Today, we are pushed and pulled every which way with the latest and greatest fitness trends and products. Social media, celebrity endorsements, and the news come at us from all angles promoting the next greatest wellness fad to improve our health. This makes it increasingly difficult to recognize a legitimate fitness trend from a questionable fitness fad. So are isometric exercises a healthy fitness trend or fitness fad failure?
We’re all familiar with the adage“if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” And while this certainly does apply to many snake-oil trends, it doesn’t apply to isometric exercises. On the surface, a fitness activity that doesn’t require excessive sweating, the purchase of specialized equipment, or a gym membership, and promises improved muscle tone and fat burning may indeed appear to be in the realm of wishful thinking. But that’s precisely what regularly including isometric exercises into your fitness routine can do for you.
What Are Isometric Exercises?
So what are these mystical exercises? Harvard Medical School provides the following isometric definition:
"Isometric exercises are those in which a muscle tenses but doesn’t contract.”
Let’s break this down. Isometric exercises are classified as “static” whereas isotonic exercises are considered “dynamic.” Dynamic exercises involve muscle contractions that actually move the body—think swimming, walking, mountain climbing, and tennis—your muscles are tensing and contracting.
On the other hand, in static or isometric exercises, your body isn’t moving down the road or up a mountain, but instead, pushing against a wall, lifting a weight, doing squats, or holding a plank position. Adding to the confusion between isometric exercises and isotonic exercises is that the majority of dynamic exercises require internal isometric tensing of muscles.
Think of a tennis match. The side to side, front to back movements on the court are dynamic movements. However, when you are serving a tennis ball, the muscles in your abdomen, legs, and arms tense as you strike the ball and then contract when you move into action. This is an excellent example of how isometric contractions and isotonic contractions work in harmony in some activities.
Since you were born, you’ve been doing isometric exercises, even if you weren’t conscious of them. For example, when you sing and tense your diaphragm to hit a high note, you are doing an isometric exercise. Or, when you stand in front of the mirror and suck in your gut or your glutes, you are isolating muscles and creating resistance and tension. If you do Pilates, Tai Chi, or yoga, you are doing isometric contractions as a regular part of the practice.
If you are still looking for a definitive isometric definition, the physiology of the movement may help. In an isometric exercise, the tensing of a muscle, or of a group of muscles occurs, but the muscle doesn’t physically lengthen or shorten. And the joint closest to the muscle or muscle groups doesn't move.
Isometric exercises can improve strength through repetition and holding in the muscles and muscle groups being actively worked. They are not whole-body conditioning exercises that necessarily enhance athletic performance, speed, or endurance. However, they can be incredibly helpful as part of an overall fitness plan.
Benefits of Isometric Exercises
Isometric exercises target specific muscles for strengthening. This targeted muscle strengthening can help improve certain isotonic contractions and activities. In addition, including isometric exercises into your regular fitness routine offers a variety of benefits.
1. You Can Do Isometric Exercises Anywhere
If you travel for work, or for pleasure, you can do your isometric fitness routine in your hotel room, at the hotel’s gym, or in a park. No special equipment is needed to strengthen targeted muscle groups. If you spend a lot of time on airplanes, creating an isometric exercise plan you can do in your seat or in the aisles can help make long international flights easier on your body.
2. You Can Do Isometric Exercises Any Time of the Day
Unlike aerobic exercise that can stimulate your mind and body and keep you up at night, isometric exercises may help you sleep. In fact, if you have restless legs syndrome, you may have been told to tense and relax your legs after you’ve gone to bed to help relieve RLS symptoms. Some insomnia experts recommend starting at your toes and tensing and releasing every muscle all the way to your head as a way to relax your body and mind.
3. Isometric Exercises Require Little Financial Investment
As mentioned above, the majority of isometric exercises do not require equipment. As you move forward in creating your isometric fitness plan, you may want to add a medicine ball, a yoga mat, or a resistance band, but these items are not cost-prohibitive, and frankly not required to complete the majority of isometric exercises.
4. Isometric Exercises May Help Heal After an Injury
If you’ve recently injured a joint and you have limited range of motion, isometric contractions may be ideal. Remember, in isometric exercises, the joints on either side of the muscles don’t move; you are just tensing and releasing the muscles without motion. This may help you retain muscle conditioning and strength, and prevent muscle wasting.
5. Isometric Exercises for an Afternoon Energy Boost
If you are like millions of others, when the afternoon rolls around, your energy level dips. Even when you are at work, you can do a few isometric exercises to improve circulation and clear your mind. Wall presses and wall squats can be done in your office or a break room, but isometric exercises can even be done at your desk. A prayer palm press may help loosen tight shoulder muscles, and leg extensions under your desk may help relieve lower back pain.
6. Isometric Exercises May Lower Blood Pressure
According to the Mayo Clinic, clinical studies have shown that isometric exercises may help lower blood pressure levels. In a study published in the journal Sports Medicine, researchers found that isometric exercise training produces similar or better results than aerobic exercise to reduce blood pressure. The authors of the study recommend further research into the cardiovascular benefits of isometric exercise and the optimal number of times per week it should be conducted.
7. Isometric Exercise Can Boost Mood and Self-Esteem
Being physically active releases endorphins into the system that can trigger a sense of well-being and euphoria. Exercise, regardless of type, can help stave off depression, fight anxiety, boost self-esteem, and improve the quality and the quantity of sleep. As a bonus, the more endorphins you release through exercise, the more you will want to exercise. And, exercise can make you happier—and we can all use an extra dose of happiness from time to time.
Who Isometric Exercises Help
Isometric exercises can help children, teens, adults, and seniors improve muscle tone and relieve pain.
For children with ADHD, doing isometric exercises may improve concentration and focus. Just like adults, children can do the majority of these exercises anywhere. One of the best ways to introduce isometric exercise to your kids is during homework time. The moment your child starts to get fidgety or focus wanders, lead him or her in three to four minutes of isometric exercises before returning to homework.
Senior citizens with limited mobility or balance issues can benefit from regular isometric exercises. While plank and warrior pose are probably out of the question, other muscle-isolating exercises like squeezing a medicine ball may help them maintain strength.
Individuals with Arthritis
In isometric exercises, the joints surrounding the muscles being worked don’t move. So, for individuals with osteoarthritis, isometric exercises can be a safe way to maintain muscle tone and even relieve pain. According to a study of patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, doing isometric exercises five days a week for five weeks has beneficial effects. The study, published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science, showed that participants experienced a reduction in pain and an improvement in muscle strength and functional disability.
A great fitness plan should include a balance of aerobic activity, flexibility exercises, strength training, balance work, and isometric exercises. As a reminder, never hold your breath while exercising—this can cause a dramatic increase in blood pressure. Instead, inhale when you start and exhale at the point of maximum exertion.
Here are the top 12 isometric exercises and tips on how to complete them.
1. The Plank
We’ve all seen the plank challenges on social media and thought, “wow, that can’t be that hard,” and then we tried it. Much to our chagrin, a proper plank is much more difficult than it looks.
Muscles targeted: Abdominals, lower back, and shoulders.
Position: Begin in a pushup position. Move your elbows directly below your shoulders and extend your body fully in a straight line from head to toe.
Duration: Hold the position as long as possible and build time each week by 15 to 30 seconds. Work up to two or three minutes in duration.
2. Wall Sit
This is another deceptively difficult isometric exercise when done correctly. Building up the depth of the sit and the length of time you can hold it takes time.
Muscles targeted: Quadriceps, calves, and glutes.
Position: Stand against a wall, with your back as flat as possible. Position your feet shoulder-width apart, about 18 inches from the wall. In a slow and controlled manner, slide down the wall, bending your knees until they reach a 90-degree angle. Check your positioning, as the knees should be directly above the ankles, not further forward and not behind, to avoid a painful knee injury.
Duration: Hold the position as long as possible. When your legs start to quiver, push through just a bit longer, contracting your abdominal muscles for even more burn.
2. Squat Hold
This one looks hard, there is no doubt about that, and you’ll definitely feel the burn. But, within just a few weeks, you’ll find you can maintain the position of this butt-focused isometric exercise longer.
Muscles targeted: Core, glutes, and quadriceps.
Position: Begin with your feet positioned slightly wider than hip-width apart. Toes should point forward and just a bit outwards. Engage your abdominal muscles and, while keeping your spine in a neutral position, slowly (and in control) move as though you are going to sit in a chair. Do not allow your knees to move inwards to support one another—keep them in line with your ankles. If you feel pain in your knees or hips, come back up just a bit. For an extra burn, extend your arms straight out from the shoulders and hold them there.
Duration: Engage and release your glute muscles as you are in the position. Hold this position as long as possible, working up to a minute or longer.
4. Side Plank
Fitness magazines always seem to capture models in this position looking tranquil, as though their bodies aren’t holding a difficult pose. But, when you do this right and for an extended period of time, you will definitely feel this isometric exercise working.
Muscles targeted: Abdominals, posterior abdominals, and quadratus lumborum.
Position: Start on one side, with your feet together and your elbow directly below your shoulder. Tense your abdominals and raise your hips to create a straight line that runs from your nose, through the center of your abdominals, and down between your feet.
Duration: Hold this position as long as possible without letting your hips drop out of alignment. Then, flip over and do the other side.
5. Tree Pose
This popular yoga pose is also an isometric exercise. In yoga, it is called the Vriksasana, and it is known for improving focus and balance. If you struggle with poor balance, have a spotter until you are comfortable and secure.
Muscles targeted: Abdominals, groin, thighs, shoulders, calves, and ankles.
Position: Stand with your feet together and your hands at your sides. Shift your weight to your right foot, bend your left knee, and then reach down and grab your left inner ankle. Slowly bring your foot to rest on your right inner thigh. Shift your stance, so your pelvis is directly above your right foot and your hips are aligned. Press your palms together at your chest.
Duration: Hold for up to a minute, and then release. Repeat on the opposite side. When your balance becomes better, extend your arms above your head, and reach for the sky. Rotate your palms above your head into prayer position.
6. Warrior Two
This is another popular yoga pose with deep stretching power that is practiced to increase stamina, relieve back pain, and stimulate digestion.
Muscles targeted: Thighs, buttocks, abdomen, and ankles.
Position: Begin with your arms at your sides and your feet hip-distance apart. Step sideways, as wide as possible, making sure to keep your heels in a straight line. Turn your right foot 90 degrees outward and pivot your left foot inward. Raise your arms so they are parallel to the floor and in line with your shoulders. Bend the front knee until it is directly over the ankle, with your shin perpendicular to the floor. Slowly lower your hips until your front thigh is parallel to the ground. Keep your back leg straight.
Duration: Engage your triceps and abdominal muscles, drawing your belly into your spine. Hold for as long as possible, working up to 60 seconds to two minutes. Release and repeat on the other side.
7. Push That Wall
We’ve all seen runners pushing against a wall before starting out on a run—but this exercise is different. There is movement but, as this is an isometric exercise, the benefit comes from the internal tensing and releasing of muscles.
Muscles targeted: Biceps, chest, lats, shoulders, and triceps.
Position: Find a sturdy wall and place your palms at shoulder height against the wall. Move into a lunge position and push against the wall. The deeper you bend into the wall, the more it targets your shoulders. Stay upright when you want to focus on your chest.
Duration: Push into the wall hard for 15 seconds, and then release. Repeat 5-10 times, changing the lead leg in the lunge.
8. Medicine Ball Squeeze
This is another deceptively challenging isometric exercise. And this is the only exercise on the list that requires a piece of equipment. If you’re a deal seeker, check thrift stores and used sporting good stores before you buy online.
Muscles targeted: Chest and abdominals.
Position: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold the medicine ball straight out in front of you at shoulder height.
Duration: Squeeze the ball as hard as you can, holding it for as long as you can. Work up to 30 seconds. Release your muscles and repeat 5 to 10 times per session.
9. The Non-Pushup Pushup
If you hate traditional pushups, you aren’t alone. It can be very challenging to keep proper form as you do 20, 30, or 50 of them. This isometric version is different—you aren’t actually pushing up, you are just holding pushup pose.
Muscles targeted: Abdominals, shoulders, and biceps.
Position: Begin in standard pushup position, with your palms below your shoulders and your arms fully extended. With your body in a straight line, lower yourself halfway down and stop and hold.
Duration: Hold this position until you break form. Relax, and then repeat three to five times. Try to work up to a one-minute (or longer!) hold.
10. Static Lunge
This isn’t your standard lunge, and as you progress, you can make it more and more challenging by supporting your back leg with a yoga block or by adding weights.
Targeted muscles: Glutes, thighs, calves, and abdominals.
Position: With your feet shoulder-width apart, take a large step forward with your right foot and move into a deep lunge. It is essential to keep your knee squarely over your ankle to avoid pain and possible injury. As you progress, aim for both knees forming 90-degree angles. Keep your abdominals tucked and tight, your spine in a neutral position, and your hands on your waist.
Duration: Hold this lunge for 20 to 40 seconds, and then switch sides. Do three to five repetitions during your isometric exercise session.
11. Hip Lifts
Remember back in middle school when your P.E. teacher made you contort your body into uncomfortable positions? Well, the hip lift just might bring back some unpleasant memories.
Muscles targeted: Abdominals, obliques, hip abductors, glutes, hamstrings, and back muscles.
Position: Lie on the floor with your knees bent and your arms in a neutral position by your sides. Make sure your knees are directly over your feet to prevent injury. Tighten your buttocks and abdominal muscles and raise your hips up as far as possible to create a line that runs from your kneecaps to your shoulders.
Duration: With your hips raised, squeeze your core muscles and hold for 20 to 30 seconds. If you break form or your hips sag, lower yourself gently back to the floor. Repeat 10-20 times per session.
When Superman flies through the air, his form is fantastic, and in this isometric exercise, your form needs to be perfect too.
Muscles targeted: Shoulders, hips, glutes, lower back, and lower abdominals.
Position: Lie on your stomach with both your legs and your arms outstretched. Simultaneously lift your arms and legs off the floor, leaving only your belly on the floor.
Duration: Lift, tense your muscles, and hold for as long as possible. Work up to 30 to 40 seconds at a time. Repeat three to five times during each session.
To see some of these exercises demonstrated, check out the video below from Criticalbench on the Top 21 Isometric Bodyweight Exercises.
Isometric Exercises Precautions
Isometric exercises are generally considered safe, but if you have any underlying health conditions, or if you are pregnant, speak to your doctor before attempting any of the exercises mentioned here.
Those with high blood pressure should “exercise” caution. When you tense a muscle, your blood pressure can rise, particularly if you hold your breath. Breathe slowly and deeply during any exercise, and if you find yourself holding your breath, stop immediately and rest.