Based on appearance alone, the wall sit, high plank, and dead hang exercises don’t appear to have much in common. Certainly, they are all bodyweight movements, but they each seem to target different muscle groups and involve placing your body in completely different positions.
However, the way in which these exercises challenge your body is exactly the same: They are all considered to be isometric exercises, a type of movement that doesn’t actually involve any, well, movement but can have a significant payoff when it comes to muscular fitness.
Continue reading to discover more about what isometric exercises entail and the primary benefits they offer. Plus, find out how to incorporate the movements into your fitness routine, with seven trainer-approved isometric exercises to try.
What Are Isometric Exercises?
When you exert yourself during a resistance exercise, you can generally break it down into three distinct phases: the positive phase, the negative phase, and the immobile phase, according to the American Council on Exercise. In the positive phase of the movement (think: raising a dumbbell up to your shoulder in a biceps curl), your muscles will contract, while your muscles will lengthen during the negative phase (think: lowering the dumbbell during a biceps curl). But during the immobile phase, the muscle neither lengthens nor contracts, according to ACE. Not every exercise has an immobile phase, but it can be added to a movement (think: holding the bottom of a squat for five seconds before returning to a standing position).
Given that information, an isometric exercise can be defined as a movement in which a muscle or muscle group is contracting but not moving, says Dannah Eve Bollig, an ISSA-certified personal trainer and the creator of The DE Method. “This means a muscle is activated and firing but not actively in motion,” she explains. Just consider a wall sit: Once you assume a seated position, with your knees bent at 90-degree angles and your back against the wall, your quadriceps and glutes will contract — and they will remain contracted for the 30 seconds you maintain the position, adds Tessia De Mattos, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and strength and conditioning coach in New York.
These types of movements “simply work a muscle or muscle group with static time under tension,” adds Bollig.
In alternate phrasing, you will find yourself occupying a demanding role — regardless of whether there is any extra heaviness or opposition involved — while your muscles are actively involved.
The Advantages of Isometric Exercises
Do not be deceived by the absence of movement or perspiration – isometric exercises come with significant benefits for your endurance, functional fitness, and strength.
Develop Muscular Endurance
Considering that isometric exercises entail maintaining one position for what can feel like an eternity (looking at you, planks), they aid in building muscular endurance, also known as your muscles’ capacity to work for a prolonged duration, says De Mattos. Ponder this: During a forearm plank, you will engage your entire core (including your abs, obliques, and erector spinae, among other muscles) for a specific period of time. By doing so, you are teaching your core musculature to act in harmony and training it to brace for an extended period, which are both essential for effective running, lifting heavy weights, walking, or even standing, according to De Mattos.
It is equally important to develop endurance in other muscle groups. “Even if you take pleasure in daily walks, in order for you to be capable of walking for longer periods or greater distances, you truly need to enhance the endurance of your muscles [think: quads, hamstrings, and calves],” says De Mattos. “Having endurance in your muscles is crucial so that your body never complains that you are not sufficiently strong to do it.”
Enhance Everyday Functionality
Incorporating isometric exercises into your routine can help enhance your everyday movements. For instance, if you often struggle to lift yourself from a chair or ascend stairs due to lower-body weakness, says De Mattos, regularly performing wall sits – which mimic the posture of climbing stairs or sitting and target similar muscles – can assist you in building strength in that position. Consequently, those everyday movements may feel slightly easier, she explains. The same principle applies if you have difficulty maintaining proper posture while carrying a heavy bag of groceries by your side; engaging in isometric side planks can aid in developing the oblique strength necessary to keep your torso upright and stable, even when you are holding a substantial load from Trader Joe’s.
Enhance Strength and Alleviate Pain Post-Surgery
Isometric exercises are frequently employed in rehabilitation programs following injuries or surgeries, says De Mattos. Since the muscles are not continuously lengthened and contracted during isometric exercises, these movements typically do not cause any pain. In fact, they can have an analgesic (pain-relieving) effect, she states. “So if you are in pain, usually performing isometrics can assist in alleviating some of the pain you are experiencing,” says De Mattos.
What’s more, isometric exercises can easily be altered and allow for gradual progression as you recuperate, she observes. For instance, an individual who recently underwent knee surgery can commence building up strength by performing a wall sit with their knees bent at a 45-degree angle. As they heal, they can gradually decrease their buttocks nearer to the floor and work their way up to a knee bend of 90 degrees. “You can control how much you’re contracting that muscle — you don’t have to go from zero to a hundred percent — and that’s extremely advantageous in the rehabilitation setting,” says De Mattos. “It also reminds the muscle and the body, ‘This is what [muscle] I want to contract. This is what [feels like] to contract.”
Are Gentle On Your Joints
Due to their stationary nature, isometric exercises are considered low-impact, meaning they exert little pressure on your joints, says Bollig. In turn, they could help prevent injuries, as low-impact activities have just a third of the injury risk of higher-impact movements, as Shape previously reported. So if you currently have or have suffered from joint injuries and are concerned about exacerbating your condition, isometric exercises may be a good option for you.
The Constraints of Isometric Exercises
Although isometric exercises can benefit your muscles and joints, they do have limitations. The biggest catch? The movements help you build strength solely in the specific position you’re training, says De Mattos. “That can aid in transferring over to tasks like getting out of a chair, making that initial push a little bit easier,” she explains. “But in order to truly become stronger throughout the entire motion of getting up from a chair, you do need to train the muscle through the complete motion.”
For the same reason, isometric exercises aren’t your best choice for building strength or gaining muscle, says De Mattos. To achieve those goals, you’ll need to perform the eccentric and concentric motions of a specific exercise, she says. TL;DR: “Isometric exercises are generally considered less effective if done alone,” adds Bollig. “If isometric exercises are used exclusively without any other variation of strength training, you’re likely to experience limited strength gains or hit a plateau.”
How to Incorporate Isometric Exercises into Your Routine
Given the limitations of the movements, you’ll typically want to prioritize exercises that contain eccentric and concentric phases, then sprinkle in a few isometric options throughout your workouts, recommends De Mattos. Generally speaking, bodyweight isometric exercises that are performed for short periods of time (think: 30-second planks) are safe to perform daily — just make sure to switch up the muscles you’re targeting. Weighted isometric movements done until failure (e.g. a 5-minute wall sit with a weight plate on your lap), however, should typically be tackled just once or twice a week, says Bollig. Thanks to the high intensity, your body will need a bit more time for recovery.
To obtain the greatest value for your money, you can also execute all three muscle actions in one set. “Something I adore doing – and encourage my clients to do frequently – is concluding a set of repetitions with an isometric exercise,” adds Bollig. “For instance, if you’re performing 10 weighted sumo squats, the 11th repetition can be an isometric sumo hold lasting 15 to 30 seconds in order to engage and activate the glutes effectively.”
There isn’t an established rule regarding how long one should hold an isometric exercise, and the duration of your sets can vary from a few seconds to five minutes, according to Bollig. “My basic guideline is that you should hold an isometric exercise for as long as you are capable or until you reach ‘failure,’ as long as you can maintain proper form during the exercise,” she suggests. “If you find yourself compromising your form, it’s better to hold for a shorter duration of time.” It is crucial to maintain proper form in order to maximize the benefits of the exercise and decrease the risk of injury, explains Bollig.
As you progress, you might consider attempting a class that combines strength movements with weights and longer isometric holds, such as Peloton’s Yoga Conditioning.
7 Isometric Exercises to Try for a Full-Body Workout
Ready to incorporate isometric exercises into your fitness program? Try incorporating a few of Bollig’s preferred exercises, which she demonstrates below, into your routine.
Wall Sit with Front Raise Hold
A. Stand with your back pressed against a wall, feet spaced shoulder-width apart, toes facing forward, and arms at your sides. Take two steps forward with your feet.
B. Keep your back and head flat against the wall, arms at your sides, and chest upright. Bend your knees to lower your body until your legs form 90-degree angles, with your knees directly over your ankles and in line with your hips. Engage your core for stability and maintain an upright posture.
C. Raise both arms in front of your body up to shoulder height, with your palms facing downward.
Hold this position for 30 seconds.
Bear Plank Hold
A. Begin in a table-top position on the floor, with your hands directly under your shoulders, knees under your hips, and toes tucked. Keep your back flat, maintain a neutral spine, and direct your gaze toward the floor beneath you.
B. On an exhale, engage your core by pulling your navel up and in toward your spine. Press through your hands and lift your knees one to two inches off the floor, keeping your back flat.
Hold this position for 30 seconds.
Glute Bridge Hold
A. Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent, feet placed flat and hip-width apart about a foot in front of your buttocks, and arms at your sides with your palms facing downward.
B. Keeping core contracted and tailbone tucked, exhale and slowly push through both heels to raise hips off the floor, simultaneously tightening glutes. Lift hips up as high as possible without allowing the lower back to curve. Maintain a straight line from knees to shoulders.
Hold for 30 seconds.
V-Sit with Side Raise Hold
A. Sit on the floor with legs together, knees bent at 90-degree angles, and heels resting on the ground, toes pointed towards the ceiling. Lean back at the hips slightly.
B. Keeping core engaged, back flat, and head in a neutral position, lift both feet off the floor a few inches. Then, raise both arms to shoulder height at the sides, palms facing downward.
Hold for 30 seconds.
90-Degree Biceps Hold
A. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees softly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with arms at the sides, palms facing forward.
B. Keeping core contracted, elbows tucked to the sides, and shoulders down and back, engage biceps muscles to pull the dumbbells up towards the shoulders until elbows are bent at 90-degree angles.
Hold for 30 seconds.
Sumo Squat Hold
A. Stand with feet slightly three to four inches wider than shoulder-width apart, toes turned out to a 45-degree angle. Clasp hands in front of the chest.
B. On an inhale, sit back into hips and bend knees to lower until thighs are parallel or almost parallel to the floor, keeping chest up and preventing back from rounding.
Hold for 30 seconds.
A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with hands stacked directly under shoulders, knees bent and stacked directly under hips, and feet hip-width apart.
B. Step one leg back at a time to come into a high plank position on palms, squeezing glutes together and engaging core. Actively push away from the floor and maintain a straight line from head to heels.
Hold for 30 seconds.