Isometric exercises are a very strange thing. Your workout is made up of striking a pose and holding it in a single, static position. You work out by keeping still. Depending on the isometric program, you're supposed to contract the muscles while you hold the pose and keep that position for 5 to 60 seconds.
It's not as easy as it sounds. Staying still while lying on the couch doesn't count. It's the contraction of the muscles that is supposed to be beneficial.
Variations include "overcoming" isometric and "yielding" isometric.
In an overcoming isometric exercise, you push with your muscles against something immovable. For example, you might stand in a doorway and press your hands against the frame. You're not moving, the doorway isn't moving, but you're contracting your muscles and pushing with all your strength against the doorway.
In a yielding isometric exercise, you move a weight into place, but get to a point where you simply can't go any further. For example, you might do a dumbbell curl, and near the top of the exercise, hold the dumbbell in position for 5 to 60 seconds while contracting your muscles. Since you don't have to keep moving the weight up and down, you can typically move more than in a traditional dumbbell curl. These are also sometimes called static contractions.
So who should do them?
Isometric exercises are done with your muscles kept static, in one position. That means they increase strength only in that specific position. You would have to do isometric exercises through your limb's entire range of motion to improve strength across that range. That makes isometrics impractical for people trying to build overall strength.
Keeping your muscles static also doesn't help improve your speed. If you want to move faster, you have to practice moving fast. Standing still and flexing your muscles isn't going to help. That means isometrics are the wrong choice for people simply trying to get faster.
But there are a couple things that isometrics are ideal for. When you're moving weights, one of the most important things to do is maintain proper form. For the majority of exercises, that means keeping the core of your body in proper alignment. Often you don't want your core to move at all.
There's an exercise called "the plank." It's an isometric exercise where you keep your core still and engaged for 10 to 60 seconds. The plank helps you build strength in your core, so as you do other exercises, you've built the strength to maintain proper positioning.
Other sports that can benefit from isometric strength training of the core and specific body parts include: alpine skiing, climbing, gymnastics, horseback riding, Judo, mountain biking and wrestling.
Isometrics can also help people maintain the strength they already have. It's often suggested for people who are injured, or have conditions like advanced arthritis: situations where movement could aggravate an injury or cause excessive pain. That means isometrics can help people going through rehabilitation or some types of physical therapy.
An example of a good candidate for isometric exercises might be someone who broke their arm. A therapist could recommend isometric exercises for the parts of the arm that weren't immobilized by a cast. Then they wouldn't lose as much strength as the bones healed.
One of the warnings you'll often hear about isometrics is that people with hypertension or cardiovascular disease shouldn't do them. The belief was that the temporary spike in blood pressure could cause a cardiac event. It turns out research doesn't back that up.
Several clinical studies show that people with hypertension who engage in isometric exercises actually experience a decrease in blood pressure, many after as little as four weeks of training. In fact, isometrics are no more stressful than cardio training. The key thing to remember is, keep breathing. Holding your breath will only compound any increases in blood pressure while you're engaged in an isometric exercise.
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