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Isolation Exercises

There is a mixed view in the fitness world about isolation exercises. Bodybuilders love them for their ability to selectively build muscle in certain parts of the body. Many large fitness centres use them because they are seen as safer by a lot of uneducated trainers. On the other hand, isolation movements are hated and criticised by hardcore strength and conditioning advocates such as CrossFit and many athletic coaches. And yes, I am aware that on this site there are some articles that criticise the use of isolation and machine movements. However this is in a different context and for a different purpose.

So who has it right? Is isolating muscle groups worthless? Or is it worth doing under certain circumstances? Well it depends on the outcome you seek. Although I myself have criticised isolation movements for developing functional fitness, this article will look favourably upon them and discuss them in the context for which they are most useful and applicable.

At the end of this article I will include a program (sort of) to place isolation movements into a context. The program will be more like a set of drills for strengthening single muscle groups and joint actions.

What are Isolation Exercises?

Isolation simply means the isolation of a single joint action. The term can also be used to describe isolation of a single muscle. Examples include bicep curls, leg extensions, tricep extensions, pull-overs, dumbell flys, leg curls etc.

These movements differ from compound movements because a compound exercise is one that works a more complex movement pattern involving multiple joints and muscle groups.

When NOT TO USE Isolation Exercises

Isolation movements are no doubt overused by the exercising public and the greater athletic communities. This leads to heated arguments about what athletes should be doing and what the general public should be doing for that matter. I’ve seen 400 metre sprinters performing sets of 12 bicep curls and rugby players performing leg extensions. This is absurd and will not contribute to any measurable success on the field of play.

Isolation exercises are misused and should be limited in use by athletes and those wanting well-rounded physical conditioning. Performing sets of 10-12 reps of an isolation movement is counter-productive to athletic performance and neuroendocrine benefits to strength training in most circumstances. So limiting isolation movements in situations when the goal is total body strength and/or power is advised. This includes goals that involve large movements and are dominated by gross motor development.

Isolation exercises should also be limited for the lower body. It may be attractive to perform leg extensions but there is really no benefit in doing this sort of movement as opposed to a squat, lunge or deadlift. The isolation movements used for legs negate any neuroendocrine benefit derived from the usual heavy exercises used for the lower body and are a poor choice in terms of motor patterns.

When to USE Isolation Exercises

Compound movements should form the basis of all strength and conditioning regimes. Multiple joint movements are most commonly found in the real world, whereas isolation of a particular joint action is rare outside of a gym environment. Never will you be required to flex your elbow joint on its own repeatedly for up to 12 repetitions. It’s simply something that will most-likely never come up.

Having said that, there are times when a single joint action needs to be strengthened in order to better balance out a larger movement and make it more effective. Lets say you can do 30 pull-ups, however your biceps seem to lack enough strength to allow enough elbow flexion to perform even one single arm pull-up. In this case it is generally not the strength in the latissimus dorsi or teres major that is lacking, it is most likely your biceps.

Another example where an athlete might be lacking strength in specific, isolated joint movement is a gymnast. Their movements are very precise and require a well-rounded physique in order to cope not only with the gross strength requirements but they also need to control the movement elegantly and precisely. So it makes sense that a gymnast might benefit from specific, targeted isolation movements to fix weak links and better train certain movements. An example is working on the rings. Quite often adduction of the shoulder joint (bringing the arm towards the centreline of the body) is required with straight arms. Obviously bench press will not strengthen this pattern to any large degree. However heavy dumbell flyes might help to strengthen the movement. Many may argue with this point of view, however I challenge anyone to come up with a valid argument and I will be happy to provide you with evidence and logic.

How to Incorporate Isolation Exercises

Tread carefully when utilising isolation strength exercises. Dominating your training with them is a recipe for an unbalanced physique, strength inadequacies and a blunted neuroendocrine response, among other things. However you can make use of them in a variety of ways that are applicable to the nature of your sport or fitness goals.

The following are a list of guidelines for when and how to utilise isolation exercises to best advantage…

  • Strength Imbalance: Use isolation movements to even out a strength imbalance. Generally this occurs when a major compound movement needed for your conditioning is held back by only a small part of the movement or by a weakness in a single muscle group.
  • Rehabilitation: Sometimes rehab leaves a person with atrophied muscles in very specific locations. Most of the time it is localised to a single joint such as the elbow. In this case a compound movement will not always be the best course of action simply because there is no way to focus on the injured joint and how it is working. Isolation work such as bicep curls and tricep extensions are useful for very controlled strength work that is required to re-establish a baseline level of strength and functionality in the elbow joint after injury. This applies to most other small joints and sometimes the shoulder.
  • When the Movements Require it: Sometimes the sport or activity you train for requires a very precise movement. Gymnastics is a perfect example. Training isolated parts of complex, precision movements can allow for perfect balance of strength and better execution of compound movements.
  • Never Will You Need 12 Reps: Essentially the point I am making with this item is that bodybuilding applications are useless for everything but bodybuilding. Never ever will you require a repeated contraction of the bicep in total isolation of the span of between 8-12 reps. This is not applicable to anything so should be avoided. The exception of course, is hypertrophy of that specific muscle.
  • Max Strength: Isolation movements are a good way to incorporate maximum strength at specific joints. This is the most typical athletic application you will see myself and many other notable strength and conditioning coaches use. This involves a single or even partial repetition of a movement such as a bicep curl, lateral raise, pull-over or dumbell fly, which are typically the only isolation exercises I work with.

Isolation Exercises in Context

Incorporating Isolation Movements Into a Strength Training Program

The following is not a complete program for overall strength development. The aim is to provide a method for incorporating isolation movements into an effective strength regime where certain elements of single joint strength may be required.

So lets first establish some specifics about this theoretical program. First the hypothetical athlete is a decathlete. The purpose of incorporating isolation exercises is for three reasons; the first being that he needs specific strength in the action of throwing a javelin and a discus. Secondly he has a weakness in gastrocnemius development (the large muscle in the calf), which is causing issues in sprinting and jumping events. Thirdly, our athlete has a bicep weakness that is halting progress in some major compound movements needed for complete development.

This program will span over a six day cycle to make it easier to demonstrate. I will omit all the specific programming that the athlete will be doing. This means we will briefly skim over the program and only include details for the actual use of the isolation movements.

Day One

Strength, speed and power training. This includes 100 metres, hurdles, throwing events, long jump and high jump. Session consists primarily of strength and power work with less focus on techniques.

ISOLATION EXERCISES

Heavy barbell pull-overs immediately prior to javelin practice, for 3-2-1-1-1 reps

Low angle dumbell flyes for 3-3-3-1-1 reps (low angle means that the hands move in a plane closer to the hips as opposed to being closer to the head)

Day Two

Skill session on all throwing and jumping events.

ISOLATION EXERCISES

None

Day Three

Strength and power session with limited skill work. Mostly working in the gym.

ISOLATION EXERCISES

Dumbell preacher curls as the last exercise of the session for 5 maxed out singles

Day Four

Endurance and anaerobic capacity session. Primarily working on 400 and 1500 metres.

ISOLATION EXERCISES

None

Day Five

Skill work on throws and jumps. Short sprint work.

ISOLATION EXERCISES

Heavy single leg calf raises performed explosively, for 3-3-3-3-3 reps (each side)

Day Six

Strength and conditioning session, finishing with track work.

ISOLATION EXERCISES

Five heavy single reps for each of the following…

Barbell pull-overs

Dumbell flyes

Lateral raises

Bicep preacher curls

Perform these at the end of the strength session.

Conclusion

Take this article and program as a guide and simply as food for thought for the athlete or coach. Isolation movements are useful in a certain setting, however as you can see those settings are limited in nature. This guide by no means recommends bodybuilding style training or incorporating machine weights for athletic development. Isolation exercises are simply a tool that, if use correctly, will greatly enhance either performance or training capacity and quality.

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Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Sprint Ninja, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.

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