The Truth Behind Isometric Training

Posted: Friday 2 March 2012 by Strength&Nutrition24/7 in Labels: , ,

Isometric training has been around for many years. Legendary strongman Alexander Zass preached the effectiveness of isometric training in the early 1900’s. As he found himself a prisoner of war during World War 1, Zass began pulling and pushing on the bars and chains used to constrain him. He quickly began to notice an improvement from his efforts. It was long after that Zass began promoting this style of training through popular mail order courses. Zass has been attributed as the Father of Isometrics.

Common practice and beliefs
Isometric training does not require expensive equipment or a gym, it can be performed anywhere, with little time necessary. Although there is a great deal of advantages to isometric training in general it is used in athletics as a supplement. The thought behind this is that it lacks the specificity for athletics in terms of dynamic movement. Further, it is thought that strength gain will occur at only the angle the isometric contraction is trained at and produce little to no strength gain at other angles. The final common belief is the use of isometric training can produce a great deal of strain on elite athletes and at times cause pain and overload the CNS system.

Isometric muscle action is a muscle action where the muscle does not change in length because the tension in the cross-bridges is equal to the resistive force (Baechle, 2008; Coburn, 2012; Zatsiorsky, 2006; Weinberg, 2007; Powers, 2007). There is little to no change in muscle length or actual movement (Baechle, 2008; Coburn, 2012; Zatsiorsky, 2006; Weinberg, 2007; Powers, 2007).
  1. Holding a weight at a certain position in the range of motion. Example holding a barbell at 90 degrees.

2.          Pushing or pulling against an immovable external resistance. Example pushing against a wall.

    3.       Holding your body in a certain position in a range of motion: holding the chin-up at 90 degrees.

Muscle Activation
A very significant benefit of isometric action training is that it produces a greater level of activation than any other contraction regimen. The term activation is referring to the recruitment of the muscle motor units.
During 2001 a study on “Activation of Human Quadriceps Femoris During Isometric, Concentric, and Eccentric Contractions” by Nicholas Babault et al. found that during maximal eccentric and concentric contractions activation levels were 88.3% and 89.7%, respectively, yet they were significantly lower (P<0.05) than the activation levels during maximal isometric contraction which were 95.2%. This study’s findings have been well documented and supported through the large body of literature that has found maximal isometric action to recruit nearly all the motor units (Allen, 1995; Allen, 1998; Belanger, 1981; De Serres and Enoka 1998; Merton, 1954; & Newham, 1991). This demonstrated that through the use of isometric training we are capable of engaging a greater percentage of our muscle fibres. Therefore, in theory we should be able to have improvement in our capability of muscle activation through development of our neural system. If this proves to be true we may find a significant increase in our strength based on our capability of using our muscle closer to its full potential.

Strength Gain
Isometric training has been used by many athletes and trainers to deal with sticking points (nothing more nothing less). This has occurred because many trainers have thought that isometric training only increases strength at the angle trained. This is partially true, in the study done on the “Specificity of Joint Angle in Isometric Training” by Kitai and Sale found that strength gains were the greatest at the angle the training occurred. However, significant increase in strength also occurred at the angles (+/-5 degrees). Some studies have found 20-50% strength transfer gained in a range of +/-20 degrees; a large portion of the literature completed on this topic supports that strength is either exclusive to or greater at the joint angle trained, in comparison to other joint angles (Enamait, 2005; Bender, 1963; Gardner, 1963; Meyers, 1967; Raitsin,  1974; Lindh,  1979; Thrpaut-Ma-thieu, 1988).  In order to practically resolve the issue of strength gain only occurring in a limited range of degrees around the trained area, many strength coaches have begun to implement a series of isometric contractions throughout the range of motion.

There is no doubt in the body of literature that isometric training can lead to significant strength gain.  As isometric training spread throughout the early 1900’s and became popular during the 1950’s significant research began to come out. One such example is T. Hettinger and E. Muller (1953, 1955, 1958) who found that a daily effort of 2/3 maximum effort, for a period of 6 seconds, had the ability to increase strength by up to 5% per week. Studies have found strength gains in ranges of 14-40% over 6-10 week periods (Kanehisa, 2002; Kitai, 2001; Bender, 1963; Gardner, 1963; Meyers, 1967; Raitsin, 1974; Lindh, 1979; Thérpaut-Mathieu, 1988)

Based on this we can conclude that:

  1. Intramuscular tension is greater and attained for a longer period of time in maximal isometric action training than dynamic exercises. This can be attributed to the fact that dynamic exercise has velocity and acceleration aspects; force is only produced for split seconds. During maximal isometric action training, it is possible to sustain the maximal tension for 3-6 seconds. However, dynamic exercise on the concentric portion maximum intramuscular tension lasts for 0.25-0.5 seconds. Yuri Verkhoshansky (1977) found that every 6 second isometric contraction is equal to numerous dynamic contractions. Also, The ability to increase strength is greatly affected by the amount of total time the body is under maximal intramuscular tension per session. By adding 10-20 seconds of intramuscular tension per session, one is capable of dramatically increasing the potential for strength gains (Thibaudeau, 2004).
  2. Isometric training has the ability to assist in surpassing sticking points and weak angles in an athlete’s range of motion by allowing them to improve at a precise point in the range of motion. For weight lifters this can be extremely useful in overcoming plateaus.
  3. Isometric exercise does not require a great deal of energy expenditure. This means one can receive the benefits of isometric action training without having a drastic effect on the remaining training session.

A large factor in why isometric training has not fully developed its self in the masses is due to phenomenon of bodybuilding that took place. As body building began to really become popular simultaneously it was being hypothesized that isometric training would produce insignificant muscles gains in comparison to dynamic training due to the absence of work. In response to this hypothesis, bodybuilders pushed aside isometric training and focused on exercise deemed more appropriate for hypertrophy. As the popularity of body building further increased, isometric training found itself further and further into obscurity. However, the recent findings in isometric training have thrown the old hypothesis out and have findings supporting that isometric training can in fact lead to hypertrophy.

        In the study looking at Effects of Equivolume Isometric Training Programs Comprising Medium or High Resistance on Muscle Size and Strength by kanehisa et al. 2002 found that over the course of a 10 week program, training 3 times a week there was significant increase in muscle volume in groups performing at 100% and 60% maximum voluntary isometric contractions. However, the group performing 100% maximum voluntary isometric contractions had significantly greater muscle volume gains than the 60% group. The maximal isometric group had an increase in muscle volume by 12.4% and the 60% group had a 5.3% increase. The authors concluded that the reason for the increase in muscle volume is unknown but could be attributed to the metabolic demands and endocrine activities rather than mechanical stress and neuromuscular control. The difference in muscle volume between the 100% group and the 60% may be attributed to the combination of prescribed intensity and number of sets in the protocol which may have induced a greater contribution of either metabolic or hormonal stimuli.

Isometric Styles
The names of the following styles vary from study to study and book to book. However, the following categories are separated the same way by nearly everyone.

Overcoming isometric:
This category is when one is pushing against an immovable resistance. For example assuming you are not as powerful as Samson you can place yourself between two pillars or in a squat rack place one hand on each post and push as hard as you can with the intent to move the resistance (Judges 16:29). Fig. 1

Yielding Isometric:
A weight or object is being held and prevented from lowering or eccentric contraction occurring. In this scenario, the intent is not to move an object, rather to stop it from moving.
Whenever these techniques are used, it is important to note that they do not have the same effect on the neural patterns. Yielding isometrics has a greater impact in eccentric strength and muscle mass and overcoming isometric has a greater impact on concentric strength (Thibaudeau, 2004).

Maximal Effort Isometrics:
This style is performed by applying maximal tension to an immobile structure. Tension should be generated quickly and held for 3 to 6 seconds (Enamait, 2005; kanehisa, 2002). This form of training is an excellent means in improving strength, muscle volume, and improve torque. However, the improvement of torque to muscle volume ratio is more effective in other forms of isometric training (Enamait, 2005; kanehisa, 2002).

Whether or not tension should be developed quickly or gradually over a period of 4-5 seconds, it is the most commonly debated topic in regards to isometric training. In terms of developing explosive strength and power, producing tension quickly is optimal. Fleck and Kramer (2004) note that by producing maximal tension rapidly, one imposes significant adaptation in contractile muscle properties, such as, the excitation- contraction coupling pathway. However, when looking at risk to benefit ratio it becomes a tricky situation, since, the risk of injury is significantly higher when tension is developed quickly.

“Excitation–contraction coupling is broadly defined as the process linking the action potential to contraction in striated muscle or, more narrowly, as the process coupling surface membrane depolarization to Ca2+ release from the sarcoplasmic reticulum (Dulhunty, 2006).”

Max Duration Isometric:
In the case of max duration isometric exercise, you are pushing, pulling, or holding a sub maximal load for as long as possible. This is likely the most common form of isometric seen used in the general population. The sets used generally range from 20 to 60 seconds in length. This form of training can be effective in the development of muscle volume and is a good method for training muscle endurance and creating a high level of micro muscle damage (Thibaudeau, 2004).
When practically applying this method, one can use yielding or overcoming isometrics. However the preferred form by most is the yielding isometrics. When one is training the load should range from 50-80% for duration of 20-60 seconds.

Explosive Isometrics (ballistic isometrics):
            This method focuses on developing tension as quickly as possible. Tension is produced for brief burst of 1-3 seconds. The goal is to reach full force as quickly as possible. This method has been found to develop speed and strength (Thibaudeau, 2004; & Enamait, 2005). This method of isometric training has a high level of crossover to athletic performance. This form of isometric training is often used in martial art training.

            Behm and Sale looked at “Intended Rather than Actual Movement Velocity Determines Velocity Specific Training Response” (1993). They found that repeated attempts to perform ballistic contractions with high rate of force and tension development were the primary stimuli for high velocity training response to occur. This resulted in the authors concluding that the form of either isometric or concentric muscle actions is not important to speed development. Rather, the intension to move fast was much more important than the actual speed of the movement. When performing this method, one must perform it using overcoming isometrics. This method is extremely powerful in developing athletes particularly in sports where the athlete often starts from static position (sprinting out of the blocks, martial arts, football, etc).

            A practical example of the effects that can take place in sport through the use of weight training and explosive isometric training can be seen in the study by Olson and Hopkins (1999). The group that had been working with weights and explosive isometrics had significant increase in peak force and speed. This study further demonstrates that speed and peak force can be significantly improved when dynamic weight and isometric training are used as supplement to traditional training.

Static Dynamic Isometric training:
            This method involves supersets of isometric and dynamic work. This is done by beginning with a 3-6 second hold, followed by explosive dynamic work, for example, pressing the bar in bench-press as hard as you can into pins then doing explosive bench-press with full range of motion.

            Verkhoshansky (1977) found that static dynamic method of training is superior for developing speed and strength than dynamic training alone. The effectiveness of dynamic training improves when combined with preliminary static tension by up to 20%. When this training is being used, one must perform the dynamic aspect immediately following the static.
 Frequency, Duration, and Rest

            In 1981 Atha found that when isometric training is used properly it can be performed safely without the risk of over training on a daily basis for strength development. This is assuming that isometric training is acting as a supplement to your training and not acting as the sole form of training. However, the more recent literature demonstrated the optimal use of isometric training would be to perform 3-4 workouts per week with maximal voluntary muscle actions each held 3-6 seconds (Fleck and Kramer 2004; Enamait, 2005; & Verkhoshansky, 1977).  

As noted earlier, isometric training is very beneficial to have incorporated into your training a few times per week. When performing Isometric training, it is optimal to keep that aspect of your training brief to approximately 10 minutes (Verkhoshansky, 1977). The rest periods should be short at approximately 10 seconds between repetitions (Verkhoshansky, 1977).

When performing Isometric training, it is optimal to train at several angels through the range of motion. Each joint angle trained should be put under 4 to 6 reps. In between sets one should attempt to actively relax the muscle.

Why is Isometric Training Not Commonly Used?
With the incredible benefits of isometric training outlined in literature, it is difficult to understand how it could be so rarely used. As previously noted, the hypothesis that isometric training would have very little effect on hypertrophy and the simultaneous popularity of body building had a significant effect on the popularity of isometric training. To further worsen the scenario for isometric training during this time period many trainers decided to do selective reading associated with the disadvantages of isometric training. In, particular trainers placed an emphasis on Verkhoshansky (1977) listed negative aspects of isometric training:

  1. Isometric fatigues the nervous system
  2. Isometrics have a harmful influence on the cardiovascular system
  3. Isometrics decrease coordination and speed of movement
  4. Isometrics worsen the elasticity of the muscle

The majority of trainers were quick to point out the faults and potential draw backs. However, they chose to ignore that Verkhoshansky offered simple ways to avoid and negate all these issues through proper sequencing of work and rest, time for breathing, relaxation, and stretching.

Isometric training is a fantastic tool that has been underutilised. That being said one must not form their routine around isometric training, rather it should be supplemented into 3-4 days a week of your training routine. This tool has the capability of increasing your strength, power, speed, explosiveness, muscle volume, and breaking through plateaus. Many have thought isometric training to not be transferable to athletic performance. However, we see that the research does not support this notion.


  • Allen, G.M., Gandevia, S.C., & McKenzie, D.K (1995). Reliability of Measurements Of Muscle Strength and Voluntary Activation Using Twitch Interpolation. Muscle & Nerve, 18 (6), 593-600.
  • Allen, D.G., Westerblad, H., Bruton, J.D., Andrade, F.H., & Lannergen, J. (1998). Mechanisms Underlying the Reduction of Isometric Force in Skeletal Muscle Fatigue. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 162(3), 253-260.
  • Babault, N., Pousson, M., Ballay, Y., & Van Hoecke, J. (2001). Activation of Human Quadriceps Femoris During Isometric, Concentric, and Eccentric Contractions. J Appl Physiol, 91, 2628-2634.
  • Baechle, T. R., & Earle, R. W. (2000). National Strength and Conditioning Association. (2nd ed.). Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics.
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  • Belanger, A.Y., & McComas, A.J. (1981). Extent of Motor Unit Activation During Effort. J Appl Physiol, 51(5), 1131-1135
  • Bender, J., & Kaplan, H. (1963). The Multiple Angle Testing Method for the Evaluation Of Muscle Strength. J Bone Joint Surg, 45(A), 135-140.
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  • Dulhunty, A.F. (2006). Brief Review Excitation-Contraction Coupling from the 1950s Into the New Millennium. Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and physiology, 33, 763-772.
  • Enamait, R. (2005). Infinity Intensity, The Revolution is Here. Vernon: Ross Enamait.
  • Fleck, S.J., & Kraemer, W.J. (2004). Designing Resistance Training Programs (4th ed.) Human Kinetics, Champagn, IL
  • Gardner, G.W. (1963). Specificity of Strength Changes of the Exercised and Non Exercised Limb Following Isometric Training. Res Quart, 34, 98-101
  • Hettinger, T., & Muller, E. A. (1953). Muskelleistung und Muskeltraining. Internationale Zeitschrift fur angewandte Physiologie einschliesslich Arbeitsphysiologie, 5, 111-126.
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  • Lindh, M. (1979). Increase of Muscle Strength from Isometric Quadriceps Exercises at Different Knee Angles. Sc and J Rehab Med, 11, 33-36.
  • Meyers, C.R. (1967). Effects of Two Isometric Routines on Strength, Size, and Endurance in Exercised and No Exercised Arms. Res Quart, 38, 430-440.
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  • Olson, P.D., & Hopkins, W.G (1999). The Effect of Weight Training and Explosive Isometrics on Martial Art Kicks and Palm Strikes. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 31(5), supplement abstract 790.
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  • Raitsin, L.M. (1974). The Effectiveness of Isometric and Electro-Stimulated Training on Muscle Strength at Different Joint Angles. Theory Prac Phys Cult 12, 33-35 (Translated in Yessis Rev Soviet Phys Educ Sport 11:35-39).
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  • Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2007). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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  • Fig. 1


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  1. Unknown says:

    Bullshit about the disadvantages, these statistics aren't accurate. There are no disadvantages because isometric exercises are the most natural way to build strength and muscle without putting stress on your limbs and joints whereas you will with weight lifting. I have done these and they do not just build up strength in one position, if you do an isometric exercise for your shoulder it strengthens the entire shoulder not just using it in one static position. No disadvantages to isometrics, where as in weight lifting your lifting heavy objects in extremely unnatural positions weakening and tearing the ligaments between joints. Lifting weights build muscular strength but not as much tendon strength and bone strength as isometrics, which are alot more useful than walking around all bulky in a tank top where you have no real strength except for benching something which won't be useful in a situation that would require actual athletic strength.

  1. I am sorry you feel it is B.S.

    I am not gonna say its not true in your specific case because you may be a genetic freak (good thing) who responds extremely well to isometric training.

    However these aren't B.S statistics, in fact, they are well researched and the numbers come from well done studies. Before saying the information is B.S please refer to the articles in the reference list.

    P.S I am a strong supporter of isometric training.... However, they are an accessory to your regular training and should not be the focus.

    Most people in the gym don't train to improve athletic ability... they actually make them selves worse by training like a body builder

  1. Anonymous says:

    He's gotcha there, bro. That is one LOOONG list of reference materials. Read that stuff before screaming B.S. ;-)

  1. I appreciate the comment and I hope you enjoyed the post.
    You have to love discussions and battles!

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great article, thanks!


  1. No problem I am glad you liked it

  1. Nice piece. I have tired isometrics off and on in the past and always had great results. Never mind I have just under 30 years of lifting weights under my belt. I have always found it amazing how much resistance there is to anyone giving anything remotely like praise to isometrics for what it does do very well. Almost no one ever talks about it being used in conjunction with body weight training and interval training for a cheap almost bullet proof workout combo.

    People get too caught up in what ever they are into and being right or there method being best. It really is like trying to say a hammer is better then a wrench or a screw driver is better then a socket set etc???? All tools have something they are great at no mechanic, plumper, maintenance man or anyone else that uses hand tools could ever get by with just one tool! In fact people would call you an idiot if you tried to fix an enitre care with just a hammer! Weight lifting, isometrics, all forms of cardio from interval to long slow cardio all have there place for producing a specific outcome. By smartly mixing the tools you use for the outcome you wish to create is where smart people use knowledge and common sense to get the most bang for there training time "buck" if you will.

    You can lead a horse to wate but you can not make it drink. Knowledge and Wisdom are much the same. You can lead people to it and even try to spoon feed it to them but many just will not accept it.

  1. Great Comment! Love the passion and enthusiasm. I completely agree people get stuck in their ways and are very resistant to change no matter how much evidence there is. It is like trying to tell people not to static stretch before exercise (they think your crazy).

    Yeah I always love the extremism in the fitness industry. Why would you ever convert completely to one form of training is beyond me, when so many different training methods come with their own unique benefits.

    I am in the process of moving this blog over to my new site feel free to check it out

  1. Anonymous says:

    well done for such an incredibly well referenced piece. I'm definitely going to start integrating isometrics into my workouts thanks to this information. Especially good when traveling and without gear

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great article!

  1. Anonymous says:

    Bruce Lee used isometric training as a supplement to his lifting routine. He was arguably one of the fittest men who ever lived. I wouldn't discount it all together, but I wouldn't overdo it either.

  1. mikaellq says:

    I have great experiences of isometric training and it's a very intense way of training and you should be careful if you're not used to tough exercisers. This is THE way to train if you want impressive results and in a comparably short time.

    It's completely false that claim that isometric training give strength only in the angle trained because it works on the whole muscle and you should do it where the legs or arms are bent the most but without resting because it's there where it's the most intense and it's ALL about intensity and getting great results with a minimum investment of time and energy.

    Why all these negative claims about isometric training?
    Ignorance? Lost business for gym owners? What?

  1. Could you explain why they shouldn't be so the focus and should instead supplement ones training. Take a look at Olympic gymnasts. Isometrics is all the do and the are so strong the can bench 300 and dead lift 400 lbs cold.

  1. You are right. Look at Olympic gymnasts. All they do is isometrics and they can bench 300 and dead lift 400. If isometrics were only limited to the angle then how is this possible.

  1. Anonymous says:


  1. Jake Long says:

    Fantastic article! You really did your homework, and the end was my favorite: Isometrics do improve ability, bam! And I definitely agree that a routine shouldn't be based on Isometrics. I think instinctively we know that workouts should be based around a good amount of actual movement, but the tension created with Isometrics is still very beneficial. Thanks for the info.

  1. Unknown says:

    Fantastic piece of information you have placed here.
    Congrats, i really like it.

    I'll just bring up something to tease your mind.
    Isn't time a series of "now"?.
    In the same way, isn't movement a sequence of isometric positions?.

    If it was for me i would place all my focus on iso... but yes, that's me =)

    thanks again for the great article


  1. Anonymous says:

    I remember as a kid seeing Charles Atlas advertising his program in comics all the time. I believe he called it dynamic tension. I also remember him doing strength feats like pulling a car or truck, and maybe even a train once. It must have worked well for him.

  1. tAaOS says:

    Sixty years old. Been doing isometrics off and on for forty years with only a cardio supliment routine. For minimal investment I have maintained maximum results of muscle mass, strength, and appearance. Isometrics work and produce better results than weight training for the minimal time invested.

  1. Unknown says:

    Mikaellq, could you please...
    1/ ...recommend some RESOURCES to learn about the kind of isometric training that that you practice/like?
    2/ ... describe the type of isometric ROUTINE that you practice/like?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Actually isometrics increase one's speed and coordination read Bruce Lee's Book The Art of Expressing the Human Body, having been a wrestler in college,if i had known about isometrics I wouldn't have wasted all that time lifting weights.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Isometrics are also a GREAT fat burner. I am a fan of the extended isometric contraction. LIke posing in bodybuilding and holding it for about a minute, or until the muscles start to shake like crazy. After just two days of doing these as often as I can remember, I start to get very ripped and my muscles look like steel. I play tennis and racquetball and I can tell you that isometrics make my reflexes much faster as well. I do heavyhands for cardio, and isometrics for muscle and I am 53 and have the body of an excellent 25 year old. They also keep my testosterone levels up there. I do them Monday,Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. They are so brutal on the body, I need Wednesday and Saturday and Sunday off to let the muscle fibers heal and strengthen. My number is 641-680-3353 if anybody wants to talk about this stuff.

  1. Ranjit says:

    Can u please suggest me whether I can do dynamic strength training exercise on one day and isometric on the other day. Total regular workout 5 to 6 days a week per muscle group.

    M talking about bodyweight exercise.

    Plz help.

    Ranjit Mishra

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  1. Unknown says:

    Thanks for a great article on isometric exercises. I'm an ultra masters men's bodybuilding competitor age range 60-69. I have included two isometric routines as part of a morning routine. I alternate between a lower body routine and an upper body routine. In addition to aiding in maintaining my strength I am experiencing improvements in initialing and holding my poses. I guess it tunes up the neuromuscular system.

  1. Unknown says:

    I see this is an informative and interesting post so i think it is very useful and knowledgeable. I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article.

    Tried everything to Build up? Build muscle and gain weight is a daunting task if you’ve been thin all your life. For both men and women this is an an important point. A few extra kilos/pounds and more muscle can influence your life positively.

    There are many ways to lose weight but I think going to the gym addition to taking Elite Test 360 is a good combination that can help you archive your goal.

  1. rodi says:

    I would like to add that maybe the association between muscle and work(=F*d) probably is incorrect. I would rather associate it with energy. If you did 10 reps lasting 20 seconds total is less taxing to the body than 10 reps lasting 45 secs. Our body is more an energy system, and it adapts to exercise probably by providing more energy to do the work.

  1. rodi says:

    I would like to add that maybe the association between muscle and work(=F*d) probably is incorrect. I would rather associate it with energy. If you did 10 reps lasting 20 seconds total is less taxing to the body than 10 reps lasting 45 secs. Our body is more an energy system, and it adapts to exercise probably by providing more energy to do the work.

  1. Anonymous says:

    How often you should do isometric exercises?

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    ,i am interested and would like to know more about this field and wanted to understand the details about Weight Loss Exercise

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  1. Anonymous says:

    If an athlete is lacking in any of these areas, it will negatively impact their ability to perform activities further up the pyramid.
    Strength in its most basic form is identified as how much you can lift. The exact type of strength needed depends on the activity you participate in.
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