Isometrics: The Top Exercise for Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere
How much time do you spend each day standing around or even worse, sitting? You could use this down-time as time to transform. Isometrics are especially helpful for professional sitters who spend a lot of time stuck at their desks. You can lift and hold your legs for a minute or two under the table or flex your biceps and pectorals, and no one will know. You’d be surprised at the end of an hour-long meeting that your body feels like it’s had a good workout. Better yet, doing isometrics for two minutes before eating can stimulate production of leptin, the “eat less” hormone that controls your appetite.
Dr. Bill’s Fascination with Isometrics
My fascination with isometrics, as the easy muscle-toning technique, began with a walk on a golf course with my friend, the neurologist Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, who was an alternate on the 1964 U.S. Olympic weightlifting team. “Vince, you guys used to spend many hours just sitting on airplanes during international travel. How did you keep your muscles from getting flabby?”
“Isometrics,” he responded. “Here, I’ll show you.”
Wow! Within one minute I felt as if I’d done a total-body workout. My heart rate was up a bit, I was breathing faster, and I felt better.
Isometrics (so called because muscle fibers don’t change length during movement) are exercises in which you “flex and hold” for as long as you can—until you can feel the “burn” of muscle fatigue. You know you’re making progress when you find you can flex and hold longer before fatigue sets in. Time under tension (TUT) is the principle that gives you the greatest bang for your workout buck.
Turn Wasted Time Into Waist Time
One day while standing in line for an international flight, I thought, “Instead of fretting about the long line, I’ll enjoy my time doing isometrics.” I began standing strong, holding my legs and arms tense for a minute (see next section). This kind of exercise is subtle but not invisible. A flight attendant came up to me and said, “Sir, you seem tense. May I help you?” My TUT workout ended with a laugh.
Basic Isometric Exercises
Let’s look at some great basic isometric exercises you can do anywhere, anytime.
- Stand strong. Lean against a post or wall and flex all the major muscle groups from your feet to your chest: flex quads, squeeze glutes, pull in abs, flex and squeeze pecs, and press one fist against the opposite palm while flexing biceps and triceps. Hold these muscles flexed for 30 to 60 seconds, or until you feel the burn in all of them. At first, 30 seconds may be the best you can do. Eventually, you’ll be toned enough to hold longer than a minute. The burn (the biochemical fatigue signal that means you are starting to burn calories and build muscle) usually occurs shortly after you feel your heart beating faster and begin breathing more heavily.
- Belly suck-ins. You can do these anytime, anywhere, and no one will notice. Suck in your belly button toward your backbone. Also tense your glutes. Hold 30 seconds and release. After a few reps you may naturally feel the need to take a few deep belly breaths.
- Standing at work. In our Dr. Sears Wellness Institute office in Denver, Colorado, we transform sitters into standers by providing standing desks. Just standing instead of sitting can burn an extra fifty calories an hour. Add periodic isometrics, and you’ll burn more.
- Sit strong. Here’s how an on-the-job sitter can become a mover. Lift your legs four to six inches off the floor and hold until you feel the burn in the muscles on top of your thighs, the quadriceps. Add the same upper-body isometrics you flexed in the stand-strong exercise.
3 Variations to Sit Strong
1. Sitting leg lift
- While sitting, lift knees above horizontal. Hold 30 to 60 seconds. Initially, you may need to stabilize your torso by grabbing your chair or desk with both hands. Repeat until you feel the burn.
- Leg-against-leg. Lift your legs as below, then cross them at the ankles, pointing your right toes left and your left toes to the right. Press the upper leg down and the lower leg up. Then switch legs and do it again.
- To strengthen all your leg muscles, especially quads, hamstrings, and lower leg muscles, try leg-against-leg isometrics, illustrated below. I call these my “bored meeting” or “under the table” exercises.
2. Fist to palm push
- Flex your arms at the elbows, place one fist against the opposite palm, and push one against the other. Hold 30 to 60 seconds.
- After getting used to this basic isometric, try it while also holding your biceps flexed.
- Next, push your fist down against your cupped palm. This will tense the biceps on the down arm and the triceps on the up arm.
- Reverse fist and palm and repeat.
- Repeat these isometrics 8 to 12 times. Add a pec squeeze. While doing the above biceps and triceps tensions, bring your elbows in against your chest and flex your pecs; hold 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat 8 to 12 times.
3. Heel raises
- Lift your heels off the floor. Doing this freestanding will improve your balance, but if that’s a problem, hold onto a chair with one hand.
- After you have mastered isometrics with individual muscles and muscle groups, do what I call TBT—total body tension. Flex, tense, and hold all major muscle groups while balancing on your toes.
A great thing about isometrics is that you’re using your body itself as weight-training equipment—pitting one muscle against another or a set of muscles against gravity. Anyone can do isometrics anytime, anywhere, and you don’t need to go to a gym or buy equipment.
Written by: Dr. Bill Sears