Did you know that there are two types of muscle contractions? Isotonic and Isometric.
Isotonic contractions occur when muscles become shorter or longer under tension or against resistance. They are further divided into Concentric and Eccentric. Concentric contractions cause the muscle to shorten (think the lifting phase of a biceps curl), and eccentric contractions lengthen the muscle (or the lowering phase of the curl).
Isometric contractions on the other hand occur when tension is applied to the muscle but it remains at a constant length, shape and size.
We most often think about isotonic or dynamic exercises like squats, lunges, biceps curls, push ups, cardio etc when we plan out our workouts. Isometric or static exercises are not always top of mind
That’s why I wanted to talk about them today. There are many key benefits to including isometric exercises in your fitness routine. Let’s talk about those benefits as well as some examples so you can reap the rewards of holding still.
Isometric Muscle Contractions
Isometric muscle contractions are actually a key part of human movement as they help maintain stability and control. During a squat for example, the hip adductor and abductor (inner and outer thigh) muscles contract isometrically to provide stability to the knee. At the same time, other muscles move the hips, knees and ankles to get you into and out of the squat position.
It’s the stability and control that isometric muscle contractions provide that makes it so important to include isometric exercises in your workouts.
Benefits of Isometric Exercises
Beyond building stability and control, here a few other benefits to isometric exercises:
- They don’t usually require any equipment so can be done pretty much anywhere.
- Appropriate for all fitness levels. Static exercises can be easier to learn and perform with proper form than many dynamic exercises.
- Building isometric strength improves stamina. This translates to improved performance in dynamic exercises as well as endurance activities.
- Isometric exercises allow you to target areas that require strengthening after an injury without straining weak or injured joints. They also may help relieve lower back pain, knee osteoarthritis and neck pain.
Of course, it is important to note that while isometric exercises are often a safe alternative to dynamic exercises (especially when someone is rehabbing from injury or surgery) they may still cause or worsen existing injuries. Make sure you consult with your doctor or a certified fitness professional before trying any new exercises or beginning a new fitness routine.
In addition, performing isometric exercises with poor form can also lead to injury. For example, performing a plank without proper form can increase tension in the lower back, potentially leading to an injury.
**If you ever notice any pain or discomfort while performing an isometric exercise, stop immediately**
Examples of Isometric Exercises
Alright, so how does this all translate into your workout? Here are some examples of isometric exercises you can add into your next workout routine:
The plank – this is probably the most well known example of an isometric exercise. During the plank, the muscles of the core activate to stabilize the lumbar spine and pelvis against gravity. The idea is to hold the position and minimize movement throughout the body, especially the spine.
- Begin in the plank position, face down with your forearms and toes on the floor. Your elbows are directly under your shoulders and your forearms are facing forward. Your head is relaxed and you should be looking at the floor.
- Engage your abdominal muscles, drawing your navel toward your spine. Keep your torso straight and rigid and your body in a straight line from ears to toes with no sagging or bending. This is the neutral spine position. Ensure your shoulders are down, not creeping up toward your ears. Your heels should be over the balls of your feet.
- Hold this position for 10 seconds. Release to floor.
- Over time work up to 30, 45, or 60 seconds.
The wall sit is a simple isometric exercise for improving muscle endurance in the thighs without straining the lower back muscles. During the wall sit you are resting your back flat against the wall and lowering your body into a sitting position with the knees bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Start with your back against a wall with your feet shoulder width and about 2 feet from the wall.
- Engage your abdominal muscles and slowly slide your back down the wall until your thighs are parallel to the ground.
- Adjust your feet so your knees are directly above your ankles (rather than over your toes). Keep your back flat against the wall.
- Hold the position for 20 to 60 seconds.
- Slide slowly back up the wall to a standing position.
And there is the Dead Hang – this exercise is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. You grip a bar with your hands, lift feet off the floor and simply hang. Well ‘simply hang’ might be a bit of an understatement. This exercise can be a bit challenging at first.
The dead hang works the muscles of the upper back, shoulders, forearms, wrists and hands. It also is an effective upper body stretch and helps to decompress the spine.
- Find somewhere suitable to hang. You should be able to touch the bar without jumping. Use a step or bench to ensure you can comfortably reach the bar. Also, make sure that your feet are clear of the floor once you are hanging from the bar.
- Hold the bar with an overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
- With your arms straight hang from the bar with your body straight and your feet off the floor. Do not fully relax your shoulders. Instead, keep them active by pulling them slightly down and back. Do not hold your breath.
- Remain motionless – no swinging or twisting – for the duration of your set. When you are done, step rather than jump down as jumping will shock load your spine, negating some of the decompressing benefits of this exercise.
In addition to performing isometric exercises, you can also add isometric contractions to the dynamic exercises you are already performing.
For example, you could add a 2 or 3 second pause at the bottom of a bodyweight squat or at the top of a dumbbell biceps curl.
Isometric exercises are best added to a fitness routine that also includes dynamic, functional exercises. While they are effective at building strength and stability, they only build strength in a very limited range of motion — about 15 degrees on each side of the joint.
So there you have it. It pays to hold it.
By including these and other isometric exercises into your regular fitness routine, you will experience improved strength, stability, and endurance that will boost your performance in everything you do- willpower not required.