Some fitness trends make it seem like in order to get in shape, you have to bounce around like crazy, throw tires into the air, or leave a pool of sweat on the ground after every workout. But believe it or not, you can build serious strength—without even moving a muscle.
It's called isometrics. In these exercises, your muscles tense up, but don’t actually move. Say what? Imagine pressing your hands together in a prayer position as hard as you can for 10 seconds. You’ll feel tension in your chest and arms, yet your arms didn’t move at all. There—you just did an isometric exercise. Holding a plank is another example you're likely familiar with. And if you've ever taken a barre class, you know how hard it can be to simply hold still while your muscles are contracted.
In positions like these, the muscle fibers are activated but since there are equal forces against each other, there is no movement. (Compare this to picking up a 20-pound dumbbell to do biceps curls—the force of the weight pushing down is less than the force you are using to lift the weight up.)
With isometrics, you can take a break from jumping on boxes, lifting heavy weights, or doing endless crunches (your lower back will thank you). And the best part? Isometric exercises have been found to help take off inches around your waist, increase overall strength, and even decrease high blood pressure. Maximal motor unit firing rates during isometric resistance training in men. Pucci AR, Griffin L, Cafarelli E. Experimental physiology, 2005, Oct.;91(1):0958-0670. Effect of isometric handgrip exercise training on resting blood pressure in normal healthy adults. Garg R, Malhotra V, Kumar A. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research : JCDR, 2014, Sep.;8(9):2249-782X.
Besides that, you don't need any equipment, and they're actually fun! So if you’re looking to take a break from yet another set of heavy lifting, chill out and stay home. Be sure to follow these four tips to get the most out of the isometrics workout below.
1. Squeeze it—real good.
Since you’re not relying on movement to fatigue your muscles, you’ve got to squeeze them hard. The technical term for this is “maximal voluntary contraction,” which means you should tighten up your muscles as much as you can.
Yet when doing isometrics, you don’t need to give 100 percent of your maximum effort each time. Research shows that benefits can occur at about 60 to 80 percent of your max effort. Fatigue is not a necessary stimulus for strength gains during resistance training. Folland JP, Irish CS, Roberts JC. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2002, Dec.;36(5):0306-3674. Isn’t that a relief for anyone sick of hearing "go beastmode!" before every set?
2. Take a deep breath.
When doing isometric exercises, the natural tendency is to forget to breathe. Tightening up your muscles can also lead to tightening up your breathing, but don’t do it. You’ll get red in the face and scare your roommate.
Breathing should be done from the lower belly, which should get bigger when you breathe in. Try it: Place your left thumb in your belly button and rest your left palm over your lower belly. Now place your right hand over your left hand. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Feel your hands rising and falling. Inhale for 5 counts and exhale for 5 counts. That’s the type of breathing you should be doing during your isometric exercises.
3. Assume the position.
Form is very important in isometric exercises. You hear trainers talk about proper form all the time, since poor form can lead to injury. Say you're bench pressing 100 pounds with poor form—the extra weight could cause damage to your shoulders or low back.
In isometrics, you don’t have a ton of weight pushing against you so it's difficult to get injured, but positioning is still important. Research has shown that varying the angles when doing isometrics increases muscle strength. Strength training: isometric training at a range of joint angles versus dynamic training. Folland JP, Hawker K, Leach B. Journal of Sports Sciences, 2005, Dec.;23(8):0264-0414. If you only do the same posture over and over again, you’ll not only look like a human statue, you will also be limiting the benefits you receive. So switch it up. For example: When you place your arm in a 90-degree angle and tense up, you're strengthening the biceps muscle at one length. Try also positioning your arm at a 120-degree or 45-degree angle.
4. Mix it up.
It's the million-dollar question: Should you throw out your running shoes and let the dog start chewing on your resistance bands in favor of only isometric exercises? No way. Isometrics are another tool you can add to your toolbox to help you live a healthier, more energetic, and fitter life.
To achieve optimal health, various exercises should be used to achieve various goals. For example, aerobics are better than isometrics for improving cardiovascular health. And if you're looking for bigger muscles, you won’t want to do isometrics exclusively. Lifting progressively heavier weights is one of the best approaches to building massive size and hypertrophy.
Ready to get started? Below are seven of my favorite isometric exercises that'll work the entire body.
1. Bent-Over Press Against Wall
Start in a low lunge position and place hands on the wall at about chest level. Lean into wall and push. The farther down you bend, the more the exercise will target your shoulders. The more you stay upright, the more the exercise will target your chest.
- Common mistake: forgetting to breathe
- Muscles worked: shoulders
2. Prayer Pose
Place palms together. (Your elbows can be flaring out or pointed toward the ground.) Press your hands together. The tighter your press, the harder it will be.
- Common mistake: Raising your shoulders while you push can cause unnecessary strain on your shoulders.
- Muscles worked: chest
3. High Plank
Get into the top of a push-up position, making sure your spine is straight. Focus on tensing your upper back muscles as tight as you can.
- Common mistake: keeping your butt too high or too low during the movement
- Muscles worked: core, back
4. Self Arm Wrestling
Bend your right arm at a 90-degree angle. Grab your right hand with your left hand. Push them together as hard as you can. While your right biceps is preventing your arm from dropping, your left triceps is trying to push your right arm down. Repeat on other side.
- Common mistake: tensing your shoulders
- Muscles worked: biceps and triceps
5. Triceps Extension Against Wall
Get in a lunge position with your fists on the wall at head level. Use your triceps to push your fists into the wall.
- Common mistake: tensing shoulders and not breathing deeply enough
- Muscles worked: triceps
6. Forearm Plank
Get in a forearm plank position. Make sure your spine is straight. Tighten abs as hard as you can. (Normally when most people hold this position they simply try to hold it, but contracting your abs will provide even more benefit for your core.)
- Common mistake: letting your butt fall down or hiking your butt too high in the air; your shoulders, hips, knees and ankles should be in line
- Muscles worked: abs
7. Low Squat
Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Squat down so thighs are parallel to the floor. Instead of just holding this position, try to squeeze your feet together. This will force your inner thigh muscles to contract even more.
- Common mistake: not sitting back far enough (try not to allow your knees to go over your toes)
- Muscles worked: glutes, quads, adductors
The Total-Body Isometric Workout
Perform 3 reps of each exercise below, contracting for 10 seconds in each rep. If your goal is fat loss, use less force (60 to 70 percent of your max contraction) and take short rest periods between (20 to 30 seconds). If you're doing it for strength and muscle growth, you should use more force (80 to 90 percent of your max contraction) and take longer rest periods between sets (45 to 60 seconds).
- Bent-Over Press Against Wall
- Prayer Pose
- High Plank
- Self Arm Wrestling (each side)
- Triceps Extension Against Wall
- Low Plank
- Low Squat
This is a great routine you can add as a finisher or even as a short full-body workout you do in the morning before you head to work.