Isometric Exercises for Athletes
ISOMETRIC EXERCISE FOR ATHLETES
If you are a coach or athlete, then isometric training is a term you absolutely must be familiar with.
Interest in the topic of isometric exercises is being re-ignited from the world of experts like Dr. Keith Baar and coaches Jake Tuura in terms of their effectiveness for tendon health. Basic positional holds in training can help reduce things like knee or Achilles tendon pain.
Isometric exercises are now being used for performance enhancement by many of the top coaches in the world, particularly track coaches. Several years ago, Alex Natera created a system of maximal overcoming isometrics that are now being utilized by the top track coaches in the world to create training effects that were not previously thought possible, such as top-end speed improvements.
“Extreme Isometrics” are another popular system of isometric exercises that have recently re-ignited and has the potential to prevent injury, increase work capacity, improve an athlete’s innate movement ability as well as increase strength. These exercises are poorly understood, however, and rarely done correctly.
It is for this reason that this article exists, to act as a primer for the importance and execution of this powerful realm of training and performance.
So this gets us to the “meat and potatoes” of this particular exercise modality, which is the important question of “what are isometrics” and why are they important?
Isometric exercises are training movements that place a focus or priority on the “isometric” phase of muscle contraction. In each phase of muscle action we have a:
Concentric movements are the “shortenings” of muscle fibers, and when positive work is done. For example, when you curl up a weight from a straight-arm position in a bicep curl, you are concentrically working the biceps muscle.
What are Isometric Exercises?
- Concentric movement
- Eccentric movement
- Isometric movement
- *Quasi-isometric movement
Most work done in the weight room is a measure of “concentric” outputs, since a lift is only “good” if you ended up lifting the weight concentrically. This is only one phase of 3 (really 4) muscle actions, however, and if this is all we ever consider or train in the weight room, then we end up short-sighted to the full envelope of athletic performance possibility.
Eccentric movements are the “lengthening” of muscle fibers and represent negative work done. The example here would be back to that arm curl. If you lower the weight from the top of the rep, back to the bottom under control; as your muscle is lengthening tension exists, and this tension can be stronger than concentric tension, as athletes can generally control up to 150% more weight in a lowering contraction than an upwards, concentric contraction.
It is for this reason that eccentric focused work is a common principle in training athletes (as well as injury prevention) and it can be highly effective, such as in the use of the Nordic hamstring exercise which statistically reduces the incidence of injury in programs that include the movement.
The “Nordic Hamstring” is an eccentric exercise statistically effective at reducing hamstring injury.
Isometric movements represent work done where the muscle fiber stays at the same length. Imagine you were bench pressing and put 1000lb on the bar. If you tried to lift the bar off of the pins, pushing as hard as you could, you could not (unless you were perhaps a select few individuals on the face of this earth) budge the bar. While pushing against the bar, however, you are producing “isometric” tension, your muscles are working very hard, but the arm joint is not changing length.
There is a bit of a “trick here”. In this scenario where the joint of the athlete is not moving, the muscle is actually slowly shortening, while the tendon is slowly lengthening, and the total net movement is zero since the joint doesn’t go anywhere. This is the reason that in the Jay Schoeder system, isometric exercises are often referred to as “extreme slows” (although there is another form of extreme slow exercise here, but I won’t expand on it now for the sake of simplicity).
Regardless, this type of movement is very important for sport since, in athletic movement, we often operate in the realm of the body using strategic isometric bursts to create effective movement. For example, if I jumped off of a box and landed on the ground, this is more of an explosive isometric than it is eccentric training, simply because the body had to produce an explosive burst to rapidly pull on the tendon and absorb the ground.
As Dr. Keith Baar mentioned on podcast #156 in cases where rapid stiffness is required, the muscles and tendons act together as a “sheet”. This explosive isometric action in sport could be referred to as quasi-isometrics, or a dynamic isometric situation, which would be significantly different than holding an arm curl at a 90-degree position for time.
In terms of the health/performance spectrum, we can consider traditional static isometric exercises the typical “isometric” exercise, where dynamic isometrics in sport could be considered “quasi-isometrics”. The former is good for tendon and joint health, while the latter, good for performance enhancement.
Without sounding too much like a dusty exercise physiology textbook, let’s briefly cover the difference between isometric and isotonic exercises.
Isotonic exercises would refer to an exercise where muscles shorten against a constant load, which would constitute any “typical” exercise done in the weight room: squats, bench presses, lat pulldowns, pec flys and even curls done in the squat rack.
Isometric exercises, on the other hand, are performed with no change in joint range of motion. Although exercise textbooks would say that the muscle is in a “static” position, as we mentioned in the last section, the muscle is shortening while the tendon lengthens.
Isometric vs Isotonic
In rapid burst isometrics, such as a situation where an athlete presses against resistance as fast as humanly possible, then the action of the muscle and tendon is more like a singular sheet (performance aspect), with potentially less total change in tendon length.
Here is a “performance-driven” isometric exercise that relies on rapid rate of force development
In long hold isometrics (done with lower loads), the tendon is given a chance to “creep” and lengthen to a greater degree (tendon health aspect).
The basic wall sit is more of a “health-driven” exercise due to it’s slower nature and extended time for the tendon to lengthen as the muscles shorten.
The benefits of isometric exercises are many, but depend highly on exactly what type of isometric you are doing. The three types of isometrics that I use are, in order of use: extreme isometrics(pulling down into a maximal joint angle), oscillatory isometrics (static holds and releases) and maximal overcoming isometrics.
Benefits of Isometric Exercise
A great example of an “extreme” isometric would be the video below featuring Dr. Tommy John and Vladimir Curguz finishing up a 5 minute extreme ISO lunge hold. This training is extreme in more than just the joint angle, there are also important mental and emotional aspects in the longer holds!
Benefits of extreme isometrics include:
To go in-depth heavily in each of these elements of extreme isometrics could be another article entirely, but for the sake of brevity, let’s just look at some basic elements that make this movement helpful.
- Improved tendon and joint health (through tendon creep)
- Increased work capacity
- Enhanced neuromuscular efficiency
- Reduces muscular compensation patterns
- Zero to little muscle soreness
- Can aid in training recovery
The primary one is the nervous system training element. When extreme isometrics are performed, the key is to “pull down” as far as possible into the most extreme joint angle while maintaining a good position. “Position” is essentially a tall upright spine, with the chest puffed out a bit, shoulder blades retracted, and a calm demeanor.
In performing this type of movement for some time, you’ll eventually begin to notice more effortless movements. This happens because of the reduction of “compensation” patterns. A compensation pattern is a survival-based patterning of muscles turning on that does not reflect our natural function. In cases of injury, improper lifting or exercise technique, or sensory deprivation (such as overuse of cushioned shoes) our bodies take on suboptimal movement patterns. Extreme isometrics work to undo those.
Oscillatory Isometrics are a favorite of multi-time podcast guest Dan Fichter. To do them, you’ll simply tense up the muscle groups responsible for concentric movement in that exercise, then release them as fast as possible and try to “bounce” out of the bottom of the movement if the type of exercise allows it. For example, the oscillatory isometric split squat, an exercise near and dear to me in the realm of sprinting, is performed in the video below.
The OC Split Squat has been a long-time favorite of mine. You can learn more about this lift and integration into a total speed program in my book “Speed Strength”
Oscillatory isometrics have a profound impact on athletic speed since dynamic movement is an orchestra of isometric actions in muscle groups. Faster athletes are fast, not only because of fast-twitch muscle, but because of the relaxation ability of muscle. Slower athletes cannot “turn off” muscles fast enough!
There are many more examples of oscillatory style training, and for a substantial case study on their effectiveness, I’d recommend listening to my podcast with Sheldon Dunlap of UC Davis and their impact on track and field athletes.
One question that may be common is “do isometrics make you slow since the speed of the exercise is zero?”. The answer to that is no, and there are a few reasons for this:
Another question would be “since isometrics are motionless how can they transfer to sport”. This is a good question, but it’s important to understand that sport itself often relies on a series of fast isometric bursts at various joint positions. Sport itself is much more similar to a series of oscillatory isometric contractions than it is a typical barbell squat! This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t squat, but it does mean that we shouldn’t overlook how powerful isometrics can be in regards to building better moving athletes.
Do Isometric Exercises Make you Slow?
- Even though the joint speed is zero, the rate of firing on and off in the muscle during an isometric is substantial
- Rapid pulse overcoming isometrics can activate more muscle fibers than any other type of lifting, and do so at a more specific joint angle
- Isometric exercises won’t interfere negatively with any sport skill motor pattern since there is no joint motion
How does Isometric Training Transfer to Sport?
Isometrics, such as position-specific overcoming isometrics can be used to build both strength and skill, such as Steffan Jones putting athletes into cricket fast-bowling specific positions as shown in the video below:
In the above picture, strength is combined with a sport-specific position. This and oscillating isometrics are the most specific things coaches can do in the gym.
Finally, isometric exercises produce little to no soreness! The only case where this is possible is in early training phases with extreme isometrics, and this is often due to the (good) change in tissue length that this type of work brings about. In the form of short burst isometrics, no muscle fatigue is generated, and this can make them particularly useful in strategic points of the training year, such as in-season.
I’ve already given the basics of isometrics and some essential variations, but I’ll again break down the spectrum of isometric exercises, their effectiveness, and intensity. Exercises towards the bottom of the list are more intense and should generally be performed only by advanced athletes while the top of the list represents simpler exercises that are generally less taxing and can be performed by those of less training age.
We haven’t covered this yet, but “sensory isometrics” would be those that incorporate very light resistance to improve an athlete’s output by improving neural connections in a movement with no fatigue. This type of work is extremely basic and more likely to be seen in a rehabilitation setting, but it’s been purported to substantially help speed improvements. It can potentially do so because of a significant neural load given to the muscle tissue, and in the case of an imbalance, such as weak hip flexors, can solve a weak link in the athletic chain. See the video below.
This is a useful exercise for speed, but the intensity of this movement does not need to be high to create benefits on a basic functional and sensory level. This is because too much intensity on something like hip flexion will cause a compensation style recruitment of non-essential movers. The time an athlete will find improvement gains from this type of work is not long, however, as once the muscle memory is in place, it does not need to be “intensified” significantly.
“Yielding” isometrics are those where an athlete holds a position for time with a submaximal weight. Work done in the extreme joint position here is most beneficial for a variety of reasons, but working in a position of weakness (such as 2 inches off of the chest in a barbell bench press) can be useful for breaking through weak points in a barbell lift.
Muscle Soreness from Isometric Exercises
Isometric Exercise Examples
- Sensory isometrics
- “Non-Extreme” Yielding Bodyweight Isometrics (e.g. Traditional Wall Sits, or those done not in an “extreme” joint position)
- Extreme Isometrics
- Weighted Extreme Isometrics
- Weighted Yielding Isometrics
- Overcoming Isometrics
The thing is that sport is not a barbell lift, so for dynamic output, most “yielding” isometrics done for the sake of sport are best done revolving around the foot, hip or shoulder girdle. The simplest “yielding” isometric in a non-extreme position for athletes are variations of standing on one leg for time (although there will be a lot of fluctuation in this movement due to shifting weight around on the foot).
You can add weight to extreme isometrics or other isometric movements, but in doing so, you increase the chance that a compensation might pop up. When we add external weights to movement, we make the exercise a little less “pure” in terms of human movement, and the harmonious use of muscles, tendons, stabilizers, and big muscles. As we add weight we start to slowly prioritize bigger muscles and downgrade the use of the stabilizers while also adjusting the muscle-tendon balance.
A common, effective yielding isometric with weight added is shown below:
The setup and position of this exercise reduces possible compensation patterns and keeps a high purity of movement with added intensity. Athletes should have mastery of the bodyweight version of this training before moving on to adding weight.
We’ve covered overcoming isometrics already, and these movements have a substantial ability to impact both power and skill, but should be carefully selected and only done in more advanced athletes.
With all this information, you are probably wondering where to start with this type of training, how much to do, and when. As with any training method or modality, these are common questions.
Incorporating Isometrics in Training
The easiest place to start is “extreme isometrics”. Although the recommendation for these has been to build up to 5 minutes straight on things like isometric lunges, I don’t feel that it is necessary to get many of their inherent benefits.
Pareto’s principle mentions that you can get 80% of the benefits of something with 20% of the work, and although it’s admirable to hit a 5 minute ISO lunge (I have and it’s pretty ridiculous in difficulty) you can get many benefits out of extreme ISO’s in the 2-3 minute range, or in breaking the time of the movement up into smaller chunks.
For extreme ISO’s I’d suggest starting with the ISO lunge and ISO pushup. In the lunge, work one leg at a time, and perform the following sequence:
After this, perform the same thing on the other leg.
Isometric Workout Example
- 10 seconds on, 10 seconds break
- 20 seconds on, 10 seconds break
- 30 seconds on, 10 seconds break
- 40 seconds on, done
For the ISO pushup, try the same thing, but go:
Here is an ISO Pushup video, note the “extreme” joint angle nature of the movement.
Other isometrics where the same thing could be done would be an isometric straight leg raise, isometric bar hang, isometric dip, or isometric glute-ham raise.
- 5 seconds on, 10 seconds break
- 10 seconds on, 10 seconds break
- 15 seconds on, 10 seconds break
- 20-25 seconds on, done
This style of training can be done nearly every day since once adapted, recovery will be fast. I tend to use this type of work about twice a week, but it depends on the athlete.
A very simple method that you could use in the scope of general weight training would be as follows:
If you don’t have much of a training history, then these are the only isometrics you need to worry about without complicating things too far. The sensory isometrics can be useful, but they are also something that can be used on the clinical level (such as to improve asymmetrical hip rotation) which would complicate this article beyond its intended use.
Isometrics Weekly Training Example
|Monday||Weightlifting: 4×4 Clean, 3×10 Squats, Bench Press, Lat Pulldown, Romanian Deadlift|
|Tuesday||Extreme ISO Workout Pick 5 Exercises|
|Thursday||Weightlifting: 5×3 Snatch, 1×20 Half Squat, Incline Bench, Pull-up, Leg Curl, Lateral Step Up|
|Saturday||Extreme ISO Workout Pick 5 Exercises|
Isometric Training Progression
In terms of using anything more “intense”, we have a few options:
Yielding isometrics is a little bit of a grey area, so let’s talk about some ways to use overcoming isometrics to improve your strength in conjunction with your sport skill.
- Overcoming isometrics
- Heavy yielding isometrics
Lifting weights (minus the Olympic lifts) is one of the simplest sport skills, so for the sake of ease, let’s start there. In the video below, Josh Bryant uses overcoming isometrics at a bench press sticking point to improve traditional bench press performance, immediately after the overcoming sets are done. In other words, doing a set of 5-second bench press push into pins will immediately improve your maximal ability to perform a traditional bench press a few minutes later.
Moving into the dynamic world, athletes can improve their top-end sprint performance by using overcoming isometrics specific to hip extension or calf plantar flexion. We know that the power that sprinters can produce in these joints in 1/10 of a second at specific positions correlates with sprint speed. Here is an Alex Natera gem that has an athlete in a sprint-specific stance pushing maximally into a force plate.
I know several elite coaches who, in the aftermath of this style of work, have seen immediate improvements in their athletes flying 10m performances, something that is very hard to accomplish with any other mean in the weight room.
An example of how you might incorporate this type of work into a weekly session if having 2 intense training days in a week would be:
There are nearly infinite methods to incorporate this style of training, but the key is to start with lessand build up from there! Bill Hoffman, one of the grand-daddy’s of isometric training would have athletes do 1×10 second hold for each exercise, and no more, mentioning how it would destroy their “nerve force” if more was done. The key to all of it, however, was that it was maximal in nature!
- Day 1: 30m acceleration starts, standing triple jump, hex bar deadlift
- Day 2: Flying 10m sprints superset/coupled with overcoming plantar flexion ISO or overcoming hip extension ISO, hurdle hops
When doing overcoming isometrics, there must be an absolute maximal effort in the push. You are trying to get every last muscle fiber in the movement to engage, and this is no task to be taken lightly!
So this concludes much of what you’ll need to know to start in your isometric training journey. Remember, isometrics are just one of three muscle phases to train, but in many ways, they are the most important, especially when athletes are concerned. Knowing the nuances of this style of work will keep you a step ahead in looking at the many training systems that exist.
Conclusion and Additional Resources on Isometric Training
If you are interested in more resources on Isometrics, then check out the following:
It’s my goal that this gives you more than enough information to start using this powerful and amazing method to your advantage. If you want more information or guidance, please check out our online store to see my consultation and online training services.
- My recent best-selling and highly reviewed speed manual “Speed Strength“
- Alex Natera Q&A on sprint training and isometrics
- Alex Natera podcast on sprint training and isometrics
- Dr. Mark Wetzel podcasts #1 and #2 on extreme isometric training
- Dr. Keith Baar podcast on tendon health
- Podcasts #1, #2, and #3 with Dan Fichter
About Joel Smith
Joel Smith is an NCAA Division I Strength Coach working in the PAC12 conference. A track coach of 11 years, Joel is also a coach for the Diablo Valley Track and Field Club, and also has 6 years of experience coaching sprints, jumps, hurdles, pole vault and multi-events on the collegiate level.
Joel has coached 2 national champions, multiple All-Americans and school record holders in his time as a track coach. In the realm of strength and conditioning, his programs have assisted 5 athletes to Olympic berths that produced 9 medals and a world record performance in Rio in 2016.
In 2011, Joel began Just Fly Sports with Jake Clark as a central platform to promote information for athletes and coaches to reach their highest potential. The first episode of the “Just Fly Performance Podcast” was released in 2016, now a leading source of education in the sports performance field.
Before working in the PAC12 conference, Joel spent 6 years in the realms of coaching, college lecturing, personal training, and thesis research. Joel’s certifications include Neurological and Physical Typing from BATI, CSCS, MAT Jumpstart, and NKT level 1, as well as USA Track and Field credentials. Joel is also well-versed in the Be-Activated protocols as taught by Douglas Heel, and has been extensively mentored by sprint and sport movement coach Adarian Barr.