Should You Be doing Isometric Exercises?
A plank is a classic example of an isometric exercise, and there’s a reason that phrase has become such a buzzword in the industry. But can isometric exercises actually help your cycling performance? Here’s what you need to know.
As cyclists, we are constantly in motion, so it’s hard to imagine how exercises that require not moving could help your performance. And yet, how many times have trainers and coaches drilled into you the benefits of holding a plank?
What Are Isometric Exercises?
Most exercises you do involve lengthening or shortening a muscle. Picture a biceps curl: When you extend your elbow, that’s an eccentric contraction of the biceps muscle; when you flex or bend your elbow, that’s a concentric contraction of the biceps muscle.
In an isometric exercise, “you’re generating force with the muscle, but the affected joint doesn’t move and the muscle isn’t lengthening or shortening,” explains Chris Myers, Ph.D., a master coach with Peaks Coaching Group. Basically, you’re putting a muscle or muscle group under stress while holding a static position.
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“Isometric exercises can be very effective because they’re super intense for such a short period of time,” says Jacob Fetty, a senior coach at Cycle-Smart Coaching. You can also hold them for way longer than an eccentric or concentric movement, adds Myers. Flashback to the plank: Tensing your entire body (and especially your core) for 60 seconds can feel harder than doing 8 reps of an eccentric or concentric movement with a heavy weight.
Wall sits, which work your quads, glutes, and hamstrings, as well as glute bridges, which work your quads and hamstrings, are also especially good isometric exercises for cyclists, says Fetty. These exercises also workout your stabilizer muscles, which come into play when you’re trying to do something as simple as stay upright on a bike.
What Are the Benefits of Isometric Exercises?
Isometric strength training for as little as two to three weeks can actually produce substantial increases in isometric muscle strength and muscle force development, according to recent research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. But isometric exercises aren’t going to suddenly make you swole; the physical benefits are a lot more subtle than that.
If you’ve ever strength trained, chances are you’ve felt a little sore the next day (if not…you’re doing it wrong). That’s because when you exert certain muscles, it causes microtears in the muscle fibers. Muscle growth occurs when your body starts to repair those tissues. “Isometric contractions allow you to produce the same amount of force, if not more, than in doing a concentric or eccentric movement, without doing that kind of microdamage to the muscles,” explains Myers.
Another major benefit is breath control, which is crucial for endurance athletes. “Your breath really anchors you in the moment, locking in your mental focus,” says Fetty. Holding isometric exercises teaches you to practice conscious, mindful breathing in stressful situations. If you know how to control your breathing before you’re ready to rip a descent on your road, gravel, or mountain bike, that’s going to give you even more control over your body and your equipment.
Plus, you can do isometric exercises literally anywhere, and you don’t have to build a strength-training program around them. Typically, you’re going to have a strength and conditioning program two or three days a week; meanwhile, isometric exercises should be done for five to 10 minutes a day, says Fetty. Do wall sits while brushing your teeth or hold a plank during TV commercials—these exercises can easily be worked into your day so you get the benefits of a resistance workout without a whole prescriptive workout.
And, by the way, isometric exercises are especially helpful for people who are new to strength training or who are coming back from an injury. “With isometric exercises, they can get the same type of neuromuscular activation and efficiency as they would with regular resistance training, but with less damage to the body,” says Myers. “They’re a really good foundational component before someone jumps into a full-blown resistance training routine.”
Should You Be Doing Isometric Exercises?
Sure, isometric exercises can be a part of your training regimen. Think about where resistance training helps you most as a cyclist: power output, right? You rely on that strength when you want to dig deep to climb a hill or sprint strong to the finish. “Isometric exercises, on the other hand, work your muscular endurance,” says Myers. They’re not necessarily going to lead to increased power output, but they are going to help you maintain that power throughout a ride.
But isometric exercises aren’t a quick fix, says Fetty. You’ll often see them hyped as super time-effective training or a way to get ripped with barely any effort, but they’re not really an effective way to build strength (or pure muscular hypertrophy), he explains. “Isometric exercises are a supplemental part of the strength training, not the entirety of it,” he adds.
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What isometric exercises don’t do is work any muscle’s full range of motion—something that’s crucial for cyclists who have limited range of motion thanks to spending so much time in one position on a bike, and therefore have limited strength across that range of motion, says Fetty. So, by all means, hold those planks and wall-sits. But in order to fully develop your muscles, you need to be doing isometric training in addition to other kinds of strength training.