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Isolation exercises are exercise movements that focus on a singular muscle or muscle group as opposed to involving multiple muscle groups like compound exercises do. As such, isolation exercises involve fewer muscles in their motions, and the typical recommendation when exercising is to utilize as many muscle groups in a motion as you can – hence the glamorization of big lifts such as clean and jerks, bench presses, squats, deadlifts, etc.
So, then, if the general advice is to put your chips on compound exercises, that begs the question: are isolation exercises a waste of time?
No, Not Necessarily …
Although compound exercises give you more bang for your buck, and they save you a lot more time in the gym, a good fitness program cannot wholly ignore including a few isolation exercises here and there.
Like any Tool, It’s How You Use It
Like any tool, it’s how you use it that reveals its real value. Depending on your individual strengths and weaknesses, or even intended goals, isolation exercises can be used in a variety of ways or placed in a program to either encourage certain developments or avoid certain pitfalls (such as lagging muscle groups).
Compound exercises are the best way to stimulate muscle growth, however, because several different muscle groups are working together to execute a movement, the load is distributed across those working muscles. When performing isolation exercises, the load is reliant on a single muscle group, meaning the strain placed on the muscle and the stimulus acquired is a lot more.
In this sense, isolation exercises are good for growing muscles you feel could do with extra attention. If you’re not satisfied with the size of your biceps, throw in some biceps curls, if you feel your quads are lacking, add some leg extensions – these are movements that isolate their respective muscles and eliminate help from other muscles.
When you injure yourself, the advice is to recover and return to proper training slowly and carefully. Part of that recovery process is steadily exercising the injured muscle with focused movements using light weights or none at all.
Compound exercises are not great for injury recovery because their movements are not focused on specific muscles but spread across and the multi-joint movements require heavier weights to stimulate the working muscles – and heavier weights are not recommended for injury recovery.
Also, because compound exercises involve multiple muscles, at times, other muscles can come in to compensate for the injured ones. With isolation exercises, you can zero in on the problem a lot easier and train the weakened/strained muscle better without other muscles interfering.
Form, Posture, and Correction
In the same way isolation exercises can help with rehabilitation by zeroing in on the problem area/muscle, the same can be said with fixing your form on an exercise, your everyday posture, and/or correcting possible muscle imbalances that you may have. When using isolation exercises to tackle form or posture, you want to use light weights.
Hitting a plateau in your gym progress is a common occurrence, and a possible reason for encountering one could be the lack of stimulus in your routine. That is to say, you’ve kept a similar routine for a while and you haven’t made any adjustments to it, allowing your body to adjust to the routine and no longer require a reason to continue growing to adapt.
At times, getting over a plateau is as simple as throwing in more weights, but sometimes, we come across a plateau where we can’t lift any larger weights. The best thing to do in this instance is to isolate the lift’s target muscles and give them that extra, direct attention. For example, if you hit a plateau with squats, you’ll want to hit your quads with other exercises and give it that extra stimulus that you can’t with squats because you can’t throw more plates at the problem.
Before you start an exercise routine a warm-up is advised in order to promote blood flow, reduce injury risks, and prepare for specific movements. Since you’re warming up, you should go with light weights as you’re not trying to get in a workout but wake up your body in preparation for the actual workout.
As a side benefit, if you want to encourage a pump for the start of your workout, isolation exercises are great for it.
On the other end of the spectrum is using isolation exercises as a cooldown. This means the exercises come at the end of your workout. And just like how you can get a pump to carry you through your routine, you can also finish off with a pump by hitting isolation exercises.