Strike a Pose with Isometric Training
Have you ever seen a mime street performer impressing onlookers by holding a physically challenging body position perfectly still? It may seem effortless for a professional entertainer to perform so incredibly; however, these types of individuals are well-trained in developing their muscles to handle tremendous amounts of isometric resistance. Training the muscles to remain in a contracted state for a prolonged period of time is the basis of isometric exercise.
The most common method of exercise is isotonic. Many of the mainstream exercises such as push-ups, crunches, squats, etc. fall under this category. Isotonic exercise utilizes motion. When performing a standing barbell curl, the elbow joint of the arm moves through a range of motion as the bicep muscle continuously contracts and relaxes. There is repetitive flexion and extension of the targeted muscle during the exercise. Isotonic workouts are excellent for toning and building muscle; however, for every “yin” there is a “yang”. The dynamic motion of isotonic exercise is complemented by the static nature of isometric exercise. Just as isotonic exercise has its strengths, there are also many benefits to isometric exercise as well.
Isometric exercise is a great weapon in the arsenal of any fitness lover because of the fact that any person who wants to exercise can incorporate it into his or her workout routine. It is beneficial to all ages and fitness levels. The beauty of isometric training lies in the essence of what makes it unique. Isometric exercises are the only ones in which the angle of the joint and the length of the muscle do not change during the course of a set. There traditionally are not any repetitions in an isometric position. The body holds itself in a specific pose designed to target a muscle with a continuous contraction.
The practice of yoga is heavily founded in the art of isometric exercise. Many seasoned athletes whose bodies are well-accustomed to isotonic exercise and explosive plyometric movements find yoga extremely challenging the first time they experience a workout. Their muscles are not used to the static contractions required in yoga. Isometric movements in yoga routines are an excellent method to “shock” the muscles into new growth, strengthening and development.
One of the most beneficial aspects of isometric training is the joint support that it develops. Dynamic exercise can be taxing on the joints, especially among competitive athletes. Isometric workouts offer a very safe and effective way for athletes to give their joints a reprieve from the intensity of high-impact routines. The advantage of not repetitively stressing a joint during exercise is that the muscles can be exhausted efficiently while the tendons and ligaments experience minimal wear-and-tear.
The convenience of isometric fitness makes it such an accessible form of exercise for everyone. Very little space is required to perform many bodyweight isometric exercises. A solid base such as the floor or a wall can be all you need for some of the most effective isometric exercises that work so many muscles of the body. For example, a “plank” is a simple but extremely effective position in which the elbows are bent 90 degrees on the ground with the legs and torso facing down in a fully extended position, similar to a push-up. Simply holding this position for an extended amount of time is a great workout for the abdominals, lower back, shoulders and more. Starting and ending your day with a “plank” of at least 20-30 seconds is a great way to strengthen your core for better posture and decreased back pain throughout the course of the day. It is extremely helpful for people who travel frequently and feel the painful effects on the lumbar portion of the back.
Isometric training is also an excellent tool for anyone recovering from an injury with limited mobility. For individuals who are restricted from any kind of impact during workouts, isometric training is extremely useful as a way of pushing the muscles to contract without risking any damage to a joint or area of the body that is in recovery. The benefit of using isometric exercises after an injury or surgery is the effective stabilization of the muscles and joints. Having a structured workout routine based on a foundation of safe and effective isometric exercises will help lead to a quicker recovery from an injury as well. Keeping the muscles active and working them out effectively, within their appropriate limitations, will help facilitate the healing of an injury.
With the increasing popularity of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workouts, isometric exercises are an excellent choice for the lighter intensity portions of the intervals. With the varying levels of physical exertion during these workouts, a light isometric exercise can provide a much-needed “breather” in order to maintain muscle contraction, while allowing the cardiovascular system time to replenish valuable oxygen in the body. A “plank” or “wall sit” make very convenient isometric breaks during a high-intensity workout. Each of them can be performed easily in any room.
One of the most important things to remember while performing isometric exercises is to always keep your breathing consistent. Never hold your breath! It can be tempting because there is no motion during these types of exercises but focusing on breathing regularly, especially during moments of intense physical exertion, is vital to keeping the body alert and healthy while in an isometric position. Focusing on the breath can help the time go by much faster as well. Take one deep breath in for 3-5 seconds then slowly exhale for another 3-5 seconds. This is an effective rhythm to keep fresh oxygen coming into the body where it is needed most.
Most isotonic weight exercises translate well to isometric positions. Static holds, in which the weight is held at either the halfway point or the full flexion of the repetition, are an excellent addition to any workout routine for challenging the muscles from a whole new angle. Some of the exercises that are the most conducive to isometric training are preacher curls, leg extensions, pulldowns, lateral raises, leg raises, bench press, and upright rows. Explosive exercises such as heavy barbell squats, deadlifts, and power cleans are not suited for isometric sets. The bench press motion can be held in a static position, if there is a spotter present due to the hazard of the muscles fatiguing to the point of not being able to complete a full repetition if the weight drops down to the chest. Please use discretion when implementing isometric sets during a weights workout. Always proceed with the utmost caution.
In regards to the length of time for each static hold of an isometric exercise, it can vary from person to person; however, start conservatively with a short amount of time in which you are comfortable performing the exercise. From that point, you can work your way up with longer sets. Typically 15-30 seconds per set is a reasonable amount of time to begin a new routine of isometric exercise.
Diversity is the cornerstone of any evolving fitness program. Continuously challenging the body with new exercise techniques will ensure consistent progress. Isometric exercise is an excellent method of stimulating the muscles in a whole different way to achieve new results. It is a perfect complement to traditional isotonic exercise and also helps to keep your workouts fresh and enjoyable.