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Isolation Exercises: What They Are and 4 Reasons to Use Them

What are isolation exercises and how can you take advantage of them?


Man doing bicep curl as isolation exercise to build muscle and target his biceps

Along with compound exercises, isolation exercises are one of the main types of strength training exercises that you'll see both weight trainers and calisthenics athletes using.


Isolation exercises are usually used in conjunction with major compound exercises to build a well rounded training program, perfect for both increasing strength, building more muscle mass and achieving any other specific goals in fitness.


For the beginner lifters and trainees out there, this article is going to go over what exactly an isolation exercise is, the best isolation exercises you can do and 4 reasons why you should be incorporating them into your workout program.


Let's get started!


What Is an Isolation Exercise?


The definition of an isolation exercise is implied in its name. It's a type of exercise that allows you to isolate a muscle group, and get it to do some work on its own without or with minimal assistance from other muscle groups.


It's an exercise that has you working one muscle group at a time, only causing movement at one joint throughout the body.


Examples of Isolation Exercises


Some common examples of isolation exercises could include:

  • quad extensions

  • hamstring curls

  • calf raises

  • straight arm pushdowns

  • cable flyes

  • lateral raises

  • bicep curls

  • tricep pushdowns.


Quad Extensions


This is the only isolation exercise that you can use to specifically target the quadriceps, and is a popular staple in the workout routines of many bodybuilders for its unique movement pattern that no other exercise can offer.


It's great for finishing the quads off at the end of a leg day and really going hard in burning them out.


Here's how to do them:


  1. Sit on a quad extension machine and make sure that the foot padding rests comfortably on the front side of your flexed ankle.

  2. Grab onto any surrounding handles to help stabilize yourself.

  3. Drive the weight up with force by straightening the knee and locking them out at the top hard.

  4. Squeeze the muscles of the quadriceps for a second, before lowering the weight back down with control to the resting position.

  5. Repeat.


See the video below by Livestrong to see what this looks like!



Hamstring Curls


These are the only exercise that you can use to isolate your hamstrings, and get them working hard on their own without assistance from other muscle groups.


It's important to do these if you're going to do quad extensions, as you don't want to have to deal with large muscular imbalances on your body between your quadriceps and your hamstrings.


Here's how to do them:


  1. Sit comfortably on the hamstring curl machine and make sure that the foot padding rests comfortably in between your calves and your heels.

  2. Again, grab onto any surrounding handles to help stabilize yourself.

  3. Bring the weight up by bending forcefully at the knee and 'curling' your ankles towards the seat you're sitting on.

  4. Squeeze the muscles of the hamstrings hard at the end of the movement.

  5. Allow the weight to bring your legs back to the starting position, but control it and still make an effort to resist the gravity.

  6. Repeat.


Watch Luke Hoffman's video below to see what this looks like!



Calf Raises


These are an extremely important exercise for you to be doing if you want to have a well-rounded looking body and not look like you've got chicken legs.


Calf raises are one of the only exercises that you can do to really work the calves hard, let alone work by themselves.


Here's how to do them:


  1. Place your feet on an elevated surface and have your heels hanging off the edge.

  2. Grab some weight or use a machine and make sure you're comfortable in the starting position before initiating the rep.

  3. Drive the weight up by forcefully pressing through your toes and getting your heels elevated above the surface as much as you can.

  4. Hold the squeezed position for a second before lowering the weight and your heels back down with control.

  5. Stretch the calves hard at the bottom by really allowing the weight to pull your heels down below the elevated surface.

  6. Repeat.


Check out the video below by Scott Herman to see what this looks like!



Straight Arm Pushdowns


These are the only isolation exercise you can use to target the muscles of the lats, and get them doing the majority of the work.


These are best if done with a cable machine, and are really good to do at the end of your workout when you want to burn out the muscles of your back and really finish strong.


Here's how to do them:


  1. Set the cable machine pulley system high and use a straight bar attachment for the best results.

  2. Grab onto the bar with a double overhand grip and maintain a slight bend in your elbows.

  3. Stand about 1-2 meters away from the cable machine and bend your knees slightly.

  4. Bend forwards at the hips to lean slightly forwards at approximately a 60 degree angle.

  5. Maintaining this position (including your elbows), drive the bar down to your hips by drawing it down and in a curved motion towards your hips.

  6. Squeeze the muscles hard at the bottom of the motion, before allowing the bar to travel back upwards (whilst still resisting the weight).


Check out Bodybuilding.com's video below to see what this looks like!



Cable Flyes


Along with the pec deck, the cable fly is one of the only ways you can isolate your chest and get them to do the majority of the work.


These are definitely a staple that you should have in your routine if you're wanting to build up a stronger, fuller looking chest.


Here's how to do them:


  1. Set the cable pulley system as high as possible.

  2. Grab onto both handles (you'll need both sides) and make sure your palms are facing forwards in the direction you're facing.

  3. Walk out front of the machine, going as far as you can until you feel a stretch in your chest.

  4. Make sure you're standing evenly in the center of both sides.

  5. Keeping your spine neutral, lean forwards and place on foot behind the other to help stabilize yourself.

  6. You should find that your arms are almost being dragged backwards, and that they're angled down diagonally towards the ground.

  7. Maintaining a slight bend in your elbows (approximately 30 degrees), drive the handles down to each other in a circular motion around your torso.

  8. You hands should finish in front of your lower stomach.

  9. Squeeze the muscles of the chest hard before allowing the weight to slowly drag your hands back up (resist it).

  10. Repeat.


If it sounds confusing, have a look at the video below by Scott Herman for a demo!



Lateral Raises


These are the only isolation exercise you can use to specifically target the middle or medial head of the deltoids (shoulders), so it's vital that you learn how to do them with the right form.


The middle head of the deltoid is going to play the biggest part in helping you develop that broad-shouldered look, and this is one of the best exercises you can use to achieve that.


Here's how to perform it:


(For this example we're going to use the dumbbell lateral raise).


  1. Stand with a pair of dumbbells in your hands, hands by your side and palms facing into your thighs.

  2. Bending your elbows slightly (at around 15 degrees), bring the weight up by lifting your arms up and out around your torso until your arms are in line with your shoulders.

  3. Refrain from bouncing at the legs or using your spine to generate any sort of momentum.

  4. Squeeze the muscles of the shoulders hard before lowering the weight back down with as much control as possible.

  5. Go all the way down until your hands are back by your sides.

  6. Repeat.


Check out Connor The Personal Trainer's video below for a demonstration!




Bicep Curls


This is a very common movement pattern that has you hitting your biceps, the small muscle on the front side of your arm that looks somewhat like a ball when it's flexed.


It's very common to see people doing bicep curls in the gym as they really are the only way to isolate the biceps and get them to do the majority of the lifting.


Here's how to perform them:


  1. Stand with a barbell in your hands, palms facing away from you.

  2. Without creating momentum with your spine, bouncing on your legs or moving the elbows at all, curl the weight up by bending at the elbow until the bar reaches approximately your shoulder level.

  3. Squeeze the muscles of the biceps hard at the top before lower the weight back down slowly and with control.

  4. Lower down until your arm is fully straight and emphasize the locked out (straightened) position of the elbows by flexing the triceps.

  5. Repeat.


Check out the video below by John Fisiilose to see what this looks like!



Tricep Pushdowns


These are one of many isolation exercises for the triceps, which is the group of muscles that sit on the back of your arm, opposite to the biceps.


These are likely the isolation exercise that will allow you to lift the most weight, and really help you build up some foundational tricep strength.


Here's how to perform them:


  1. Set the cable pulley system high.

  2. Use a straight bar attachment.

  3. Grab the handle with an overhand grip (palms facing down), and take a step back.

  4. Bend your knees slightly and maintain a slight lean forwards over the bar.

  5. Keeping your elbows tucked by your side (your upper arm should be pointing straight down), bring the bar down by straightening the elbows.

  6. Your elbows should not move at all. Keep them in a fixed position.

  7. Squeeze the muscles of the triceps hard at the bottom of the movement.

  8. Allow the bar to come back up, but resist it and control it.

  9. Go up until you feel a stretch in your triceps, and repeat.


See the video below by Origym Personal Trainer Courses for a demonstration!



See each of these exercises only includes motion or movement at one joint?


The bicep curl only includes movement at the elbow.


The calf raise only includes movement at the ankles.


The quad extension only includes movement at the knee joint.


Since these exercises only move at one joint, they only hit one muscle group at a time and are therefore isolation exercises.


So Why Should You Use Isolation Exercises?


There are several reasons why you would want to incorporate isolation exercises into your workout program.


We'll go over each one and briefly explain why it's important for you.


Isolation Exercises Allow You to Target Weak Points


One of the main reasons that people use isolation exercises is the fact that it allows you to specifically target your weak points, and give them extra attention.


Only using compound exercises can quickly lead to larger muscles taking over, and creating imbalances or disproportions between different muscle groups.


It can also cause certain muscle groups to fall behind and lack in size compared to your other muscle groups.


For example, many powerlifters might find that they are lacking in muscle groups such as their biceps, as they do not get hit all that much during the three main compound movements of the squat, bench press and deadlift.


Due to this they may want to incorporate more isolation exercises into their workout programs so that their biceps don't end up lagging too far behind.


Simply trying to do more compounds such as pull ups or barbell rows would help, but it wouldn't be as effective as simply incorporating some variations of a traditional bicep curl.



Isolation Exercises Aren't As Tiring


Athlete feeling tired and exhausted after workout, only able to do isolation exercises

Many people also like to incorporate isolation exercises into their workout programs due to the fact that they're not as tiring, and don't require as much energy in order to make use of effectively.


For example, an intense deadlifting or squatting is going to require an IMMENSE amount of energy.


It's going to get your heart rate going high, and it's going to get you feeling extremely tired right afterwards if you train hard enough.


However something like a tricep pushdown or a set of intense hamstring curls isn't going to require nearly as much energy as most compound movements.


This is because they use less overall muscle mass throughout the body, and therefore don't get you as tired.


This is why many people like to incorporate isolation exercises towards the end of their workout routines, when they're already feeling tired and wouldn't survive any more intense sets of heavy compound movements.


A typical 'pull day' workout might look like this:


  1. Deadlifts - 5 x 5

  2. Pull Ups - 3 x 8-12

  3. Chest Supported Rows - 3 x 10

  4. Seated Cable Rows - 2 x 8

  5. Lat Pulldowns - 2 x 10-12

  6. Dumbbell Hammer Curls - 4 x 10


See how the isolation exercise (the dumbbell hammer curl) is placed last?


This is because it's generally the least energy-demanding, and therefore can still be done at the end when athletes are already feeling tired.


Isolation Exercises Sometimes Offer Better Ranges of Motion


Often times, exercises can be altered or introduced to have bigger and better impacts on certain muscle groups.


For example, the angle of your upper arm in relation to your torso is going to have a big impact on the specific head or section of the triceps that you're working.


When you're doing bench presses, your lateral and medial heads of the triceps get plenty of work and activation.


However your long head doesn't get so much attention, due to its location and anatomy.


Doing specific tricep isolation exercises that bias the long head is going to offer a much better overall range of motion for the triceps, and allow all three heads to be hit well.


And also if you're looking to do something like stress any given muscle in its lengthened (stretched) position, isolation exercises such as overhead katana extensions, cable flyes and incline dumbbell curls are going to make this possible.


It's very hard to do the same thing just utilizing compound exercises.


Isolation Exercises Can Be Accessories For Compound Exercises


Female powerlifter doing heavy barbell bench press to build strength

Many people who care about their strength and performance on compound exercises (such as powerlifters, Olympic lifters, etc.) might find that utilizing isolation exercises is a great way to help improve their compound lifts.


For example many people in the past have found that focusing on tricep isolation exercises (such as the tricep pushdown) went a long way in helping them break through a bench press plateau or a military press plateau.


Or that incorporating hamstring curls and quad extensions into their workout programs allowed them to break through a deadlift or squat plateau.




Conclusion


Isolation exercises are a great addition to almost any strength training workout program, thanks to their wide range of benefits and advantages that they offer you.


If you're newer to strength training and are still learning about how to incorporate isolation exercises into your training program, you can get some help by contacting us and filling in a form for a fully personalized workout program, tailored just to you!

Otherwise, simply keep educating yourself and keep trying to learn as much as you can.


You'll be on your way to becoming the most proficient athlete you can be in no time!


Do you currently utilize isolation exercises?


Let us know in the comments section below!

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