Why Isolation Exercises Are Important for Workouts and Training

Anke Neustadt

This is Your Quick Training Tip, a chance to learn how to work smarter in just a few moments so you can get right to your workout.

Isolation exercises tend take a lot of heat in the gym. Working with a laser focus on one muscle group at a time isn’t functional, some argue. Others point to the fact that the targets of isolation exercises are worked to an almost equal degree in many compound moves, as anyone who has felt the burn in their biceps during a chinup can attest. And you know what? They aren’t totally wrong—but isolation exercises still deserve a place in your training program, because they fill in many gaps that more comprehensive exercises often miss.

For the uninitiated, an isolation exercise is by definition a movement that targets a single muscle group and involves the movement of a single joint (think: calf raise, biceps curl, triceps kickback, and dumbbell fly). That’s less than desirable from an efficiency standpoint—especially when compared to multi-muscle, multi-joint compound movements (e.g., deadlift, squat, bench press, lunge, pullup) which engage more lean mass, burn more calories, and tend to trigger a greater adaptation (i.e., muscle and strength building) response. But there are many things that isolation exercises do much better than compound exercises.

For starters, they allow you to pay special attention to muscles or muscle groups that matter to your specific training goals. Maybe you want biceps that stretch the limits of your shirt sleeves, calves that strike fear into the hearts of road race competitors, or lobster-claw triceps that help you ace serves in beach volleyball. Isolation exercises can help you build all of them. But perhaps more importantly, performing exercises that allow you to isolate individual muscle groups can help you eliminate muscle imbalances, more effectively rehab sports injuries, and eliminate weak links that might be holding you back both on the playing field and in the weight room.

In short, isolation exercises can be just as important to your training, athletic longevity, everyday functionality, and overall performance as compound moves—as long as you know how to strike a balance between the two in your workout program.

Your Move: Anchor your workouts in compound exercises, making them the foundation and bulk of your training, and strategically incorporate isolation exercises as needed. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, isolation exercises can help you increase your training volume for a particular muscle group.

That strategy can be a game-changer for hypertrophy. But no matter what your training goal is, adding isolation exercises to your weekly routine can help you achieve it by bringing focus to muscles that can benefit from that extra attention.

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