How Isometric Exercises Can Help You Build Strength and Endurance

They may not involve heavy weights, but isometric exercises shouldn't be overlooked in your strength program. Here are all the benefits you can score from the moves.

Isometric Exercises

Based on looks alone, the wall sit, high plank, and dead hang exercises don’t seem to have much in common. Sure, they’re all bodyweight movements, but they each appear to target different muscle groups and involve situating your body in completely different positions.

But the way in which these exercises challenge your body is exactly the same: They’re all considered to be isometric exercises, a type of move that doesn’t actually involve any, well, movement but can have a big pay-off when it comes to muscular fitness. 

Keep reading to learn more about what isometric exercises entail and the key benefits they offer. Plus, find out how to incorporate the movements into your fitness routine, with seven trainer-approved isometric exercises to test. 

What Are Isometric Exercises?

When you power through a resistance exercise, you can generally break it down into three distinct phases: the concentric phase, the eccentric phase, and the isometric phase, according to the American Council on Exercise. In the concentric phase of the movement (think: bringing a dumbbell up your shoulder in a biceps curl), your muscles will shorten, while your muscles will lengthen during the eccentric phase (think: lowering the dumbbell during a biceps curl). But during the isometric phase, the muscle neither lengthens nor shortens, according to ACE. Not every exercise has an isometric phase, but they can be added to a move (think: holding the bottom of a squat for five seconds before returning to standing).

Given that info, an isometric exercise can be defined as a move in which a muscle or muscle group is contracting but not moving, says Dannah Eve Bollig, an ISSA-certified personal trainer and the creator of The DE Method. “This means a muscle is turned on and firing but not actively in motion,” she explains. Just think about a wall sit: Once you settle into a seated position, with your knees bent at 90-degree angles and back flat against the wall, your quads and glutes will contract — and they’ll stay that way for the 30 seconds you hold your position, adds Tessia De Mattos, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and strength and conditioning coach in New York. 

These types of moves “simply work a muscle or muscle group with static time under tension,” adds Bollig. “In other words, you’ll be holding a challenging position — with or without added weight or resistance — while your muscles are engaged.”

The Benefits of Isometric Exercises

Don’t be fooled by the lack of movement or sweat — isometric exercises come with serious benefits for your muscular endurance, functional fitness, and strength.

Build Muscular Endurance

Since isometric exercises involve holding one position for what can feel like hours (looking at you, planks), they help build muscular endurance, aka your muscles’ ability to work for an extended period of time, says De Mattos. Think about it: During a forearm plank, you’ll contract your entire core (which includes your abdominals, obliques, and erector spinae, among other muscles) for a specific amount of time. In doing so, you’re teaching your core musculature to act in unison and training it to brace for a prolonged amount of time, both of which are required to effectively run, lift heavy weights, walk, or even stand, says De Mattos. 

It’s just as important to build endurance in other muscle groups. “Even if you enjoy walking every day, in order for you to be able to walk for a longer period of time or further distance, you really need build up the endurance in your muscles [think: the quads, hamstrings, and calves],” says De Mattos. “It's important to have endurance for muscles so your body isn't ever complaining that you're not strong enough to do it.”

Improve Everyday Functioning

Practicing isometric exercises can help improve the way you move in your daily life. Say you typically struggle to push yourself off of a chair or go up the stairs due to lower-body weakness, says De Mattos. Regularly performing wall sits — which put your body in the same posture as it’s in while climbing stairs or sitting and thus target similar muscles — can help you build strength in that position. And in turn, those everyday movements may feel a bit easier, she says. The same idea applies if you have trouble maintaining good posture while carrying a heavy bag of groceries at your side; doing isometric side planks can help you build the oblique strength necessary to keep your trunk upright and stable, even when you're holding a hefty Trader Joe's haul.

Boost Strength and Reduce Pain After Surgery

Isometric exercises are commonly used in rehabilitation programs post-injury or after surgery, says De Mattos. Since the muscles aren’t repeatedly being lengthened and shortened during isometric exercises, these moves typically don’t elicit any pain, and they can actually have an analgesic (aka pain-relieving) effect, she says. “So if you're in pain, usually doing isometrics can help alleviate some of the pain you're experiencing,” says De Mattos. 

What’s more, isometric exercises can easily be modified and allow for gradual progression as you recover, she notes. For example, a person who recently had knee surgery can start building up strength by doing a wall sit with their knees bent at a 45-degree angle. As they heal, they can slowly lower their butt closer to the floor and work their way up to a 90-degree knee bend. “You can control how much you're contracting that muscle — you don't have to go from zero to a hundred percent — and that's super helpful in the rehab setting,” says De Mattos. “It also reminds the muscle and the body, ‘This is what [muscle] I want to contract. This is what [feels like] to contract.” 

Are Easy On Your Joints

Thanks to their static nature, isometric exercises are considered low-impact, meaning they put little pressure on your joints, says Bollig. In turn, they could help keep injuries at bay, as low-impact activities have just a third of the injury risk of higher-impact movements, as Shape previously reported. So if you currently have or have suffered from joint injuries and are concerned about aggravating your condition, isometric exercises may be a good option for you. 

The Limitations of Isometric Exercises

Though isometric exercises can do your muscles and joints some good, they don't come without limitations. The biggest catch? The moves help you build strength only in the specific position you’re training, says De Mattos. “That can help transfer over to things getting out of a chair, having that initial push being a little bit easier,” she explains. “But in order to fully get stronger throughout the whole motion of getting up from a chair, you do need to train the muscle through the entire motion.”

For the same reason, isometric exercises aren’t your best option for building strength or gaining muscle, says De Mattos. To reach those goals, you’ll need to perform the eccentric and concentric motions of a particular exercise, she says. TL;DR: “Isometric exercises are generally considered less effective if done alone,” adds Bollig. “If isometric exercises are used exclusively without any other variation of strength training, you’re likely to experience limited strength gains or hit a plateau.”

How to Add Isometric Exercises to Your Routine

Given the limitations of the moves, you’ll typically want to prioritize exercises that contain eccentric and concentric phases, then sprinkle in a few isometric options throughout your workouts, suggests De Mattos. Generally speaking, bodyweight isometric exercises that are performed for short amounts of time (think: 30-second planks) are safe to perform daily — just make sure to switch up the muscles you’re targeting. Weighted isometric moves done to failure (e.g. a 5-minute wall sit with a weight plate on your lap), however, should typically be tackled just once or twice a week, says Bollig. Thanks to the high intensity, your body will need a bit longer of a recovery period

To get the most bang for your buck, you can also perform all three muscle actions in one set. “Something I love to do — and have my clients do all the time is end — a set of reps with an isometric exercise,” adds Bollig. “For example, if you’re doing 10 weighted sumo squats, the 11th rep can be an isometric sumo hold for 15 to 30 seconds to get nice and spicy with the glutes.”

That said, there isn’t a set-in-stone rule as to how long you should hold an isometric exercise, and your sets can vary in length from a few seconds to five minutes, says Bollig. “My general rule of thumb is you can hold an isometric exercise for as long as you can or until ‘failure,’ so long as you can maintain proper form of the exercise,” she suggests. “If you find yourself compromising form, it’s better to hold for a shorter duration of time.” And keeping your form on point is key. Let your technique fall to the wayside, and you may not get the most benefit out of the exercise or could up your risk of injury, says Bollig.

7 Isometric Exercises to Try for a Full-Body Workout

Ready to incorporate isometric exercises into your fitness program? Try mixing a few of Bollig’s go-to moves, which she demonstrates below, into your routine. 

Wall Sit with Front Raise Hold 

A. Stand with back pressed up against a wall, feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing forward, and arms at sides. Walk feet out about two steps in front of body.

B. With back and head flat against the wall, arms at sides, and chest upright, bend knees to lower body down until legs are parallel to the ground, forming 90-degree angles. Knees should be stacked directly over ankles and in line with hips. Engage core to help with stability and maintain an upright posture.

C. Raise both arms in front of body up to shoulder height, palms facing down.

Hold for 30 seconds.

Bear Plank Hold

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with hands directly under shoulders, knees under hips, and toes tucked. Keep back flat, spine neutral, and gaze directed toward the floor beneath you.

B. On an exhale, pull navel up and in toward spine to engage core. Press through hands and lift knees one to two inches off the floor, keeping back flat.

Hold for 30 seconds.

Glute Bridge Hold

A. Lie faceup on the floor with knees bent, feet placed flat and hip-width apart about a foot in front of butt, and arms at sides, palms facedown.

B. Keeping core engaged and tailbone tucked, exhale and slowly push through both heels to lift hips off the floor, simultaneously squeezing glutes. Lift hips up as high as possible without allowing the lower back to arch. Maintain a straight line from knees to shoulders.

Hold for 30 seconds.

V-Sit with Lateral Raise Hold

A. Sit on the floor with legs together, knees bent at 90-degree angles, and heels resting on the ground, toes pointed toward the ceiling. Lean back at hips slightly.

B. Keeping core engaged, back flat, and head in a neutral position, lift both feet off the floor a few inches. Then, raise both arms to shoulder height at sides, palms facing down.

Hold for 30 seconds.

90-Degree Biceps Hold

A. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees softly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with arms at sides, palms facing forward.

B. Keeping core engaged, elbows tucked to sides, and shoulders down and back, engage biceps muscles to pull the dumbells up toward shoulders until elbows are bent at 90-degree angles.

Hold for 30 seconds.

Sumo Squat Hold

A. Stand with feet slightly three to four inches wider than shoulder-width apart, toes turned out to a 45-degree angle. Clasp hands in front of chest.

B. On an inhale, sit back into hips and bend knees to lower until thighs are parallel or almost parallel with floor, keeping chest up and preventing back from rounding.

Hold for 30 seconds.

High Plank

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with hands stacked directly under shoulders, knees bent and stacked directly under hips, and feet hip-width apart.

B. Step one leg back at a time to come into a high plank position on palms, squeezing glutes together and engaging core. Actively push away from the floor and maintain a straight line from head to heels.

Hold for 30 seconds.

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