Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
4 Aug

An Introduction to Isometrics: How to Build Strength Without Even Moving

This is a guest post from Todd Kuslikis of AShotofAdrenaline.net.

Warning: Some of you are about to think I’m crazy. For those of you who haven’t heard of isometrics, this strength building concept is going to make you think I’ve officially walked off the deep end. Functional strength and awesome muscle mass gains with out even moving? This must be some kind of joke, right?

It’s not. Let’s do a little experiment. Stop what you’re doing for a second, sit up straight and bring your palms together, fingers pointing out, about 12 inches away from you. Now press them together as hard as you can. Breathe. Breathe more. A little more. And…. stop.

How do you feel? Arms and pecs a little tired? They should be. You’ve just had your first introduction to “Palm Pushes”, an isometric exercise. If you’re used to more conventional, dynamic strength training techniques, you might still be feeling a little confused. How did you manage to create so much engagement without moving a muscle?

It’s elementary functional anatomy, dear Watson. When you exert force on a muscle, it has to adapt in some way. If you think about it, this is the foundation of strength training. By forcing the muscle to adapt to new challenges, we encourage it to grow stronger in preparedness to meet those challenges.

There’s more than one way for the muscles to adapt, however. Pull out your rusty high school Greek for a second, and let’s define some terms. In an isotonic contraction, the contraction strength (the tone of “tonic”) stays the same (“iso”), and the length changes. This is the kind of muscle movement we’re familiar with. Isotonic contractions are how we do all those little things that require lengthening and shortening muscles, like walking and picking up objects. You know, small stuff.

Isometric contractions, however, may seem a little more confusing. How do we contract muscles without moving them or changing their length? Think back to the exercise at the beginning. Because the hands were pressing together, the muscle length couldn’t change. There was nowhere for it to go! Here the contraction strength changes, while the length (“metric”) stays the same. We use this every day without thinking about it, for stuff like… standing erect. It’s the tone changes in our muscles that keep us constantly adapting to surroundings so we can defeat the demands of gravity.

Isometric exercises take advantage of these tone contractions to build strength. Believe it or not, they’re in some cases even more effective than dynamic exercises. You really can build strength without even moving. In one nine-week study, participants got a little lopsided, working one set of quadriceps with isometrics, and the other with a dynamic workout. While both legs had a similar increase in dynamic strength, the isometrically trained leg had a significantly higher increase in isometric strength. Isometrics are two-for-the-price of one.

How is this possible? Isometric training goes full-throttle, working muscles at their maximum and for extended periods of time. Dynamic exercises, on the other hand, produce force only for split seconds before velocity and acceleration take over. Because intramuscular tension is greater and held for longer than in dynamic exercises, isometric training achieves unique results.

The “father of plyometrics,” Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky, supposed that a six second isometric contraction is equivalent to numerous dynamic contractions. When you stop to think about it, it makes a lot of sense. More time at maximum tension = greater rate of strength increase. It’s like Dr. Spock logical. Adding 10-20 seconds of intramuscular tension per session, then, can have a surprisingly major effect on strength gains. (Check out this great piece on StrengthNutrition101 for more info).

Isometrics have other fun benefits. Recent studies have shown that these exercises can help lower high blood pressure, for starters. But there’s a whole set of other unique benefits to isometric training that work on a subtler level. Isometrics require us to train our brains, with a whole slew of awesome effects. We’re going to get into a little woo-y new age-y mind-body connection stuff in a minute. Just try to think of it as strength training for your brain, making you smarter and more focused.

On a basic level, these exercises increase our body awareness. In order to perform isometrics, we have to learn how to send messages to specific muscles in the body. It’s easy to tune out a bit in dynamic exercise. No matter how form-conscious we are, everybody’s just switched their brain off for a strength training workout. Bad news: with isometric exercise, that’s no longer possible. Performing these exercises means consciously activating muscles. You’re going to have to think. You’re going to have to use you brain.

Doing isometrics, then, is a little like re-wiring the electrical system of your body. Or better yet, upping the connection speed on the Wi-Fi. You’ll forge and strengthen new neural patterns, cultivating powerful mind-body connections. As our world becomes more and more technology-oriented, we tend to live less and less in our physical bodies. Isometric training brings us back, reconnecting our brains with the incredible tool that is our human form.

Science backs this up. There’s a teeny little side note in this study, that I love because it tells a really revealing story. One of the subjects began the study unable to activate his quadriceps. Couldn’t do it. He’d send the message, and nothing would happen. After completing the study’s isometric program, however, he was able to engage his muscles on command. The isometric training had not only strengthened his muscles, but also cultivated the connection between his brain and his body. Another study used brain MRIs to measure the effects of isometric exercises and found “evidence for strength training-related change in white matter and putamen in the healthy adult brain.” Isometrics changes your brain. That’s some next-generation, sci-fi, Human 2.0 type stuff.

Intense as this sounds, it’s hardly a new concept. Many ancient meditative practices, such as hatha yoga and tai chi, utilized long held isometric exercises to hone the mind. Unlike dynamic exercises, isometrics don’t offer us any distractions. They’re self-confrontational. There’s no escape route, nowhere to hide from your thoughts – a rare situation in our over stimulated, smartphone-ruled day and age. In the stillness of an isometric exercise, unable to distract yourself with movement or check your Facebook, you’re suddenly very alone with yourself. You’re alone with the decision to exit the posture or stay a few more breaths. You’re alone with your thoughts and feelings.

This can be a scary proposition. Over time, however, you can consciously cultivate the same stillness within that isometrics cultivates without. Concentrating on these postures, regulating the breath, we find the mind becoming steady and calm. The stronger this mental state becomes, the stronger we are in the exercise. This mind-body connection creates a continual loop, with the mind growing stronger with the body, and vice-versa. The result is a calm, stable mental state that allows us to live a little less reactively and a little more intentionally. And while all that sounds like hippie-speak, it can actually have major positive effects on your life.

Okay, enough talk. Time for some action. You have lots of good incentive to get started. I’ve included a little taster isometrics workout for you below. Remember: these exercises are just a sample, and barely scratch the surface of the wide, varied, interesting world of isometric training. Start here… then explore!

A few tips before you begin: 

1. Go full out. Make each contraction as tight as possible, no excuses. A 2002 study had two groups of subjects practice isometric exercises, one at 100% maximum voluntary isometric contractions, and the other at 60%. While both groups had significant gains in muscle volume, the 100% group saw much higher gains than the 60% group. So go big, or go home.

(The only exception to this is if you have high blood pressure. While isometric exercises have been shown to lower blood pressure, exercising at a high level of intensity can cause dramatic increase in blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, work at a lower intensity – you’ll still see results!)

2. Work smart. Depending on what your goals are, you’ll want to use these exercises in different ways. According to Dr. David Williams, a “higher number of contractions increases strength, while holding contractions longer increases muscle mass.” If you’re looking to bulk up, long holds are the way to go!

3. Keep it active. While long held, passive isometrics can build strength, your training will be more effective if you choose active isometrics. Active isometrics exert force to fatigue the muscle, which helps “develop muscle and strength much quicker than passive isometrics, such as holds and stances,”according to physical culturalist Jarell Lindsey. Pressing into the ground or the wall can up the ante on passive isometrics. In the exercise shown below, for example, really digging your heels into the ground is essential.

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4. Breathe. Seriously. There are several ways you can approach the breath. The most important thing is to keep it steady, full, and unstrained. If you don’t know where to start, take a cue from some people who know a thing or two about breathing – yoga people. Vinyasa styles of yoga often cultivate a “breath with sound,” frequently called ujjayi breathing or ocean breath. Take even inhales and exhales through the nose, letting them rush through the back of the throat to create a sound like ocean waves (or Darth Vader). Five breaths will be around 30 seconds. Concentrating on the breath in this way not only keeps you safe throughout your workout, it also helps cultivate a strong, steady mind. General rule of thumb: When you’ve stopped breathing, you’ve gone too far.

The Workout

Wall Pushes: Get in a low lunge position and place your hands on the wall at about chest level. Lean into the wall and push with all of your strength. If you slide backwards you may need to put on shoes with a good grip. It’s very important to push as hard as you can in order to fatigue the muscle. Hold time: Complete 2-3 repetitions, holding for 30 seconds or longer, resting for 45-60 seconds between reps. 

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Gun Show: Bring your arms to a 45-degree angle. Imagine your biceps getting tighter and tighter as you breath in. After you complete position one, move to the next position, bringing the arms higher as shown in the picture. Tighten as much as you can, then relax. Move on to the third position, tighten as much as possible, and relax. Hold time: Move with the breath, holding each position for one long inhale and moving to the next as you exhale. Repeat 2-3 times, resting for 20-30 seconds between sets.

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Wall Extensions: Stand with your back toward the wall. Bend over at the waist and place the outer edges of your fist (on both hands) against the wall. Push with all your strength against the wall. You’ll notice your tricep muscles fully engage. Hold time: Complete 2-3 repetitions, holding for 30 seconds or longer, resting for 45-60 seconds between reps.

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Field Goal Pushes: Stand about 1-2 inches away from a wall facing outward. Raise your arms up so they are parallel with the floor. Place your elbows in a 90 degree angle. Your arms should look like a field goal. Push your elbows and forearms into the wall as hard as you can. You should feel this in the middle of your back – if you don’t, try placing the arms perpendicular to the floor, as pictured below. Hold time: Complete 2-3 repetitions, holding for 30 seconds or longer, resting for 45-60 seconds between reps.

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Basic Abdominal Isometric (“The Triangle”): Massive core muscle engagement, while “just sitting there.” Imagine a triangle made by your floating ribs and the spot just beneath your navel. Sitting on the floor, spine straight, exhale to draw the floating ribs towards the spine and activate the lower abdominals. As you inhale, maintain the activation of this triangle, keeping the shoulders down as the rib cage and expands. Hold time: Complete 2-3 repetitions, holding for 30 seconds or longer, resting for 45-60 seconds between reps. Try growing the length of the hold overtime, eventually completing one repetition of 2-5 minutes (build this slowly).

Turtle Crunch: This unique isometric ab exercise is an extreme activation of the triangle. If you couldn’t quite figure out the triangle before, you definitely will after experiencing this. Position yourself on the floor face down in a fetal position. Your arms cross in front of you and rest against your knees and thighs. Use your abs to curl your upper body into your thighs while using your arms as a point of resistance. Hold time: Push as hard as you can for 30 seconds or longer. Complete 2-3 repetitions, resting for 45-60 seconds between reps.

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Plank: You’re probably at least a little familiar with this one. Place the hands under the shoulders, and extend the legs behind you, so you’re flat like a board, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles in one line. Now make it active, pressing back through the feet, reaching the chest forward, and engaging “the triangle.” Breathe! Hold time: Aim for at least a minute. Repeat 2-3 times, resting for 45-60 seconds between reps.

Pushup Hold: From plank position, exhale into a pushup, keeping the elbows in and the gaze forward. Don’t forget to continue engaging that triangle! If you feel any discomfort in your low back, you’ve lost our abdominal support, and it’s time to back out. Hold time: Aim for at least 30 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times, resting for 45-60 seconds between reps.

Wall Sit: Stand with your back against the wall, feet hip-width apart. Bend your knees, bringing your thighs parallel to the ground. Avoid leaning forward – keep your core engaged and your sternum lifted. Press down through your heels into the ground and try to squeeze your feet together, engaging your inner thighs. Hold time: Aim for at least 30 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times, resting for 45-60 seconds between reps.

Check out Todd’s bodyweight exercise blog, AShotofAdrenaline.net.

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Now i have exercises to do in between lawn-mowings and shopping trips for the giant boxes of cat litter.

    Wenchypoo wrote on August 4th, 2015
  2. Good article! However, how often should such exercises be performed? Once, twice, three times a week? Maybe frequency was mentioned and I missed it.

    Peter Smith wrote on August 4th, 2015
    • Hi Peter, it depends on your current routine. If you already have a routine you can try this 1-2X per week. If you want to try isometrics as your only method of training for a certain period of time than I’d recommend 3-4X per week.

      Todd Kuslikis wrote on August 4th, 2015
  3. I love this idea! Another way to mix it up & make gains! And it seems both oddly intense & relaxing at the same time.

    Beth wrote on August 4th, 2015
    • Oof… Update:
      These are a great mixup to my regular standby body weight exercises.
      Harder than they look.
      I didn’t “move” yet I still feel like I just worked out.
      Brilliant change of pace! Definitely going in my rotation.

      Beth wrote on August 4th, 2015
  4. Genious. I have wanted to focus more on strength but have struggled for a LONG time to embrace lifting heavy things. I do enjoy some yoga so I think this will be more in my wheelhouse. This is why I love this site. So many creative suggestions to work with a variety of tastes and fitness levels. Excited to see what changes I will see in a year (versus the last year of excuses not lifting heavy things). Thanks for the suggestion.

    Pam wrote on August 4th, 2015
    • That’s great Pam! Yeah, there is very little (if any) risk of injury with isometrics compare to lifting heavy. So this sounds like the a perfect option for you. :)

      Todd Kuslikis wrote on August 4th, 2015
      • Todd is there a link to more info or a website. I’d like to do more exploring on this topic. Injury is not really my concern, I have just never enjoyed weight lifting or the PEMs. Maybe because I started so out of shape but I know I come up with every reason to skip lifting heavy things. So as a primary workout you say three to four times a week. How long would an effective session be? 30 min 3 to 4 x week? I walk regularly but need to add muscle work.

        Pam wrote on August 4th, 2015
  5. “How to Build Strength Without Even Moving”? Not to deduce from the benefits but the demo shows plenty of movements :)

    Time Traveler wrote on August 4th, 2015
    • Yep, I guess “positions” might be more accurate. 😉

      Todd Kuslikis wrote on August 4th, 2015
  6. This is why I love TTapp! Isometrics, alignment, good posture, having to THINK! Thanks for the article…

    Amber wrote on August 4th, 2015
    • For sure Amber! Glad you liked it!

      Todd Kuslikis wrote on August 4th, 2015
    • TTAP! The minute I read this post I thought of how TTAP is an excellent example of this type of strength training. It’s always a matter of effort with TTAP isn’t it? You really need to continually focus to reap the benefits. Theresa Tapp was ingenious in her design of TTAP, IMO!

      Peggy wrote on January 13th, 2016
  7. I’m all over these! I wanted to order your primal mayo, but its costs $26 to ship one bottle to Canada. Which is about $32 Can. There has got to be a cheaper way to find it?

    barb wrote on August 4th, 2015
    • Same with me Barb, live in Montreal and would have liked to pick up some of the supplements on this website but shipping is outrageous into Canada. Surprised no one here has looked at making the store more accessible to Canadians…

      Mike wrote on August 7th, 2015
  8. You can also be very creative with isometrics….I always try to create some when I am driving(just don’t have a wreck!), sitting at my desk or anywhere that I have some free time….

    Texman wrote on August 4th, 2015
    • Yep, be careful Texman. I’ve tried hand isometrics (gripping the steering wheel as tightly as you can) and it works well for strength (although might not be the safest exercise). :)

      Todd Kuslikis wrote on August 4th, 2015
  9. The wall sit – are the heels together when you start, or do you slide them together?

    barb wrote on August 4th, 2015
    • Barb, you can keep the heels at shoulder width or keep them together.

      Todd Kuslikis wrote on August 4th, 2015
    • Wall-sit is an old exercise often used to get the legs in shape for ski season. The way I was taught to do it is with the feet hip-width apart, toes pointing straight ahead. You “sit” against the wall as if you’re sitting in a chair and activate the thigh muscles as if you’re trying to move the feet together but you don’t actually move them. This works the thigh and core muscles isometrically. You might want to look online for a video since it’s difficult to do properly without knowing what it’s supposed to look like.

      Shary wrote on August 4th, 2015
  10. Nice! I think I’ll incorporate these more as “things to do when you aren’t really doing much of anything” rather than formal workouts.

    pdiddy wrote on August 4th, 2015
  11. This is seriously great Mark. Love IT!

    Todd thanks so much for sharing, you’ve done good, not well, you’ve done good. I used it intentionally.

    Larry wrote on August 4th, 2015
    • Hey Larry, Thanks! Glad you thought it was “good”. 😉

      Todd Kuslikis wrote on August 4th, 2015
  12. I used to have a clarinet teacher who often made me practice pieces entirely mentally – she’d watch like a hawk and scold me if my fingers even twitched. It was mentally exhausting, but it had amazing benefits. Once through the piece that way was as beneficial as 5 or 10 actual physical run-throughs. I also knew a professional ballerina who did the same thing with ballet. I think it must be a similar principle to what you’re describing here.

    Anna wrote on August 4th, 2015
    • Hi, Anna,

      i used to have a piano teacher that tole me to practice “mentally” (by “reading” or “thinking”)
      at least he did not watch me do it!

      pam2 wrote on August 16th, 2015
  13. My Dad taught me these exercises 40 years ago. I always knew he was ahead of his time. Thanks for a reminder about Isometrics. As a yogini, I already incorporate a lot of this into my practice, but I’ll definitely make time for an ISO only workout a couple days a week.

    Jessica O wrote on August 4th, 2015
    • Same with my dad, but 60+ years ago
      The Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension method
      Namaste!

      wildgrok wrote on August 4th, 2015
      • Yep, I’m a huge fan of Charles Atlas. Also look up Alexander Zass. There are some incredible stories about him using isometrics to escape from prison.

        Todd Kuslikis wrote on August 4th, 2015
  14. Oxycise is also a great isotonic workout for anyone looking for videos/instruction. Th videos are little corny and out-dated but I’ve been using them for years and love the workout!! There is also a commuter routine for those who want to do guided isometrics in their car.

    Kari wrote on August 4th, 2015
  15. Nice. I can do a lot of these while at the office, and no one has to know I’m exercising. They’ll just think I’m constipated. :)

    His Dudeness wrote on August 4th, 2015
  16. Isometrics!
    I went digging through a drawer filled with old junk and there it was, my mum’s old paperback book on isometrics by Henry Wittenberg the former U.S. Olympic team wrestling coach.
    This paperback I have was printed in 1975 but it was first printed in May 1964.
    Isometric and isotonic exercises for men and women, it all looks good. Who knew my mum used to do these exercises!

    Pauline wrote on August 4th, 2015
    • Isometrics have been around forever. It’s interesting to see them surface again. Isometric principles are used extensively in the book, “Pain Free” written by physiologist Pete Egoscue. I heartily recommend his book to anyone who has musculoskeletal pain, regardless of the reason.

      Shary wrote on August 4th, 2015
  17. Reminds me of the old Charles Atlas secret strength guide of the 1950’s – that used isometrics.

    From what I’ve researched, isometrics increase Strength through being able to fire the nervous system with more power to drive the muscles, but not so much size.

    Here’s an even more interesting one – there is some scientific evidence of gaining strength through simple visualisation of doing a certain move – the brain actually starts to fire up the nerve energy and pathways to do the move – simply by thinking about it – it does increase STRENGTH, but generally not SIZE. In order to force size adaption you have to “run the batteries down” out of the muscles – this forces the “batteries” to grow in size.

    The two are related of course, gaining more strength with your existing muscles lets you exert heavier and more reps to gain Size.

    Very similar things I do to this is calisthenic holds, like front and back levers, handstands, etc, but I don’t neglect the traditional rep types moves either, like plain old sets of Chinups, dips, etc.

    Storm wrote on August 4th, 2015
  18. Hi,
    You said in the post that strength with lower mass gains was possible with more, shorter reps. Using the wall presses as an example, could you suggest what the repas and duration would look like if you were wanting to gain strength with minimal mass gain… I like to climb and being a strong climber is good, but if you are heavy , it defeats the point!
    Joe

    Joe Gaunt wrote on August 5th, 2015
  19. Just started taking Pure Barre classes in the US since I need someone to push me past where I think my limit is. I sweat more at these classes than at Crossfit! I thought they were going to be “ballet” classes, but they are all isometric exercises. But my legs are shaping up like a ballerina’s. Highly recommend.

    Bethany wrote on August 5th, 2015
    • Yay for Pure Barre! Other than walking (with a little sprinting thrown in), I’ve
      always hated to exercise. This is the first thing I’ve ever done where I don’t
      watch the clock count down til I’m done. Just hit my 300th class, and I have
      ab muscles for the first time ever (I’m 52). Even my athlete husband has done
      it and was amazed at what a good workout it is. Only he’s too tall to fit under
      the barre for flat back! Also highly recommend.

      Laurie wrote on August 6th, 2015
    • I’m in my 3rd month of Pure Barre and I’m stunned by the results I’m getting. I previously enjoyed CrossFit and didn’t expect isometric exercises to be so effective!! The added bonuses are that it’s low impact so my knees are happy and I can’t seem to overtrain the way I did in CrossFit. I think I’m actually seeing more definition faster than I was with CrossFit which makes no sense to me. I think it might be due to the fact that I can go 5 times a week with good recovery, but CrossFit was so taxing on my body that even 3 times a week gave me symptoms of overtraining and poor recovery. Pure Barre feels like physical therapy for my core and pelvic floor. As a woman who has had two babies, I’m incredibly grateful to have found these classes. My body looks and feels better after 2 babies and being in my late 30’s than it ever felt in my 20’s.

      Cristy wrote on August 6th, 2015
  20. Love isometrics and do them periodically, especially when standing around waiting for someone. Even doing t’ai chi, I notice a lot of of abdominal toning just from the stance and that’s very “light” isometrics.

    Kris K wrote on August 5th, 2015
  21. Great idea for cramming in those workouts for the office.

    Matt Forrester wrote on August 5th, 2015
  22. Remember the Bullworker anyone?

    MWC wrote on August 5th, 2015
  23. Ahh the Bullworker. Many happy hours spent when I was 14 in 1972. But I tell you what the old muscles knew about it after a session of that.

    john allmark wrote on August 6th, 2015
  24. Thanks for including the different positions for the same exercise! This method has been used by traditional martial arts for hundreds of years! All you need to do is try and sit in a horse stance for 5 minutes and you can appreciate the benefits.
    Great article!

    Murdoch wrote on August 6th, 2015
    • i also second horse stance, i believe probably biggest bang for your money (time & effort)

      if more women do it, there’ll be fewer broken hips.

      one can just start with 15 sec. “high horse” (narrow stance) & slowly go lower & wider & longer.

      then one day –> side-split (supposedly) but at least full squat becomes very easy

      cheers,

      pam wrote on August 16th, 2015
  25. Wow! after reading this and doing Slackline for two years, I am going to guess that Slackline is a super isometric workout for the body’s core! I never sweat so much trying to stand still on a Slackline!

    PBnewby wrote on August 7th, 2015
  26. Thank you so much! As a very overweight, very out of shape, middle-age woman, this sounds like a very safe and accessible way to start building some muscle strength.

    Joanne wrote on August 9th, 2015
  27. Hi Todd ! Very interesting article thank you !
    I also noticed the positive aspects of isometrics through yoga.
    What kind of warm up would you advise before an isometric session ?
    Yours
    Guillaume

    Guillaume wrote on August 11th, 2015
  28. Some of these are great. Some are impossible because the descriptions are so poor. The turtle crunch, for example. Where do the arms go? On the floor, against the knees? Just resting on the knees? What does “into the thighs” mean? How to do you this on and also breathe? I’ve had several friends try this, and all we’ve been able to do with this one by doing it EXACTLY as described is make our lower backs ache. It also engages the shoulders, but not the abs. THe wall extension is another one. What PART of you do you push with? All the parts touching the wall? Push against your feet or not?

    Miriam wrote on March 20th, 2016

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