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Isometric Exercises: Pros, Cons, and Which Ones to Try

Push your muscles to the limits with these unique strengthening exercises.

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What are isometric exercises? Push your muscles to the limits with these unique strengthening moves. 

You’re a triathlete. You’re used to pushing your limits—swimming harder, cycling farther, running faster. Yards, kilometers and miles—you’re clocking them by the dozens. But do you know just how hard you can work your muscles without actually moving them?

Even if you’re sold on the idea of strength training (and it’s my belief that you should be, as keeping your muscles strong can prevent injury and improve performance), you might not have given much thought to isometric exercises. After all, constricting your glutes and hamstrings in a static hold for 30 seconds doesn’t exactly provide the same feeling of accomplishment (and badassery) that, say, a weighted squat or burpee gives you. But isometrics can be awesome—here’s what you should know about this type of movement.

Isometrics 101

Isometric exercise occurs when you contract your muscles without moving that part of your body, and there are several options for executing it.

You can achieve quite the workout without using any equipment by simply constricting a muscle group and holding it for a set amount of time or until fatigue sets in. Example: Lie on your back and lift one leg up six inches, toe pointed slightly out. Then, constrict the quad as fully as possible. If you’re shaking like a leaf within 15 seconds or so, you’re probably doing it right.

You can also incorporate equipment, such as a wall, the floor, or a static bar that’s locked in position. Example: Lie on your stomach with an immovable bar a few inches above your lower calf. Raise one leg so that the calf (or back of your ankle) is pressing against the bar, then contract your core, glute and hamstring as you steadily press against the bar.

Free weights can also be incorporated, but it’s generally not recommended for beginners, and considering that most triathletes are most interested in what’s quick and simple to add into their training, we’ll focus on weight-free isometric exercise options.

Pros and Cons

We’re talking about a workout that takes very little time, requires no equipment, and delivers results. What’s not to love, right?

Well, according to Bob Seebohar, owner and founder of eNRG performance, there are a few things athletes need to keep in mind before incorporating isometric exercises into their training plan.

“Since [isometric exercise] does not promote joint range of motion, that can be a limitation also since triathletes need decent range of motion in a joint to perform their biomechanical movement patterns,” says Seebohar.

That said, he believes isometric exercises can be beneficial. “[They] do not have a specific pattern/range of motion, can increase strength quite quickly, and do not require much time to do,” says Seebohar, cautioning that these exercises should be periodized so as to avoid muscle soreness during a competition training cycle, and he recommends balancing concentric, eccentric, and isometric exercises.

Additionally, for an athlete dealing with an injury that limits range of motion in a joint, spending a few minutes several times a week on isometrics can help them retain strength as they rehabilitate the injured area.

Isometric Exercises to Try

Photo: “Any type of strength exercise should be prescribed for a reason based on an athlete’s imbalances/biomechanical challenges,” says Seebohar. Most athletes focus their strength work in the core (specifically the posterior chain, according to Seebohar), hips and shoulders, and with those areas in mind, he recommends the following exercises:

  • One-legged wall sit
  • Side plank
  • 1/2 push-up/plank hold
  • Lying hip extension
  • Lying side leg raise/hold
  • One-legged squat
  • Lying superman

If you find yourself holding your breath—well, the solution is probably obvious, but make sure you breathe. You might even find that adopting a regular breathing pattern ahead of time is helpful. And it’s more effective to fully engage your muscles and hold these exercises for a short time—30 seconds or less—versus finding a position you can hold longer. You shouldn’t be able to hold it for any significant period of time. That’s the point!

But remember, it’s best to start slowly, incorporating just a few of these isometric exercises into your training once or twice a week—not during a competition training cycle. As Seebohar says, “triathletes have a knack for overdoing things.”