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Isometric Exercises: Build Strength and Endurance Without Moving

Isometric plank

Last updated on February 9th, 2017

Nutrition and exercise go hand in hand, and once you’re well fed, it’s time to put that energy to good use and move! Well, moving is just one way to put that energy to use but what if I told you that you can train without even moving?

Brief Introduction To Isometrics

Exercise without movingBefore you get excited and think that I’m about to tell you how to get fit without any effort whatsoever, let me tell you that movement is not the only way to work and get sweaty! This is what isometric exercises are all about. When it comes down to exercising, we are so used to thinking in terms of movement, series and reps (repetitions) that we often forget that another way to work muscles is by using them to endure and hold still instead of lifting, pulling and pushing.

But what, exactly, are isometric exercises?

A quick Google search will give you something along these lines:

Isometric exercise or isometrics are a type of strength training in which the joint angle and muscle length do not change during contraction (as opposed to concentric or eccentric contractions, called dynamic/isotonic movements). Isometrics are done in static positions, rather than being dynamic through a range of motion.

And that’s a good enough definition.

Advantages To Training In Isometric Exercises

The great thing about isometrics is that you don’t need that much equipment and you can still work every part of your body. In fact, isometrics go hand in hand with bodyweight exercises (or calisthenics) -though you can use weights, pull up bars or even resistance bands.

What really happens and is essentially different with isometrics in contrast to isotonic (either concentric or eccentric) exercises is that the muscles still contract but remain in a static position instead of altering their lengths like what happens when you do curls or extensions. The joints do not rotate either, since the exercise is done without any movement. That makes isometrics exercises perfect for those who experience joint pain and want to avoid aggravating potential injuries.

That said, and with all the benefits of isometrics, I’m not advocating limiting yourself to those types of exercises. The best course of action will always include a little bit of everything to complete the full picture but isometrics definitely add something that should not be overlooked.

Isometric Workouts for 6 Areas

What I propose to do here is to give you practical examples of some isometric exercises that can be performed with every main muscle groups so that you can get to it quickly and efficiently after reading this article. Obviously, most of the exercises I’m going to describe here can also be performed by doing repetitions instead of holding a static position but I want to focus on the isometric variations of these exercises today.

But first… Remember to breathe and tighten the core!

There are two things you should always keep in mind when exercising.

First – breathe! We have a natural tendency to hold our breath when lifting or making a physical effort. This should not be the case. Keep your attention on your breath and make sure you fill your body with fresh oxygen constantly.

Second – contract the core (the abdominal area) while doing an exercise. This helps with maintaining proper form as well as working the abdominal muscles no matter what other muscle group you are focusing on while doing a specific exercise. You’ll thank me later.

That being said, let’s get going!

1. The Legs.

Here I’m going to divide the section into two categories: Calves and Upper legs.

Calves

Calf raises

The simplest way to work the calves is to stand, feet shoulder width apart and raise yourself up on the balls of your feet for an extended period of time. This is an isometric exercise that will make your calves burn every time. You should try to stand high on the balls of your feet for at least 15-20 seconds every time. If that’s too easy for you, find something heavy to hold in your arms or hands to increase resistance. You can also do that exercise one leg at a time for an extra balance challenge! If you have difficulty holding the position for at least 15-20 seconds, you can still do that exercise next to a wall or a chair and use it for support.

Another great isometric exercise to work the calves is to stand on a low ledge, heels extending off of it. Start by having your heels level with the ledge and then, slowly and with control, try to drop your heels below the level of the ledge and hold the position for an extended period of time. Then, rise your heels back up level to the ledge and repeat. This one can also be done on one leg or with added weight to increase the resistance.

What you can also do to work the full range of calves muscles is to practice those same exercises with your toes turned inwards and outwards. This way you get to work your calves muscles from different angles.

Upper Legs

The upper legs area, mainly the gluteus, hamstrings and quadriceps muscles, are a pretty complex area. Here are some isometric exercises to develop their strength:

Static Squats

Fairly easy to practice, this one is a classic and has been around for a long time. It is a staple exercise in many martial arts systems since it helps building strong legs and endurance. Stand with feet shoulder width apart (or wider if you want to make it easier) and bend your knees to a 90 degree angle. Imagine sitting on an invisible chair or a stool. Hold that position for as long as you need or can!

Do not forget to breathe as this will help you hold the position longer. Breathing brings in fresh oxygen to the brain and the cardio-vascular system. Also, tighten your core as this will also help you keeping good form.

If this is too difficult, no worries; as a variation, you can do static squats using a wall for support. Simply hold the squat position with your back flat against a wall. Again, breathe slowly and contract your abdominal muscles while doing so.

If you need some guidance with pistol squats instead, take a look at this article.

Static side kicks

Iso side kick (Please let me know if you are the owner of this image and would like me to remove it or get a credit)
Iso side kick (Please let me know if you are the owner of this image and would like me to remove it or get a credit)

Stand upright, feet shoulder width apart. Lift one knee up to hip level so that your tigh and your stomach form a 90 degree angle. Keep your foot in an horizontal position, not pointing upwards or downwards.

Using both your arms for balance, extend the raised leg fully sideways at hip level. Make sure the leg is straight and remains so. Stay in that position for as long as it takes to feel the burn.

When you start shaking, if you can’t hold it anymore, try and bring the foot back slowly towards you by flexing your knee and hip joint. Then lower your foot all the way back to the ground and repeat with the other leg. This one can be pretty difficult for some people. So, use a wall or a chair for support if necessary.

Static front kicks

As with the previous exercise, stand upright with your feet shoulder width apart. Then, raise one foot off the floor and bring the knee to hip level. This time though, instead of pushing sideways, push the foot forwards as if you were pushing away an object using the sole of your foot.

Try to keep the foot and the knee at hip level so that your leg forms a 90 degree angle with the floor. Hold the position for a while. Then, bring the foot back slowly, with control, and hold the knee hip level before lowering your foot down to the ground. Repeat with the other leg. While holding the isometric position, you can bend the leg supporting you slightly to keep your balance.

2. The Core (Abdominals)

The V sit

V Sit (Please let me know if you are the owner of this image and would like me to remove it or get a credit)
V Sit (Please let me know if you are the owner of this image and would like me to remove it or get a credit)

Start by sitting on a flat surface, ideally the floor. This one is a very simple yet very effective exercise. What you have to do is form a V position by lifting both your legs up, keeping them together and straight. Your back should be straight so that you are holding a perfect V. Your legs should be at least six inches from the floor. You can lift them higher up if you want. Hold this position for a while then drop your legs back to the floor slowly. Rest and repeat.

The L sit

There’s two ways to go about this one. Either you’ll be hanging from a ledge or an horizontal bar by both arms or you’ll use two flat, solid surfaces to place your hands on, one on each side of you, and support yourself. Two chairs or two stools will work fine although you can do it on the floor if you can ( it is more difficult that way ). It’s a similar exercise to the V sit, except this time, instead of holding a V position, you’ll hold an L position.

So, if you’re holding on to a bar or a ledge, your hands will be grasping it shoulder width apart. Relax your arms ( unless you want to add more challenge, then you can lift yourself up somewhat, using your arm muscles and shoulders in the process ) then lift both your legs off the ground, keeping them together and straight until they form an L with your upper body. Hold for as long as you can, breathe and contract the core.

L Sit (Please let me know if you are the owner of this image and would like me to remove it or get a credit)
L Sit (Please let me know if you are the owner of this image and would like me to remove it or get a credit)

If you’re doing it with support from chairs or stools, stand between them, place a hand on each one, keeping both arms straight and slowly, lift your feet off the floor by bending your knees. Find your balance then push both your feet forward, entending your legs so that they are forming an L with your upper body and hold.

A modified and easier version of the L sit can also be done. Instead of having your legs fully extended in front of you, simply lift both your knees up to hip level, letting your feet hang down. Hold that position instead and as it becomes easier with time, try to extend both your legs fully to get to increase the difficulty level.

The Sloth

For this one you need to lay on your back. Start by lifting both your legs together up straight, feet in the air above you to form a 90 degree angle with the rest of your body. Your arms should be extended at your sides like a T.

Once your legs are up, raise both arms simultaneously, keeping them straight, palms facing each other. Keep a distance of 3 or 4 inches between both hands as they reach the top. You should lift your head and upper back slightly off the floor as well, making the position more comfortable and also, so you don’t strain a muscle in your neck or shoulders. Hold that position for a while then try bringing your legs and your arms back down to the floor slowly and simultaneously, with control. Rest and repeat.

The Plank

This one is a classic that most people know. Basically, you should position yourself as if you were about to do a push-up. Both hands flat on the floor, shoulder width apart, body straight and standing on your toes; legs either together or a little bit apart. Hold that position for a while, contracting your abdominal muscles then slowly drop to your knees and rest. Repeat.

If you want to add some more difficulty you can lift one leg up and hold. Keep that leg straight and make sure you alternate and do both legs. Also, you can take one hand off the floor and extend your arm horizontally while you plank.

If you choose to try this, you can do it with both feet on the floor or lift one up along with the arm, as described in the previous variation. Just make sure that you use the leg opposite to the arm you are extending. For example, if you choose to extend the left arm, lift the right leg and vice versa. In addition to working your core, this variation has the benefit of improving your balance and developping overall core strength.

If the plank is too difficult using your hands to support you, try it using both your elbows for support instead. Bend your elbows at 90 degrees so that they rest on the floor with both your hands flat in front of you, aligned with your shoulders. This should be easier but when you are comfortable doing the plank on your elbows, move on to doing it on your hands.

3. The Back

Here I’m going to divide the section into two categories as well: Lower and Upper back.

Upper Back

Iso half pull-up

For this one you’ll need either a pull-up bar to grab on to or a ledge. Start by grabbing on to it with both hands with a wide grip which means a grip wider than the width of your shoulders. Then pull yourself up slightly, bending your elbows just a little bit, not the whole way like you would do with a pull-up. Try to focus on your upper back and lateral muscles. Hold on for a while then relax, let yourself down slowly. Rest and Repeat.

Iso Row

Iso row (Please let me know if you are the owner of this image and would like me to remove it or get a credit)
Iso row (Please let me know if you are the owner of this image and would like me to remove it or get a credit)

For this one you’ll need a bar that’s about waist high. Playgrounds often have those. What you want to do is grab on to it from underneath. Using a wide grip pull yourself up, keeping your core contracted and your body straight. What you’ll be doing should look similar to an upside down push up. Pull yourself up all the way so that the bar touches your chest and hold. When you cannot hold it anymore, bring yourself down slowly. Rest and repeat.

Lower Back

The lower back is a tricky one to work and you should always be careful not to strain anything or hurt yourself in any way while working it because it is a very fragile area not to mention a very important one! Work intelligently!

The Superman

Lay on the floor on your belly. This very simple exercise will not only work the lower back but most of the back muscles as well. Extend your arms in front of you and keep them straight. The legs should be straight as well.

Then, what you should do is pull both arms and legs upwards against gravity while keeping them straight, using your back muscles. The whole back should be bent as much as you can while you work against gravity to keep your arms and legs from touching the floor. Push arms and legs up as if you were trying to fold yourself up and connect them together.

Hold this position for a moment then bring your arms and legs back to the floor, slowly. Rest and repeat. For an easier variation, you can bend your elbows so that they form a 90 degree angle with your shoulders. The legs should always be kept straight though as this exercise is meant to target the lower back.

Yet another variation of the same exercise is to simply raise one arm up while the other stays on the ground and to lift the opposite leg simultaneously. Example: from the superman position, arms and legs stretched out, you raise the left arm and right leg off the floor simultaneously. Hold the position then lower them both slowly then do the same using the right arm and the left leg.

Iso lower back extension

Iso back extension (Please let me know if you are the owner of this image and would like me to remove it or get a credit)
Iso back extension (Please let me know if you are the owner of this image and would like me to remove it or get a credit)

This one is a little bit trickier, but if you can manage it, it is one of the most effective lower back exercise. To do this one you need to have both your feet held in position solidly and your legs resting on a solid surface while the upper half of your body extends above the ground.

There are gym machines designed especially for this exercise but there are ways to do this one at home with minimal equipment.

The way I personally do it is use the pull up bar I have installed in my door frame and I install it about 8 inches from the ground. Then I place my exercise ball in front of me by the door frame and I lean forward on it thus having the bar locking my feet into place safely. That way my whole body is inclined forward at an angle, resting on the exercise ball. The ball is supporting my legs while my upper body, from the waist up, is suspended in the air with only my core and back muscles to hold it in position.

If you want, you can incline the upper half of your body forward as much as you can while keeping your back straight at all times. Don’t round your back, keep it straight as a bar. Then, pull your upper body back up in line with the rest of your body using your lower back muscles and hold this position. You can place both your hands on the back of your neck while you do so but I suggest you cross your arms up across your chest so that you don’t accidentally pull something in your neck.

You can also choose to simply lay down on your stomach on an exercise ball with your feet touching the floor and pull your upper body upwards using your lower back muscles and hold position. That’s an easier variation but it is also a less effective one. It is also a bit more dangerous since you have to stay balanced on the ball without having your feet locked and doing the work for you.

4. The Chest

Wide Plank

Find something to rest both your feet on that’s not too high. Only about 4-5 inches high. Some books or a stair should do the trick. Then, stading tip-toe on that object, adopt a plank position with your arms extended in the shape of a T. Palms flat on the floor, fingers pointing to either side. You should place your hands as wide as you can so that you’re still able to maintain yourself off the floor for an extended period of time but struggling too much doing it. Your back and legs should be straight. An easy way to get into position is to start with your hands closer, say about shoulder width, and gradually move them apart until it’s difficult but not impossible to hold a plank position. Hold it, then let yourself drop down on your stomach slowly. Rest and repeat.

Iso push-up

Simply get into push-up position. If you place your hands close to your body, you’ll be working the upper pectoral muscles. If you place your hands wide, you’ll be working the lower pectoral muscles. It’s up to you and I would recommend alternating to get a full chest work-out.

Push yourself up so that both your arms are extended. Then, slowly lower yourself half-way while keeping your body straight. Hold that position for a while. Aim for thirty seconds at first and try to make it longer as you progress. When you’ve had enough, lower yourself all the way down and rest. Repeat.

5. The Shoulders

Iso lateral raises

Stand up, feet shoulder width apart. Hold either in each hand dumbbells or something that’s heavy enough to be challenging. Raise both arms simultaneously so that your body forms a T and hold that position for a while. Don’t forget to keep your arms straight, palms facing the floor and contract your abdominal muscles while breathing deeply. When you’ve had enough, drop your hands slowly to your sides and rest. Repeat.

Iso shrugs

Iso shrugs (Please let me know if you are the owner of this image and would like me to remove it or get a credit)
Iso shrugs (Please let me know if you are the owner of this image and would like me to remove it or get a credit)

Once again, standing up, feet shoulder width apart, hold either dumbbells or heavy objects in both your hands. This time, you’ll let your arms hang by your sides and lift the dumbbells or the objects you are holding up, using your trapezius muscles. Basically, by ” shrugging ” your shoulders upwards, using your trapezius muscles ( the muscles that go from your neck all the way to your shoulders ) you’re lifting both your arms up as well as the objects you are holding in your hands.

Make sure both your arms are relaxed. There should be no tension in them. You should only be using your trapezius muscles to pull the weight you are holding upwards. So, shrug those shoulders up as high as you can and hold it for a while. Drop your shoulders down slowly when you’ve had enough. Rest and repeat.

Iso front shoulder raise

Here, the principle is the same as with the lateral raises except that you will be lifting both your arms in front of your body instead of to the sides. So, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold heavy objects or dumbbells in your hands, lift both your arms up in front, until your hands are at shoulder level. Make sure to keep your arms straight. Your palms should be facing the floor and not be turned upwards and your hands should be aligned with the corresponding shoulder.

Hold this position for a while, then, when you’ve had enough, drop your arms slowly until your hands are back at your sides. Rest and repeat. Also, don’t forget to contract the abdominal muscles ( the core ) while you’re in position. This is going to help to keep proper form, keep a straight back and help you hold on for a longer period of time. Breathe deeply.

6. The Arms

Here I’m going to divide the section into three categories: forearms, biceps and triceps.

Biceps

Iso pull-up

For this one you’ll need either a ledge to grab onto or a pull-up bar. If you still don’t own a pull up bar, I recommend you get one as they are cheap and versatile.

Hold the bar (or ledge) with a shoulder-wide grip, both palms facing you. Pull yourself all the way up so that your chin is level with the bar or ledge.

Then bring yourself down slowly until your elbows form a 90 degree angle. Hold this position. This is a difficult one but hang in there. When you feel your endurance reaching it’s limits, relax and bring yourself completely down slowly. Rest and Repeat.

Iso curl

That’s an easy, but effective one. Stand up, feet firmly planted, shoulder width apart. If you do not have any dumbbells, free weights or resistance bands, find something heavy like jugs of water or a box filled with books. Hold it in your hands ( either in one hand or both, depending on how heavy or big the object you’re using is. ) while both your arms are relaxed. Then pull it up by flexing your elbow(s), pulling the object upwards and towards you until you reach maximum flexion. That curl done, slowly bring the object down, repeating the movement in reverse but without going all the way down. You should stop about half-way so that your elbow(s) forms an angle close to 90 degrees. Hold it for a while then bring the object down slowly. Rest and repeat.

Triceps

Iso dip

Iso Dips (Please let me know if you are the owner of this image and would like me to remove it or get a credit)
Iso Dips (Please let me know if you are the owner of this image and would like me to remove it or get a credit)

Sit down on the floor. Place both your hands flat on the ground beside you so that you can push yourself up. Your fingers should be pointing forward. Also, keep your hands stay close to your body.

Your feet can be together or apart. Either extend your legs all the way in front of you or bend both knees and pull them up towards you a little bit so that they form an angle.

Push yourself up by extending your arms until your butt is raised. Then, lower yourself as much as you can without making it back all the way to the floor. Hold an iso position, using your triceps muscles. Make sure your legs are relaxed and that you’re contracting your abdominal muscles. Breathe.

You can perform this same exercise by placing both hands on a ledge, a bench or something higher. It has to be stable enough to support you while you perform that isometric variation of a dip. If you want to make it a little bit more difficult, raise one foot off the floor while you’re holding the position. Replace the foot down after a while and raise the other one.

Iso triceps push-up

This one is an isometric variation on the classic push-up exercise. Get into push-up position, your hands should be as close as possible to your body without being underneath it. Ideally they should be right next to your shoulders. Make sure your fingertips are pointing forward and push yourself up all the way until your arms are fully extended. Drop down slowly and make sure both your elbows are bending towards the back of the room and not by the sides. Keep them close to your body at all times. You should lower yourself until both elbows are bent at about 90 degrees and hold that position for an extended period of time. When you’ve had enough, drop down to the floor slowly. Rest and repeat.

Forearms

Upward Iso curl

For this one you should be sat down and have something quite heavy to hold in your hand like a dumbbell or any object that is heavy enough to be challenging and can be held nicely in a single hand. You’ll be working one forearm at a time. Sit and keep your back straight. Rest one forearm on your lap or on a flat surface like a table, palm facing up and holding the weight in your hand. Flexing the wrist while the forearm stays put ( you can use the other hand to support it and make sure it doesn’t move ), lift the weight you are holding up towards you until you reach maximum flexion. Then, lower your hand slowly until it forms a straight line with your forearm. Hold it. When you’ve had enough, lower your hand all the way down slowly. Rest and repeat.

Downward Iso curl

Similar to the previous exercise, your palm should be facing down this time. Once again, make sure you are seated with your back straight. And rest your forearm on an even stable surface or on your lap.

What you should be doing here is lift the weight you are holding in your hand upwards. Flex your wrist until you reach maximum flexion.

Then, as described previously, lower your hand until it forms a straight line with your forearm and hold position.

Iso grips

For this one you will need what is commonly known as a hand gripper. These are very useful to develop forearms strength. Simply use it as you would do by doing repetitive contractions but try and hold your grip tight for an extended period of time and do fewer repetitions.

This is it! The work-out is over. It’s time to rest and recuperate now

Obviously, these are only a few examples of isometric exercises. There are many more out there and you can even explore and create your own! I hope you enjoyed the article and that you will include at least some of them in your training routine. They will contribute to a more complete exercise regimen and a stronger body. Train safe and stay strong! Until next time.

About Dee Xiao Long 2 Articles
Always passionate, whether it's about nutrition, martial arts or fitness, I spend most of my time training my body and my mind; aiming for personal harmony.
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