The Benefits of Isometric Exercises

by Dr. David Williams
Filed Under: General Health
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

Use isometrics to fight age-related muscle loss

"Age-related muscle loss" can start as early as our 30s or 40s. And by that, I mean more than just losing what might have been your toned, lean, youthful muscular appearance. I'm talking about losing joint motion and stability, and your sense of stability and balance—perhaps even the ability to perform normal everyday activities.

This process begins when the body's production of hormones that promote muscle growth wanes and our ability to digest the amino acids needed for muscle repair and growth declines. In turn, our joint-stabilizing muscles begin to deteriorate, we lose strength, and normal activities become more difficult. Getting out of a chair, or in and out of a car, for example, isn’t as easy as it used to be. Or you may be unable to bend over to pick something up, climb a flight of stairs, carry grocery bags, or grip small objects.

If you've begun to notice such restrictions, the time for you to start exercising is way overdue. However, by starting slowly and carefully, you can often reverse these changes.

How Isometric Exercise Builds Muscle

Isometrics can be a useful part of an exercise program to help reverse age-related muscle loss. Research has shown that you can sometimes obtain gains in both muscle size and muscle strength using these exercises.

Isometric exercise ("iso" means equal, or the same, and "metric" refers to length) involves tensing muscles either against other muscles or immovable objects, while the length of the muscle remains the same. For example, you might push hard against a wall for 10 seconds, and during that time the wall doesn’t move and neither does your muscle.

Research has shown that because of the reduced blood flow during prolonged muscle tension, numerous growth factors remain in the muscle tissue longer and actually stimulate muscle growth. Doing a higher number of contractions increases strength, while holding contractions longer increases muscle mass (if you’re looking to increase size).

Important Caveats About Isometric Exercise

Like all exercises, isometric exercise carries some risks.

  • Blood pressure spikes. While all forms of exercise tend to increase blood pressure, isometric exercises cause the highest rise of all. When a muscle contracts, blood is forced out of the muscle tissue and into the bloodstream, causing the increase. Holding your breath during the exercise will increase the blood pressure even more. If you already suffer from high blood pressure problems or have an increased risk of stroke, isometric exercises might not be your best bet.
  • The entire muscle isn't being strengthened. Because your muscles don’t change length during isometric exercises (as they would if you lifted a weight), the only area where they will gain strength will be within 20 degrees of the joint angle you hold during the contraction. You can compensate for this by doing any isometric exercises in three different positions. First tense the muscle near the bottom of the movement, then in the middle, and finally at the top of the movement. For example, with the biceps the bottom means with the arm fully extended; the middle means with the elbow at an angle near 90 degrees; and the top means with your hand near your shoulder.

Isometric exercises have a legitimate place in exercise, and the best part is they don’t require that you purchase exercise or gym equipment.

More Dr. Williams Advice on Exercise and Overall Wellness

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