretch in your shoulders and core.
To do a side plank, role to either side from the standard plank position. Only one forearm will be on the ground in this stance. The other arm can rest on your opposite hip or go up in the air if you have the balance for it. Make sure the hip closest to the floor doesn’t sag. You should feel the same sort of stretch as you do in the standard plank position as well as a stretch on the side of the abdomen nearest the floor.
Unlike some of the isometric exercises we’ve covered so far, the overhead hold does require a barbell or some similar method of holding weight in your arms. The overhead hold works just about all aspects of the shoulder and it’s a great alternative for people with pain around the shoulder that prevents them from standard weightlifting.
The proper form of an overhead hold only requires you to lift a weight aloft. It can be a kettlebell, dumbbell, barbell, or free weight. You should be able to hold it over your head with both arms fully extended for a period of at least 30 seconds. If you were to raise or lower your arms, it could work out your biceps and triceps, but holding the weight overhead in a fixed position allows your shoulder muscles to create tension isometrically.
Side Dumbbell Isometric Holds
These holds are another great upper body exercise that offers all the best isometric exercise benefits in the shoulders and other muscle groups in the arm. To perform this exercise with the proper form, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. You don’t have to have heavy weights, but make sure you have enough weight in your hands that you are able to feel the strain when you go into the exercise.
All you need to do now is hold one weight in each hand and then lift them until they are parallel with the floor. Make sure to have the same amount of weight in each hand so that you get equal forces on both sides of your body.
Helpful Hint: Discover more upper body exercises to build arm and shoulder muscle strength with our Bodyweight Power Fitplan!
This is one of the most highly recommended isometric stretches in physical therapy and rehab programs for people suffering from low back pain. It’s extremely easy to do and it is the best way to use isometric exercises to improve posture.
To so a Superman stretch with the proper form, lie flat on your stomach. Keep your legs straight and put your arms out straight in front of you, mimicking Superman’s flying pose. Lift your arms and legs off the floor and hold them there for five seconds. Repeat this 10 – 15 times.
You should feel some pressure relief in the low back after a week or two of regularly repeating this isometric exercise. It will stretch all your low back muscles and should lead to improved balance and a straighter posture.
Isometric Quadriceps Contraction
Stretching your quads with isometric exercises is easy with this movement, which is centered around a muscle contraction in your quads. Many physical therapy doctors recommend this simple exercise for people who have acute knee inflammation, especially when it’s leading to high blood pressure.
Sit on the ground with your back against the wall and both feet out in front of you. You can also lie on your back, whichever is easiest. Bend one knee and straighten the other. Tighten the quad on the straight leg and hold that position for 5 – 10 seconds. Repeat this pose about 10 times on each leg.
Benefits of Isometric Exercises
There are many isometric exercise benefits beyond simply building muscle strength. Isometric exercises help muscle groups recover and repair themselves more quickly and also improve range of motion and improve posture and other movement patterns.
When you go through isometric exercises, you reach the sticking point which we’ve already discussed. What you’re feeling when you reach the sticking point is your muscles being overloaded with weight to the point where they are unable to continue resisting. That would be a nightmare if you were hanging on to something for dear life, but isometric exercises build exactly the muscle strength you need to hold on longer.
Isometric exercises have also been shown to reduce pain and standing blood pressure. Not only do they help with muscle strength, but they can greatly improve how your body feels day-to-day. That’s one of the reasons why they are so frequently used in physical therapy and sports rehab programs.
It’s true that isometric exercises also make great warm-ups for more intense workout routines, but that’s not all they’re good for. There are tons of isometric exercise benefits, from building muscle strength across the entire body to correcting posture and other movement patterns.
Helpful Hint: Pair some isometric exercises with our 21-Day Workout Series Fitplan to maximize results in just 3 weeks!
Although they may look more reserved than other workout routines, isometric exercises have tons of benefits and, if done in the proper form, work within a varied workout routine to boost muscle growth and can lead to other benefits like a reduced resting blood pressure. In addition to these isometric exercise benefits, isometric contraction of certain muscle groups also works out a greater part of the entire body.
Unlike plyometrics or other exercises like weightlifting, pushups, or biceps curls, isometric exercises involve positioning the body in a position where muscle groups are engaged and then holding that position for as long as possible. Lunges, for example, typically involve a large step forward. But in an isometric lunge, the lunge position would be held still, with the knees bent, until you reach what’s called the sticking point, or the highest moment of strain in an exercise where the targeted muscle or muscle group is most likely to be overburdened and fail.
There are many isometric exercise benefits you can take advantage of if you mix in some of these static strength training exercises into your existing workout routine. They aren’t generally meant to give you huge gains all on their own, but if you pair them with strength training and a little bit of cardio, isometric exercises can help balance out the gains you do get.
They’re also a great way to improve posture, and build core strength. There are isometric exercises that work on the entire body, from the neck and upper back to the glutes, hamstrings, and ankles. People with chronic conditions like osteoarthritis or acute pain in a given muscle group use isometric exercises during rehab or as part of a physical therapy routine to help get rid of existing pain and inflammation.
You can think of isometric exercises as kind of the opposite of high-intensity interval training, which aims to make you explode in sudden fast movements. These isometric exercises might look easy by comparison, but they cause more than enough tension in your muscle fibers to build muscle strength and improve overall performance. Since HIIT has such a higher risk of injury, isometric exercises fill in the gaps where more exerting exercises fall short. Including both in your workout routine is the best way to maximize the benefits of a fitness regimen.
(Note: Want our elite trainers to help you get started? Start your Fitplan free trial today!)