Should You Do Isolation Exercises?
by Evelyn Valdez·
Whether you have a strength training routine already planned or you’re just a beginner wanting to create a new workout routine, you’re probably already familiar with the most popular exercises. Squats, deadlifts, planks, lunges… These are all popular compound exercises that can take your strength to the next level, but there’s another kind of exercise that can be just as beneficial: isolation exercises.
As their name indicates, isolation exercises target and train a single joint and muscle group at a time. This is different from compound exercises, which are multi-joint movements that tackle multiple muscle groups at a time, helping you grow bigger muscles more quickly.
But this isn’t a matter of one vs. the other! In reality, combining compound and isolation exercises in your workout routine will help you reach your goals much faster. We’re going to talk about isolation exercises, their fitness benefits, and some of the best isolation exercises that you can try, so keep reading!
Why are isolation exercises beneficial?
If you’re a frequent weightlifter, you’re probably used to doing compound movements in your workout program. But single-joint exercises also have their benefits! By isolating a specific area, you’ll be able to help fatigue that muscle, causing the microtears that will then be repaired while you rest, building lean muscle on top.
Here are a few specific reasons why you should be doing isolation exercises:
Train muscles that need extra work
During compound exercises, you train several muscles at once, but they’re never trained at the same level. Yes, secondary activation is still activation, but the primary movers will always get more work done than the rest, resulting in certain areas getting undertrained or even completely neglected.
Take squats for example. This compound exercise targets every major muscle from your waist down, but you’ll mostly feel the burn on your glutes and quads. Secondary muscles such as your calves still get activated and used during the movement, but the level of intensity is a lot less for that area, meaning that they’re going to get less growth over time.
This is where isolation exercises come in handy! They can help you target all those muscles that get overlooked during compound exercises. Additionally, because you’re only targeting one muscle group, isolation exercises allow for more freedom of movement. This means that you’re able to hit the muscle from a variety of different angles, promoting muscle growth all around.
Develop functional strength
While compound exercises focus on creating an overall strong body with muscles that can help support each other, giving each muscle enough strength to function by themselves is also important. You’ll want every single muscle to be strong instead of having to depend on surrounding muscles and joints to help every time you’re dealing with weight.
Isolation exercises will help you develop functional strength both for your resistance workouts and your daily life. Unlike compound exercises, your body will not be distributing the weight along with all active muscles, but instead, they will strengthen the specific areas that you need. Plus, you’ll be able to lift heavier loads during weightlifting if every muscle involved in the movement is already strong!
Fix muscle imbalances
Similar to unilateral exercises, isolation exercises allow you to work certain muscles without help from other muscles. However, isolation exercises take this to a new level by completely isolating the muscle you want to work on with very minimal activation of supporting muscles, allowing you to focus on a specific weak area that you need to tackle.
Let’s say you notice that you have a slight muscle imbalance in your biceps and you’re able to lift more with your left biceps than your right one. Isolation exercises can help you find that balance by dedicating a little more time to training your right biceps without exhausting the surrounding muscles that might be tired already.
Of course, that is without neglecting the left biceps, or you’ll ultimately inverse the imbalance! Isolation movements can also be the cause of muscle imbalances, so make sure you’re measuring the intensity of your isolated workouts correctly and giving both the opposite and the antagonist muscle the appropriate attention to prevent this.
Best isolation exercises for a stronger body
You have many muscle groups in your body and they all need enough attention to grow bigger and stronger. Here are the best isolation exercises for major muscle groups that you can add to your workouts:
Barbell curls (biceps)
Starting with a classic, barbell curls are probably among the few isolation exercises that you already know. This is because they’re so great at targeting your biceps that they’ve become a must in any strength training program.
How to do it:
- Place a loaded barbell on a weight rack at thigh level and stand in front of it. Grab the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart in an underhand grip, unrack it, and take a couple of steps back.
- With your feet shoulder-width apart and firmly planted on the floor, begin the movement by curling the weight up to your chest without rounding your shoulders forward.
- Squeeze your biceps at the top of the movement, then lower the weight to go back to the starting position and repeat.
Triceps pushdown (triceps)
Cable machines are great at building your strength because they offer constant resistance, making them great for isolation moves such as the triceps pushdown, which targets all three heads of the triceps: the long head, the medial head, and the lateral head.
How to do it:
- Set up the cable machine by attaching a straight bar to a high pulley. Stand in front of it and grab the bar with an overhand grip, then lower it until your arms are tucked to your sides and your forearms are almost parallel to the floor.
- Begin the movement by pushing down the bar using your triceps, making sure you’re keeping a straight back throughout the movement.
- When the bar almost reaches your thighs, hold for a second while you squeeze, then slowly go back up and repeat.
Dumbbell chest flys (pecs)
Having strong chest muscles will allow you to support a variety of arm, shoulder, back, and even core exercises, so you’ll want to make sure your pecs are strong enough to get the job done. And doing chest flys with a pair of dumbbells is perfect for this!
How to do it:
- Find a bench and lie down on it with a dumbbell in each hand. Lift your arms straight up so that the weights are almost touching above your chest, making sure you don’t lock your elbows.
- With your feet flat on the floor for support, begin the movement by lowering the dumbbells to the sides, opening your arms in the process. The lower you go, the harder it will be for you to go back up, so be careful.
- Hold the open position for a moment, then bring the dumbbells back up while squeezing your pecs and repeat.
Cable lateral raise (delts)
Your deltoids are the muscles located in your shoulder area, and they definitely need extra attention. Your shoulder joint moves a lot and it’s very fragile, so having strong deltoids all around can help support that joint!
How to do it:
- Attach a handle to the lowest pulley in a cable machine and stand with your right shoulder next to the machine. Bend down and grab the handle with your left hand, then stand back up with your feet shoulder-width apart so that the cable crosses your body.
- Holding onto the machine with your right hand for support, begin by raising your left arm to the side, pulling from the handle with a neutral grip until your arm is parallel to the floor.
- With your hand facing down at the top position, squeeze your delts, then lower your arm and repeat.
- Finish your reps and switch to the opposite side.
Straight arm pulldowns (lats)
Your lats are those huge muscles on the sides of your back, and because your back is a big area composed of many other big muscle groups, strengthening each of them is key for a better fitness journey.
How to do it:
- Set up the cable machine by attaching a straight bar to a high pulley. Stand in front of the machine with your feet shoulder-width apart and reach for the bar with both hands in an overhand grip. Your arms should be slightly pointing up.
- To begin, hinge forward at the hips and start pulling the bar down and toward your body. Activate your lats and pull until the bar almost reaches your thighs.
- Without bending your elbows or rounding your shoulders, squeeze your muscles for a second, then go back up and repeat.
The next major muscle group you should tackle is your core so that you can have those strong and defined abs that you’ve been dreaming of on top of improved balance. This movement doesn’t need any equipment, so it’s perfect to add to your home workouts!
How to do it:
- Lie on the floor with your legs together and your arms close to your sides. Activate your core and lift your upper and lower body slightly off the floor to get into the starting position.
- Begin the movement by lifting your upper and lower body further off the floor along with your arms. At the top of the movement, your body should look like a letter V and your arms should be parallel to the floor.
- Keep your balance while squeezing your core in this position, then return to the starting position and repeat.
Leg extension (quads)
This tough leg exercise will give your quads a good burn without the need to bring other supporting muscles into the action, helping you grow bigger and more defined legs in no time!
How to do it:
- Find a leg extension machine and sit on it, making sure your upper body is comfortably rested on the backrest. Then, place your feet under the pad so that the weight rests at the bottom part of your shins.
- Grab onto the handles on each side of your body for support and begin the movement by lifting the weighted pad, extending your legs in the process without taking your back off the backrest.
- Squeeze your quads at the top part of the movement, then slowly lower the weight and repeat.
Cable glute kickback (glutes)
To finish this list, we have a very popular lower-body movement: the glute kickback. This is a killer exercise that’s designed specifically to give your glutes a complete and isolated workout, targeting the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus.
How to do it:
- Attach an ankle strap to the lowest pulley of a cable machine and stand in front of it. Wrap the strap around your right ankle and hold onto the machine with both hands for support.
- To begin, slightly bend your left knee for additional stability and kick your right foot back, pulling the cable in the process. Go as far back as you can while keeping your upper body straight.
- Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement, then bring your foot back down and repeat.
Isolation exercises can be a great addition to your workouts to strengthen your muscles, but it’s also a great way to add some variety to your strength training routine to keep challenging your muscles in different ways and to prevent you from getting bored.
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