Harnessing the Power of Isometric Exercises for Peak Performance
By Coach Patrick Marques
In Part 1 of this series, we defined isometrics and discussed the two basic types of isometric exercises (check it out here), and in Part 2 we explained the many benefits of isometrics (check it out here).
In Part 3, we will discuss the practical aspect of how to use and program isometrics into your training, and we’ll give you another “how to” video.
How do you use isometrics?
Let’s define the parameters we can use for isometrics first. Just as we can alter different parameters during regular strength training (i.e., the weight used, the angle of pull, etc.), there are three primary parameters we can adjust when doing isometrics:
Effort level – This is the percentage of effort/force output at which you engage the target musculature. You could get objective numbers by using a dynamometer, but these can be expensive, and most folks will not likely have access to one. We have found at a practical level that a subjective estimate works just fine (e.g., “push at 50% effort… now increase to 75%.., etc.” A 100% effort would be contracting the musculature with the greatest force you can muster.
Time of contraction – A full, 100% effort level of contraction can be held at most for six to eight seconds. But this does not mean that longer, sub-maximal effort isometrics are useless. In fact, most of the studies that have used isometrics for pain reduction do just that – isometric holds at 30-60 seconds at 50-75% effort.
Joint angles – An old myth about isometrics was that strength increases were only gained at the exact joint angle at which the isometrics are done. We now know this is not the case and that strength increases can be found at multiple joint angle positions from isometrics, although how large of an increase can depend upon which joint angle was used.
Now that we know the three parameters we can adjust for isometrics, let’s look at a couple of examples of how to apply the concept.
Applying the Isometrics Parameters
If we use isometrics to help reduce pain, help recover after an injury or surgery, or improve general stability around a joint, then a good place to start would be lower effort levels, longer contraction times, and the most comfortable joint angle. An example of a knee issue could look something like this:
Exercises: Standing Knee Flexion and Standing Knee Extension
Effort: 25-75% (highest possible without pain)
Time: 30-45 seconds holds
Joint Angle: 90o / mid-range
Volume: 2-3 sets of the 30-45 second holds
Unilateral, open-chain exercises like these are great as they force stabilization to happen on the non-working side, so you would want to do the isometrics on both sides. When the non-issue side is doing the isometric, the injured/issue side must do the stabilization. This is just as important as the strength work.
Remember, if you are using isometrics to help with a pain issue, do NOT go into pain during the isometric – only use the effort level and the time of contraction that you can do pain-free.
If we use isometrics to increase strength, improve explosiveness, or strengthen a joint, then a good place to start would be using higher effort levels, shorter contraction times, and multiple joint angles. For lower body strength, this could look something like this:
Exercises: Lunge / Split Squat Stance
Effort: 75-100% (highest possible without pain)
Time: 6-8 second holds
Joint Angles: 1) Near fully stretched, 2) 90o / mid-range, and 3) near fully contracted
Volume: 1-3 sets of 6-8 second holds at all three positions (e.g., 1 set = a 6-8 second hold at positions 1, 2, and 3)
A lower body isometric exercise using common equipment
A great isometric for the hips and knees is a Split Squat/Lunge Isometric. We like to do this in a more functional, athletic position with the feet hip-width apart and the lead/working leg only one natural step in front of the rear foot. Check out this video for how to set it up and perform this isometric!
Consider incorporating isometrics training into your routine to optimize your stability, strength, and pain-free movement. It will pay off now and as you age!
Click here to schedule an appointment to assess your issues and get an isometrics training plan for getting stronger, more stabile, and better movement!
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Kubo, K., Ohgo, K., Takeishi, R., Yoshinaga, K., Tsunoda, N., Kanehisa, H., & Fukunaga, T. (2005). Effects of Isometric training at different knee angles on the muscle-tendon complex in vivo. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports.