What is resistance training?

MSK Clinical Lead at Bupa UK
06 March 2019

Put simply, resistance training is about using weight, or some kind of force, to challenge your muscles and increase their size, strength, power and endurance. But it’s not all about bulging biceps and admirable abs; resistance training can help keep your bones strong and healthy too. This is particularly important as we get older.

As such, the UK Government recommends doing resistance training or a muscle strengthening activity at least twice a week. But what exactly is it and how can you integrate it into your routine?

In this article, I’ll hone in on the different types of resistance exercises and give you example exercises of each.

Young women are doing planks outdoors

There are three different types of resistance exercises that you might come across. These are:

  • isometric
  • isotonic
  • isokinetic

Too heavy on the terminology? Not to worry, let me explain.

Isometric resistance exercise

In this type of resistance exercise, your joints don’t move (ie, you’re stationary). Your muscles contract and are engaged, but they neither lengthen nor shorten. A few examples include:

A static squat

An image showing body squat exercise

A plank

An image showing plank exercise

A static side plank

An image showing side plank exercise

The great thing about isometric exercises is that they require very little (if any) equipment and can be done pretty much anywhere. You can do isometric exercises at home, in a relatively small space. You could even try something like the ‘prayer pose’ while sitting at your desk at work.

To do the prayer pose, put your hands together in front of your chest in a prayer position. Keep your shoulders down and push your palms against each other. You can also then link your fingers together and with your shoulder blades still squeezed, try to pull your linked hands apart.

Isotonic resistance exercise

Isotonic exercise is when your joints move against a constant resistance or weight. You could use your own body weight, or free weights like dumbbells or sand bags, for example.

Examples of isotonic body weight exercises include:


 A gif showing a push up 


A GIF demonstrating sit-up exercise


 A gif showing a lunge


A GIF demonstrating body-weight squat exercise

Isotonic exercises that use your own body weight are easy to do as, similarly to isometric resistance exercises, you don’t need any equipment. The only downside is that, unlike using free weights, it’s harder to increase resistance. So you may find yourself doing more reps during your body weight workout to exert enough (or more) effort.

Examples of isotonic exercises using free weights include:

Shoulder presses

 A gif showing a shoulder press

Squat presses

A GIF demonstrating squat-press exercise

Tricep extensions

A GIF demonstrating triceps extensions exercise

And “What about all those resistance machines at the gym?” I hear you say. Should you use these, or stick to body weight or free weight resistance training?

Good question, but there isn’t really a straightforward answer. If you’re new to resistance training, these machines can help you to do resistance exercises in a relatively safe and straightforward way. The machines guide you through the correct stages of an exercise, leaving little margin for error.

With free weights your movement isn’t guided, so you need to have good technique and understanding of the exercise to avoid harm. However, a benefit is that your movements will be more natural and may relate better to everyday tasks like lifting a baby out of their cot or picking something up off the floor, for example. This is known as functional fitness.

Isotonic exercises: concentric and eccentric components

Isotonic resistance exercises have concentric and eccentric components. If you break the exercise down, the concentric component is when the muscle contracts and the eccentric component is when it lengthens.

For example, when you do a squat your thigh muscle (also known as your quad, or quadriceps) lengthens on the way down (eccentric) and tightens as you come back up (concentric).

The reason I bring this up is because day to day, the concentric components of these exercises are great for strengthening your ability to, for example, pull open a stubborn door or lift bags of shopping, while eccentric components help with things like lowering heavy dishes onto the dinner table. You can also adapt your training to get different results. For example, if you want bigger muscles, you should do the eccentric component of an exercise slower than the concentric part.

Isokinetic resistance exercise

Last but not least, this type of exercise is usually done on special pieces of equipment that keep your speed constant despite changes in the amount of effort your exert. They do this by changing the resistance. Examples include stationary bike machines and treadmills (like the ones you see in the gym). You can select and change the resistance on a stationary bike. On the treadmill, you can change the resistance by adding an incline to your workout.

If done correctly, isotonic resistance exercise allows you to strengthen your muscles nice and evenly as you workout.

Now you know about the different types of resistance exercises, why not give them a go? And remember, you don’t have to go it alone, there’s lots of professional support and guidance available. For example, if you’re a member of a gym, ask if a coach can offer you some advice. Alternatively, there may be specific weights classes or strength training sessions near you. Do your research, give it a go and see how you get on.

Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health and a view of any future health risks. You'll receive a personal lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a happier, healthier you.

Jon Edmondson
MSK Clinical Lead at Bupa UK

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