side plank isometric exercise

Think You Have to Move Your Muscles to Feel the Burn? Try Isometrics.

Boost your muscular endurance and longevity by making this training style part of your routine.

By Pam MooreAugust 31, 2023


Isometrics exercise might sound fancy but the truth is, you probably do some form of isometric training every single day, whether you realize it or not. If you’ve ever carried a laundry basket up a couple of flights of stairs, hung onto a heavy suitcase while waiting for the airport shuttle, or held a baby on your hip while waiting in line at the grocery store, congratulations—you’ve done isometric exercises.

And if you’re looking for an easy, equipment-free way to build strength and endurance without putting a lot of stress on your joints, consider adding them to your workout routine.

What are Isometric Exercises? 

Unlike traditional strength training, which typically involves more dynamic movement, an isometric move requires you to hold a static position. For example, during a traditional biceps curl, you move your elbow joint through most or all of its range of motion. If you wanted to use an isometric exercise to work your biceps muscle, on the other hand, you’d hold a moderately heavy dumbbell, bend your elbow to 90 degrees, and keep it there for 30 to 90 seconds. More common examples of isometric moves include planks, wall sits, or squat holds, says Peloton instructor Selena Samuela

With isometric exercises, you’re likely to really feel the “burn” as you continue to hold the position. It isn’t the result of your muscles tearing into tiny pieces while you sweat, says Selena. It’s actually caused by the buildup of microscopic hydrogen ions in your bloodstream.

Every time you do a plank (or a wall sit or any exercise, isometric or not), your body starts to break down the glycogen that’s stored in your muscles for energy. This process releases hydrogen ions and lactate into your bloodstream. As hydrogen accumulates, your blood becomes more acidic, which induces that burning sensation. “The longer you hold the muscle contraction, the more hydrogen builds up, and the more intense the burn will be,” says Selena. 

Isometric Exercise Examples

Wondering how isometric moves can fit into your routine? Here are a few examples:

  • Planks 
    Whether you’ve attended barre, boot camp, or even yoga classes, you’re probably familiar with planks. There are multiple variations on the plank, but they all target your abdominal muscles. When done right, you also target your deep stabilizer muscles, such as the transverse abdominus. Try them at the beginning of your workout to get your core activated or at the end, as part of your cool-down.

  • Wall Sits
    Also popular in bootcamp and barre classes, wall sits make an excellent addition to leg day, especially if you’re working out at home or in a hotel room. They target all the same muscles as a squat but require zero equipment. Intersperse them between sets of dynamic moves like jump squats or burpees, or tack a few rounds onto the end of a hard run or bike ride to get your muscles nice and fatigued before your active recovery or rest day.

  • Squat Hold 
    Similar to a wall sit, a squat hold works the same muscles as a squat, and is perfect for the days when you don’t have the time or space for a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell. Try a squat hold before a run to get your glutes and quads firing or after your next cardio session to spice up your routine.

Does Isometric Exercise Build Muscle?

Isometrics can help build muscle, but they might not be for everyone. It all depends on your goals. If you want to improve your one-rep max or increase your muscles’ size, focus on lifting moderate to heavy weights.

“For strength and hypertrophy goals, you’re better off with traditional strength training,” says Selena. “If the focus is on strength, emphasize lifting heavy weights in the three to five-rep range. For hypertrophy goals, focus on lifting moderately heavy weights, somewhere in the eight to twelve rep range.”

Research shows that while lifting weights heavier than 60 percent of your one-rep max improves both muscle mass and strength, heavier weights (more than 60 percent of your one-rep max) are best for maximizing your one-rep max.

Isometrics are an excellent way to improve your muscular endurance, or how long your muscles can keep performing the same movement. According to Selena, “The sustained contraction of the muscle increases time under tension, thus asking your muscles to work for a longer duration. So adding isometrics to your routines helps your muscles adapt to producing and maintaining force.” 

While isometric exercises might not be ideal for weightlifters looking to set PRs in the gym, they’re perfect for endurance athletes who want to cross the finish line faster, including runners, cyclists, rowers, and swimmers. “Sports like running and cycling require repeated muscle contractions over long periods of time, and that’s exactly the type of muscle contractions that isometrics train,” says Selena. She adds, “Just about every endurance athlete can benefit from isometrics.”

Benefits of Isometric Exercise

Improves Endurance 

While isometrics might not power you to a blazing sprint finish, they can help you perform more efficiently at lower intensities. A small study of male cyclists found that after just one week of isometric training, the cyclists used significantly less oxygen at moderate intensities. While the isometric training had no effect on the athletes’ high-intensity efforts, this study suggests they’d make a great form of cross-training if you’re targeting a longer event like a century (100-mile) ride. 

Enhances Cardiovascular Health 

According to the CDC, we should shoot for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity exercise per week. And while the best type of exercise is the one that you’ll actually do, a 2023 British Journal of Sports Medicine study suggests that isometrics might be especially good for heart health.

The study, which analyzed nearly 300 randomized controlled trials, compared the resting blood pressure of people who performed various forms of exercise, including aerobic exercise, dynamic resistance training, a combination of strength and aerobic training, high-intensity interval training, and isometric training. Those who participated in isometric training (the wall squat in particular) experienced much lower resting systolic and diastolic blood pressure than those who did other forms of exercise.

Accessible for All Levels

A 2019 study found that isometric training elicited less fatigue than traditional strength training and provided more of a performance advantage for activities including running, jumping, and cycling. 

While you should always check with your doctor before starting an exercise program, given the low-impact nature of isometric exercises, “They’re excellent for anyone who is managing chronic pain, joint issues, or those who are pregnant or postpartum,” says Selena.

15 Isometric Exercise Examples Worth Adding to Your Workout

If you’re sold on the effectiveness of isometrics but aren’t sure where to begin, we’ve got you covered. Try holding any of these exercises for 20 to 60 seconds and gradually increasing the time under tension as you get stronger. 

1. High Plank 

How to do it: Support your body on your toes and hands, with your wrists aligned under your shoulders. With your body in a straight line from head to heels, engage your core, glutes, and leg muscles.

Primary muscles worked: core, shoulders, triceps, lower back

2. Low Plank

How to do it: Start on your forearms and toes, keeping your elbows aligned below your shoulders. Maintain a straight line from head to heels, engaging your core, glutes, and leg muscles. 

Primary muscles worked: core (including the transverse abdominis, obliques, and rectus abdominis) 

3. Bear Plank

How to do it: Start on all fours with your knees lifted a couple of inches off the ground. With your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips, engage your core and maintain a straight line from your head to your knees. 

Primary muscles worked: core, shoulders, and stabilizing muscles

4. Reverse Plank

How to do it: Sit on the floor with your legs extended and your hands placed behind you on the floor, with your fingers pointing toward your feet. Lift your hips off the ground, creating a straight line from head to heels while bracing your core, glutes, and shoulders.

Primary muscles worked: core, shoulders, and triceps

5. Side Plank

How to do it: Lie on your side, supporting your body on one forearm with your elbow stacked beneath your shoulder. Stack your feet or stagger them for stability, then lift your hips to form a straight line from your head to your feet while engaging your core and glutes. 

Primary muscles worked: obliques, core, and shoulders

6. Hollow Body Hold

How to do it: Lie on your back with your arms extended overhead and your legs straight. Simultaneously lift your head, shoulders, arms, and legs off the ground, creating a slight curve in your body. Engage your core to press your lower back into the floor.

Primary muscles worked: rectus abdominis, deep core muscles, and hip flexors

7. Hip Bridge

How to do it: Lie on your back with your arms overhead and legs straight off the ground. Lift your head, shoulders, and feet a few inches, curving your body slightly. Engage your core muscles, pressing your lower back into the ground.

Primary muscles worked: rectus abdominis, deep core muscles, and hip flexors

8. Single-Leg Hip Bridge

How to do it: Lie on your back with your knees bent, your feet flat on the floor, and your arms by your sides. Extend one knee so that one foot is planted on the floor and the other is in the air. Press through your other heel to lift your hips, creating a straight line from your shoulders to your knees, and squeeze your glutes at the top.

Primary muscles worked: glutes, hamstrings, and lower back muscles, while also engaging the core for stability and lower body strength.

9. V-Sit

How to do it: Sit on the floor, legs extended, and upper body leaned back slightly. Lift your legs and upper body simultaneously, forming a V shape. Balance on your sit bones, keeping your core engaged. 

Primary muscles worked: rectus abdominis, hip flexors, and lower back muscles

10. Squat Hold

How to do it: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and your toes slightly turned out. Lower your body by bending your knees, keeping your back straight and chest up. Aim to bring your thighs parallel to the ground, and hold the position, engaging your core and keeping your weight on your heels.

Primary muscles worked: quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes

11. Relevé or Calf Raise w/ Hold

How to do it: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and rise onto the balls of your feet, lifting your heels as high as possible as if you were wearing high heels or had “Barbie” feet. 

Primary muscles worked: calf muscles, specifically the gastrocnemius and soleus, as well as foot and ankle muscles.

12. Triceps Dip Hold

How to do it: Sit on the edge of a stable surface, fingers gripping the edge, and legs extended in front. Slide your hips off the edge, supporting your weight with your hands. Bend your elbows to lower your body and hold at the bottom position. 

Primary muscles worked: triceps

13. Tabletop Hold

How to do it: Start on your hands and knees with your wrists aligned under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Extend one leg straight back at hip level and the opposite arm forward at shoulder level while engaging your core and keeping your hips aligned for balance. 

Primary muscles worked: core, shoulders, glutes, and back muscles

14. Wall Sit

How to do it: Stand with your back against a wall and your feet shoulder-width apart. Slide down the wall until your knees are at a 90-degree angle or slightly less, as if you're sitting in an imaginary chair. Keep your back against the wall and hold this position.

Primary muscles worked: quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes

15. Front Raise Hold

How to do it: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a weight in each hand or using resistance bands. Keep your arms straight and extended in front of you at about shoulder height while keeping your core engaged and maintaining a neutral spine. Engage your core and maintain a neutral spine. Hold this position, ensuring your arms stay parallel to the ground.

Primary muscles worked: anterior deltoids (front shoulder muscles), upper chest, and trapezius. 


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