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Compound exercises get all the praise, but isolation exercises have a place in a well-rounded fitness routine.
Most fitness professionals harp on the importance of multi-joint exercises like squats and presses—guilty! But as a certified personal trainer, I can’t argue that single-joint exercises don’t have a place in any fitness routine. They come with their own unique suite of benefits and drawbacks, and as always, it’s all about finding out what works for you.
Whether you’re a beginner, a bodybuilder, a senior, or you have suffered an injury, you stand to benefit from performing isolation exercises. Ahead, a complete guide to what you should know about these movements.
What Are Isolation Exercises?
Isolation exercises include all exercises that—wait for it—isolate a joint movement and target one specific muscle or muscle group.
Let’s visualize, using the knee joint and quadriceps muscles as an example:
- Your knee flexes (bends) and extends (straightens).
- When you flex (bend) the knee, your hamstrings contract and your quads stretch.
- When you extend (straighten) the knee, your quads contract and your hamstrings stretch.
- To isolate your quadriceps from all other muscles, you need to perform extension of the knee (straightening the leg) in isolation.
- So, you’d do leg extensions, usually on a machine or with dumbbells (we’ll go over exercise options later) to isolate your quads.
You may be wondering: What’s the point of isolation exercises?
Well, there are several benefits to them, which we explain later in this guide, but the gist is this: Isolation exercises work a singular joint movement pattern and the muscles that move the joint in that way, the purpose being targeted muscle growth or rehabilitation.
Isolation Exercises vs Compound Exercises
You now know what isolation movements are. Another term you may have heard is “compound exercises.”
Compound exercises include any movement that engages more than one joint, and thus do not isolate a specific muscle group. These are often referred to as “functional movements” and include all of the big barbell lifts—squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, and all of their variations—as well as lunges, rows, and much more.
Because compound movements don’t isolate a muscle group, we don’t cover them in this guide. (But we have guides to the best barbell exercises and best dumbbell workouts that include dozens of compound strength training exercises.)
What Are Examples of Isolation Exercises?
We have a comprehensive guide to isolation exercises where we break down more than 30 movements and how to do them. To perform these, you can use resistance bands, barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells. To give you an idea, here are some of the best isolation exercises we recommend:
|Lower Body||Upper Body||Shoulders||Core|
|Leg extensions||Biceps curls||Front raise||Woodchops|
|Hamstring curls||Triceps extensions||Lateral raise||Hollow body hold|
|Hip abductions||Skullcrushers||Reverse flies||Leg raises|
|Glute kickbacks||Face pulls||Oblique dips|
|Good mornings||Wrist curls|
|Calf raises||Suitcase holds|
|Weighted tip-toe walk||Chest flies|
Who Should Do Isolation Exercises?
You may be wondering if these are worth your time. Our team of certified personal trainers, CrossFit and weightlifting coaches, and other fitness professionals agrees that if you fall into any of the following camps, you definitely stand to benefit from isolation movements.
Bodybuilders and Others Focused on Hypertrophy
I’d argue that bodybuilders get the most benefit from isolation exercises, since they are so focused on targeted hypertrophy, or muscle growth. However, you don’t have to be a competing athlete to enjoy the results of single-joint strength training. Anyone who wants to beef up a particular muscle group can reap the benefits of isolation exercises.
Often, older adults are encouraged to do strength training by their healthcare providers, but may not have the requisite strength or mobility to safely perform compound exercises. While the goal is to be able to perform compound exercises that translate to daily activities, single-joint movements can help seniors build up strength while separately working on mobility, if needed.
“Strength training in general is of the utmost importance for older adults, but isolation exercises can help double-down on any areas that need a lot of improvement,” says Dr. Mike Masi, physical therapist and GGR expert panelist.
“Weight-bearing exercises, which include weighted single-joint exercises, are a top way to reduce one’s risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures,” he says. “Additionally, strengthening the muscles around a joint helps stabilize the joint and this will aid in balance, coordination, and a reduced risk of falling.”
People Who are Rehabbing an Injury
Those who are on the up-and-up from an injury can benefit greatly from isolation exercises. How? Well, for starters, strengthening the muscle around a joint improves the stability and function of that joint. Secondly, isolated strength exercises are a good way to maintain strength in a body region when you have limited range of motion due to an injury.
Physical therapists often prescribe isolation movements for their clients to help them rebuild strength in areas that have atrophied, Dr. Masi says. “Someone with a knee injury, for example, would benefit from quad and hamstring isolation exercises when they are able to safely and adequately flex and extend the knee joint post-injury.”
You should talk to a physical therapist, orthopedist, or other relevant, qualified health professional if you have an injury you think can benefit from isolated strength work.
People Who are Trying to Prevent Injury
You needn’t have a prior or existing injury to benefit from isolation exercises. Quite the contrary: Single-joint movements like pulldowns and pushdowns are great for enhancing the stability of a joint to prevent injury in the first place.
For athletes, performance is priority. And quite often, improving performance as an athlete means honing in on weaknesses. Isolation exercises can help athletes improve essential skills like power and explosiveness to excel in their sport. Isolation moves will also assist athletes in getting rid of any muscle imbalances or rehabbing injuries that are preventing them from performing at their best.
Pros & Cons of Isolation Exercises
- Expend less energy (burn fewer calories) than compound exercises
- Many require expensive machines or access to a commercial gym
- Often takes a lot of time and several sets to achieve the result you want
- Do not release as many anabolic (growth) hormones as compound moves
- Cannot lift as much weight as you can with compound exercises
FAQs About Isolation Exercises
Some commonly asked questions about isolation exercises are:
How many reps of isolation exercises should you do?
The right amount of reps and sets depends on your goals. There are tons of variations that produce results. Generally, the following guidelines will set you up for success:
- For strength: 1 to 5 reps at 80% of one-rep max
- For hypertrophy (muscle growth): 6 to 12 reps at 60 to 75% one-rep max
- For muscular endurance: 15 or more reps at 40 to 50% one-rep max
Are isolation exercises better than compound exercises?
If a personal trainer ever tells you that isolation exercises are better than compound exercises, run. I would say “all jokes aside,” but I’m not joking.
A credentialed professional will tell you that, in almost all cases, the best exercises are compound movements and those should be your priority. These are the multi-joint exercises that build full-body strength and transfer to real-life activities.
Single-joint exercises have their place, for sure, but they shouldn’t be taking the place of your squats, lunges, deadlifts, rows, and presses.
Who should be doing isolation exercises?
Everyone from beginners to elite athletes can benefit from isolation movements, says Dr. Mike Masi, physical therapist and GGR expert panelist.
According to Dr. Masi, groups who benefit the most from this type of training include:
- Athletes who need to hone a specific muscle group for performance
- Bodybuilders or anyone focused on targeted muscle growth
- Beginners (or anyone) who need to smooth out muscle imbalances to properly perform compound exercises
- Anyone recovering from an injury who needs to restrengthen a particular muscle group
- Older adults who need to prioritize strength training while reducing joint impact or who are working with limited range of motion
Are isolation exercises worth doing in the gym?
Isolation exercises are definitely worth doing if you have a good reason to do them and stand to benefit from the time you spend on them.
For the majority of the general population—which we’re defining here as people who exercise for general health and fitness and do not have any specific performance goals or injuries—isolation exercises might not be worth the time.
“Isolation movements expend far less energy than compound exercises,” says. Dr. Masi, “which means for the general population, they’d get more bang for their buck by following a training program with mainly compound moves that work all of the major muscle groups.”
Do isolation exercises build muscle better?
It depends on how you frame this question. In simplest terms: Compound exercises have greater all-around muscle-building potential because they utilize multiple muscle groups and often your entire body. On the other hand, isolation exercises often have greater muscle-building potential for a specific muscle or muscle group.
Deadlifts, for example, can build muscle in your hamstrings, glutes, quads, core, lower back, and arms. But if you’re really focused on building bigger or stronger hamstrings, deadlifts alone won’t achieve your goal. You’d be wise to add some variation of leg curls to your workout program to further stimulate your hamstrings.
Are chin-ups an isolation movement?
No, chin-ups and pull-ups work multiple muscle groups that move the wrist, elbow, shoulder, and spinal joints, so they would not classify as isolation exercises.
Is leg press an isolation movement?
No, on the leg press machine, your hips, knees, and ankles all move, thus working many muscles, so this is not an isolation exercise.
Are there any bodyweight isolation exercises?
For the most part, isolation exercises require some sort of free weight or machine. It’s very difficult to isolate a muscle and provide a strengthening stimulus with body weight alone. However, a few isolation moves, such as glute kickbacks and hip abductions, can be done with no external weight—you just may not get the challenge you’re looking for.
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