The Fit 5: Isolation Exercises

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For all of our fans who shoot us questions on our Twitter and Facebook Page, this one is for you. Each week, we will tap into our pool of editors and experts to help with any questions or challenges you are having with your fitness regimen. This week, Dan Trink, C.S.C.S, Director of Personal Training Operations at Peak Performance NYC and founder of TrinkFitness, answers your questions about isolation exercises – how and when to use them.

1) Purpose of Isolation Movements— asked by Steve Jackson:

What’s the purpose of isolation exercises?

“First off, there is no such thing as a true “isolation exercise”. Take the biceps curl for example. While we think that this most basic isolation movement only works the biceps, many muscles in your hands, forearms, shoulders, core and back also play a role. With that being said, isolation movements, more than compound exercises, place an emphasis on a single muscle. These exercises can be used to great effect when in a hypertrophy (mass building) phase or to bring up a lagging muscle that gets bypassed in compound, multi-joint movements. So, if your goal is getting stronger in the powerlifting movements, than isolation has little purpose. However, if you’d like huge arms, some isolation movements such as curls and presses make more sense.”
2) Isolating Muscle Groups — asked by Jerry Hammon:

What’s the best isolation exercises for each muscle group: chest, back, shoulders and legs?

“There is no best exercise, whether isolation or not, for any muscle groups. Different things work for different people based on genetics, muscle fiber types, muscle insertion and origination points, arm or leg length and countless other factors. I can, however, give you my personal favorite exercises for each muscle group. For chest, I like cable flyes in all varieties (low to high, high to low, etc.). For shoulders, lateral raises are great at developing the medial deltoid (muscle in the middle of your shoulder) and give you the wide shoulder look. For legs, I like hamstring curls as your hammies are likely lacking in size and strength compared to quads and it’s tough to train your hamstrings through knee flexion in other compound movements. For back I like the underused Trap 3 Raise which target the notoriously weak middle and lower trapezius muscles.”
3) Mass Building with Isolation Moves — asked by Tommy Wright:

How do I work isolation exercises into my program for building size?

“Isolation exercises are a great addition to mass gaining programs as they allow you to drive up the volume of the training session (critical for building size) without overly taxing your central nervous system which can make recovery difficult. The majority of trainees would be best served by placing their isolation exercises at the end of their training programs once the big lifts such as squats, deadlifts, pull ups and presses are already completed. For the more advanced lifter, techniques such as ‘pre-exhaust’ in which you perform isolation exercises prior to compound movements for the same muscle groups, can also be effective. “
4) Useless Isolation Moves— asked by Anthony Bruce:

Are there any useless isolation exercises out there? Which ones?

“Again, I think everything can either be useful or useless depending on the individual. For someone who doesn’t respond well to calf raises, calf raises would be fairly useless. Someone who wants giant tricpes would probably do well with triceps pulldowns. Someone who has knee issues may not do very well with leg extensions. Overall, I’m not a huge fan of triceps kickbacks with a dumbbell for anyone (whether you want huge triceps or not) as I don’t find them to be very bio-mechanically effective. While wrist flexion/extension exercises (such as wrist curls) can be useful, I find deadlifts and chin-ups a more effective way to train forearms and grip. But, ultimately, given the right situation, everything has it’s place.”
5) Compound vs. Isolation — asked by Robert Fitz:

How much isolation work should I do vs. compound?

“I sound like a broken record here, but it really depends on the trainee. I do have a rule with my clients that you have to ‘earn your isolation exercises’. Meaning that you really have to have a good foundation in the big lifts before you get to a place where isolation movements make more sense than continually working the compound movements. Also worth taking into account is the training phase someone is in (a mass building or hypertrophy phase warrants more isolation work than a strength phase) and how often they are training (a 5-times per week schedule allows for more isolation movements to be added than a schedule that allows for only 2 hours per week). A very general rule of thumb would be 2 compound movements for every one isolation.”

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