I love isolation exercises…and I hate them.
I really do.
Few things have such a dual nature in the fitness world as isolation exercises.
I think they’re extremely effective and completely useless.
The World’s Strongest Man competitors don’t do them, but every Mr. Olympia hopeful does.
So what’s the deal – are they helpful? A waste of time? Counterproductive?
Or all of the above?
What exactly is an isolation exercise?
Just to make sure were all on the same page, isolation exercises are those that involve only one joint.
Think lateral raises, concentration curls, and dumbbell flys.
Moving only one joint at a time means only the muscles that act directly on that joint contribute to moving the weight, which obviously limits you to relatively smaller loads.
Think of how much weight you can lift during a chin-up (your bodyweight) vs. how much you can lift during a barbell curl.
In both exercises, you’re closing (or flexing) your elbow joint by bringing your wrist closer to your shoulder, but on one, you can lift 185 lbs for ten reps while the other limits you to maybe 95 lbs for the same number of reps.
The difference is the extra strength provided by involving the shoulder joint and thus inviting your powerful lats to the party during chin-ups.
What’s the confusion?
We know that getting big and strong is all about lifting heavier and heavier weights.
So why do so many guys spend hours each week working with lighter weights?
I think isolation exercises intuitively feel like they’re more effective.
Ask someone why they’re performing set after set of concentration curls and they’ll respond with something like: “they burn like hell and I can really feel them working!”
It’s very misleading, but this localized burn doesn’t always translate into bigger muscles.
Here I want to share with you when, where, and why to use isolation exercises as well as when they’re best left out of your program all together.
When NOT to use isolation exercises
You’ll hear plenty of guys demonizing things like hammer curls and triceps pressdowns, but that doesn’t mean these extremists are right.
There is something to their logic, and there are definitely occasions where isolation exercises will do more harm than good, as is the case with the following scenarios.
If they interfere with big lifts
Never lose sight of what’s important.
And getting stronger on compound movements will produce the best and fastest results.
Our bodies can only recover from X amount of stress in-between workouts and it’s up to you to choose how you’ll use this recovery capacity.
If you’re working your ass off and are constantly sore but your strength isn’t going up from one month to the next, it’s time to evaluate your program.
Chances are, you’ll find that you’re doing far too much of the unimportant and not nearly enough of what matters most.
It happens to me all the time.
Whenever I design a new program for myself, it’s almost entirely compound exercises with a few isolations here and there.
But over time, I fall under the spell of the gym pump and the obsession with hitting a muscle from every possible angle (we’re all a curl bro at heart, to some degree).
Slowly, I add more and more isolation exercises and my progress on the main lifts starts to taper and then stalls all together.
At this point, I have to stop, evaluate, and redesign my routine back to a more reasonable and productive ratio of 80% heavy compound exercises.
When you aren’t growing overall
An inability to gain weight will never be solved by hitting a muscle from more angles or adding volume in the form of isolation exercises.
If your chest isn’t growing from bench presses and dips, the last thing you should be thinking about is adding cable crossovers.
In the absence of a caloric surplus and strength progression on compound lifts, isolation exercises are completely useless for building a foundation of muscle.
So if you aren’t growing from compound movements, it’s time to examine diet, recovery, lifting technique, and progression issues.
The best way to diagnose the lack of results is to boil down your diet and lifting routine to their most simple form.
From there, you can change one variable at a time until you see progress.
As a replacement for the big lifts
When performed correctly, compound movements aren’t for the casual gym goer.
They take time to learn.
They require planning, focus, and determination.
But they are essential in developing overall body mass and strength!
Front, rear, and lateral raises are great, but they don’t have the same strength and mass producing potential as a properly loaded compound movement.
Don’t neglect some form of heavy pressing or rowing movement as the foundation of your shoulder routine.
Leg extensions and other isolation exercises will never rival squats as a leg developers and you’ll just end up wasting time by stringing together a million exercises as a way to avoid moving big weights.
If you’re prone to overuse injuries
If you look at normal human movement patterns, like carrying a couch up the stairs, picking up packages off the floor, climbing a ladder, and hoisting boxes overhead, multiple joints are nearly always moving at once.
To facilitate this total body movement, many of our muscles cross multiple joints.
Locking one end in place (as is the case with many isolation exercises) subjects the muscle, tendons, and joints to a large amount of stress and excessive strain.
I’m literally incapable of performing preacher curls with anything more than a 40 lb E-Z curl bar due to the stationary nature of the upper arm.
I’ve periodically tried to work them in to my routine, but anything heavy enough to tax my muscles tears up my tendons and joints.
Earlier this year, I was lifting with a gym buddy and went along with his routine which included preacher curls, of course.
Not wanting to derail him, I went along with the program and did 3 sets of 8-12 reps.
This left me with a wicked case of golfer’s elbow that I had to baby for more than 3 months.
And I’ve been a curling machine since I needed two hands to lift a 15 lb dumbbell.
So if your shoulders, elbows, or wrists feel achy and inflamed, take a look at your exercise selection.
You may find that you’re working certain muscles and joints far more frequently than necessary.
When you SHOULD use isolation exercises
Now that you know when to avoid isolation exercises, here are some damn fine reasons to incorporate them into your routine!
To help with mind-muscle connection
I’ve talked before about my less-than-healthy relationship with my triceps.
Before I started lifting they were visually nonexistent and I couldn’t have flexed them for all the money in the world.
Even after I started religiously pressing in all forms, I still couldn’t voluntarily flex my triceps.
Enter isolation exercises.
I solved my piss poor mind-muscle connection with high rep, single arm exercises like pressdowns and overhead triceps extensions.
My triceps still aren’t my best body part, but they’re getting stronger, bigger, and I can finally get a good contraction in them.
For examples, if you have trouble flexing your pecs during bench press, adding a few sets of flys and crossovers multiple times per week will help you become acquainted with the lazy muscle.
But remember, the purpose of these exercises isn’t to move as much weight as possible.
It is to build a strong link between your brain and your muscle so you can use that muscle to its fullest effect during compound lifts.
Use a light weight that allows for 12-20 reps, get a full stretch at the bottom and a strong contraction at the top.
Really concentrate on making the target muscle do all the work.
Bonus Tip: Try adding these isolation exercises when the target muscle is already sore. You’ll feel every millimeter of movement.
To improve another lift
If all you ever do is compound exercises, you may find that your biceps or triceps become a weak link.
It isn’t wise to limit your back training due to a pair of biceps that aren’t up to the task of heavy pulling.
Adding additional volume to your arm training with some curl variations is the way to ensure that they’re strong enough to keep up with your lat development.
For me, my squat and deadlift numbers were initially limited by a weak lower back and glutes.
My leg and grip strength were strong as hell, but I couldn’t keep my back locked and didn’t feel my glutes doing their fair share.
I remedied this with a healthy diet of back extensions and barbell hip thrusts (aptly known as weiner-ups by my friend Adam).
To improve a lagging bodypart
If you’re growing overall but some muscle groups are trailing, additional stimulus in the form of isolation exercises is a great way to spur some extra growth.
My chest and back grow fairly readily, so I don’t do any isolation exercises for them.
It’s strictly incline and flat presses for chest and pull-ups and rows for back.
But my delts are stubborn as a mule and all the pressing in the world hasn’t helped them grow at the same rate as my chest.
To combat this, I hammer away at lateral raises and upright rows after I finish my pressing.
Getting a good pump helps flood the muscle with nutrients and causes some local anabolism due to the cellular swelling.
It isn’t the same stimulation you get with heavy weights, but with lagging body parts, every little bit helps.
As long as your weekly volume isn’t too high, there isn’t really the risk of overtraining with these relatively lighter weights as you might experience with whole body fatiguing compound lifts.
For injury prevention
Squats and deadlifts do a great job of building and strengthening the entire lower body, but that doesn’t mean that everything necessarily gets trained equally.
When you’re training near the limits of what the human body was meant to do, some imbalances may develop.
Even elite level powerlifters know the value of training hamstrings with leg curls and glute/ham raises.
So while it’s definitely not mandatory to use isolation exercises, don’t risk injury in the pursuit of a “pure strength” routine.
Sure, any heavy lift performed standing is going to strengthen your core.
But to ensure the safety of your spine, it’s perfectly acceptable to add crunches, leg raises, and planks.
Just make sure the “prevention” portion of your workout doesn’t become the main event.
Because it’s motivating to get a wicked pump
Let’s not forget there real reason we like isolation exercises.
Everyone loves to see their arms balloon up to what seems like 1.5 times their normal size.
That’s the very reason most gyms are lined with mirrors.
So we can “check our form”.
If nothing else, working in some isolation exercises gives you a glimpse of the future.
Seeing your muscles engorged with blood shows you what you’ll look like with another six months to a year of hard training.
The only problem is, by the time you reach that level of development, your new pump will be even better!
Ever heard the phrase, “you’ll never be as good as your pump”? Sad, but true.
But it’s a good thing this target is always just out of reach because that’s what keeps us going.
Isolation exercises are best used to help with developing a mind-muscle connection, building a functionally balanced and aesthetic physique, and to aid in preventing injuries.
Don’t use isolation exercises exclusively for building mass, to the detriment of or as a replacement for compound movements, or if you experience any overuse injuries.
If you need to reinforce this statement, the next time you’re in the gym, take a look around and notice what all the skinny guys are doing.
Most likely, it’s a lengthy combination of isolation exercises they read about in a muscle magazine.
Hell, they may even have a Flex Magazine laying open on the floor in front of them.
The golden rule of isolation exercises – feel free to isolate, but practice restraint to adhere to the goal of consistent progress.