Isometric Training Is Crucial for Building Strength

Man holding top of pull up

Getty Images / JohnnyGreig

There are two types of muscular contractions: isometric and isotonic. Isometric muscle contraction occurs when the muscles are activated, but there is no movement at the joints. Your limbs are static and not lengthening or shortening the muscles. A good example is a plank or a wall sit.

Isotonic contractions occur when the joints move, and the limbs lengthen or shorten in eccentric or concentric contractions, respectively. Both isometric and isotonic are essential for building strength.

However, most people think of isotonic movements such as squats, bicep curls, lunges, deadlifts, or bench presses when they think of strength-building exercises.

Although these exercises are crucial for building strength, muscle, and functional fitness, isometric exercises are also very effective for strength and muscular gains.

Isometric Training Benefits for Muscle and Strength

Isometric training is backed by several studies and anecdotal evidence from professionals in the field of fitness. Here are some of them:

Recruits More Motor Units

Isometric exercises have one substantial benefit: they can activate almost all available motor units. Motor units are the force behind all human movement, including voluntary (walking, lifting) or involuntary (breathing, blinking).

Motor units also control the skeletal muscles, and when you lift weights, your body will adapt to the motor unit demands. To continue seeing progress in your strength gains, you will need to increase motor unit demands.

Since isometric exercises are so efficient at motor unit recruitment, they make excellent additions to strength training and muscle mass building programs.

Helps with Sticking Points

Another reason why isometrics are so effective for building strength is that they can help lifters bust through strength training plateaus by addressing weaknesses during specific movement points.

For instance, if you have trouble lifting the bar past your knees in a deadlift (a common sticking point for this exercise), using an isometric hold at the weakest point can increase strength in that area.

Increases Muscle Hypertrophy

Time under tension is one of the most important factors for muscle gain. While there are techniques such as slowing down your reps that utilize time under tension, one of the simplest ways to increase time under tension is to use isometrics.

Isometrics clearly increase time under tension since you hold the contraction without moving for a specific amount of time, rather than moving in and out of isotonic contraction. You can combine the two for several exercises, either with bodyweight or under external loading with weights.

Improves Mind-Muscle Connection

Mind-muscle connection, or the ability to intentionally sense, feel, and utilize a muscle or group of muscles, is critical for building strength and muscle. Especially during a general warmup or warm-up sets, using isometrics may be able to improve your connection to your muscles so that you can use them more effectively.

Specific muscles are more challenging for people to sense a connection to and therefore use properly when performing certain exercises. For instance, the back body muscles are very tough for some people to feel and activate to use during movements such as rows, pull-ups, and pulldowns.

Holding the end contraction of the movement in an isometric hold can give your brain some time to recognize which muscles you are trying to use and better enable you to feel and contract them during the concentric and eccentric movements you may do later in your workout.

Helps Maintain Strength During Injuries

If you are injured, performing regular loaded concentric and eccentric muscular contractions with isotonic training can be impossible or limited. Using isometric exercises can help you preserve your strength without aggravating the injury.

Not only that, but isometric exercises during injury with a reduced range of motion can even reduce pain during the healing phase.

Isometric Strength Training Exercises

Some specific isometric exercises are excellent for building strength and muscle:

  • Planks: Planks are a classic core exercise. While the standard plank is a decent isometric hold that can build core endurance, to build strength, try the RKC plank (or active plank) where you pull your toes and elbows toward each other, crunching your ribs toward your pelvis and squeezing while you hold the plank. You will only be able to do this for 30 seconds or so.
  • Isometric bench press: Perform a regular bench press, but with much lighter weight. Pause and hold the bar 2 to 4 inches above your chest and hold for 2 to 3 seconds.
  • Isometric squat: Using a barbell or dumbbells, perform a squat, hold the bottom position (or a sticking point you have) for 2 to 3 seconds. Go lighter than you typically train. Alternatively, perform a wall squat holding a weight or with bodyweight only.
  • Isometric pull-ups: One of the best ways to increase your ability to do pull-ups is to train them isometrically. Simply hold onto the bar and contract without moving. Try this at the bottom with your back muscles contracted or at the top of the pull-up with your chin over the bar.
  • Hollow holds: Hollow holds are an excellent core stability exercise that can prevent low back injury and build strength. Core strength is necessary for most all other lifting exercises.
  • Isometric push-up: Isometric push-ups are challenging for your whole body. Drop into the bottom of a push-up position without touching the floor and hold for 3 to 4 seconds before pushing back up.
  • Isometric lunge: Single leg unilateral exercises are essential for building muscular balance and stability. Try performing a lunge, but hold the lowered portion of the squat. This will burn! You may only be able to hold for a couple of seconds but work up to longer, 5 to 6 seconds.
  • Isometric grip hold: Improving your grip by strengthening your forearms, shoulders, and hands will go a long way toward improving other lifts such as pull-ups and deadlifts. Stand side on to a barbell racked a bit below arm's length. Pick it up in the center with one hand. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat with the other arm. Add weight to the bar as you progress.
  • Loaded carries: Loaded carries are an essential movement pattern that shouldn't be ignored. Walking with a load in your hands promotes functional strength, muscle gains, and stability. There are many loaded carry variations such as farmer's walks, suitcase carry, waiter's carry, and more.

Try isometric versions of all the essential basic movement patterns: squat, hinge, push, pull, lunge, carry. Just be sure to go lighter than you usually would and use a spotter if you need to.

Programming Isometrics

If you'd like to try programming isometrics into your regular workout routine for yourself or personal training clients, here are some ways to incorporate them:

  • Pause reps: Use pause reps by pausing during part of a regular eccentric and concentric contraction movement. Choose a sticking point or the most challenging portion and pause for a count before continuing with the movement.
  • Loaded stretching: Hold a weight at the end of a range of motion during an exercise. For instance, during a chest fly, on your last rep, hold the dumbbells outstretched and count to 10 before completing the final rep of a set.
  • Holding contractions: This is perfect for activating muscles and getting a mind-muscle connection before a specific lift. For example, during a cable row, pull the cable toward you, and at the top of the movement, hold the contraction, feeling your shoulder blades pull together.
  • Supra-maximal loading: You are preparing your central nervous system for heavy loads for this type of isometric. You can load a barbell squat or bench press much heavier than usual, unrack it, and just hold it in place without moving. It should be loaded heavier than you can perform the movement; instead, you hold the weight in a locked position.
  • Isometric pulling and pressing: This type of isometric is also fantastic for priming your central nervous system and sending a message that heavy loads will be moved. An example is to load a barbell on the floor and pull up on it as if you will perform a deadlift. The barbell is loaded much too heavy to pull. Engage all of your muscles, keeping the tension throughout your body and bracing your core. Pull up with effort for several seconds before releasing.
5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.