During many of the dynamic movements you might make in an average session in the gym, there are several muscles which do not contract/extend but still contribute greatly.
An example of this is the use of the core muscles during a squat movement. The core is engaged though doesn’t move like the quads and hamstrings do around the leg joints.
Another is the forearm muscles while you perform bicep curls. The bicep contracts and extends but the forearm simply grips with no movement.
This static use of muscle is known as isometric exercise. Though the instances above are secondary to the main dynamic movements, there are many ways to train with isometrics which can help build your strength levels.
Think of an Olympic gymnast on the rings. See the static holds they are busting out one after another. They can hold there body parallel to the ground with their arms at full span. Think that’s strong? That’s isometrics for you.
Whether using additional weight, or simply your own bodyweight, dynamic exercise involves movement. In the case of upper body work, the elbow joints bend in order to lengthen or contract the muscles under load.
During a bench press exercise the elbows straighten and bend for each complete rep. The triceps contract and extend with the movement.
This involves static muscle tension. There is no movement of the joints during an isometric exercise and there are two main ways of employing the technique:
The name makes it seem like it would be the easier of the two methods but in fact unweighted isometric exercises can necessitate maximal muscle output. This is because you work against an immovable object such as a wall.
This is where weights, e.g. dumbbells, barbells or even your own bodyweight are held in a static position. This should only ever require sub-maximal output as any greater force would remove in a dynamic movement and therefore defeat the object.
Why Add Isometrics To Your Training Program?
You know those guys who are always banging on about stabilizing muscles, balance and core strength? It so happens that isometric exercise can improve all of these areas as well as your overall strength.
Another plus side is the very low injury risk of the static holds. Also, you will start to notice an increase in strength when performing your regular dynamic lifts.
So to summarize the benefits of isometric training, you can:
- Improve stability
- Build secondary balancing muscles
- Strengthen core muscle group
- Enhance existing lifting program
- Minimize risk of injury
Isometric exercises such as the plank or other Yoga like positions are excellent ways to complete a training session when you have exhausted your dynamic lifting strength.
The plank position has already been mentioned and in truth, it is one of the best exercises for developing a strong and balanced core group.
Other examples include:
You rarely see someone doing this in the gym but it’s worth doing. You can even do it at the end of a normal set, though you might have done that to failure and be a little weak. Try lowering the bar to about 6 inches above your chest and holding it still.
The length of time you can do this will be dependent on the weight and your experience but it’s certainly something you can measure week after week for progress. Make sure you have someone at hand to help if you plan on taking it to the exhaustion level as you won’t be able to send the bar back up!
Otherwise, you can try 5 or 10 second holds on your own; or any length of time after which you are sure you can raise the bar again.
The shoulders are an area that people underwork anyway. Back in the day, the main press exercise was the military press, not the bench press. This is because the shoulders are much more useful than chest muscles. Still, a muscular chest looks good. Even better with round 3D shoulders.
Dynamic shoulder raises are a good exercise because after you have finished your military press (vertical above head shoulder press) then you can ‘finish’ them off with some lighter weight and different movement. Front raises and side raises are where you keep you arm straight (perhaps a bit of kink at the elbow) and literally raise your arm with the weight in it using your shoulder.
This exercise is often overlooked but your core muscles will love you for it. Next time you do a dumbbell raise, try to feel all the muscles that are actually engaged throughout your body. It’s incredible.
Now, do this as an isometric and you can send your strength through the roof. I find it’s better with one side at a time as it makes the core have to work harder to compensate for the balance. Raise the weight and keep it there, 90 degrees from the body.
These ones you really can push to the maximum until those shoulders can take no more.
So hopefully now you get the idea of isometric exercises, if you didn’t already. Try experimenting with what works, and stick at it. Like everything else it takes some work to start seeing the results of your labours but it’s well worth it.
The strength you build is that solid, stable type that some of the strongest athletes in the world demonstrate in events like the olympic rings. When those guys hold a static plank in mid-air, you don’t see their legs shake one bit from the effort.