By Carl Valle
The popularity of isometric training swings back and forth, mainly because it’s not as exciting as Olympic lifting, plyometrics, or medicine ball throws. Athletes tend to gravitate to dynamic training, such as ballistic lifting or conventional maximal strength exercises. Coaches who know their sport science appreciate isometrics, but many of them don’t incorporate them because it’s hard to measure progress and motivate athletes for honest efforts. Finally, isometric training isn’t as well understood from a practical standpoint in programming, and it’s usually done as a finisher or theme in a phase only.Many coaches don’t incorporate isometrics because it’s hard to measure progress & motivate athletes. Click To Tweet
Isometrics have a lot of potential for performance and rehabilitation, but there are a lot of important details that you must consider before inserting them into a program. This article does more than just present the best exercises—it covers the important science and practical side of isometrics that coaches need.
Isometric Science in Sport – Updated and Explained
Anyone involved in sports training will know that isometrics are simply neuromuscular contractions without movement, but the application requirements and benefits are more complex. Several articles highlight isometrics extremely well, such as this interview with Alex Natera and the recent work of Joel Smith. Isometrics gained popularity in the early 2000s with some online articles, but after the buzz wore off, so did the adoption of the methods.
- Isometrics are valuable to athletes because they are near-maximal or maximal contractions, not because they provide anything unique besides constant or high tension.
- Isometrics are part of a program and can complement it, as they have a lot of convenient benefits, such as analgesia, tendon adaptation, and neurological changes, if used properly.
- Isometrics lack the soreness that eccentrics create, but they also don’t receive the structural adaptations that some eccentrics provide, such as fascicle length changes and remodeling benefits to tissue.
- Isometrics are a reliable way to see trends in rate of force development (RFD) and are a safe means to test maximal strength of muscles or movements.
- Isometrics have an long history and, while they seem to have lost their following since the days of Charles Atlas, they are growing in popularity now that Frans Bosch and others are writing about them.
Another popular trend is Triphasic training, an approach coined and invented by Cal Dietz, who has focused his education on the value of exploiting the contraction dynamics of muscle. Coaches have come back to isometrics thanks to his efforts and the work of Cometti, Thibodeau, and Dr. Brad DeWeese.Isometrics are a reliable way to see trends in RFD and a safe means to test maximal strength. Click To Tweet
Isometric training is very popular with core training, as coaches see the spine as something they need to stabilize, but the evidence for “planking out problems” has failed to show up in research outside of very narrow rehabilitation issues. In the article about core training, most models of training the trunk center around damping forces; in reality, the body is designed to recycle energy. Isometric strength that transfers is more related to global neurological ability than those exercises that have great “pillar strength” or “functional balance.”
Research on isometric training is returning to elite sport with novel ways to potentiate training and improve acute activation of muscle groups. The amount of carryover to athlete development from isometrics is very difficult to tease out, mainly because brief isometric contractions happen at high velocities during normal sporting actions, such as the ankle during high-speed running. Extra work on isometrics does have support, as the right program using static contractions can improve athletes in both rehabilitation and training, but it’s still just a part of the equation and not a panacea.
Some Pitfalls of Isometrics That You Should Know
Isometrics are great options for athletes, but they are far from perfect and will not turn a mule into a racehorse. They are not especially risky, but dangerous coaches do have a history of turning great exercises into bad ideas. Isometrics are generally very safe, effective, and convenient if done correctly.Isometrics are generally very safe, effective, and convenient if done correctly. Click To Tweet
Here are some factors that make isometric training challenging for coaches when applying exercises in the real world:
- Isometrics are not the most engaging method for athletes and are not especially fun to coach. Therefore, they are not as popular as other modalities.
- Most isometric activities have very little feedback or reward, unlike the ballistic actions of Olympic-style weightlifting or plyometrics.
- Quantifying isometrics is difficult, and requires force analysis or other instruments to properly evaluate the effort by athletes.
- Isometrics usually help at joint-specific angles, so strength is sometimes limited to narrow ranges of motion.
- The adaptations of isometrics are not the same as other training modalities, so alone, they tend to be limiting in transfer and efficacy, especially in hypertrophy and coordination.
You can easily overcome all these challenges with proper training design, so don’t worry. Instead, be concerned about taking care of the little things coaching-wise, as any exercise needs to have good instruction and awareness of how loading interacts with other variables in a program.
About the Isometric Exercise List
The list below is not a complete one, mainly because several exercises you likely already do have some isometric contractions naturally built in. For example, performing Nordic exercises or push-ups will give you a torso bridging contraction, and Pallof presses done with a squatting pattern will have similar isometric benefits.It’s likely that several exercises you do already have isometric contractions naturally built in. Click To Tweet
The list includes exercises that I consider staples in a program, and some options are well-known but are sleeping giants with new coaches. Some exercises that have been viewed as antiquated have new benefits because new research shows value in pain management or even stress reduction. A few sport-specific motions such as step-ups or similar have already been shared, so I decided not to include those here.
The IMTP for Bilateral Facilitation
Several coaches ask why I still squat and perform Olympic lifts, and the answer is simple: Bilateral facilitation. I do think that the weight room is complementary or supportive, so I don’t dive into many arguments about stability or unilateral training, but I am not going to avoid the truth. Bilateral facilitation is a benefit of the isometric mid-thigh pull (IMTP), and it’s great because it requires no stabilization and floods the body with high neural activity, thus creating unique and important adaptations to the brain.
Most of the training I prefer is specific, but the assessment of athletes with isometric tests has a few side benefits I wasn’t aware of when I wrote the guide to the isometric mid-thigh pull. Once in a while, testing with force plates using isometric contractions can “reset the clock,” as very few athletes know how to let go and simply hammer out an effort that is primal. With athletes being overcoached with hyper-specific exercises that involve overly finessed motions, the ability to get a lot of motor units firing is a lost art, even with some teams in the NFL.
The IMTP isn’t going to make freaks, but due to the infrequency of testing and the biofeedback it provides, it’s great to use once a month to spark growth and to assess development with the data it captures. The isometric tests don’t only assess peak force, RFD, and the dynamic strength index. The isometric squat is also a great option for athletes, but I like the pull because of the compliance and connection to power cleans—a benefit with which most coaches will find themselves in agreement. Again, the raw maximal contraction required by the IMTP is a great wake-up call to those needing more neurological exposure, and it’s safe and simple to perform.
Hurdle Mobility and Track Drills
You can make some arguments that athletes should perform isometrics with endurance-style programming, but boredom and practical needs such as time don’t jive with me. What I learned about yoga was that progressive overload is nearly impossible unless you change the exercise, as more time isn’t a realistic variable change in programming. For instance, wall sits are a fine exercise for very specific reasons, but they don’t excite anyone. Instead, challenges during dynamic activities excite athletes. Staying on the ball of the foot during some drills and routines during warm-up or cool-down is a great way to add volume to ankle strength, not continual duration.
Video 1. Staying on your forefoot for small, short bursts is enough to build isometric ankle strength, and hurdle mobility is a great option. You can do entire routines on the ball of the foot or just small periods of time, as in this clip.
An athlete doesn’t need to be on their toes or the ball of their foot to improve tendon or ankle joint stiffness, but it’s worth spending more time in that position. Hurdle mobility is an easy entry exercise for isometric training, as it’s not demanding and challenges without being flat-out boring. The performance of track drills and hurdle mobility routines is a great example of how athletes can do isometric activities to local joints with dynamic body actions. Coaches can use this concept in other joint training, and explore new ways to challenge athletes isometrically.
Split Squats with Electrical Muscle Stimulation
Isometrics in split squat positions became popular in the early to mid-2000s, thanks to plenty of online articles that promoted them like they could turn skinny kids into monsters. The idea was interesting, and some benefits like teaching body awareness and focus certainly did have merit. The primary reason I don’t like split squats for isometrics is that, without vertical loading or resistance, they simply just teach athletes to stay still. Pulling back the front leg or pushing the rear leg enhances the activity, but it’s submaximal and very limited.
What I do like about the movement is that it’s great for functional electrical muscle stimulation (EMS), because you can do hamstring or knee rehabilitation on your feet without worry. Functional EMS was briefly covered in my earlier article on EMS for sport, but it wasn’t discussed in great depth. Due to the new wireless EMS devices like the PowerDot and Compex unit, athletes can do lower-body high-intensity EMS with light voluntary isometric contractions simultaneously. They can do them in free space or push against a wall with their rear leg.
EMS is not strong stimulus alone, and nearly every research study that shows benefit pairs the modality with training. Ramping up the current to near-painful levels, along with assisted isometric contractions, will work wonders if actual bread-and-butter training is included at the same time. Even if the functional EMS precedes solid dynamic training, it’s not enough to make a difference unless training is done in the same session, in my experience. Other options, like eccentric styles of rehab, are theoretically being employed as we speak, but for now, isometric training with additional isometric activity from EMS is strong enough to not worry about what others are doing.
Power Cleans with Pauses
There is a lot of discussion based on the lack of eccentric loading with catching the clean or snatch circulating in coaching circles. A debate on bracing—specifically the abdominal area—also occurred, creating discord on the true value of catching a clean.
What we do know is that, while the catch has little absorption demand, it’s still higher than nothing (just pulling alone) and teaches a rapid co-contraction and, if done right, a rapid release. Cleans with pauses ranging from 5-10 seconds are not easy workouts, but they indirectly help prepare athletes for the rigors of higher rep front squats. Additionally, many athletes simply don’t feel comfortable in a shallow squat for more than a moment, and finishing with jerks is even less common these days. Rack holds after a clean high or low are just a great way to build confidence and expose athletes to entry-level isometrics.
Video 2. Due to the constant and dynamic motion of Olympic weightlifting, pauses for extended periods of time are nice ways to help prepare athletes who are unable to jerk to get the conditioning necessary. High-position isometrics are nice combinations that are useful for both teaching and receiving extra work when time is sparse.
Depending on the level of the athlete and style of clean, an athlete can catch deep or low. The power clean traditionally catches higher, while a pure clean that is similar to a competitive lift will be heavier and deeper. Both, regardless of depth, will have low eccentric components unless the athlete uses a load much lighter than usual and pulls to a point much higher to catch late and low. The maximal drop distance is less than a meter, so the duration of freefall is not long enough to create a spike-like depth jump, regardless of the weight. Still, the deep or shallow pauses are gaining popularity, not because of the leg demand, but because of the strain metabolically.
Isometric Leg Extensions for Analgesia
Jumper’s knee and other pathologies are very difficult to manage while in-season, and isometrics have exploded in rehab not as a way to fix a problem, but to manage pain without drugs. Pain is a tricky subject, but the research on isometrics shows that creating tension to the tendon by use of isometrics works to manage the aches of overload.The use of isometrics has exploded in rehab, not to fix a problem, but to manage pain without drugs. Click To Tweet
Coaches and sports medicine professionals can use isometrics for the Achilles, but the knee will have a bigger need due to the frequency of patella problems. Hurdle mobility and other plantar-flexed motions are more accessible in training.
Video 3. Patella tendon relief isn’t exciting, but there is strong enough evidence to support the inclusion of leg extensions in a return-to-play program. Some athletes can add in EMS or EMG for extra recruitment or data collection. The video shows different angles and how to use the 2-up 1-hold method of loading with machines.
A nice addition to leg extension isometrics is the option to use a load cell to manage thresholds and to complement EMS if the athlete is unable to do weight-bearing exercises. The purpose of the load cell is to also create an opportunity to track RFD of the muscle because when evaluated with addition electromyography, that metric is sensitive enough to know when the injury needs more rest and rehabilitation time. I am not a huge fan of leg extensions and have not used them since I was an athlete in high school (over 20 years ago), but now I see they do have a place in a monitoring or modern sports performance program.
Copenhagen Planks, Bridging, and Traditional Modes
Planks by themselves are fine to start an athlete with core training, but eventually bridging needs to be more demanding. Side planks are fine options, but I view them as nothing more than a way to get comfortable with Copenhagen derivatives. Having an athlete plank for 10 years, from juniors to pro, is just a waste of time.
Planks are literally bridging to more demanding movements, and the Copenhagen adduction exercise (CAE) is a top option to reduce groin injuries. Planks are lowest on the core training totem pole. Of all injury reduction exercises, the best isometric option has to be the Copenhagen adduction exercise.
Video 4. Steady contractions to the adductors are a safe and effective way to reduce groin injuries. Isolating the strength of local muscle groups isn’t a complete solution, but forgetting the obvious is a trend we see in sports performance.
Technically, the adductor ramps up activation during the full CAE, while a brace-style plank is constant. I am aware that the full CAE movement is more demanding and more valuable, but the plank is so useful that even athletes of low strength abilities can find it comfortable. Advanced athletes will be able to do the full exercise if they can, and while the contraction isn’t purely isometric, it’s far from being a demanding eccentric exercise if done properly.
Barbell Squats with Pins
Squatting with racks presents a nice opportunity to squat against immovable resistance —the true heart of isometrics. Pauses, holds, and other forms of isometrics are submaximal, because the athlete is likely not putting in a 100% effort. Barbell squats with loads against a fixed rack keep an athlete honest and deplete them. If you don’t have a force plate, they are the next best thing; if you do have a force plate, you can still use the squats to help stay in position properly with mechanics. You don’t need any load to do isometrics besides a barbell, but even a light load is useful for some athletes who want to feel a combination of conventional resistance and isometrics.
Video 5. This second guest video from Dr. DeWeese shows one of his athletes using a squat rack to drive neuromuscular adaptations to the body while deloading the eccentric demands of power development. Note the specific setup of the rack pins for targeted joint angles.
So, when do you use isometric squats and at what angle? As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to use angles that have purpose, and I like to use deep angles with isometric squats. My reasoning is simple: The IMTP is a near extended angle, and going the other direction with a deep position greatly enhances both the start and finish of the squat. A good squat depth is 2-3 inches shallower than maximal, as an athlete will eventually need to unrack the load.It’s important to use angles that have purpose, and I use deep angles with isometric squats. Click To Tweet
I prefer using the isometric squat during the first half of the season, and recharge the quality just a little if an athlete is either not getting playing time or has a longer competitive schedule. As for pushing time, five seconds is long enough to really deplete the nervous system, provided four to five squats are performed in a workout.
Single Leg Isometric Hip Thrust
We shared some alternatives to the barbell hip thrust using a band, and while I don’t do activation much, this is a great exercise for those wanting to bring up extension strength for programs or struggling athletes. The reason I like single leg hip thrusts more than bilateral ones is not because I believe they have more transfer—it’s just a great way to push recruitment and safely burn out the body.
Isometrics have less soreness than eccentrics, and pairing glute and hamstring work with bands is very practical in circumstances where being ready to perform every day is important, like baseball or basketball. Instead of working a lockout in a deadlift, hip thrusts are useful for those athletes that have very little access to sprinting or bounding. Even if an athlete does sprints and plyos for hip extension, a little preparation beforehand is a wise option.
Video 6. A few isometric holds to hip extensors are a great way to tutor athletes that need posterior chain development. Those who live in bad weather regions and lack high speed sprinting may reduce the gap with isolated training.
You can do other exercises like reverse leg presses or similar with isometrics, but be careful. Heavy loading from bands or machines near lockout positions isn’t a wise idea with unskilled athletes or those that are not disciplined. You can finish or start workouts with isometrics, but you should know why you are sequencing the exercise early or late in the session.
I tend to start the session with a safe wake-up, but it’s more for potentiation than activation, as most exercises will do that. If you are going to isolate, make sure you get more out of that time investment, as nearly any athletic activity will get muscles primed. If you do the isometric work after training, use a quantified or known resistance so that the program still sustains progressive overload.
Some Last-Minute Advice Before Getting StartedThe key to isometrics is to add just enough to make a difference without getting carried away. Click To Tweet
The key to isometrics is to add just enough to make a difference without getting carried away. Over the last few decades, we have seen athletes get hurt while attempting isometric training because of the stereotype that they don’t require anything more than effort and time. As with all training, you need a long-term plan because time is necessary for progress, and isometrics require the right design and good science to work.