Your muscles are a lot more complicated than most people give them credit for. In fact, just about every movement you make is comprised of three distinct phases which are characterized by a different type of contraction. If we think of a classic bicep curl, these movements become extremely clear. First, there is the concentric movement wherein your muscles shorten to move the weight closer to your body. Then there is the eccentric contraction that sees your muscle increase in length to move the weight down or away from you.
Somewhere in the middle, though, there is an isometric contraction. This is the phase during which your muscles are contracting and working but do not change in length. To emphasize what an isometric contraction really is, imagine if you paused in the middle of that bicep curl so that you held the weight with your elbow at a 90 degree angle for a few seconds.
Isometric exercises, though, focus on this specific part of the contraction but holding it for an extended period of time. What are the benefits of this type of exercise? Is there a reason that runners specifically should use them?
Before we get specific, though, what are some of the overall benefits of using isometric exercises?
While you aren’t likely to see huge improvements in strength by strictly using isometrics, they will help to improve your balance – which is a somewhat ignored form of strength. I don’t care how many sit-ups you can do, if you’ve never done it before you will get floored by a plank workout.
Because of their stable nature, isometrics also have a very low risk of injury. There are no impacts putting pressure on your joints or repetitive movements irritating them. Just strike a pose and hold it.
But the benefits go beyond athletic pursuits. In fact, a recent review published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings looked at the effects that isometric training can have on high blood pressure or hypertension. After comparing a number of studies on the subject, the researchers concluded that regular isometric training for as little as 4 weeks can improve all measures of hypertension.
Just For Runners
Running is clearly a dynamic sport, but balance and stability are just as important on the track as they are in any other sport. By using isometric exercises, runners can strengthen very specific parts of their regular movements.
In principle, this applies to virtually any sport. Regardless of your activity, you can dissect your movements down to their various phases and use isometrics to build the muscles needed in each. For example, football quaterbacks sometimes practice their throws by using band-resisted isometric exercises that mimic the various portions of their throw.
Runners can do the same.
Once you have this basic principle in mind, get creative.
Wall sits are a classic isometric exercise that can build strength and endurance in your thighs and glutes. Simply sit with your back against the wall so that your thighs are parallel to the ground and hold this position for as long as you can. Gradually build on your time.
Using a resistance band wrapped around your waist and anchored firmly behind you, you can perform deep lunges to target your hips and thighs. Hold the lunge position for at least 20 seconds on each leg and make sure that the band is short enough to provide resistance. This can also be done without the band.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a discussion of isometrics without at least mentioning the plank. But, instead of the classic form use the one-leg versions. Both the plank and the side plank can be adapted to provide a special challenge for runners. By lifting one leg, you put a greater strain on your balance and also engage you hips in the movement.
What isometric exercises have you used in your workout? Please share them in the comments.
Mayo Clinic Proceedings 2014;89 , 327-34