Your muscles can experience isometric and isotonic movements during exercise, but what does that mean and which one is better for building strength?
If your goals are to build muscle mass or increase strength and endurance, you can do it with or without weight lifting. You can also use a mix of isolation and compound exercises: exercises that isolate one muscle group versus those that target various muscles together. But did you know that your muscles don’t need to change length to get stronger?
Enter isotonic and isometric exercises. Isotonic exercises involve movement, like a squat, while isometric exercises are static, like a plank. Below, we cover everything you need to know about them, including the benefits and whether one is better for athletes looking for strength gains from the gym.
Isometric exercise vs isotonic exercise
If you haven’t heard these terms before, let’s break down exactly what they mean.
Isometric exercises are static, such as a plank or squat grip, while isotonic exercises require a range of motion, such as performing a bicep curl. Isotonic means same voltage, which means that the load or resistance is constant and unchanged. When a muscle shortens (called a concentric muscle contraction, such as the pushing phase of a push-up) and lengthens again (eccentric contraction, such as the lowering phase of a push-up), the tension stays the same. Isometric refers to the same length, it means that the muscles do not lengthen or shorten.
Most strength-training programs prioritize isotonics—think big lifts like bench presses, deadlifts, and overhead presses—but isometrics are lower-impact and still offer intensity and challenge without straining the muscles. change length, meaning they don’t flex or extend but can still contract.
Isometric exercise vs isotonic exercise: advantages
Isotonic exercises require you to move your body, so virtually all the activities you do during the day are isotonic: walking, running, and household chores, to name a few.
- Healthier joints and bones
- Stronger muscles
- Improved freedom of movement, quality of movement, flexibility and mobility
- Muscle growth
- Better functional training
- Stronger heart and lungs
- Higher calorie burn
- Improved muscular endurance.
Strength exercise tends to burn more calories than isometric exercise because moving requires more energy than moving. This doesn’t have to involve high-intensity workouts (although it’s good for burning calories) and could include low-impact methods like walking or cycling. These types of movement also stimulate bone loading, which helps strengthen bones against the risk of osteoporosis as we age. We explain how to burn calories using a process called Exercise Thermogenesis, or NEAT.
But isometric exercise has earned its place at the table, offering low-impact strength training suitable for rehabilitation, injuries, and chronic joint pain. It also adds variety to your strength routine.
You may benefit from stronger joints, healthier bones, and better stability, strength, and balance. Some evidence suggests that isometric exercises might even lower blood pressure when done regularly and with proper breathing.
Isometric Exercise vs. Isotonic Exercise: Which is Better for Building Strength and Muscle?
There is a difference between building strength and growing muscle – they are not mutually exclusive. When you build strength, the power and output of a muscle improves, while building muscle involves a physical change in the size of the muscle fibers. We will discuss this in more detail in our article on hypertrophy vs strength training.
Lifting heavy weights doesn’t guarantee stronger muscles or growth (more on that later), and you can build strength using isometric and isotonic exercises. More importantly, gym-goers need to consider progressive overload (the muscle-building process) when trying to progress through any exercise routine, meaning your muscles face challenges that force them to adapt, whether you choose isometric or isotonic exercise, or both.
If you’re not sure which to prioritize, we recommend both isometric and strength-training exercises. Additionally, you could easily create an isotonic plank using the best plank variations for ideas or do an isometric squat by performing a squat grip. Going from isometric to isotonic means that your muscles are constantly faced with challenges, which are essential for strengthening and growing them.
Isotonic and isometric exercises can strengthen muscles, so it’s best to consider your fitness goals before deciding which to prioritize. Unless you have a specific health concern or goal, we recommend using both to build a comprehensive strength program that draws on the benefits of each.
Straight out of the box, strength-training exercises are better for building strength and muscle mass, burning calories, and improving daily functions like mobility, range of motion, and flexibility. But you could build strength and improve stability using isometric exercises if you need a low-impact workout.
It’s “easier” to build strength and muscle using strength-training because you can overload your muscles by challenging them with heavier loads and different equipment, including kettlebells, barbells, and weight machines (remember, progressive overload). You’re also more likely to reach hard-to-break plateaus using only isometric exercises.
That said, if you don’t own heavy weights or the best adjustable dumbbells, isometric exercise might be a place to start, employing a technique called time under tension which means stimulating your muscles for longer (like extending the time you hold a plank). to build muscular endurance. But you could do it during strength training by slowing down your reps or adding supersets, for example.
Isotonic exercise may suit most athletes better, but isometric exercises still put pressure on muscles and keep those with injuries in the game. The best way to encourage your muscles to adapt is through consistency and challenge. Other factors such as stress, sleep and diet will also determine performance in and out of the gym environment.
Whatever you choose, try increasing the difficulty as you build strength and muscle. You can do this by increasing your sets, reps, and time limits, or by increasing the load in some way — think holding or wearing the weight.
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