Isometric contractions are a popular (and powerful) choice for mobility & strength work. They’re incredibly useful as a tool to both expand and strengthen ranges of motion. They teach the brain to recognize and respond to areas of our body where we may have limited awareness. They’re a brilliant strategy for stabilizing joints. And they can also have a short-term analgesic (pain-relieving) effect.
What is an isometric contraction?
An isometric contraction is one in which the muscle engages, but doesn’t change its length. If you were to bring your two palms together in front of your chest and push them into each other, that would be an isometric contraction. You can feel your muscles working, but they’re not shortening (as the bicep does when you bring a dumbbell toward your shoulder in a bicep curl— that’s a concentric contraction), nor are they lengthening (as the bicep does when you begin to lower that dumbbell— that’s an eccentric contraction).
So what’s the big deal?
Essentially, in an isometric contraction, we’re deliberately bringing the body into an activated state and holding it there. For some of us, this goes beyond muscular tension or discomfort; it feels overwhelming or even intolerable. It mimics the feeling of being caught in a dangerous situation and not being allowed to escape.
Different systems will respond differently. Some folks may feel like they need to “get out of there immediately,” and will come out of the position or engagement. Others might express frustration or anger. Others might feel things that seem confusing– nausea, dizziness. And some people just dissociate– they “leave the building” of their body, because it no longer feels like a safe place to be.
All of these are totally normal responses. An isometric contraction asks us to do something that goes against our most basic nature– to make ourselves uncomfortable and then not to move. Our systems are designed to avoid anything that feels uncomfortable or dangerous; our instinct is to move! Being activated and not moving is hard, even in a well-resourced nervous system.
So how do we work with isometric contractions in a way that doesn’t flood the system?
As coaches, the first thing we can do is to create an atmosphere where the client has complete agency— that they understand they can say, “no,” stop at any time, and there are no negative consequences. This keeps the client from pushing through, which will only reinforce the reaction and exacerbate the issue.
As clients, we can remember that we are in charge of our own bodies, and that any resistance our nervous system is offering is there for a good reason. Stopping if something feels wrong is really important.
Second, we can work at a lower intensity— cueing 5, 10, or 15% may be enough for a first session. This gives our system a chance to breathe with and adjust to the activation. Pushing through nervous system resistance is not the way to make gains. We actually make real change when we work up to our capacity without pushing past it. The next time we attempt the contraction, our nervous system is more likely to recognize it as an okay place to be, and it will allow us to go a little further.
Slowing down the pace of this work is crucial as well. If I am teaching isometric contractions in a new body part, I can expect it to take most of the session. We may need to pause and move around, or find ways to center and ground. We’re moving at the speed of trust (as adrienne mares brown says)— only going as fast as the nervous system will allow us, so that our system recognizes it as safe.
Slowing down and backing off can feel frustrating or counter-intuitive for many coaches (and clients), but there’s a huge payoff. Think of the nervous system as a scared and defensive child— it’s been hurt before, and it’s doing its best to be sure that doesn’t happen again. As we teach it that we’re going to listen to its needs (slowing down, not pushing past what it can handle), it will slowly loosen its grasp. The body will be able to handle more intensity for greater lengths of time without triggering that freak-out reaction.
I believe that isometric training is worth this extra time and effort because it teaches something that we all need. This training is a practice in being present with activation, challenge and tension in a non-reactive way. The same patterns we initially experience in an isometric muscular contraction— frustration, irritation, inability to stay with— are present when we experience the psychic tension of dealing with complexity, difficulty, or discomfort in our lives. Learning to recognize our own embodied patterns of reactivity gives us great information to work with when we come up against those moments outside our training space.