Are Isometric Exercises Effective for Muscle Strengthening?

You’re probably most familiar with isotonic exercises – exercises that involve moving muscles against resistance. Weight lifters do this type of exercise all the time at the gym when they lift weights. But, there’s another type of exercise that’s done in a static position called isometric exercises. Are isometric exercises effective for building muscle tone and strength?

What are Isometric Exercises?

Isometric exercise is a type of exercise where the muscle develops tension, but the joint angle doesn’t change and the muscle doesn’t move during the exercise. An example of an isometric exercise would be pushing against an immovable surface such as a wall – or trying to lift an object that’s too heavy to budge. Wrestler’s use isometric moves in their sport all the time. Isometric exercises are also done in yoga classes. If you’ve ever assumed the plank position, you’ve done an isometric exercise.

Are Isometric Exercises Effective for Muscle Strengthening?

The problem with isometric exercises is you’re only increasing strength at a single joint angle – so you would need to do isometric moves for the same muscle at a variety of different angles to strengthen the entire muscle. In contrast, isotonic exercises such as biceps curls move the arms against resistance through a full range of motion which strengthens and builds the muscle without the need to do multiple isometric exercises.

What Are Isometric Exercises Good For?

People who have been injured and can’t move a limb through its entire range of motion benefit from isometric exercises since they don’t involve movement, but will build strength at a single joint angle. This can help stabilize an injured limb or other body part without the risk of injury. Isometric exercises can also be used to recruit additional muscle fibers when weight training by using a static hold at the top of the movement to keep the tension in the muscle a little longer.

Many bodybuilders find that a combination of isotonic and isometric contractions builds strength faster. An example would be maximally curling the weight during a biceps curl (isotonic) and holding the tension for a few seconds before bringing the weights down. (isometric).

Are Isometric Exercise Effective?: The Bottom Line

They can be quite effective when combined with more traditional isotonic exercises. They’re also useful for people who can’t exercise a muscle through the full range of motion. One word of caution. Anyone with high blood pressure or heart problems should avoid doing isometric exercises since they can raise the blood pressure – sometimes dramatically. Talk to your doctor before adding isometric exercises to your workout.


Journal of Applied physiology: Respiratory, Environmental and Exercise Physiology 56 (2): 296′”301.

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