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Before I explain what isotonic exercise is, let me say this… It’s time to get in shape! The gym might be a little crowded this time of year. But I wouldn’t worry about it. It should clear out by President’s day, leaving you plenty of time to get ready for the summer. Or perhaps you’re already in shape and you’re looking for a new way to maximize your workout. You’ve done it all before; weights, free weights, body weight. You know your way around a gym. Because of this knowledge, you that that there’s more to fitness than lacing up some Nike’s and just doing it. Fitness is a science. The best way to see gains isn’t to work harder, it’s to work smarter…then work harder. The point being that there is more to working out than picking up and putting down heavy objects, even if that is an undeniably big part of it.
What is isotonic
Unfortunately if you’re looking for something new you’ve come to the wrong place. This is however, the right place to learn the science behind what you’ve been doing all along (if you don’t know it already (no assumptions)). The next time someone tries to call you a meathead, drop some knowledge on them (frankly non-exercise related knowledge would probably go farther in conveying your point, but they’ll probably be impressed by this nonetheless). When people think of exercise they are almost universally thinking about isotonic workouts. Isotonic comes from Ancient Greek and effectively translates to ‘same tension’.
In technical terms an isotonic exercise consists of completing a set motion under the same weight, tension, or pressure throughout the entire movement. As your body weight doesn’t dramatically fluctuate in short periods of time, any repetitious body weight exercise (push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups) is an isotonic exercise. Likewise unless you have a terrible spotter the amount of weight you are lifting shouldn’t change mid-motion making most weightlifting activities also isotonic in nature.
How do Isotonic and Isometric Contractions Differ
The runner up to isotonic exercises in popularity is isometrics. Isometrics is the Flex Arm Hang to isotonic’s pull-up (anyone who’s gone through the American school system in the last 50 years gets that reference). For everyone else, isometrics is from the Ancient Greek and roughly translates to ‘same measurement’. What is meant by this is that the muscle length and joint angle do not change throughout the exercise. Isometrics is a static exercise, applying some sort of tension to a muscle and joint and keeping it there for either a set amount of time or as long as possible.
So the main difference between the two is movement. A push-up is isotonic and a plank is isometric. In a lot of ways isotonic exercises are about strength and power while isometrics is about strength and stamina and endurance. Isometric exercises are what you’re doing when you do yoga, Pilates and some forms of martial arts.
Both of these forms of exercise are beneficial in that neither of them require any other equipment to perform. Many of them don’t require the aide of another person. However, in both cases form is paramount. Doing incorrect motions or holding incorrect positions can be anywhere from ineffective to downright damaging. When you work out you are quite literally training your muscles to be able to do things they couldn’t or didn’t do before. If your form is poor it can throw your body out of whack causing serious injury. Be careful.
Isotonic Exercise Examples
As previously stated, most of the exercises you think of when you think of working out are isotonic. Push-ups, Sit-ups, Squats, Bench-press, Leg-press, essentially if it has the words ups or press in the name it’s an isotonic workout. The key with all isotonic exercises is repetition. Doing one push-up isn’t going to make you swole, doing one sit-up isn’t going to give you abs (actually doing sit-ups at all, while great for strengthening your core, won’t necessarily give you abs at all, it’s more of a body mass body fat ratio thing, site targeted weight loss is a common misconception that isn’t actually a thing…but you get my point). Another key to isotonic training is to change it up fairly regularly. Like I said before working it out is literally training your muscles. If you keep teaching them the same thing over and over again, eventually they learn it, get bored and start slacking off in class. Granted they don’t get any weaker, but they do stop getting stronger and really, what’s the point in working out if you aren’t going to get any stronger.
The change could be as minute as adding more weight or doing more reps, but ideally the more you change it up the better it will be for you. Get off the bench press once in a while and work on the butterfly machine. Guys, instead of showing off for that one girl who comes to the gym every Tuesday with some bicep curls, wow her with some deadlifts (you know, or just let her do her thing, your call). Gals, instead of doing squats in front of that dude with the cool tattoos, try some lunges (though, now that I mention it he’d probably enjoy the squats more. But this isn’t about him; it’s about your legs!). Interchange any pronouns you necessary to make the preceding examples apply to you.
It bears noting that while when we think of isotonic exercises it’s the strength training workouts that come to mind, but pretty much all cardio falls under the banner of isotonic as well. Your body weight doesn’t dramatically change while you’re running and it is a repetitious expansion and contraction.
I personally change up my routine fairly regularly because I get bored extremely easily. I also tend to workout alone and have to plan around not having a spotter. With all that in mind allow me to share with you some of my exercises that take advantage of both isotonic and isometric contractions. Why should you care about my workouts? Well it’s true that you probably have no idea what I look like and no frame of reference for how effective my workouts might be. You’re just going to have to take my word for it; I’m pretty fantastic looking… (I’m being facetious, but I’m genuinely in not awful good shape)
I suppose you could call this step aerobics, but that calls to mind the image of middle aged people in 80’s active wear and couldn’t be farther from what I actually do.
While I almost exclusively do this in a weighted training vest, all that you really need is 4 or 5 stairs and relatively upbeat music. I suppose it could be considered an offshoot of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training).
- Create a playlist populated with songs that at least have a refrain of some sort, upbeat music helps
- Throughout a song walk up 4-5 steps then back down either turning around or just walking backwards
- On the refrain of each song or at any point in which the music picks up or you just generally feel it appropriate hop on and off the first step as fast as you can until the music normalizes
- Return to walking up and down the 4-5 steps until the song picks up
- Lather rinse repeat
This is great cardio training and accompanied by the vest or ankle weights can be great strength training as well.
Stair work Continued
If the music thing is too manic or contrived for you I do another more traditionally structured stair exercise as well.
- Hop with both feet on and off of the first stair 10 times
- Hop to the first step then to the second step and so on until you reach the 4 or 5 step (or higher if you so choose) form there you can either hop each step back down or just walk back down. Repeat 10 times
- Hop on and off of the second step 10 times
- Repeat the second bullet point
- Hop on and off of the third step 10 times
- Repeat the second bullet point
- Continue in this manner as able; if unable continue in a similar manner except descending. In other words, if the third stair is as high as you can go, follow it with hopping on and off the second step 10 times
- Repeat the second bullet point
- Hop on and off the first step 10 times
- Repeat the second bullet point
This one is does wonders for your legs and has a nice bit of cardio in the mix as well.
This is another one where the weight vest isn’t exactly necessary, but it helps a whole lot.
- Squat down and walk in the squatted position for about 10 yards, stand up, turn around and come back, when you’ve reached your original position that is considered 1
- Start with 4 sets of 5
- As stamina and endurance increases move up to 3 sets of 10
Form is very important with these, especially with the weight vest. Be sure you don’t overdo it. If your legs get wobbly or your lower back becomes sore it’s a pretty good sign that you’re done for the day.
This one, I am not ashamed to say, was greatly inspired by an episode of Tosh.0. Basically, pick a behavior that you know you’re going to have to repeat throughout the day and assign an exercise to it. Every time you go to the bathroom do a plank for a minute. Every time you get up to get a drink do 10-35 push-ups, depending on level of fitness. I suppose penalty is an unfair name as the point is not to discourage these behaviors, but to benefit from them. But the original name was penalty push-ups and I just happen to dig alliteration.
Good old fashion jump rope
With a weight vest… For like an hour.
I’m personally a fan of high weight low reps (again, within reason as I usually don’t have a spotter). I typically do around 70% of my max in 10 sets of 3 (or as many of that as I feel comfortable attempting without killing myself) with 1 minute breaks in between. This is one I probably wouldn’t suggest for other people, as it’s better to be safe than sorry and you should always have a spotter when available. But I hadn’t mentioned any arm work besides push-ups yet, and I didn’t want you to think that I was the one person on Earth who skips arm day.
However you choose to workout be sure to stay consistent. There’s nothing worse than stepping away from it for a while and feeling like a weakling when you finally come back to it. If you’re just starting out, A. you probably shouldn’t do most of the things that I listed in my workout section with a weight vest, and B. Yes, the day after your first session is going to suck. You’re probably not actually injured give it a day or two to rest and get back at it. Before long you’re gonna be hunting for that feeling. That reminds me of another extremely important part of the workout process I’ve yet to mention; make sure to REST! The feeling of physical self-improvement, though daunting at first can become as addictive as a drug. But you have to have the self-control to chill for a day every once in a while. If you don’t, you could hurt yourself and all that work will have been for nothing and you won’t be able to do anything anyway. If you haven’t start or have only recently gotten into fitness this probably doesn’t seem like something you think you’ll have to worry about. Just wait…
Keep It Tight
No matter what you do, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to avoid isotonic workouts. But really, why would you want to, it provides the best gains. I can say that with confidence as pretty much every exercise falls under its umbrella. Find a routine you like and stick to it. As you begin to improve, be sure to improve the routine to keep up with you. The beauty of the human body is that (within reason) it just keeps getting stronger and stronger. The harder (and smarter) you work the more you improve. Be sure you watch the videos below for more information on isotonic exercise.