When You Should Perform Isolation Exercises

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In the world of weight training, there are different types of exercise you can include in your workouts.  One of those categories is isolation exercises, movements that involve one joint or one muscle group.

On the other hand, there are compound movements, movements that use more than one joint or muscle group.  Think of a squat, where you bent at the hips, knees and ankles and you'll get a sense of a compound exercise.

  Now, think of a leg extension where there's only one joint working.  That's an isolation exercise.

Why Isolation Exercises?

For the most part, compound exercises are almost always the moves I recommend the most because they're functional.  The body doesn't work in isolation from other muscle groups in real life, but in conjunction with the rest of the body.

Think of opening a door or putting something on a high shelf.  That involves the entire body, so it makes sense to train the body in that way.

However, there are circumstances where you want to focus more on isolation exercises.

You Have a Muscular Imbalance

Say you pick up a set of dumbbells for some biceps curls.  You're right handed, so you notice that you can do more reps with that arm than the other arm.  In that case, you would want to keep doing dumbbell curls to strengthen that left arm.

You Have an Injury

If you've ever done physical therapy, you notice that they may start off with isolation exercises to target the injured muscle or joint.

  You slowly build strength and endurance and, over time, they may add more balance and stability exercises.

You're a Bodybuilder or Competitive Lifter

Bodybuilders are often after a certain beefy look and may spend lots of time working on individual muscle groups to get the most definition and to build bigger muscles.

You Want a Well-Rounded Program

Compound exercises are great, but you do need some isolation exercises in there to get more depth out of your strength training routine and to make you strong for the harder exercises.

Think of a One Arm Row.  This is an exercise which targets the lats, but it also involves quite a bit of biceps work as well.  If your biceps isn't strong, you won't be able to lift enough weight to target the larger, stronger muscle of the back. Doing exercises like Biceps Curls is a great way to get your arms strong for other back exercises.

Another example is a Chest Press.  The Chest Press involves both the shoulders and the triceps.  Because the chest is a large, strong muscle group, you need your shoulders and arms to be strong enough to lift a challenging weight.  Doing shoulder exercises like overhead presses and triceps exercise, like extensions, can help make your chest work even better.

Examples of isolation vs. compound exercises:

Workouts with Compound and Isolation Movements

My favorite way to combine compound and isolation exercises is to group the exercises together.  For each muscle group, choose one compound exercise followed by an isolation exercise.  This works great in a superset format.

The above workouts include a variety of both compound and isolation exercises to work every part of the body in the most dynamic way.  Try adding both to your workouts and see how the other exercises change for you.  You may find you can lift heavier once those smaller muscle groups are stronger.


Source: American Council on Exercise. ACE Personal Trainer Manual, 3rd Edition. San Diego: American Council on Exercise, 2003.

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