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October 16, 2018

What Is Isometric Exercise?

The Science Behind The Year’s Hottest Workout

Isometric exercise – it’s more than just the next great fitness fad. While obstacle courses, tire flipping, and other flashy workouts are currently en vogue, the fitness world is beginning to move away from a macro-level of fitness, opting for super-efficient workouts with a focus on how muscles work at the micro level. Essentially, more and more athletes, trainers, and regular folks are looking for a more scientific method that truly understand how our muscles, ligaments, and joints work in concert.

Enter: isometric exercise. This form of training has been a staple in both the physical therapy world and bodybuilding, but it’s about to become a household name.

What Is Isometric Exercise?

An isometric exercise or workout is a type of training where the muscle length or joint angle doesn’t change. Simply put, the body stays static while it applies force. Some isometric exercise examples can be as simple as pushing your palms together, or be as intense as holding a barbell at the peak of a curl.

A typical example of an isometric exercise would have a trainee exerting a maximal, or close to maximal amount of force for around 3-10 seconds at regular intervals. Of course, isometric exercise is so simple, it can be applied in a number of different positions for different durations.

But why is isometric exercise so effective? It’s thought that because isometric workouts allow trainers to use maximal effort, it allows them to activate previously untapped muscle groups that may not be activated when it comes to traditional movements.

When we initiate a movement, our brain fires neurons that activates a certain group of muscles called “motor units”. For instance, if we curl a barbel, only certain groups of muscles (like the ones in our biceps) are triggered and activated to perform that motion. However, with isometric training, the maximal effort sends a signal to our brains to activate the previously untapped motor units in our arms, allowing us to train them.

But despite all the gains of isometric exercise, it has a very low impact on the joints. Isometrics doesn’t require trainers to use a full range of motion, making it a favorite for physical therapists helping injured or post-op patients get their strength back. In addition to all of the strength gains of isometric exercise, it has very low impact on the joints. Isometrics allows trainers and physical therapists to help their clients get stronger at specific ranges of motion. It is a favorite of physical therapists during early stages of rehabilitation to help their patients get stronger with less risk of reinjury.


Isometric Exercise Examples

Isometric exercise can be found everywhere – not just in bodybuilding gyms. Planking, mountain climbing, yoga, and martial arts grappling all contain isometric workouts. Even rugby scrumming, a static activity that uses an incredible amount of force, is considered by most players to be a kind of isometric exercise. Being so versatile and customizable, it’s been used for rehabilitation, warmups, stretches, and strength training by all sorts of people all over the world.

The Ancient Foundations of Isometrics

Far from being a recent invention, isometric exercise has been around for millenia. The ancient Greeks referred to isometrics as the ‘soft exercise’. Later in the 12th century, the exercise was studied by Buddhist Monks in the Shaolin Temple in China. Even legendary 19th century strongman Alexander Zass credited isometric training to his success.

Later in the 1950s, scientists and physicians showed evidence of the benefits of isometric exercise, with researchers like Hettinger and Muller publishing studies that concluded isometric muscle contraction efficiently improved strength.

A decade later, athletes like football player Donald Salls were developing fitness programs entirely based on isometric exercises. Today, innovative coaches, researchers and bodybuilders are rediscovering the effectiveness of isometric exercise, and they’re starting to record the benefits of this unique training program when it comes to strength training, flexibility, weight loss, and even injury prevention.


The Benefits of Isometric Exercise

Traditionally, we think of exercises with the highest impacts on our body as the best ways to build strength. But there’s mounting evidence that isometric exercise can result in a rapid increase in strength, without the negative impact. A study from 1995 has shown increases in strength as high as 27% in just 6 weeks of training, while a previous study from 1988 by Thepaut – Mathieu demonstrated an increase of up to 54% in just 5 weeks.

Other studies have demonstrated its effectiveness for lowering blood pressure, increasing blood flow, not to mention improving rehabilitation, stamina, bone strength, and so much more.

Debunking an Isometric Exercise Myth

There’s been some talk that isometric exercise only strengthens your muscles in certain positions, but there’s plenty of evidence that isometric exercise results in an overall increase in speed, agility, strength, and even improves a person’s range of motion.

In fact, one recent study by the Journal of Sports Sciences shows that isometric exercise was extremely beneficial for rugby players’ explosive force. Another study from the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness showed that isometric exercise improved athletes’ weightlifting performance.

There is, of course, an entire history and a mountain of evidence worth exploring about isometric exercise. But the best way to see if isometrics is the real deal? Trying it yourself.

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