side plank isometric exercise

Master the Art of Stillness: 15 Essential Isometric Exercises with Peloton

Boost your muscular endurance and longevity by making this training style part of your routine.

By Pam MooreUpdated May 22, 2024

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Isometrics exercise might sound fancy but the truth is, you probably do some form of isometric training every single day, whether you realize it or not. If you’ve ever hung onto a heavy suitcase while waiting for the airport shuttle, held up a giant framed painting while your partner tells you if it’s level or not, or carried a baby on your hip while waiting in line at the grocery store, congratulations—you’ve done isometric exercises.

And if you’re looking for an easy, equipment-free way to build strength and endurance without putting a lot of stress on your joints, consider adding isometric exercises to your workout routine. Here’s everything you need to know about isometrics, from the benefits of isometric training to real-life isometric exercise examples you can incorporate into your workouts today.

What Is Isometric Exercise? 

Unlike traditional strength training, which typically involves more dynamic movement, an isometric move requires you to hold a static position while your muscles are under tension. For example, during a traditional biceps curl, you move your elbow joint through most or all of its range of motion. If you wanted to use an isometric exercise to work your biceps muscle, on the other hand, you’d hold a moderately heavy dumbbell, bend your elbow to 90 degrees, and keep it there for 30 to 90 seconds. More common examples of isometric moves include planks, wall sits, or squat holds, says Peloton instructor Selena Samuela

With isometric exercises, you’re likely to really feel the “burn” as you continue to hold the position. It isn’t the result of your muscles tearing into tiny pieces while you sweat, Selena says. It’s actually caused by the buildup of microscopic hydrogen ions in your bloodstream.

Every time you do a plank (or a wall sit or any exercise, isometric or not), your body starts to break down the glycogen that’s stored in your muscles for energy. This process releases hydrogen ions and lactate into your bloodstream. As hydrogen accumulates, your blood becomes more acidic, which induces that burning sensation. “The longer you hold the muscle contraction, the more hydrogen builds up, and the more intense the burn will be,” Selena says. 

Does Isometric Exercise Build Muscle?

Isometrics can help build muscle, but they might not be for everyone. It all depends on your goals. If you want to improve your one-rep max or increase your muscles’ size, focus on lifting moderate to heavy weights.

“For strength and hypertrophy goals, you’re better off with traditional strength training,” Selena says. “If the focus is on strength, emphasize lifting heavy weights in the three to five rep range. For hypertrophy goals, focus on lifting moderately heavy weights, somewhere in the eight to twelve rep range.”

Research shows that while lifting weights heavier than 60 percent of your one-rep max improves both muscle mass and strength, heavier weights (more than 60 percent of your one-rep max) are best for maximizing your one-rep max.

Exploring Isometric Exercise Examples

Wondering how isometric moves can fit into your routine? Here are a few examples:

Planks: Whether you’ve attended barre, bootcamp, or even yoga classes, you’re probably familiar with planks. There are multiple variations on the plank, but they all target your abdominal muscles. When done right, you also target your deep stabilizer muscles, such as the transverse abdominus. Try them at the beginning of your workout to get your core activated or at the end as part of your cool-down.

Wall Sits: Also popular in bootcamp and barre classes, wall sits make an excellent addition to leg day, especially if you’re working out at home or in a hotel room. They target all the same muscles as a squat but require zero equipment. Intersperse them between sets of dynamic moves like jump squats or burpees, or tack a few rounds onto the end of a hard run or bike ride to get your muscles nice and fatigued before your active recovery or rest day.

Squat Hold: Similar to a wall sit, a squat hold works the same muscles as a squat, and is perfect for the days when you don’t have the time or space for a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell workout. Try a squat hold before a run to get your glutes and quads firing or after your next cardio session to spice up your routine.

Benefits of Isometric Exercise

“Feeling the burn” doesn’t exactly sound like fun, but trust us—if you stick with isometric exercises, you’ll start to see some major payoffs in your fitness. Here’s what you have to look forward to with the benefits of isometric training.

Improves Endurance 

Isometrics are an excellent way to improve your muscular endurance, or how long your muscles can keep performing the same movement. “The sustained contraction of the muscle increases time under tension, thus asking your muscles to work for a longer duration,” Selena says. “So adding isometrics to your routines helps your muscles adapt to producing and maintaining force.” 

While isometric exercises might not be ideal for weightlifters looking to set PRs in the gym, they’re perfect for endurance athletes who want to cross the finish line faster, including runners, cyclists, rowers, and swimmers. “Sports like running and cycling require repeated muscle contractions over long periods of time, and that’s exactly the type of muscle contractions that isometrics train,” Selena says. “Just about every endurance athlete can benefit from isometrics.”

In fact, a small study of male cyclists found that after just one week of isometric training, the cyclists used significantly less oxygen at moderate intensities. While isometric training had no effect on the athletes’ high-intensity efforts, this study suggests they’d make a great form of cross-training if you’re targeting a longer event like a century (100-mile) ride. 

Enhances Cardiovascular Health 

According to the CDC, we should shoot for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity exercise per week. And while the best type of exercise is the one that you’ll actually do, a 2023 British Journal of Sports Medicine study suggests that isometrics might be especially good for heart health.

The study, which analyzed nearly 300 randomized controlled trials, compared the resting blood pressure of people who performed various forms of exercise, including aerobic exercise, dynamic resistance training, a combination of strength and aerobic training, high-intensity interval training, and isometric training. Those who participated in isometric training (the wall squat in particular) experienced much lower resting systolic and diastolic blood pressure than those who did other forms of exercise.

Accessible for All Levels

A 2019 study found that isometric training elicited less fatigue than traditional strength training and provided more of a performance advantage for activities including running, jumping, and cycling. 

While you should always check with your doctor before starting an exercise program, the low-impact nature of isometric exercises makes them “excellent for anyone who is managing chronic pain, joint issues, or those who are pregnant or postpartum,” Selena says.

15 Isometric Exercise Examples Worth Adding to Your Workout

If you’re sold on the effectiveness of isometrics but aren’t sure where to begin, we’ve got you covered. Try holding any of these exercises for 20 to 60 seconds and gradually increasing the time under tension as you get stronger. 

  1. High Plank

  2. Low Plank

  3. Bear Plank

  4. Reverse Plank

  5. Side Plank

  6. Hollow Body Hold

  7. Hip Bridge

  8. Single-Leg Hip Bridge

  9. V-Sit

  10. Squat Hold

  11. Calf Raise Hold

  12. Triceps Dip Hold

  13. Bird Dog Hold

  14. Wall Sit

  15. Front Raise Hold

1. High Plank 

The high plank is a classic fitness move that looks basic but requires attention to form and detail if you really want to feel the burn. What most people don’t realize is that the plank is an isolation exercise too. 

New to planks? Start on your knees (your body should form a straight line from knees to the crown of your head) before progressing to your toes.

  1. Begin in a tabletop position with your shoulders stacked directly over your wrists and your knees stacked directly under your hips. 

  2. Lift your knees off the ground and walk your feet back until your legs are fully extended. Your body should form a straight line. 

  3. Check your form: Your shoulders should be slightly protracted (or rounded) and your core should be braced and engaged. Your hips should be in line with your shoulders and tucked under slightly (avoid sagging or “putting your butt on display in the butt museum,” as Jess Sims puts it). Imagine the backs of your knees reaching toward the ceiling to engage your hamstrings.

  4. Hold for 20 seconds, working your way up to one minute or longer.

Muscles worked: Core, shoulders, triceps, and lower back

2. Low Plank

If you frequently experience wrist pain, try a low plank as your isometric exercise of choice. You’ll follow mostly the same steps as a high plank, but you’ll support yourself on your forearms versus your wrists. Like the high plank, you can drop to your knees as you’re building your stamina.

  1. Begin in a modified tabletop position with your shoulders stacked directly over your elbows and your knees stacked directly under your hips. Your forearms should be resting parallel to each other on the floor, with your arms forming an “L” shape. 

  2. Lift your knees off the ground and walk your feet back until your legs are fully extended. Your body should form a straight line. 

  3. Check your form: Your shoulders should be slightly protracted (or rounded) and your core should be braced and engaged. Your hips should be in line with your shoulders and tucked under slightly. Imagine the backs of your knees reaching toward the ceiling to engage your hamstrings.

  4. Hold for 20 seconds, working your way up to one minute or longer.

Muscles worked: Core (including the transverse abdominis, obliques, and rectus abdominis) 

3. Bear Plank

The bear plank is a classic functional strength move (meaning it trains the body for real-life daily activities, like crawling on the floor with your kids). If wrist pain bothers you, try making a fist instead during this isometric exercise. 

  1. Begin in a tabletop position with your shoulders stacked directly over your wrists and your knees stacked directly under your hips. 

  2. Lift your knees an inch or two above the ground while keeping your hips level with your shoulders.

  3. Hold for 20 seconds, working your way up to one minute or longer.

Muscles worked: Core, shoulders, and stabilizing muscles

4. Reverse Plank

Put that plank down, flip it, and reverse it—that’s how the Missy Elliot song goes, right? In all seriousness, a reverse plank is a tricky move that challenges you in completely different ways than the traditional plank. If you have poor shoulder mobility, this may not be the best isometrics exercise for you.

  1. Begin seated on the floor with your legs extended and your hands placed behind you on the floor, fingers pointing toward your feet. 

  2. Drive your hands into the ground and lift your hips so they form a straight, diagonal line from your head and shoulders all the way down to your feet. Engage your core and glutes while retracting your shoulder blades to support your body weight.

  3. Hold for 20 seconds, working your way up to one minute or longer.

Muscles worked: Core, shoulders, and triceps

5. Side Plank

Yup, your obliques need some isometric love too. A side plank is similar to a low plank, just on one forearm and with your body opened up toward one side of the room. Like regular planks, don’t be afraid to drop your knees if you’re still building your strength.

  1. Lie on your left side, supporting your body on your left forearm with your left elbow directly under your left shoulder. Your legs should be extended long, but your feet can be staggered for stability (or stacked for an extra challenge).

  2. Lift your hips up off the ground, imagining a string pulling your right (top) hip toward the ceiling. Be careful not to sink into your left shoulder; instead, drive your left forearm into the ground and lift out of your shoulders. Engage your core and glutes to maintain good form.

  3. Hold for 20 seconds, working your way up to one minute or longer. Switch sides and repeat.

Muscles worked: Obliques, core, and shoulders

6. Hollow Body Hold

This challenging core move requires patience as you build your endurance—and trust us, it’s one of those isometric exercises that never really gets any easier. Want to modify? You can bend your knees slightly, lift your legs further away from the ground, and play around with arm position. Alternatively, start in a dead bug position and gradually extend your legs longer and longer until you’re in a true hollow body hold.

  1. Lie on your back with your arms extended overhead (so that your biceps brush your ears) and your legs straight on the ground.

  2. Simultaneously lift your head, shoulders, arms, and legs off the ground, creating a slight curve in your body—almost like a banana shape. 

  3. Engage your core and press your lower back into the floor to maintain proper form. If your low back starts to arch, modify by bending your knees and bringing your legs in a bit.

  4. Hold for 20 seconds, working your way up to one minute or longer. 

Muscles worked: Rectus abdominis, deep core muscles, and hip flexors

7. Hip Bridge

If you think hip bridges are easy, think again. This full-body isometrics exercise should be challenging if you’re doing it properly. Be careful not to overarch your low back—focus on maintaining that straight line from your knees to your shoulders.

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Your arms can stay by your sides. 

  2. Press through your heels to lift your hips off the ground, squeezing your glutes as you do so. Imagine a straight line from your shoulders to your knees.

  3. Hold for 20 seconds, working your way up to one minute or longer.

Muscles worked: Glutes, hamstrings, lower back muscles, and core

8. Single-Leg Hip Bridge

Runners, listen up: Single-leg glute bridges are the VIP of your running-specific isometric exercises. That’s because while you’re running, you’re constantly on one leg, meaning you have to be secure in your balance. Incorporate this into your cross-training to avoid muscle imbalances (and injury).

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Your arms can stay by your sides. 

  2. Extend your left knee so your left foot is “stamping” toward the ceiling. Your knee can have a slight bend in it.

  3. Drive your right heel into the ground to lift your hips, creating a straight line from your shoulders to your knees, and squeeze your glutes at the top.

  4. Hold for 20 seconds, working your way up to one minute or longer.

Muscles worked: Glutes, hamstrings, lower back muscles, and core

9. V-Sit

This isometric exercise is for the Pilates Hundred fans. Your balance will be challenged with this move, but if you’re really struggling, bend your knees while keeping your shins parallel to the floor.

  1. Sit on the floor with your legs extended and your upper body leaned back slightly. Alternatively, you can bend your knees with feet flat on the floor. 

  2.  Lift your legs off the ground and extend them long to form a V shape. Reach your arms forward while peeling your shoulder blades back. 

  3. Balance on your sit bones, keeping your core engaged and legs as straight as possible.

  4. Hold for 20 seconds, working your way up to one minute or longer.

Muscles worked: Rectus abdominis, hip flexors, and lower back muscles

10. Squat Hold

Be careful with your form on this isometric exercise. All too often, squatters bend forward too far at the waist or allow their knees to cave in. If you find that your form is compromised in an effort to squat low, it’s perfectly okay to hold your squat a little bit higher (versus trying to get your hips in line with your knees). 

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes slightly turned out. 

  2. Lower your body by bending your knees, keeping your back straight and chest up. Lower yourself as far as you can without compromising your form; eventually, your goal can be to get your thighs parallel to the ground. 

  3. Engage your core and glutes, keeping your weight on your heels.

  4. Hold for 20 seconds, working your way up to one minute or longer.

Muscles worked: Quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes

11. Calf Raise Hold

Yes, standing on your tippy-toes is an isometric workout. This is another great exercise for runners, who need balance and calf strength. Make this move more challenging by holding a pair of light weights at your sides.

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.

  2. Rise onto the balls of your feet, lifting your heels as high as possible (as if you were wearing high heels or had Barbie feet).

  3. Hold for 20 seconds, working your way up to one minute or longer.

Muscles worked: Calf muscles, specifically the gastrocnemius and soleus, as well as foot and ankle muscles

12. Triceps Dip Hold

We love a good triceps move. With this isometric hold, it’s key to avoid hunching your shoulders. Repeat to yourself “proud chest,” and imagine that the person in front of you needs to read the logo on your shirt. To modify, bend your knees and walk your feet in toward you.

  1. Sit on the edge of a stable surface (like a bench or plyometric box) with your legs extended long in front of you. Place your hands on the surface with your fingers facing forward.

  2. Slide your hips off the edge, supporting your weight with your hands. Keep your torso relatively close to the box and parallel to it (you shouldn’t be leaning back).

  3. Bend your elbows to a 90-degree angle, keeping your shoulders rolled back and your chest proud.

  4. Hold for 20 seconds, working your way up to one minute or longer.

Muscles worked: Triceps

13. Bird Dog Hold

This isometric exercise challenges your core stability and is a great move to add to your warm-up routine. Take your time and fight to extend your arm and your leg as long as possible—like you’re trying to reach both sides of the room at the same time.

  1. Start on all fours with your knees below your hips and your hands below your shoulders. Hips should be in line with shoulders.

  2. Extend your right arm forward while lifting your left leg behind you. Your arm and leg should be in a straight line with your torso. Avoid arching your back. 

  3. Hold for 20 seconds, working your way up to one minute or longer. Switch sides and repeat.

Muscles worked: Core, shoulders, glutes, and back muscles

14. Wall Sit

This isometric exercise will have you feeling the burn fast. Make sure you’re positioned perfectly before committing to your hold. Your lower body should form a right angle; if your hips are too high on the wall, you’re not getting the most out of this move.

  1. Stand with your back against a wall and your feet shoulder-width apart.

  2. Slide down the wall until your knees are at a 90-degree angle, as if you’re sitting in an imaginary chair. Your knees should be directly over your ankles. Press your entire back into the wall to engage your core.

  3. Hold for 20 seconds, working your way up to one minute or longer.

Muscles worked: Quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes

15. Front Raise Hold

Want an upper-body isometrics exercise? Meet the front raise hold. You’ll need a pair of light dumbbells for this one, and when we say light, we mean light—as in, don’t go above three pounds (resistance bands are an option here too). You’ll thank us later.

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a weight in each hand.

  2. Lift your arms in front of you until they’re even with your shoulders while keeping your core engaged and maintaining a neutral spine with your hips tucked under. Avoid rounding your shoulders forward.

  3. Hold for 20 seconds, working your way up to one minute or longer.

Muscles worked: Anterior deltoids (front shoulder muscles), upper chest, and trapezius

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