What Are Isolation Exercises?
By Ash May
All weight lifting movements can be split into two groups; compound exercises, and isolation exercises.
Both of these have strengths, weaknesses, advantages, disadvantages, and should be programmed very differently from each other.
Below, we will go through what isolation exercises are, and how to implement them into your workouts for optimising muscle gain.
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What Are Isolation Exercises?
Isolation exercises are the finishing touch to your workouts which will dictate where the workout is focused.
An isolation exercises is a movement which isolates one muscle alone to move a weight through space.
This is opposed to compound movements which use a group of muscles to move a weight through space.
For example, a strict bicep curl done correctly will flex your elbow using purely the bicep muscle. This is an isolation exercise.
These are also known as concentration exercises, and isolated movements.
Sometimes it can be hard to know whether a movement is isolation or compound, usually due to improper technique leading you to feel exercises in different areas.
Some common examples of isolation exercises are;
- Bicep Curls
- Tricep extensions
- Chest Flyes
- Leg Extensions
- Hamstring Curls
- Lateral Raises
If you’re a regular lifter, I guarantee you have done most of, if not all the above-mentioned exercises.
These are the basic go-to movements for many gymgoers, but is this a good thing?
Risk Of Injury
One of the main benefits of performing isolation exercises is the potential for risk compared to compound movements.
As explained in my guide on compound movements, they are much higher risk due to the involvement of more joints and muscles which need to work together very precisely.
When this is paired with the ability to lift very heavy weights with compound movements, your risk of injury shoots up.
However, they have a very high risk to reward ratio, being the absolute best strength and muscle builders.
Isolation movements are the complete opposite to this.
By focusing on one single muscle, and generally one joint, the form is far simpler to execute correctly.
Alongside this, due to being so hyper-focused on one muscle, the amount of weight you are able to lift is significantly less.
This drastically reduces your risk of injury due to less strain being placed on your body.
Unfortunately, this comes with a downside – which will be discussed in detail further down the page.
As with high risk – high reward compound movements… Low risk movements are low reward.
Another major benefit to isolation exercises is the recovery ability you have after performing them.
A few heavy and intense sets of deadlifts or squats can have you feeling sore for days.
This stops you from training the muscles again, meaning there is a cap to the amount of frequency you can hit a muscle with.
As frequency is a key factor of muscle growth, this is not always ideal when bringing up a weak point.
On the other hand, a whole workout of isolation exercises can give you a relatively good muscle building signal and leaving you fresh enough as soon as the day after to hit the muscle again.
Now… I am NOT saying to do workouts of only isolation exercises. You need to focus on your compound lifts.
But what I AM saying, is that isolation exercises are a great way to increase your workout volume or frequency to bring up a weak point, without being detrimental to your recovery and performance in following workouts.
Bring Up Weak Areas
If there is one thing that isolation exercises are good at… It’s isolating.
They allow you to place complete focus on a singular, small muscle that you wouldn’t be able to achieve from a compound movement.
This means that they are great to use as a way to bring up your weak areas.
You can increase the training volume on the muscle groups you would like to place more focus on, without increasing the volume on other muscle groups which often work in conjunction – For example, biceps in a pull up.
This is valuable for us lifters because too much volume across those other muscle groups may be detrimental to following training sessions that week if they are not able to fully recover.
Isolation exercises avoid this, and mean that you can have an overall ‘pull session’ but place a focus on a singular muscle such as the biceps or the lats.
This will likely come into play when you are a more experienced lifter.
Due to the genetics, you will naturally end up having body parts that are more dominant than others.
The dominant muscle groups will make your weaker areas look worse and smaller than they actually are.
So, isolation exercises can be used to bring up the weaker areas to balance out your physique a bit more.
Your genetic strong points will not need the same amount of volume, frequency, and loving as your weak areas.
Just look at Mike Thurston‘s chest. His other muscles don’t stand a chance.
Because you’ve read this amazing guide on progressive overload (you have, right?)…
You know that progressive overload is the absolute key to muscle growth and sustaining progress in the gym.
Well unfortunately, this is where isolation exercises fall short.
As you are not able to lift anywhere near as much weight when compared to compound movements, it becomes much harder to get progressively stronger on these exercises.
The best way I can explain this is…
If you can bench press 100kg, adding 5kg to this and benching 105kg is a 5% increase in your strength.
5% is a realistic goal to have as it is not a huge change to what you are already doing.
Because with compound movements your strength is much higher, 5% of the weight you can lift is a noticeable amount. Adding 5kg to a lift is good.
However, with isolation movements…
If you can barbell curl 30kg, the same 5% increase would be just as difficult to achieve as with a compound movement, but is only 1.5kg in this scenario.
This means for the same effort, you are putting 3.5kg less tension onto your muscles from the increase.
Less Load - Less Muscle Growth
Following on from the last point, and from the earlier mention of low risk, low reward movements…
Simply put, you wont build as much muscle doing isolation movements.
Although they are fantastic for adding volume, frequency, and bringing up weakpoints, you simply cannot put a comparable amount of load onto your muscles.
The load and stress you place on your muscles is what will send the signal to build more muscle and get stronger.
So with that on mind, the goal is to place as much mechanical tension onto muscle to ensure that your body is in a state of adaptation.
This is way, way harder to achieve with isolation exercises.
Less weight lifted = less mechanical tension.
The last disadvantage to isolation movements is functionality.
Functionality of exercises means how they translate into your life.
For example, squatting is a basic human movement pattern. Becoming stronger on this will translate to your day-to-day life and improve your overall health for the future.
Deadlifts are highly function. They simulate picking things up and putting them back down.
However, there won’t be many times in your life when you are lifting something with purely your triceps, or just your rear delts.
When you need to lift objects in your life, it will nearly always be a group of muscles working together, which is exactly what compound movements train.
Isolation movements are training the opposite of this, and therefore do not directly translate into real-life outside of the gym.
For many people, functionality of an exercises isn’t a concern. If you just want to build muscle, then that’s fine.
However, if you are exercising for good health and function, isolation exercises aren’t so useful.
Overall, it is clear to see that there are a mixture of advantages and disadvantages to isolation exercises.
They are incredible for increasing your workout volume and frequency without hindering recovery, and are great for helping to bring up weak points.
However, your compound lifts always need to take priority over isolations due to the lack of mechanical tension, and overall muscle development provided by isolation exercises.
When working around an injury, isolation movements can be great as they wont involve local muscle groups. It just needs to be programmed correctly.