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Isometrics: Get Stronger Without Moving a Muscle

Updated: Feb 2

Walk into any gym in the world and you'll see all the cool kids lifting weights, so most people think that's the only way to get strong and build muscle. But . . . what if I were to tell you there was another way to get strong, a way that you wouldn't have to lift a weight to get stronger and build power – would that be something that would interest you?

Now obviously, I'm being a little facetious here. You definitely should lift weights to improve muscle size, strength and power. However, there is another way that can you improve some those attributes without technically lifting any weights and it's actually safer on your muscles, joints and tendons: isometrics.

One of Three

Isometric is one of the three types of muscular contractions, the other two are concentric and eccentric, and they seem get all of the attention in the gym. Concentric is the lifting action of a movement; when you apply force to a weight, an increase in muscular tension causes the muscle to shorten and the weight is lifted. Eccentric is the opposing action; when you lower the weight, the muscle lengthens. Isometric contractions occur with no muscular action – force or tension is applied but there is no shortening or lengthening of the muscle.

There are two types of isometric contractions. Yielding isometrics are where you hold a position, like when you do a plank or a wall sit for time. Overcoming isometrics occur when you exert maximum force on an immovable object, like trying to push a car that is set in park or pin press, which I'll cover later in this post.

In a typical exercise you may utilize all three contractions, let's look at the squat as an example. When you lower yourself into the bottom position, that's the eccentric phase. If you happen to pause at the bottom for a second or two, that would be classified as a yielding isometric. When you stand back up, that's the concentric phase.

Yielding isometrics are commonly used to get that extra pump by holding a contraction at the end of a rep. Conversely, I see very few people training overcoming isometrics, which is a shame, because they're a great alternative way to get stronger. Most trainees focus on just lifting weights and gain strength incrementally. Others, who have dug a little deeper into training methods, utilize eccentric training because there is a lot of evidence showing its benefit to improving strength.

I'm hoping to convince you to add in some overcoming isometrics, so lets take a look at why

Safer Alternative to Lifting Weights for In-season Training or Injured Athletes

As I mentioned earlier, concentric and eccentric contractions involve muscle shortening and lengthening, which can actually create tissue inflammation due to the sliding actions of tissues - this is what causes the micro tears and eventual muscle soreness that is associated with weight training. Although this is a good thing, technically, because that's how you build muscle, it also means that you could be more sore if you're really trying to push the limits to gain strength, especially if you're doing really slow eccentrics, because that action causes the most muscle damage.

Isometrics on the other hand are the only contraction that doesn't increase inflammatory mediator release, which means you can slot them into your programs without making you sore. If you're coming back from an injury, these are good options and are widely utilized by rehab professionals (1). They would also be beneficial for anyone who wants to improve or maintain strength and power while tapering for an event like running a marathon or any athlete who is in season and wants to mitigate muscle soreness and possible inflammation.

Now, let's take a deeper dive into the two types of Isometrics and how you can incorporate them into your program.