Your workouts may only include a few exercises that seem to match your goals when you’re first starting out with strength training, such as squats and glute kickbacks to develop your booty and shoulder presses and lateral raises to increase your upper-body strength. But if you want to make significant gym-related gains, you must consider how each exercise uses particular joints and muscle groups in your body. In other words, you should think about whether you’re engaging in a solitary exercise.
But don’t worry, understanding isolation exercises doesn’t require a degree in anatomy. A strength and conditioning expert discusses what isolation workouts are in general and why they are so crucial in the paragraphs that follow. You’ll also discover advice on how to appropriately incorporate them into your exercise program.
WHAT DO ISOLATION EXERCISES CONSIST OF? According to Laura Su, C.S.C.S. , a strength coach in Seattle, an isolation exercise is just a single-joint exercise in which you move only one joint (for example, your elbow, shoulder, or ankle). In contrast, she continues, isolation exercises primarily rely on just one muscle group, known as the agonist muscle, to accomplish the maneuver. (The muscle that is relaxing or lengthening is, by the way, the antagonist muscle.) Think about the biceps curl: This exercise isolates the biceps muscle while only requiring you to move at one joint, the elbow. According to her, when performing a quad extension, you only move your knee joint and focus on your quadriceps muscle.
A compound exercise is what an isolation exercise is to a complex exercise. According to Su, the latter movement style uses several joints that cooperate to perform an action. For instance, a back squat engages the hips, knees, and ankles as well as several important muscle groups, such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, she adds.
THE ADVANTAGES OF ISOLATION ACTIVITIES Although compound exercises hit more muscle groups at once and are therefore more efficient, isolation exercises shouldn’t be undervalued. The following are the main advantages of including isolated exercises in your fitness program.
IMPROVE MUSCLES AFFECTED BY SURGERY OR INJURY Isolation exercises might assist you in regaining the strength you might have lost while recovering from an injury or surgery. Su explains that if you recently healed from an ACL tear that occurred six months ago, your quadriceps, calves, and hamstrings on that side are probably weaker than those on your damage-free limb because you haven’t been exercising that leg. While completing isolation movements like calf raises, quad extensions, or hamstring curls on the injured side will help it catch up to your stronger side a little more quickly, she notes, compound lifts will help increase strength throughout the entire lower body. Additionally, Su claims that by boosting blood flow, isolation exercises will enhance the condition of your tendons and ligaments in the troubled region.
IMPROVE COMPOUND EXERCISES’ PERFORMANCE According to Su, performing isolation exercises regularly might help you push beyond plateaus and enhance your performance during compound lifts. Imagine you’re performing a set of bench presses. According to her, if you find it difficult to fully extend your elbows at the top of the exercise, your triceps may be weak. You may strengthen your triceps and eventually be able to extend your arms correctly during presses by including more triceps isolation workouts in your regimen, advises Su. You can increase the total weight of your bench press and continue improving your fitness once your triceps strength is sufficient and you can finish the entire rep.
HELP YOU REACH EXTERNAL GOALS If you’re training for a bodybuilding or physique competition, for example, concentrating on isolation exercises might help you achieve your aesthetic objectives, too, adds Su. For instance, she says, if you need to bulk up your glutes to meet the requirements for winning in your sport, you can perform more glute isolation exercises to concentrate on and develop muscle in specific areas. (However, there are a lot of other advantages to strength training that you can enjoy in addition to improving your beauty.)
ADDING ISOLATION ACTIVITIES TO YOUR ROUTINE: HOW TO DO IT Although isolation exercises have some appealing advantages, Su advises including a healthy balance of both isolation and compound movements in your training program. Because you’re not asking a lot of muscles to fire at once with isolation exercises, you can utilize a lot more volume than you can with compound lifts, according to the expert. However, if someone only performed isolation exercises during their workouts, their muscles would not receive as much stimulus as they would from a large, powerful compound lift.
Your training split (i.e., how often you train each week) and your goals will determine how many isolation exercises you should perform throughout a workout. Su advises performing one solitary exercise for each muscle group worked. Take the example of a two-day training split. You should perform one compound exercise for the upper body, one for the lower body, and many isolation exercises that target the same muscle groups as the complex exercises each day. (She recommends keeping your total number of exercises in each workout to eight to 15 moves.) “If you’re performing a squat and bench press day, your quads, glutes, triceps, and pecs will be working the most, so you could choose isolation exercises that target those muscles,” advises Su. For instance, you may perform chest flies, triceps extensions, triceps kickbacks, and quad extensions.
Exercises for isolation can also be done unilaterally, or on only one side. It’s very natural to have a stronger side of your body than the other, but Su warns that you might not notice any muscular imbalances unless you practice your favorite activities using only one side of your body at a time. Additionally, the American Council on Exercise states that training unilaterally can help you rectify any imbalances you do have, prevent compensatory movement patterns, and prevent injuries.
Su advises that you should strive to perform enough repetitions during all of your isolation exercises so that your set feels difficult but that you could still manage one to three more if necessary. She says that way, “you’ll be activating the muscle sufficiently to produce the best muscle growth and strength improvements.” However, even if it’s helpful for muscular gains and growth, going to failure repeatedly makes it difficult to recover.
Are you prepared to begin? Utilizing Su’s advice, try incorporating the isolated workouts listed below into your regimen to start building strength and muscle.
EXERCISES FOR UPPER-BODY ISOLATION Bantam curl Flying chest Front raising bang curl rise laterally Fly in reverse Torso extension Trench kickback EXERCISES THAT ISOLATE THE LOWER BODY Calf lift slurred speech curled hamstrings Hip flexion Adducted hip extending the quadriceps