isometric exercises for strength

Isometric Exercises for Huge Strength Gains | Examples & Workout Plan

June 23, 2019 2 Comments

The ultimate guide to isometric exercises.

Question: What’s something martial artist Bruce Lee and old-time strongman Alexander Zass have in common?

Answer: Isometric Training.

Both icons placed great importance on strength.

Lee and Zass understood that to reach their maximum strength potential, they needed to do more than a “typical” workout - i.e. squats, bench press, deadlifts (eccentric/concentric exercises). They experimented and learned how to recruit more muscle fibers, which ultimately lead to significant increases in their strength.

One of the most important methods that they employed to boost their strength were isometric exercises…

Nowadays, isometrics have a concrete place in the fitness world, and it is a well-respected training aspect that can greatly develop certain physical attributes.

We have people like Bruce Lee and Alexander Zass along with many modern fitness professionals to thank for that.

If you have any confusion or questions about isometrics, or you simply just want to learn some isometric exercises, then get ready, as we are going to cover everything you need to know about isometrics in this article…

This includes:

  • What exactly are isometrics?
  • Types of isometric exercises
  • Isometric exercise benefits
  • Joint angles relating to isometrics
  • Tips when performing isometric exercises
  • Isometric exercises examples (including bodyweight, resistance band, and steel mace isometric exercises)
  • Isometric workout examples
  • How to incorporate isometric exercises into your training program
  • And…we will finish this off by answering more frequently asked questions about isometrics in a sound bite manner.

If you want to see the best results, you need to go about isometric training the right way.

So, contract your muscles (brain muscles) to allow your knowledge on isometrics to get a whole lot stronger…

Without further ado, let’s begin.

isometric exercises

What are isometric exercises?

First, let’s point out that there are three types of muscle contractions:

Concentric contractions, which is when your muscle tenses while shortening, thus generating force. For example, the upward movement of a bicep curl.

Eccentric contractions, which is when your muscle lengthens, returning from a shortened position. This also generates force and tension. Essentially this is the “negative” movement of an exercise (i.e downward motion).

And, finally, isometric contractions, which means to produce tension in a single position, rather than through a range of movement. So, when performing isometrics, you are contracting your muscles and producing force without moving. For example, if you were to hold a bicep curl in place, halfway through the lift, for say 30 seconds, that would be an isometric contraction/hold.

Now, before we get into the benefits of isometrics, it’s important to know the different types of isometric exercises.

Types of Isometric Exercises

There are essentially two types of isometrics:

1. Yielding Isometrics: 

This is when you hold a weight in a fixed position. It can be free weights, weight machines, or elastic/cable equipment. An example of a yielding isometric is holding a squat at parallel for 20-60 seconds.

Yielding exercises also include your own body structure. For example, holding a push up position, holding a pull up position, planks, handstands, and yoga poses.

yielding isometrics

2. Overcoming Isometrics:

This is when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. It involves pushing or pulling against the resistance of an object that absolutely won’t move.

Here are some examples:
- Pushing against a wall or tree.
- Putting a machine or free weight to a weight that you can’t lift (in the slightest) and attempting to push or pull it as you would with a lighter weight. So, imagine putting a cable machine all the way to its maximum setting and trying to do a cable fly….or taking a barbell and adding tons of plates and trying to a deadlift…or even trying to bend a steel bar with your bare hands.

Typically overcoming isometric exercises are done for a shorter time than yielding isometrics. It’s usually recommended to do 6-10 second sets of an overcoming isometric exercise. That said, some coaches recommend longer durations if you can. In any case, start with what you can and as you improve, you can increase the time.

overcoming isometrics

Advanced Isometrics

Explosive or Ballistic Isometrics - During a standard isometric exercise, your muscle contraction and tension will build up as the time goes on during a set, but with explosive isometrics, you attempt to immediately contract to maximum tension.

After you’ve been training isometrics for a while, you can try this advanced isometric exercise method.

These are just a few ways to practice overcoming and yielding isometrics, we have many exercise examples below.

Isometric Exercise Benefits

At this point, you are probably wondering, “what exactly are the benefits of isometric exercises?”

Let us explain…

Increasing Strength

This is the benefit we want to touch on the most as isometric exercises are known for improving strength. This is because isometrics will train us to increase muscle fiber recruitment.

Naturally, most people can only use around 30% of their muscle fiber recruitment potential. So, this type of training aims to increase that percentage…and it has been proven to do so.

Isometric training will allow you to have greater control of your muscle fiber recruitment during sports or other activities like powerlifting. It is truly an effective way to rapidly increase your strength and power.

Increase Muscle Endurance

Yielding isometrics are good for increasing muscle endurance as they train your muscle to be able to stay under tension for longer.

Rehabilitation

If you are recovering from a joint or muscle injury, isometric exercises can allow you to strengthen the joints and the muscle around the joint without causing too much strain. Typically people have an issue with eccentric and concentric lifts when recovering from injury. This usually due to a lack of mobility or pain in the joint area. So, isometrics can help you regain and maintain your strength and mass without all the stress on your joints that comes with full range of movement exercises.

Building Muscle

There is some controversy on this, and generally isometrics aren’t used to build muscle, but after studying this topic in-depth, we do believe you can induce hypertrophy with isometrics.

For yielding isometrics, if you want to build muscle, it is recommended that you hold 70-80% of your concentric working weight in place for around 60 seconds. If you do this, you should be able to build muscle.

For overcoming isometrics, if you want to build muscle, it is recommended that you increase tension time. So, instead of doing 6-10 seconds, do 40, 50 or 60 seconds if you can (note, most people just starting out with overcoming isometrics won’t last more than 15 seconds). Put simply, more time under tension at maximum effort is ideal.

Building a Solid Foundation

Isometric exercises are fantastic for beginners as they can help you build a solid foundation. They will increase your strength, so when it comes time for concentric/eccentric exercises, you can lift more weight.

Also, isometric exercises will increase your core strength, and some isometrics will increase your core stability (such as split squat isometric holds). As your core is the center of your foundation, this is very important.

Improve your mind to muscle connection

By tensing certain muscle groups, and moreover, specific muscles in each muscle group, you will build a strong mind-muscle connection.

Joint Position

It’s important to note that strength increase will be focused on a single joint position, so, you will want to do isometric exercises at multiple joint angles.

For example, if you are performing an isometric push up, you will want to do holds at the top, middle and bottom position. That way you can build strength at all points in the movement.

Note: Studies have shown that some strength increases spill over to the rest of the range of movement and muscle. It’s around 20% improvement in the ranges that you aren’t targeting specifically. So, for example, if you are holding the bottom of your push up, you will see around 20% increases in the middle and top portion of the movement.

In any case, you are going to want to train multiple joint angles so you can get even strength gains in the entire range of movement.

isometric training

Tips when doing Isometric Exercises

  • Make sure you are breathing throughout your sets. When contracting your muscles, naturally you may want to hold your breath. So, always remind yourself to breathe.
  • Don’t put your spine or joints at risk. Always use proper form when performing isometric exercises. If your form starts to give before your set time, stop. Moreover, you will be tempted to bring your chin down to your chest, try not to do this as it puts too much strain on your neck.
  • If you are doing exhaustive isometric training, don’t train the same exercises or muscle groups every day. You won’t get sore like you will with exercises that move through a range of motion, but your body, or more specifically your nervous system, will still need time to recover. There are smart tools you can buy to monitor your nervous system and physical readiness, that way you know what kind of workout you should do that day. If your readiness score is low, then you should be doing a low-intensity workout rather than a high-intensity workout.
  • If your goal is to lose fat, then use less force, hold the exercises for longer, and take less rest time. If your goal is to build strength, then use maximum force (build up to it) and take longer rest periods between sets.

Isometric Exercises Examples

Now we are going to give you some exercise examples for both overcoming and yielding isometrics.

Overcoming Isometric Exercise Examples:

Wall Press

Stand with one foot forward. Have a slight bend in your knee on your front leg and your back leg should be straight. Push the wall as hard as you can. This exercise is pretty straight forward, push the wall with as much force as you can. The form should come naturally to you.

Use different joint angles by bending your arms and bringing your body in closer to the wall.

Note: This also works on a tree.

Door Frame Press

Stand straight, hips shoulder width apart, neutral spine - as you would a standing military press - and press your palms up into the door frame.

Use different joint angle by using a chair. With this your knees may need to bend, this is ok, so long as you maintain a neutral spine.

Note: You can push the sides of the door frame too to target different shoulder and arm muscles.

Deadlift

Your form will be the same as a normal deadlift. Use a squat rack and safety bars so the barbell can’t pull past the safety bars. Once the barbell meetings the bottom of the safety bar, you pull with all your might while maintaining form.

You can change your joint angle by raising or lowering the safety bar.

Note: You don’t need any weight on the barbell for this. The force will come from you trying to pull through the safety bars.

Squat

Your form will be the same as a normal squat, but you will be starting from the bottom position. Use a squat rack and safety bars so the barbell can’t push past the safety bars. Once the barbell meetings the bottom of the safety bar, you push with all your might while maintaining form.

You can change your joint angle by raising or lowering the safety bar.

Note: You don’t need any weight on the barbell for this. The force will come from you trying to pull through the safety bars.

Bench Press

Your form will be the same as a normal bench press, but you will be starting from the bottom position. Use a squat rack and safety bars so the barbell can’t push past the safety bars. Once the barbell meetings the bottom of the safety bar, you push with all your might while maintaining form.

You can change your joint angle by raising or lowering the safety bar.

Note: You don’t need any weight on the barbell for this. The force will come from you trying to pull through the safety bars.

Cable Machine Chest Fly

Set the cable machine all the way to the heaviest weight. This will only work if you are completely unable to move the heaviest weight. Hold the handles and get into a chest fly position. Attempt to perform a chest fly as you would normally. Of course, you won’t be able to, so maintain this starting position with full contraction for the set time.

You can change the joint angle by changing the cable handle’s position (top, middle, bottom, which will work your upper, middle and lower chest).

Seated Back Row Machine

For this one, most of us will want to use a machine that uses weight plates as the machines that use cables will likely not be heavy enough. Set enough weights on both sides so that you can move it when you attempt your row.

You can your joint angle by sitting closer or further away.

Standing Calf Press Machine

Set the machine to its maximum weight and attempt a calf press as you would normally.

You can change position by raising the shoulder pads that you press into up or down.

Immovable Chain Curls

Anchor a chain or rope to an immovable point, attach the chain to a bar and try to curl it.

You can change the joint angle by making the chain shorter or longer and bending your knees or even kneeling so long as you aren’t putting too much pressure on your knees.

Here is Bruce Lee doing just that.

bruce lee isometrics

Bending Steel

Try to bend the steel using your bare hands.

Here is Alexander Zass doing just that.

Alexander Zass

Towel and Rope

There are many ways you can use towels and ropes for overcoming isometrics. At this point, you clearly understand how to train overcoming isometrics. Both towels and ropes are great as they can be applied in many ways.

Use your creativity as there are tons of ways you can do overcoming exercises. Just be safe!

Also, remember to train different joint angles. For squats, bench and deads, this is when a squat rack is crucial.

Yielding Isometrics Using Weights:

For the following exercises, you will use the same form as you do normally with a full range of movement.

Train each exercise at different joint angles, which is essentially just different points in your range of movement. So, the top position, middle position, and bottom position of each exercise.

This is pretty straight forward, you are just holding each joint angle for a set time (20-60 seconds)

  • Bicep Curl
  • Shoulder press
  • Dumbbell Holds (side and front)
  • Bench press
  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Triceps extensions
  • Leg Raise Holds
  • Calf Press on Smith Machine
  • Leg Press Machine Holds

These are just a few of many yielding isometrics exercises that you can do. Basically, every exercise can be turned into a yielding isometric by simply holding a position.

Now, let’s get into some of our favorite isometrics - bodyweight, resistance band and steel mace isometric exercises.

Bodyweight Yielding Isometric Exercises:


Resistance Band Yielding Isometrics:


Tip: You can create more or less tension with the resistance bands by how you hold them, how far you stretch the band from an anchor point, how you position your feet, etc. One band will have a range of tension.

For example, our yellow band, which is .5” wide, can produce 5-15lbs of tension depending on how you position it.

Play around with them so you can find the right amount of tension needed.

Steel Mace Isometric Exercises:


One of the great things about steel mace isometric is that because the steel mace has an offset weight, it is going to challenge your core stability, which will require you to recruit more muscles to maintain stability. So, even though these exercises are targeting a specific muscle group, you will be working your entire body. Your core is going to challenged and strengthened like it’s nobodies business.

Moreover, because the mace is a lever, you will be able to tense your muscles even more by pulling your hands apart on the lever. This will help you to produce maximum tension. We like to cue our clients by saying “rip the mace head off”, which essentially just means pull your hands outward while gripping the handle to increase tension.

Did you know the Great Gama - the Indo-Pakistani wrestler who remained undefeated champion of the world - put tons of focus into isometrics. Moreover, his favorite training tool was a mace (or Gada as they call it in India).

great gama isometrics

Learn how to use a steel mace like a pro with our 84-page steel mace training e-guide. It includes hand placement, grip orientation, hand switches, tons of exercises from beginner to advance, how to create steel mace complexes, workouts, and more.

Steel Mace Isometric Workout:

You can create a workout for your full body, upper body, lower body, or a single muscle group. So, choose 5-6 exercises according to the area(s) you want to train.

Here are two simple methods for creating a steel mace isometric workout.

Traditional Style:

Do each exercise for 3 sets (different joint angles for each set)

Each set should be 30-60 seconds.

Rest for 1 minute between sets

After 3 sets of one exercise, move to the next exercise.

or...

Circuit Style

Do each exercise consecutively. Each exercise should be a 30-60 second hold. After you complete all 5 exercises, repeat for 2 more rounds.

You can either do 10-20 seconds each joint angle during each exercise, or focus on one joint angle each round.

Complexes

Create a steel mace complex (a sequence of movements) and add in short isometric holds. This will technically be a mix of eccentric, concentric and isometric exercises all in one. 

Perform the complex for as long as you can. This will make the total isometric hold time quite high and this kind of workout is absolutely killer.

Watch SET FOR SET's CEO Sam Coleman do a Steel Mace Complex with Isometric Holds


6 Steel Mace Complex Workouts for Burning Fat

Isometric Workout Examples

There are numerous ways we can go about making an isometric workout. We will take from the exercises above to create a few different isometric-only workout examples.

1. Full Body Isometric Workout

3 sets for each exercise.

30-60 seconds of contraction each set.

Perform exercises at 3 joint angles, if it applies (we will make note) - one angle for each set, for a total of 3 sets.

Complete exercise 1 for 3 sets, then move to exercise 2 for 3 sets, then exercise 3 for 3 sets, and so on.

Exercise 1: Push up (set 1 top position; set 2 middle position; set 3 bottom position)

isometric exercise examples

Exercise 2: Pull up (set 1 bottom position; set 2 middle position; set 3 top position)

isometric exercises benefits

Exercise 3: Boat Pose

isometrics exercises

Exercise 4: Squat (set 1 top position [slight bend]; set 2 middle position; set 3 bottom position [parallel])

isometric workout

Exercise 5: Side Plank (left), Side Plank (right), Regular Plank.

isometric training examples

Exercise 6: Split Squat (set 1 top position; set 2 middle position; set 3 bottom position)

isometric workout plan

Exercise 7: Handstands (set 1 lockout position, set 2 arms slightly bent, set 3 arms at 90 degrees)

isometrics

2. Upper body Circuit Isometric Workout

For each circuit, perform each exercise consecutively until all the exercises in the circuit are completed. Furthermore, perform different joint angles consecutively for each exercise.

Then rest for 1-2 minutes and repeat the same circuit for 2 to 3 rounds before moving onto the next circuit.

Note: any of these exercises can be changed out for another exercise if you don’t have the necessary equipment.

Circuit 1 (yielding isometrics):

Exercise 1: Dips (20 seconds top, 20 seconds middle, 20 seconds bottom - total 60 seconds each round)
Exercise 2: Plank (60 seconds)
Exercise 3: Chin up (20 seconds bottom position, 20 seconds middle, 20 seconds top - total 60 seconds each round)

Circuit 2 (overcoming isometrics):

Exercise 1: Wall Push - targeting chest (3 joint angles for 10 seconds each)
Exercise 2: Immovable Chain Curl (or towel) (3 joint angles for 10 seconds each)
Exercise 3: Bent Over Wall Push - targeting your shoulders (3 joint angles for 10 seconds each)

Circuit 3 (yielding and overcoming isometrics):

Exercise 1: Overcoming Row, use a machine, towel, rope or chain attached to a bar to pull from a seated row position (3 joint angles for 10-20 seconds each)
Exercise 2: Boat Pose (60 seconds)
Exercise 3: One Arm One Leg Plank (30 seconds left hand/right foot up, 30 seconds right hand/left foot up)

This isometric circuit workout can be lower body, full body or a specific muscle group as well, so long as you insert the appropriate exercises that target the different muscle groups accordingly.

3. Full Body Circuit Isometric Training

Perform each exercise consecutively until all the exercises in the circuit are completed. Furthermore, perform each hold (i.e. top, middle, bottom) consecutively during each exercise.

Then rest for 1-2 minutes and repeat for 2 more rounds.

Note: any of these exercises can be changed out for another exercise if you don’t have the necessary equipment.

Exercise 1: Pull ups (20 seconds bottom position; 20 seconds middle position; 20 seconds top position)
Exercise 2: Bench press at 70% of your full range of movement working weight (20 seconds bottom, 20 seconds middle, 2 seconds top).
Exercise 3: Barbell Curl at 70% of your full range of movement working weight (20 seconds bottom, 20 seconds middle, 20 seconds top)
Exercise 4: Side Plank (30 seconds each side)
Exercise 5: Plank (60 seconds)
Exercise 6: DB Shoulder Press at 70% of your full range of movement working weight (20 seconds bottom, 20 seconds middle, 2 seconds top).
Exercise 7: DB Overhead Tricep Extensions at 70% of your full range of movement working weight (20 seconds bottom, 20 seconds middle, 2 seconds top).

4. Yielding Isometrics - 1-minute ON 1-minute OFF

Choose 10 exercises and perform each exercise once (at multiple angles if it applies to the exercise), then rest for 1 minute and move to the next exercise. Your workout is complete once you finish all 10 exercises. This will make for a 20-minute workout.

5. Overcoming Isometrics - Every Minute On The Minute

Choose either 10, 5 or 2 exercises, and perform each for a set time every minute on the minute. Your rest time will be from the time you end the set until the next minute begins. So if you do 10-second sets, you will have 50 seconds of rest.

As for how many total sets you will do, if you choose 10 different exercises, you will be doing each exercise once. If you choose 5 different exercises, you will be doing each exercise twice. If you choose 2, you will be doing each exercise 5 times.

How to incorporate isometric exercises and workouts into your training program

First, you can mix isometrics into your current workouts as follows:

  • Do Isometric holds before or after your full range of movement sets.
  • Do isometric holds during every rep, few reps, or at the end of a set.
  • Do an isometric finisher at the end of your workout.

Now, let’s say you want to separate isometric training into its own workout, then you could incorporate it into your training plan a few ways, depending on the intensity of your isometric workout.

Sub Maximal Iso Training

First, if you are doing sub maximal isometric workouts, you can do them pretty much every day.

You could do two-a-days if you have the time and energy. That way you can keep your normal training plan going as is and throw some isometric workouts in here and there during the week.

If you workout 4-5 times a week, you could fit in 2 sub maximal isometric training days on the days you would normally rest. A sub maximal isometric workout should only take around 20 minutes, so this is a great way to stay active on those days off.

Now, if you want to keep those rest days completely workout free and you don’t want to do a few two-a-days each week, you can change up your training plan as follows:

  • Upper body/cardio
  • Lower body/abs
  • Upper body Isometric Workout
  • Lower body isometric Workout
  • Rest
  • Repeat.

or…

  • Upper body/cardio
  • Lower body/abs
  • Full body Isometric Workout
  • Rest
  • Repeat

or…

  • Chest/Back
  • Arms/Abs
  • Full body isometric workout
  • Legs
  • Rest
  • Cardio
  • Repeat

High-Intensity Iso Training

Now, if you are doing high intensity, exhausting Iso workouts, you should do them once or twice a week with optimal rest between. If your training plan is already very strenuous, opt for 1 day of high-intensity iso training and do it on a day where you have an easier day that follows. So for example, do your high-intensity isometrics the day before a rest day or the day before a cardio day.

Your training may look like this:

  • Upper Body/Cardio
  • Lower Body
  • Iso Training
  • Rest/Flexibility
  • Upper Body/Yoga
  • Lower Body/Cardio
  • Iso Training

That’s a tough week, but with this kind of plan you are truly hitting essentially every important aspect of fitness

There are so many ways you can set up your training program. If you want help, don’t hesitate to contact us.

FAQ About Isometric Exercises

Here are some sound bite answers to some common questions about isometric exercises:

Can I do isometric exercises every day?

This depends on the intensity of your isometric exercises.

If you are doing sub maximal isometrics, you can do them every day.

If you are doing weighted, exhausting isometrics, you should do them once or twice a week at most.

And if you are simply just contracting your muscles using your own body’s force (you can do these as often every 1-2 hours) - this is effective for calorie depletion.

Do isometric exercises burn fat?

As with any workout, you will a burn certain amount calories. The amount of calories depends on the level of intensity.

Is Yoga Isometric Training?

Basically, yoga is a type of isometric training. Yoga involves a lot of static positions and holds. So, put simply, yoga incorporates a lot of isometric exercises. 

Who are isometric exercises good for?

Anyone who is looking to increase their strength and people who are recovering or trying to prevent injuries.

At SFS, we use isometrics mostly for strength purposes. The steel mace and resistance bands are one of our favorite tools to do so.

Steel Maces because the lever allows you to really use maximum tension and it will also train your core strength and stability because of its uneven weight distribution.

And, Resistance Bands because they offer resistance from any angle. You only need elasticity not gravity to create tension. This allows you to have much more versatility in the exercises you can perform, especially exercises in the transverse plane (i.e. anti-rotation isometric holds).

Where can you buy Steel Maces?

7, 10, 15, 20, 25, and 30 pound steel maces available at SET FOR SET.

steel mace

Where can you buy Resistance Bands?

High Quality Power Resistance Bands from SET FOR SET.

steel mace

If you have any question about isometric exercises, please shoot us an email or leave a comment below.



2 Responses

Charles Atkinson
Charles Atkinson

August 13, 2019

Love isometric training

David Smith
David Smith

July 24, 2019

Very useful information.
FABULOUS !
Thanks

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.