When You Should Perform Isolation Exercises

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Isolation exercises are movements that involve only one joint or muscle group. This is in contrast to compound exercises, which are movements that use more than one joint or muscle group. Think of a leg extension where there is only one joint working. That's an isolation exercise. Now, think of a squat, where you bend at the hips, knees, and ankles, and you'll get a sense of a compound exercise.

Why Isolation Exercises?

For the most part, compound exercises are almost always the moves recommended because they're functional. In everyday life, one muscle group doesn't work in isolation from other muscle groups, it works in conjunction with the rest of the body. Think of opening a door or putting something on a high shelf.  That involves the entire body, so it makes sense to train the body in that way. However, there are circumstances where you want to focus more on isolation exercises.

  • You have a muscular imbalance. Say you pick up a set of dumbbells for some biceps curls. You're right-handed, so you notice that you can do more reps with that arm than the other arm. In that case, you would want to keep doing dumbbell curls to strengthen that left arm.
  • You have an injury. If you've ever done physical therapy, you notice that they may start off with isolation exercises to target the injured muscle or joint. You slowly build strength and endurance and, over time, they may add more balance and stability exercises.
  • You're a bodybuilder or competitive lifter. Bodybuilders are often after a certain beefy look and may spend lots of time working on individual muscle groups to get the most definition and to build bigger muscles.
  • You want a well-rounded program. Compound exercises are great, but you do need some isolation exercises in there to get more depth out of your strength training routine and to make you strong for the harder exercises. Think of a one-arm row. This is an exercise which targets the lats, but it also involves quite a bit of biceps work as well. If your biceps aren't strong, you won't be able to lift enough weight to target the larger, stronger muscle of the back. Doing exercises like biceps curls is a great way to get your arms strong for other back exercises. Another example is a chest press, which involves both the shoulders and the triceps. Because the chest is a large, strong muscle group, you need your shoulders and arms to be strong enough to lift a challenging weight.  Doing shoulder exercises like overhead presses and triceps exercise like extensions can help make your chest work even better.

    Examples of Isolation vs. Compound Exercises

    Compare the isolation exercise for a compound exercise for that muscle group:

    Workouts with Compound and Isolation Movements

    A favorite way to combine compound and isolation exercises is to group the exercises together.  For each muscle group, choose one compound exercise followed by an isolation exercise.  This works great in a superset format.

    The above workouts include a variety of both compound and isolation exercises to work every part of the body in the most dynamic way.  Try adding both to your workouts and see how the other exercises change for you. You may find you can lift heavier once those smaller muscle groups are stronger.

    View Article Sources
    • American Council on Exercise. ACE Personal Trainer Manual, 5th Edition. San Diego: American Council on Exercise, 2014.