What is Isometric Exercise
An isometric hold is a form of exercise that involves a muscular contraction of a particular muscle or a group of muscles without changing the length of these muscles, and the affected joint doesn’t move. Your body will remain static position whilst your muscles are firing away to keep the body rigid.
One of the most basic forms of isometric hold is a plank. In this position, your body remains completely stagnant whilst you’re squeezing your core, glutes, quads, etc, the entire time to hold this position. Other examples of isometric exercises include wall sits, isometric pull-up hold, and static lunge
According to research, isometric training enables a closely controlled application of force within pain-free joint angles in rehabilitative settings. Therefore, this will be helpful to those that have an injury. For example, if you have arthritis, it could be painful to be using muscles to move a joint through the full range of motion. Isometric exercises could be a great alternative for these individuals to develop strength and improve physical function with less pain.
Do Isometric Holds Build Muscle
You can build muscle with isometric holds and you should include them in your workouts on a weekly basis. An effective way to build muscle with isometric holds is to superset them with dynamic exercises, which is performing 2 or more exercises back to back in a single set. For example:
- Superset 5 pull-ups with 10 seconds isometric pull-up hold (with your chin above the bar)
- Superset 10 bodyweight squats with 10 seconds wall sit
- Superset 10 hanging leg raises with 20 seconds plank
This method of training is central to optimal hypertrophy due to time under tension. Imagine doing a certain number of pull-ups followed by holding at the top pull-up position for a period of time, you can create maximum tension at this angle and hold it for as long as you can withstand.
An empirical study has found that isometric exercise boosts intramuscular pressure, restricts circulation, and causing anoxia which is oxygen deficiency inside the muscles. This triggers the fusion of new actin and myosin in the muscle cells, to help them to survive – in simple terms, it stimulates muscle growth!
Isometric Exercise Examples
Upper Body Isometric Holds
The plank is a great exercise that develops your core strength. It requires you to hold your body in a rigid line that is parallel to the ground. Your entire body must be engaged to maintain a good form. You can check out different variations of the plank in this article! To perform this, you will:
- Get into a low plank position with your forearms on the floor. Your shoulders are stacked directly on top of your elbows, and your wrists are in line with your elbows.
- Keep your core and glutes engaged to ensure that your body is in a straight line and is parallel to the ground. Your back should be flat and not arched.
- Hold this position between 10-120 seconds for 4 sets.
Bottom Push-Up Holds
This exercise is great for conditioning your chest, triceps, anterior deltoids, and core without extending the range of motion. This exercise is perfect for beginners who are not yet able to do push-ups proficiently. You can check out different push-ups variations here! To perform this, you will:
- Begin in a push-up position where your arms are shoulder-width apart, and your shoulders are stacked directly on top of your wrists. Engage your core and glutes to ensure your body is straight.
- Slowly lower down into the bottom push-up position. Your body should be 1-2 inches above the ground. Engaged every muscle to maintain a good form.
- Hold this position between 10-60 seconds for 4 sets. You can also practice different grips to target different angles of the muscle. The diamond grip will target the inner chest, and the wide grip will target the outer chest.
Isometric Pull Up Hold
The isometric pull-up hold is an effective way for developing the strength in your upper body muscles to be able to perform your first pull-up. This can also be used as a superset with dynamic pull-ups to further increase the muscular endurance in the lats, biceps, and forearms. There will be more time under tension with this exercise, thus, it will enhance your strength. To perform this, you will:
- Grab the bar tightly using a pronated grip at shoulder-width apart. Jump and pull at the same time to get into the top pull-up position, where your chin is above the bar. You can stand on an elevated platform to assist in the jump.
- Engage your upperbody muscles, especially your core, biceps, and lats to hold still in the top pull-up position. Your body should remain static.
- Hold this position between 10-40 seconds for 4 sets. You can also practice this with the chin-up hold. You can use the supinated grip to put more emphasis on your biceps.
The dead hang is another great exercise that develops your static strength and works on your upperbody muscles whilst you remain in a static hang. This exercise will give you a crushing grip strength for your pull-ups, chin-ups, and will give your lats a nice stretch! If you want to learn more above the dead hang, here’s the video and article. To perform this you will:
- Grab the bar tightly using a pronated grip at shoulder-width apart. Hang from the bar with your arms fully locked out and your feet off the ground.
- Keep your shoulders elevated, and relaxed. Engage your core to prevent your body from swinging.
- Hold this position between 10-60 seconds for 4 sets.
The wall sit works on your lower body and actives the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. This exercise is simple and can be performed anywhere, it will activate the slow-twitch fiber (Type I Fiber), which is responsible for increasing your endurance. To perform this, you will:
- Position yourself with your back flat against the wall, and your feet 2-3 feet away from the wall at shoulder-width apart.
- Gradually lower your body down by bending your knees until your things are parallel to the ground – or at a 90 degrees angle. Keep your core tight, and your lower body engaged.
- Hold this position, whilst bracing your abs for 10-60 seconds, for 4 sets.
The static lunge will develop your core strength along with providing the foundation for your lower body muscles to progress onto the dynamic lunge. A unilateral exercise such as this one will help you to build core stability. You can check out different variations of the lunges here! To perform this, you will:
- Begin in a split stance with your right feet forward, and your left feet back. Your feet should be roughly 3-4 feet apart, with your hips squared forward.
- Inhale as you lower your body by bending both knees until your front thigh is parallel to the ground. Keep your core tight, and your torso upright.
- Hold this position between 10-60 seconds for 4 sets. Practice on both legs in a single set.
Glute Bridge Hold
This exercise is an awesome exercise that primarily works on your butt (gluteus maximus!) and the lower back muscles. It is a low-impact exercise that is great for beginners, as well as for those who experience knee pains when performing bodyweight squats. To perform this, you will:
- Start by lying on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Place your arms by your sides with your palms down.
- Exhale as you lift your hips off the ground by squeezing your glutes and pressing into your heels and palms to raise your hips up until your torso, hips, and knees form a straight line. Squeeze your core and glute at the top position.
- Hold this top bridge position between 10-60 seconds for 4 sets.
Benefits of Isometric Holds
As mentioned earlier, isometric holds will assist in building bigger muscles, if you increase the time under tension on your muscles, for example by supersetting them with dynamic exercises. This will stimulate hypertrophy, your muscle fibers will be placed at greater stress, which will cause your muscles to grow bigger and stronger..
Isometric exercises are beneficial for all levels, whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced level in your fitness journey you can gain strength from practicing this. Beginners can develop their muscles and build strength to be able to perform their first pull-ups, push-ups, and squats through isometrics.
Moreover, advanced level athletes can further stimulate time under tension on their muscles through isometrics as it creates force overload. A study has found that isometric contractions assist in large and rapid increases in strength (40% in 8 weeks).
Promote Healing and Recovery
Isometric exercises are suitable for people who have injuries or medical conditions that have limited movement. Injuries often occur when a force is placed on a tissue that exceeds its capacity to cope with it. In isometrics, your muscles will contract without moving the surrounding joints, therefore, you can develop strength in the desired muscle without placing too much stress on the muscle or joint.
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I’m Pat Chadwick, a qualified Level 2 and Level 3 calisthenics coach and athlete from London, England, with six years of experience. I’ve competed in various UK competitions, including the Kalos Stenos Championships, where I achieved third place in the lightweight category. My passion is highlighting the beauty of calisthenics as an authentic and pure form of body expression. I believe that everyone has the potential to become a champion of their body and mind, and that calisthenics opens the door to personal empowerment.