What is isometric exercise: Why they matter and a guide for doing them

By Lukas Southard

What is isometric exercise
A plank hold is a common isometric exercise.
lechatnoir/Getty Images
  • Isometrics are low-impact exercises that strengthen muscles and tone the body.
  • Since isometrics build muscles through tension and do not require joint movement, the exercises are particularly helpful in injury recovery and people with joint pain, like arthritis.
  • Here’s a guide to doing two isometric exercises: a plank hold and a wall sit.
  • This article was reviewed by Joey Thurman, CSCS, CPT, FNS, a Chicago-based fitness expert and MYX Fitness coach.
    Isometrics are low-impact exercises that strengthen muscles through holding poses. Plank holds and many other poses common to yoga, barre, or pilates are examples of isometric exercises.You’ll know the exercise is isometric when it’s done in one position where the specific muscle is tensed and held in that flexed position for at least six seconds. While they are low-impact and therefore put less strain on your body, there are limits to what isometrics can do.”It only builds strength in a very limited range of motion — about 15 degrees on each side of the joint — so its application to building strength and function is limited,” says Chris Kolba, physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

    Here’s what you need to know about who can benefit from isometrics and some examples of isometrics you can do at home.

    Isometrics can be used in physical therapy

    Anyone can benefit from isometrics, can be done to tone the muscles in conjunction with traditional weight-lifting or resistance training.

    But isometrics are especially useful for people recovering from surgery or an injury that’s required long periods of rest. Because during that period of rest muscles can atrophy — or become smaller — which then need to be slowly worked back into shape, says Kolba.

    Isometric exercises allow people to target areas that need to be strengthened without straining weak or injured joints, which makes them good for people who have suffered kneeinjuries, for example. Because the injured knee joint is restricted from movement but the muscle is still worked through the tension.

    Isometrics are also good exercise for people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and can be used to help treat people with hypertension.

    Isometric exercises you can do at home

    Isometrics are a great workout you can do at home because the only equipment you need is your own body weight and, sometimes, a stable wall. Here are some examples of popular isometric exercises.

    Plank Hold: Planking works your midsection, shoulders and quad muscles of your legs. It should not be performed by people with shoulder or neck injuries.

    1. Lay down on a yoga mat on your belly and then lift yourself up horizontally onto your toes and forearms.
    2. Flex your abs, core, and glutes and hold that flex for 6 to 15 seconds.

    Wall Sit: This exercise strengthens the legs, especially the glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings. This exercise will strengthen the hips as well and help with balance.

    1. Stand about 2 feet, or so, from the wall.
    2. Lean back so your back is flat against the wall and slide down slowly until your thighs are parallel to the ground in a sitting position while pressing against the wall.
    3. While in this sitting position, flex your legs tightly and hold this position for 6 to 15 seconds.

    Chris Kolba says that these exercises can be used in the office for a quick workout. He also suggested that certain isometrics — like hand-wrist exercises or flexing and holding your abdominal muscles while sitting — can be done on a plane to get the blood moving in a confined space.