In simple terms, isometric exercises are static holds. You contract or extend your muscles to get into the position (like dropping into a squat or pulling yourself up to a pull-up bar) and then hold there, still and steady, for . . . well, a while. It's a simple concept that can be pretty effective for beginners and pros alike, according to Eric and Ryan Johnson, NSCA-certified personal trainers and founders of Homage Fitness — but why? In my own workouts, both in classes and videos, I've heard the term thrown around quite a bit without being 100 percent clear on what it means or what benefits, exactly, an isometric move can provide.
Why Should You Do Isometric Exercises?
Doing isometric exercises effectively maximizes your muscle recruitment and contractions, increasing the overall tension of the move, Eric and Ryan told POPSUGAR. They recommend using isometric moves in your warmup to activate your muscles, or at the end of a workout "to tax muscular endurance limits and give you that ever-so-sweet lactic acid burn."
What makes isometric moves effective? For one thing, you're increasing the amount of time that your muscles are under tension, Eric and Ryan said. Instead of giving your quads and glutes a break when you're standing up from a squat, for example, you're holding in the most difficult part of the exercise. That can help increase your strength and muscle growth. And it does so with minimal wear and tear on your joints, since you're staying still. You won't want to do isometric moves for a whole workout, typically, but they can be a great, quick, space-efficient way to get in a burn.
Another benefit is mental. Isometric moves increase your tolerance of lactic acid, Eric and Ryan explained, which is a compound that builds up during strenuous exercise and leads to a burning sensation in your muscles. When you're holding a wall sit or a plank, you're forced to embrace "the burn" physically and mentally, increasing your muscles' endurance capabilities and your own mental ability to push through.
How to Do Isometric Exercises
Isometric training sounds simple (and it is), but that doesn't mean it's easy. A huge part of getting the most out of each isometric move is mental: staying focused. You're often holding in one spot for minutes at a time, and it's important to keep focused on maintaining correct form. You want to mentally "dial into" the muscle you're working, Eric and Ryan said, and try to squeeze it as hard as you can. You're exhausting your muscles, so it'll be difficult, but that's how you'll get the most strengthening benefit out of the move.
Eric and Ryan also gave us a few other pieces of advice:
- Breathe through your nose and make sure you're breathing deeply, all the way into your belly, so that your diaphragm contracts.
- Actively contract the working muscle for the whole time you're holding the position.
- Keep your thoughts calm and focused. You can even try to get into a meditative state.
- Time yourself with a timer or a training partner. Self-timing (one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi) isn't the most accurate!
How long you hold each move will depend on your current fitness level. Start with 30 seconds and slowly push up to a minute as you get stronger. If you're feeling confident, you could go into the move and just go until you can't any more; see how long it takes to really exhaust the muscle.
Curious to try a few isometric exercises? Try a hollow hold or a classic plank to work your abs, a wall sit for your lower body, or a glute bridge hold (bodyweight or with a dumbbell) to burn out your glutes.