Using a heavier workload, heavier from session to session is, in theory, the most effective way to build muscle mass and strength. Based on this fact, it is legitimate to wonder if isolation exercise really has a place in a weight training program.
Is this a waste of time? Do you have to focus all of your efforts on basic movements? To boost your progress, you can finally determine precisely when to do isolation exercises.
You can also find a list of movements at the end of the article to establish your own training program.
What is an isolation exercise in strength training?
Unlike polyarticular exercises, isolation movements involve only one joint. As a result, fewer muscles will intervene during the effort which allows you to concentrate more on the target muscle .
Let’s take as an example a poly and an iso for a bicep session.
The only basic movement for the biceps: pull-ups, supine grip (or fixed bar pull). Indeed, two joints are used: the elbows and the shoulders. Thus, the biceps, deltoids and some muscles of the back therefore lift the load.
As an isolation exercise , let’s mention a classic: the bicep curl (and its variations), since only the elbow joint moves.
At first glance, we might say to ourselves that ultimately, it would be even more judicious to train only from mono-articular exercises in order to balance the amount of work between the different muscles, but this way of proceeding is not optimal for establishing a strength training program. Let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages to find out in which case they will benefit you.
Many bodybuilders use isolation exercises as a “Finisher,” that is, they are placed at the end of a workout to consume the last grains of energy.
With this in mind, it is clear that this type of exercise can come in handy. They are much less energy-consuming and traumatic on the muscular, articular and nervous levels, than a polyarticular movement. In addition, isolation exercises are effective at congesting in addition to getting a better feeling on the target area, which gives the feeling of having done something productive.
For all of these reasons, you might be tempted to include a few iso exercises in every workout to work all of your muscles, but that would be too time consuming. The extra time spent in the gym will not match the expected results.
In fact, isolation exercises mainly do two things.
Learning and improving engine recruitment
Not feeling the target muscle on a basic movement is frustrating. At first, it is thought to be due to poor execution technique or time to adapt to the movement …
Despite your best efforts, there’s a good chance you’ll make the situation worse. Indeed, the secondary muscles will develop more, whether in strength or in mass, unlike the targeted muscle. Ultimately, this causes muscle imbalances which is both aesthetically and mechanically disabling.
By “isolating” the muscle on an isolation exercise , you learn to solicit it, to contract . So it’s more of a nervous job, we improve neuronal transmission, we create new connections.
There are many reasons for these motor recruitment imbalances:
- The sporting past (example: a former cyclist will have an easier time recruiting his calves unlike a sedentary)
- Genetics (You are born with strengths and weaknesses)
Thanks to this motor training, you will be able to obtain more results afterwards with polyarticular exercises. Know that every workout, good or bad, leaves a mark in your nervous system.
You can do some basic movement tests every now and then to see if the muscles can finally work synergistically, but be patient … It usually takes months or even years. A considerable gain in strength and a better feeling in general are good signals, the hours devoted to this learning are well worth it in the long term.
The magic of levers in bodybuilding: muscle insertion and bone length
Sometimes the problem is not with the nervous system itself, but rather with the wrong lever. Definitely, genetics!
Muscle insertions (where muscle is attached to bone) and bone length will have a significant impact on the effectiveness of an exercise compared to your body type.
To realize the importance of levers, you can take this test. Try to hold a dumbbell, arm parallel to the floor, elbow bent then arm straight. Result: the load seems much heavier, arms extended . So the longer your arms are, the less you will be able to handle a heavy load on lateral elevations for example.
Disadvantageous muscle insertions coupled with unfavorable bone lengths are problematic during polyarticular exercise. Take my case.
I have long believed in the myth of the miracle exercise for the pectorals: the bench press. I was convinced that by having a strict gesture there is no reason not to progress and that increasing the load was the main indicator of effectiveness. This mistake cost me a lot of time because I was taking it all on the shoulders and this gap was widening month by month.
The reason is simple, my morphology gives me bad levers for this exercise: long collarbones, long arm, thin rib cage and pecs attached high on the humerus… Stretching and contracting the pecs was less . Also, I had a hard time straining my pecs, as I had no athletic background. As the body seeks to save itself as much as possible, it places more emphasis on the secondary muscles to lift the load. In my case, it was the deltoids and the triceps.
A simple reorganization of my training schedule and hard work on isolation exercises allowed me to catch up, although we drag our weak points all our lives.
Of all the muscle growth factors, mechanical tension, that is to say the load used, remains the most effective way to gain muscle mass. The more muscles that interact with each other, the more you will be able to lift heavy loads.
As a result, it will be difficult or unproductive to handle heavy loads during an isolation exercise. It is therefore more appropriate to play on metabolic stress to gain muscle. For that, you have to favor:
- time under tension
- burning sensation
All of this can be achieved with a higher number of reps, a slower negative and a controlled gesture .
In theory (and not in practice) it is therefore less effective for building muscle and gaining strength.
When should you prioritize an isolation exercise in your sports program?
It may sound complicated, but the idea of this article is to make it easier for you, let’s focus on the basics.
The question to ask is simple: should you prioritize the feeling to the detriment of a heavy load?
First of all, if you are just starting out and you do not have too much bodybuilding experience, it is interesting to build your training program mainly from polyarticular exercises for two reasons. The lack of experience to analyze its morphology and the difficulty in knowing its weak points.
To accurately determine when to include an isolation exercise, it is necessary to monitor its progress with these three indicators:
- The level of progress on your workloads
- The difficulty in congestion, the feeling
- The evolution of the physique as a whole (from photo)
After 4 to 6 months of regular work, it’s time to take stock. If you notice a stagnation (see a regression) in workloads and difficulty in gaining muscle where you want it, it may be better to promote isolation exercises .
Otherwise, keep the basic movements as much as possible. A few iso exercises can potentially target certain areas reluctant to muscle hypertrophy , such as the back of the shoulders, although this is not a priority.
When it comes to the wrong levers, you usually find out pretty quickly. In addition to stagnating, we have the impression that the gesture is not “natural”, sometimes causing pain. Remember the golden rule, when it hurts, it’s best to stop and move on.
Choosing the right isolation exercise in training: Machine or free weights?
Among the number of isolation exercises, it’s hard to choose … Not to mention the almost endless number of variations! If there is one thing to remember, it is that there is no miracle exercise.
The goal when you are starting out is to learn to use the target muscles . Choose an exercise that you like, that gives you a good feeling and keep it to progress on it as long as possible.
Now comes the question of machines or free weights. If you don’t have access to machines all is not lost. Conversely, if you have the opportunity to train in a well-equipped gym, you can further optimize your weight training program.
Guided devices allow you to have stable movement , you sit down and push, which allows you to concentrate to the maximum. Another advantage is that they are sometimes designed to work with better levers. For example, some pec-decks allow you to push with the elbows and not with the arms outstretched as with lying spreads. In addition to this, the variation in tension between the stretching and contracting phase remains mostly homogeneous, which guarantees optimal work.
Note: Prime brand machines even offer the possibility of modulating resistance. Example: more weight when contracting than when stretching and vice versa.
Unfortunately, despite all the settings, you will inevitably come across a machine unsuited to your body type. A feeling of forced trajectory or abnormal pain are reliable signals to know if this is right for you or not.
Regarding bodybuilding with free weights , the advantage is that with little equipment, a pair of dumbbells and rubber bands, you can do just about everything in addition to being able to adapt the trajectory to your morphology. On the other hand, you have to manage the balance and the leverage problem cannot be fixed.
Another downside, voltage variations do not always guarantee productive work. For example, when you do bench spreads for the pecs, all the tension is stretching and none of the contraction (the most interesting moment for motor learning). To limit this problem, you can use elastic bands if possible.
Isolation exercise list for each muscle
To get the most out of your bodybuilding program, you can pick from this little list. The number of isolation exercises in addition to the number of variations, whether on machine or with free load, is endless.
The key is to understand the movement , the trajectory, the variation in resistance between the phase of stretching and contraction, to let your imagination speak and best suited the exercise according to the equipment available and to your levers.
It is important to vary the angles of attack to develop the pecs as a whole. At first, if you’re having trouble feeling your pecs, focus on the angle that gives you the most sensation.
- Spreads with dumbbells (lying, inclined or declining)
- Cross-over with the pulley opposite
It is often difficult to recruit back muscles when you are just starting out. Introducing an isolation exercise at the start of the session can potentially be helpful in overcoming this problem.
- Pull-Over at the high pulley
- Reverse Shrugs
- Lateral flexions at the high pulley
As with the pecs, it is more interesting to focus on one or two exercises that provide good sensations rather than wanting to target all the portions of the biceps.
- Supine curl
- Hammer curl
- Incline bench curl
- Desk curl
- Drag curls
- Spider curls
In addition to this article, you can read the one dedicated to bicep exercises to do without equipment.
If the development of the triceps is problematic, you can select two exercises , one with the arm along the body, the other close to the head, in order to develop the head lateral and medial .
- Pulley pushdown
- Triceps extensions
- French press
The specific work of forearm muscles is useful if you lack mass or grip on certain exercises such as pull-ups or deadlifts or simply to prevent certain pathologies.
- Wrist curl
- Wrist extension
- Inverted curl
Isolation exercises for the deltoids help to develop harmonious shoulders. Generally, specific work is required for the lateral portion and the posterior bundles.
- Lateral elevations
- Frontal elevations
- Lean forward elevations
The abdominal strap work is not just about the aesthetic. The development of this allows you to be stronger on most polyarticular exercises while providing additional protection to the spine.
- Leg raises
- AB Wheel
- AB Coaster
- Side bust raises
- Lateral leg raises
- Pelvic rotations
To protect your back, especially in the face of a herniated disc, it is essential to devote time to your lower back.
- Good morning
- Bust raises on bench
- Revers hyper
Sometimes, the morphology tends to favor the work of the glutes on the basic movements. Complementary work can be useful to learn how to recruit the quadriceps or to give a more harmonious shape to the muscle.
- Leg extensions
- Sissy squat
- Leg raises
If you are training at home, you can consult my article dedicated to leg exercises to do without equipment.
Too often neglected, developed hamstrings allow: to offer additional protection to the knees, to give a lot of mass to the thighs and to gain considerable strength on polyarticular exercises.
Basic movements are usually sufficient to develop your glutes . Depending on your goals, some isolation exercises can be incorporated into your program.
- Hip extensions
- Lateral leg raises
Generally, the body type dictates the time needed to spend on the calves. We all know someone who unfairly has naturally grown calves. If these are a weak point, you will have to devote a lot of time to rectify the situation.
- Standing calf extensions
- Seated calf extensions
- Bending bust calf extensions
Conclusion about isolation exercises to ensure muscle mass gain
This list is far from complete but still enough to build your first strength training programs.
Unfortunately, it would take way too long to go into depth on all these isolation exercises and I must admit that some details can bring a real plus to accelerate your progress and to adapt better the movement to your morphology. I think I can compile my years of experience into a guide dedicated to this topic if you’re interested.
In short, polyarticular exercises and heavy loads, that is to say mechanical tension, should be favored for the muscles receptive to this type of training. Progress in strength and muscle mass gain are good indicators.
Conversely, if you stagnate and find it difficult to use a particular muscle, it is necessary to go through a learning phase. To do this, it is necessary to promote metabolic stress by increasing the time under tension, by resisting this burning sensation as long as possible and by seeking to make the target muscle congest thanks to isolation exercises .
After several months and years of practice, you can implement this type of movement in order to precisely target certain muscle portions. The goal then is to obtain the most harmonious physique possible.