Isometric Exercise: How It May Help Maintain Your Independence—and Can Lower Blood Pressure

The muscle-strengthening conditioning offered by isometric exercise can parlay into all kinds of health benefits. Here's how to start a routine.

Woman performing an isometric exercise

Isometric exercises can be used for general strength conditioning.

© Dirima |

Isometric exercise is a type of strength training in which the length of the muscle doesn’t change and there’s no visible movement at the joint. In other words, you’re tensing the muscle without actually moving.

Also known as static strength training, isometric exercises include such positions as holding yourself in a seated position with your back against a wall (called a wall squat) or holding a light weight straight out to the side, parallel to the ground, until your arm begins to drop (isometric shoulder raise). Exercises like these are often used for rehabilitation because they strengthen muscles without placing stress on joints, but they can be used for general strength conditioning as well.

Isometric Exercise: Static Strength

While isometric exercises aren’t the best choices if you want to strengthen your muscles for dynamic activates like sprinting and jumping, they can be useful in training for activities that require static strength—climbing, mountain biking, skiing, Judo, and horseback riding, for example.

As with any exercise, it’s important to warm up first. It’s also recommended that you engage your core regardless of which muscle you’re working. This will help you maintain correct posture, and it has the added bonus of strengthening your core muscles.

While resistance training (like weight lifting) is measured by the number times a movement is repeated (repetitions) and how many sets of repetitions you do, isometric exercises are measured by number of repetitions and length of time the action is held (duration).

Research shows that both longer duration (10 seconds or more) with fewer repetitions and shorter duration (two or three seconds) with more repetitions seem to increase static strength.

Isometric Exercise: Start a Routine

In general, if you’d like to add isometric exercises to your strength training routine, try 15 to 20 actions—like those described above—and hold them for three to five seconds each, three times a week.

While isometric exercises are low-impact and therefore may seem low-risk, there are some cautions that come along with an isometric training program. People with cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure should consult a doctor before starting isometric exercises, because your blood pressure can rise while you’re holding these static positions.

It’s especially important to remember to breathe while you’re holding a pose, since holding your breath raises blood pressure. That said, an isometric exercise routine may actually help to lower your blood pressure.

In a 2017 study, 27 healthy males with normal blood pressure did wall squats for four weeks at home. They put their backs against a wall and slid down so their knees were bent at an angle that would allow their heart rate to reach 95 percent of maximum after two minutes. They then held that position for four two-minute bouts, with a two-minute rest in between each bout. They followed this routine three times a week, with 48 hours between sessions.

After the sessions, the participants’ resting blood pressure, cardiac output and heart rate were all reduced. The study authors concluded that an inexpensive, home-based program of isometric exercise training could be an effective method for reducing resting blood pressure and might be a valuable tool in the fight against hypertension.

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Originally published in 2017, this post is regularly updated. 

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Judith C. Thalhaimer, RD, LDN

Judith C. Thalheimer, a registered dietition nutritionist, has been managing editor of Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter since 2018. Before taking this position, she was a regular contributor to Today’s … Read More

View all posts by Judith C. Thalhaimer, RD, LDN

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