Arnold was a fan of isometric exercises. And in his day, he had some of the most impressive guns around.
And it's not just bodybuilders that love isometric training. Even though there are fewer studies on isometric training than its concentric or eccentric counterparts, it has been anecdotally suggested that isometric contraction exercises are one of the reasons gymnasts gain such a beastly strength and impressive biceps.
What if you could get stronger biceps without having to move the muscles in question? While most exercise articles and programs emphasize muscle contraction and elongation, it's easy to overlook the benefits of isometric exercises, which involve keeping your muscles as still as possible while under load for a period of time.
While some people consider them boring, isometric exercises are actually quite fun, especially when done correctly. There are many ways to perform these exercises, and each has its benefits. The key is finding out which ones work best for you.
In the following sections, we will look at some of the benefits of bicep isometric exercises, the equipment you need to perform 7 exercises, how to incorporate them into your workout or calisthenics routines, and the shortcomings of each one.
Benefit 1: Improved mind-muscle connection
Without getting too in-depth into the science, strength isn’t just about the number of muscle fibres you have, but also about how intensely and frequently electrical stimulations can be delivered to your muscle fibers from your brain.
In other words, mind-muscle connection matters.
Studies have shown that by measuring electrical activity in the muscle fibers, isometric exercises were able to deliver over 95% muscle activation compared to 88.3% and 89.7% muscle activation for eccentric and concentric contractions, which suggests isometric exercises are best when you want to squeeze the most juice out of your muscles.
Benefit 2: Improved form
Connecting with and focusing on the muscles you're working on will improve your training for other exercises involving that muscle group. You'll be able to adjust and correct your form to ensure the correct muscle groups are being engaged.
In the case of the biceps muscles, this can be useful for recruiting the correct muscles when performing pull-ups, which in turn can reduce the chance of instabilities developing and injuries occurring, as studies have shown in basketball players.
Benefit 3: Improved strength and hypertrophy
Studies have shown improved strength and reduced pain even in those suffering skeletal conditions and that strength improves with isometric exercises. Individuals that perform isometric exercises also show a notable increase in the expression of the Insulin growth factor hormone which can ultimately lead to increased hypertrophy in muscles.
Isometric bicep exercise 1: Bar hang (two hands)
- Grab a pullup bar with palms facing towards you with hands roughly shoulder-width apart.
- Pull yourself up until your arms are bent at 90 degrees.
- Hold this position for as long as you can.
- When you cannot maintain the 90-degree angle in your arms, increase the angle.
- Continue lowering until your arms are fully extended.
This exercise places your arms under a load that is more than 90% of your body weight, so it is ideal for building strength. This method also allows you to train your biceps muscles isometrically in various positions and angles under a high load.
Isometrics bicep exercise 2: Static curl with a dumbbell
- Begin with your arms at your sides and a dumbbell in each hand.
- Raise one dumbbell to elbow height while maintaining a 90-degree angle in that arm.
- Hold this position for as long as you can, or for about 15 seconds.
- Lower the dumbbell and repeat with the other arm.
To increase the difficulty of this exercise, lift the dumbbells with both arms at the same time.
If you only have one dumbbell, you can perform this isometric bicep exercise while sitting down.
To perform the seated variant with one arm, do the following
- Start in a seated position
- Lean the torso forward and place your right elbow inside your right knee.
- Pick up the dumbbell, keeping your right elbow inside your right knee for stability.
- Keep the right arm bent at 90 degrees.
- Hold this position for at least 15 seconds or for as long as you can hold.
Repeat the previous steps with the other arm.
As with many weighted exercises, these dumbbell variations are effective in tracking progress. Over time you will either be able to hold a heavier weight or increase the time in which you hold the weight.
Isometrics bicep exercise 3: Lying dumbbell hold
This exercise works your bicep but in a position where it is most elongated. It is effective for building the strength of your biceps when it is fully locked out, otherwise known as “straight arm strength”.
- Start this exercise with a dumbbell in each hand.
- Lie down on a bench and extend your arms at either side of your torso keeping your hands level with your waist and palms facing upward.
- Hold for as long as possible or 15 seconds.
Isometrics bicep exercise 4: Towel hold
There are two methods in which you can use a towel to perform isometric bicep isometric exercises.
- The first method starts with you standing on one end of the towel.
- Grab the opposite end of the towel with the same side hand as the foot that is standing on the towel.
- Get your other foot behind you so that you’re in a split stance
- Bend your arm to a 90-degree angle and hold this position for 15-20 seconds ensuring your biceps are engaged during the hold. If not, grab the towel at a position that is closer to the ground.
- Hold the 90-degree position for at least 15 seconds or for as long as you can hold.
- Repeat the process with the other hand.
The second method starts with you taking the towel and passing it under your knee.
- Take both ends of the towel with both hands and lift them such that the leg comes up as high as possible.
- Bend both arms at 90 degrees.
- If you struggle to balance, do this exercise against a wall.
- Hold this position for as long as possible.
With the second variation, you can add resistance by using ankle weights or contracting your glutes to make the leg feel heavier.
Isometrics bicep exercise 5: Door Frame holds (minimal equipment)
- A useful exercise when you have no other equipment available. We're going to assume that by reading this article you already have your basic housing needs met and can locate a door frame.
- Begin by standing in the center of a doorframe and facing one of the doorframes.
- Grab the doorframe with one hand, or two if one is too small.
- Lean back slowly with your feet firmly planted until your arm is fully extended.
- Pull yourself backward towards the doorframe until you can no longer go any further.
- Rep with the other arm.
This is a unilateral exercise that can help fix imbalances that naturally occur in strength training. It also has the added effect of training the forearms as doorframes are harder to grip than dumbbells, for example.
Isometrics bicep exercise 6: Static Flex (no equipment)
In situations where no equipment is available, you can use your own body as resistance. Simply swap out one dumbbell for the other. You don't even need a floor for this isometric exercise. There are no excuses for not including this one!
- Curl one arm and hold it at 90 degrees.
- Take the other arm and push down on the curled arm trying to maintain the same 90-degree angle.
- Hold this for as long as possible.
- Repeat for the desired number of sets.
Isometrics bicep exercise 7: Bicep plank (no equipment)
This is a simpler variation of a challenging bodyweight-only exercise called the Maltese that gymnasts perform regularly, it’s a perfect bodyweight alternative to the lying dumbbell hold.
- Start with hands and knees on the floor.
- Have your fingers point slightly backward so that the left and right hands are pointing in the 8 o’clock and 4 o’clock positions respectively.
- Lean your body as far forward as possible while transitioning away from your knees and onto your feet.
- If transitioning from knees to feet is too challenging, stay on your knees.
You should be able to feel a good stretch and plenty of tension on your biceps. Hold this position for 15-30 seconds.
When to incorporate isometrics into your workout routine
Isometric exercises can be beneficial for people recovering from injuries when exercising the entire range of motion could be painful. They can also help people who want to strengthen their muscles in a specific position or improve their stability. It has been shown in studies that these isometric exercises are beneficial for diabetics.
These exercises are excellent for smashing past plateaus in weight training programs. Some movements for example require a defined level of strength for a muscle group at a specific angle. Even if the other parts of the movement can be done, the movement itself may not be possible without that required level of strength available within a particular range of motion.
Isometrics are therefore suitable for increasing strength for a sticking point in a defined range of motion.
To make them part of your normal routine, you can do them at the end of each set of concentric exercises. These can be used to exhaust the muscle fibers, improve mobility or incorporate stability training. For example, for each set of pullups, you complete a set of bar hangs for 1 minute or for as long as you can hold.
Whilst isometric bicep exercises have their advantages, these same aspects that make them so attractive can become their own disadvantages. They will mostly improve strength at only a specific angle. For example, if you do isometrics for your biceps with your arms bent at a 90-degree angle, you will gain most of your strength around that angle.
Of course, there will be overall carryover strength improvements and increased muscle growth across the whole muscle, but the primary focus for isometrics is on increasing the strength of the muscle in that specific position.