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A Brief History of Isometrics

Let’s begin with what the word isometric means.  According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary, the definition as related to fitness is an adjective meaning anything “of, relating to, involving, or being muscular contraction (as in isometrics) against resistance, without significant shortening of muscle fibers, and with marked increase in muscle tone.”¹

According to one study, isometric exercise can be defined as “exercise without motion or as the attempt to move an immoveable object. The term isometric contraction is derived from the fact that during exercise there is no change in the length of the muscle. Iso means same, metric means length. Although no work is done, near maximum effort is extended.”²

There are differing reports as to the etymology of the word.  Webster’s claims that the first known use of the word, as to equality in measure, was in 1855.

Based on another account, isometrics was first used in “1838, literally [to mean] "of the same measure," from iso- "the same, equal" + -metric. The components are Greek: isos "equal, identical" + metron "a measure." Originally a method of using perspective in drawing; later in reference to crystals. The physiological sense relating to muscular action is from 1889, [which is derived] from German isometrisch in this sense (1882).”³

Most agree that the word isometric originated from the Greek word isos, which means "the same", and metron which means "size".  “Thus, isometric contraction means tensing the muscle without the muscle itself changing length.”4

In the ancient Orient, isometric exercise dates back 5000 years.  Ancient martial artist and yogis created postures to honor deities of their respective cultures.  There is evidence of martial art forms dating to 3000 BC in countries such as India, Pakistan and Nepal.

“What is known is that martial arts began in the ancient cultures of Asia, including China, India, and Japan. In both China and India, artifacts from 2,000 to 4,000 years old have been found with paintings of people striking possible martial arts poses.”5

Buddhist monks created a “flow” of 12 self-resistance, or isometric exercises which were introduced to monks in China in the twelfth century.  Interpretations and variations of this series of postures has been practiced now for centuries by martial artists across the globe.

Martial artists today still use the isometric practice of flowing from one fighting stance to another in an exercise sequence.

“The stillness in stillness is not the real stillness; only when there is stillness in movement does the universal rhythm manifest.”

                                                                                Bruce Lee

Yoga is another original form of isometric exercise.  It was first developed in ancient India.  Yoga also dates back to approximately 3000 BC based on stone carvings of some of the first yoga postures found in the Indus Valley.6

Yoga is equally responsible for the development of isometrics into the exercise form we know today.  The “flow” of exercise postures is largely recognized and associated with the practice of yoga.

Isometrics is an ancient form of exercise, for sure.

Many modern forms of isometric exercise methods have developed recently including:  hot yoga, pilates with the use of gravity alone, barre exercise, and the Hot Iso, which is an athletic isometric flow combined with infrared energy and 125º heat created by HOTWORX.

Isometrics needs no equipment.  As in martial arts and yoga, only the use of your body and gravity is required.  In some instances, basic tools such as bands and suspension straps can enhance the performance of modern isometric exercise.

Isometric training is good for muscle toning and strength gains and there is zero impact to the structure of the body.

Central Washington University research indicates that “isometric and isotonic exercises were essentially the same in producing strength increases.”  Isotonic exercise involves dynamic motion using sets of repetitions. “The tension recorded in a single maximum isometric contraction was not much different than the weight that could be handled in a single maximum isotonic contraction. Some of the studies show isometric exercise resulted in greater strength gains. Other studies reveal isotonic produced greater increases, and other studies showed no significant differences.”7

Isometrics provide strength gains and muscle toning results to more specific muscle groups as compared to dynamic weight training which provides for larger muscle group gains.  Depending on your goals, isometrics alone might be all you need, or isometrics may be the perfect supplemental exercise program to polish off your fitness routine.

Isometrics is perhaps more relevant now to exercise than it has ever been in human history.

The best advice is to just GET MOVING and discover the right balance, but be sure to incorporate a modern version of isometrics for more results!

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Stephen P. Smith, MA
CEO and Creator of HOTWORX, Author, Former National Collegiate Bodybuilding Champion and Arena Football Player, Certified Professional Trainer


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