When I stumbled onto isometrics, I thought the strength results that its practitioners were claiming didn’t seem real. It was only when I started practicing consistently with this technique that I started seeing significant results. My training improved further after I started to use specialized equipment designed for isometric muscle training.
If you’ve come across other items of equipment that you’re impressed with then please leave a comment below.
What is the definition of isometric exercise?
Before we look at some of the best isometric exercise equipment available, let’s look at the basics.
Physical fitness consists of three basic components: endurance, flexibility and strength.
Regular weight training is a great way to gain strength and put on muscle mass. On it’s own it can be used to maintain and develop an individual’s strength. Taken to the extreme, bodybuilders use a variety of weightlifting techniques to put on vast slabs of muscle.
Weight training, at its most basic level, involves the lifting and lowering of a weight; typically a dumbbell or barbell or even a weight stack. Each complete movement is called a repetition (or rep). A series of consecutive repetitions is called a set. The sets and reps can be arranged in a number of ways to form a wide range of different weightlifting techniques: pyramid sets, drop sets, partial reps, pause reps, to name but a few.
A rep consists of three phases:
- the concentric phase where the muscle length shortens as the weight is raised
- the peak contraction phase where the muscle is at its shortest length
- the eccentric phase where the muscle lengthens as the weight is lowered.
For more information see here.
There is an additional type of repetition – an isometric contraction.
What is an isometric muscle contraction?
The term “isometric” combines the Greek words “Isos” (equal) and “metria” (measuring), thus the muscle contracts without changing in length.
Imagine holding a heavy box in front of you. Your muscles will be contracting just to hold the box in place. The length of the muscles remain fixed and your limbs won’t move. If the weight it heavy enough it won’t be long until your muscles tire and you have to lower the weight. Attempting to prevent the movement of a heavy weight is called a ‘yielding isometric’.
There is also another type of isometric technique. Instead of holding a heavy weight in place, imagine pushing or pulling against an immovable object with sustained, near maximal effort for around 5 seconds at a time. Pushing against an immovable object in this way is called an ‘overcoming isometric’.
In a yielding isometric, the individual is pressing roughly the exact amount of force needed to negate the resistance, neither dropping nor lifting it. In an overcoming isometric, more force can be exerted but the object will remain motionless.
Yielding isometrics therefore allow measurable progress. The individual can increase the weight being used and track their progress. However, the extremely heavy weight needed by some advanced practitioners could pose a risk of injury.
Isometrics for Martial Artists
Isometrics can also be incorporated into a martial artist’s training program to enable them to become a better fighter. Grapplers will find that they can pin and throw larger opponents; strikers will find that they can punch or kick faster and more powerfully.
“most studies in our review report moderate to strong correlation between Isometric strength and dynamic performances specially those which involve large amounts of force and explosive power .“
The History of Isometrics
Isometrics has been practiced in the martial arts and in yoga for centuries.
In more recent times, renowned martial artist Harry Wong, has exposed the benefits of isometric exercises in his own workout routine. This is very much a dynamic form of isometric tension where one muscle is pitted against another during different movements.
Bruce Lee, himself, was an advocate of isometrics.
In Europe, it wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century that information on isometrics became more readily known. In large part this was because of the growing popularity of the strongman acts that toured the continent.
One of the earliest and best known of these strongmen was Eugen Sandow who was at the time something of a celebrity, amazing audiences with his feats of strength.
Many of these early strongmen used isometrics as an effective means of building strength and muscle. However, they obviously didn’t use some of the best isometric exercise equipment that is available today.
Alexander Zass, known as “The Amazing Samson”, trained in his youth trying to bend saplings in the forest in order to get strong. Later he found himself a prisoner of war during WW1 and pulled on his chains and prison bars to increase his strength. He found this method so effective that he was able to bend the bars of his prison window and escape. In the attached video you can see the chains he used as part of his training.
His workouts have concepts have been incorporated into the philosophies of Steve Maxwell, the renowned physical educator.
See here for the straps like the ones Steve uses in the video.
In more recent times, the amateur wrestler, Henry Wittenberg, attributed much of his success to the practice of isometrics. From 1940 to 1952, he remained undefeated in over 400 consecutive matches and won a gold medal at the 1948 Olympics.
Do isometric exercises build muscle?
It’s no use buying the best isometric exercise equipment available if these type of exercises don’t build muscle. Let’s look at the evidence.
In the 1920s, a series of scientific experiments took place looking at the effect of inactivity on muscles. One such experiment involved tying the legs of frogs together to prevent movement and kept that way for some time.
When the bindings were removed , the muscles of the legs which had been bound were larger than those of the control group, whose legs were not tied.
The reason for this surprising result was that during the period that the legs had been bound , the muscles had continually strained against each other. It was this repetitive contraction and tensing of the muscles that had led to their remarkable development.
To emphasis building the size of the muscle as opposed to purely just strength, a number of bodybuilding specialists have advised holding a longer isometric contraction.
Further information can be seen here.
Full body isometric workout routine
So what a full body isometric workout routine look like?
Henry Wittenberg wrote a book detailing his own isometric workout entitled “Isometrics”. The workout was to be repeated daily.
The prescribed workout began with a series of warm up exercises designed to prepare the body for the upcoming exertions.
The individual would then perform a series of isometric exercises . Each would last for a total of 10 seconds. During the first four seconds, the individual would work up to maximum effort: the point at which the muscle was being contracted to its max. At this point it was not possible to exert more force and the muscle would involuntarily quiver. Each exercise was to only be repeated once.
Exercise 1: The Palm Push
Image from YouTube
Stand with hands in front of the chest in a prayer type position with hands together. The forearms should be held in a straight line. The palms should be pressed together during the isometric contraction.
This exercise primarily develops the chest.
Exercise 2: Parade Press
Image from YouTube
Standing, the hands are held together behind the small of the back. During the contraction the hands are pushed into the back as if trying to pass right through it. The back resists this movement.
This exercise mainly targets the front deltoid.
Exercise 3: Two-handed curl
This exercises incorporates the use of a strong piece of cord or rope that will withstand being pulled at full force without snapping.
Sit upright in a chair and put the rope underneath your legs whilst holding each end in your hands so that upper and lower arms are at right angles. You may need to wrap the ends of the rope around your hands a few times to ensure the rope is the right length.
Pull upwards on the rope whilst keeping your feet flat on the floor.
This exercise targets the biceps.
Exercise 4: Front Cable Stretch
Hold the same piece of rope directly in front of you at arms length. Your hands should be just over shoulder width apart and parallel to the floor.
You may find it easier to tie the rope into a loop whilst holding it.
Now try to pull the loop apart by moving your hands outwards whilst keeping your arms straight.
This works your rear deltoids and upper back muscles.
Exercise 5: Neck Press
Image from YouTube
Place both hands behind your head and interlace your fingers.
Next, press your hands against the back of your head whilst simultaneously resisting by pushing your head backwards.
This exercise develops the muscles of the neck.
Exercise 6: Hip Press
Stand with your hands on your hips. Now press your hands together as if you’re trying to squeeze your hands together pushing against your hips as hard as you can.
Exercise 7: Overhead Cable Stretch
Hold the rope loop overhead so that each end is in your hand.
Your arms should be straight and should be positioned so that your entire body is in the shape of a “Y”. Wrap the rope around your hands until all the slack is removed without moving the position of your arms.
Now, using as much force as possible, try to move your arms outwards, attempting the rip the rope apart.
Exercise 7: Tricep Push
Place the rope so that it runs round your back and under your armpits. Hold each end of the rope with each hand, wrapping it round so that when the rope is taught the arms are bent at right angles with the elbows pointing down.
Once in position, push the arms forward and resist the movement by pushing against the rope with your back.
This exercise primarily works the triceps.
Exercise 8: Back Cable Stretch
Place the loop of rope behind your lower back and grab each end with your hands. The rope should run parallel to the floor and be approximately 3 feet in length.
Begin the exercise by pushing the hands outwards trying to pull the rope apart.
This is like the overhead cable stretch but this time your arms are pointing down and the cable is running behind your lower back.
Exercise 9: Deadlift
Bend the knees so that you’re stood in a gentle squatting position with your feet standing on the loop of rope.
Hold the other side of the loop with your hands palm up. Keep your back straight.
To commence the exercise, try to stand upright using your back and legs muscles.
This will exercise your leg and back muscles.
Whilst these exercises can be effective, to really progress you may want to consider looking at using some of the best isometric exercise equipment on the market.
Perceived Limitations of Isometric Exercises
A criticism of isometric training is that it produces considerable strength increases but only at the muscle angle being trained; there is little cross over to other muscle lengths. (Kitai & Sale, 1989; Lindh, 1979; Thepaut-Mathieuet al., 1988; Weir et al., 1995).
In contrast, normal weight training, where a weight is lifted up and down, results in smaller strength increases through-out the range of the training movement (Graves,Pollock, Jones, Colvin, & Leggett, 1989).
One possible solution is to train isometrically for a particular muscle but at a number of angles.
This was the subject of one study by Jonathan P. Folland, Kate Hawker, Ben Leach, Tom Little,& David A. Jones:
“In conclusion, training isometrically at four anglesproduced signiﬁcantly greater gains in isometric strength across a range of angles (assessed with two dynamometers), but similar gains in isokinetic(dynamic) strength in comparison to dynamic training.”
Here’s a great video showing how to do this in practice:
The Best Isometric Exercise Equipment
Whilst isometrics using just a rope, pressing against an immovable object or your own body, can be effective, it’s difficult to know how much force you are exerting and to gauge your progress.
Fortunately, there’s equipment out there that can greatly assist your training. Indeed, there are a number of portable isometric training devices available.
I’ve outlined some of the best isometric exercise equipment available below:
Invented by Gert F. Kolbel, the Bullworker was introduced in Germany in 1963. It was used by the German Olympic team, who demonstrated its effectiveness at improving sports performance.
The Bullworker itself consists of a cylinder containing compressive springs which can be squeezed together using the two handles at either end.
In addition, attached to the handles are connected by heavy duty, wear resistant cables. When these are pulled apart, it has the same effect as squeezing the handles together. This makes the Bullworker highly versatile, enabling it to be used in a multitude of exercises.
In my view, what really makes it a powerful training tool is the Power Meter. This is effectively a ring that circles the cylinder which is pushed along by the handles when they are compressed. The cylinder itself has a scale running along it so you can look at the position of the ring against the scale to measure your progress.
Importantly you can look at the Power Meter whilst performing the exercise to ensure that you are exerting a consistent level of force throughout the isometric contraction. You can also measure your progress as your muscles get stronger.
Below is a photo of my own Bullworker. It’s the model X5 and it’s quite old but still very effective. I’m able to train every major muscle of the body in a relatively short time. What’s more, I’ve seen my progress from recording the results on the power meter increasing over the years I’ve been using it.
The more recent models have a better ergonomic design as can be seen here (link to Amazon).
Over 10 million Bullworkers have been sold, and over the years the design has been refined making it more ergonomical and more comfortable to use.
Even Bruce Lee was a proponent of the Bullworker. Here’s a photo of Bruce Lee on the phone, but if you look in the background what’s leaning against the wall?
The modern Bullworker provides up to 100lbs of controlled resistance and is constructed out of high quality steel. So confident are the manufacturers of its durable construction, that it comes with a 5 year warranty and a 90 day money back guarantee. The is one of the best pieces of isometric exercise equipment on the market at an affordable price.
You can see my full Bullworker X5 review here.
After the Bullworker, Gert F. Koelbel went on to develop another isometric device, the Isokinator. Just larger than a smart phone and made of stainless steel and aerospace aluminium, it is capable of providing up to 198 lbs of resistance.
It features two sliding bars on each side which can be moved upwards and downwards to adjust the level of resistance. Once the resistance has been set, the handles on each side of the device are then pulled apart. As the handles are pulled, two brass coloured balls on the device move according the force exerted. The idea is that, once in position, these balls are kept in place by applying constant tension to the handles. Movement is incorporated into the exercises creating a dynamic isometric. This is really one of the best pieces of isometric exercise equipment available.
I’ve really enjoyed exercising with the Isokinator. The cooper colored balls enable me to maintain a constant exercise intensity and really focus on the muscles being worked.
I’ve also used the tool whilst performing concentric and eccentric contractions making it effectively a pocket sized gym. I’ve been able to get an extremely thorough workout using this device. I’d challenge anyone not to get an intense workout from it.
It’s been particularly useful when I’ve been travelling: its small size has meant I can just throw this in with my luggage.
The Isokinator is made in Germany and I love the quality feel of this piece of equipment: it’s the kind of engineering that you would expect from a German product. It even comes with a 20 year guarantee as a testament to the quality of its construction.
The Isokinator comes with an easy-to-read manual, a DVD, a training diary and even a free app for your smartphone. More information can be seen here (link to Amazon).
An overview of the device:
They’re not called Zass Straps but these are the closest tools I’ve found that mimic the training methods of the great Alexander Zass.
I really love training with these knowing I’m following the same techniques as this great Strong man. I particularly like the fact that the length can be easy adjusted allowing me to change the muscles I work with ease.
I try to follow the exercises as shown above by Alexander himself (apart the handstand movement). I find that with this tool, I achieve a superb mind-muscle connection which really allows me to focus on the area being worked.
I found this great review of the WorldFit Iso-Trainer….
I picked mine up for about $30 but you can see the price here on Amazon.
It was when I saw the following picture that I first realised that Bruce Lee had incorporated isometrics into his training.
It shows Bruce performing a bicep curl holding a bar that is attached to a base unit by a metal chain. He’s standing on the base so that no matter how hard he tries to curl the bar, it just won’t move: he’s performing an overcoming isometric. Even in this old black and white photo, you’ll notice all the muscles of his upper body tensing at the effort.
I came across the device Bruce is using in Bob Hoffman’s book – Functional Isometric Contraction. Bob Hoffman created the York Barbell Company and during the 1960s went to great lengths to popularise the use of isometrics as a means to gain strength. In his book, there are numerous photos of a similar piece of equipment to the one Bruce is using.
In this photo, the device is being used to perform a front barbell squat exercise. You’ll note that the length of the chain can be varied, meaning that a whole manner of exercises can be performed.
There is a more modern version available which can be seen here (link to Amazon).
Update: Iso Bow
After being contacted by John Hughes from Bullworker in the comments section, I was sent an Iso Bow to try out.
This a very light and comparatively cheap device (you can see the latest price here on Amazon).
I’ve enclosed a video on my initial thoughts below and you can see my full review here.
Hopefully, your now in a position to incorporate isometrics into your own training routine. If you’re serious and want to make maximum progress, I’ve shown you some of the best isometric training equipment that’s on the market.