How to Add Isolation Exercises to Your Strength-Training Routine (Shape)

Posted: Oct 31, 2022 in In the News

This article first appeared in SHAPE on October 31, 2022. 


When you're first easing into strength training, your workouts may simply consist of a handful of exercises that seem to sync with your goals — squats and glute kickbacks to grow your booty, shoulder presses and lateral raises to build your upper-body strength, etc. But if you want to see major progress in the gym, you'll need to assess how each exercise utilizes specific joints and muscle groups within your body. In other words, you'll want to consider if you're performing an isolation exercise.

But don't fret, you don't need a degree in anatomy to understand isolation exercises. Ahead, a strength and conditioning specialist explains what isolation exercises entail in the first place and why they're so important. Plus, you'll find tips on how to properly blend them into your fitness routine.

What Are Isolation Exercises?

Simply put, an isolation exercise is a single-joint exercise, meaning you’re utilizing only one joint (think: the elbow, shoulder, ankle) during the movement, says Laura Su, C.S.C.S., a strength coach in Seattle. In turn, isolation exercises largely rely on just one muscle group to complete the move, known as the agonist muscle, she explains. (The antagonist muscle, BTW, is the muscle that's relaxing or lengthening.) Consider the biceps curl: During this exercise, you’re moving at a single joint — the elbow — and are isolating the biceps muscle. And during a quad extension, you’re moving solely at the knee joint and are targeting the quadriceps muscle, she says. 

You can also think of an isolation exercise as the opposite of a compound exercise. The latter type of movement calls upon multiple joints that all work in unison to complete an action, says Su. A back squat, for instance, involves the hips, knees, and ankles and works multiple major muscle groups, including the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, she adds.

The Benefits of Isolation Exercises

Although compound moves offer the most bang for your buck, as they hit multiple muscle groups at once, isolation exercises shouldn't be overlooked. Here are the major benefits you can score by adding isolation moves to your fitness routine.

Strengthen Muscles Affected By Injury or Surgery

After healing from an injury or recovering from surgery, isolation exercises can help you regain the strength you may have lost during that downtime. Say you just recovered from an ACL tear that happened six months ago; since you haven’t been training your injured leg, your quads, calves, and hamstrings on that side are likely weaker than those on your damage-free leg, says Su. Compound lifts will help build up strength throughout the entire lower body, but “performing isolation exercises [such as] calf raises, quad extensions, or hamstring curls on that injured side can help it catch up to your stronger side a little quicker,” she explains. What’s more, isolation movements can improve the health of your tendons and ligaments within the affected area by increasing blood flow, says Su. 

Improve Performance During Compound Exercises

Performing isolation exercises on the reg can also improve your performance during compound lifts — and help you push through plateaus, says Su. Say you’re doing a round of bench presses. If you’re struggling to fully straighten your elbows at the top of the movement, that could be a sign your triceps are weak, she explains. By incorporating more triceps isolation exercises into your routine, you’ll build up strength in the muscle group and ultimately be able to properly extend your arms while you press, says Su. Once your triceps strength is up to snuff and you’re able to complete the entire rep, you’re then able to amp up the overall weight of your bench press and continue progressing in your fitness

Help You Meet Aesthetic Goals

Focusing on isolation exercises can also help you meet your aesthetic goals, such as if you’re training for a bodybuilding or physique competition, says Su. For example, if you need to build up your glutes to meet your sport’s winning standards, you can practice more glute isolation exercises to target and build muscle in those areas, she explains. (That said, changing your appearance shouldn't be the only reason you work out; there are plenty of other benefits you can gain from strength training.)

How to Add Isolation Exercises to Your Routine

Although isolation exercises offer some desirable perks, you should include a healthy mix of both isolation and compound movements in your workout routine, says Su. “You can get away with a lot more volume with isolation exercises than compound lifts because they’re definitely not as taxing neurologically — you're not asking a ton of muscles to fire all at once,” she explains. “But if someone was to do their workouts with just isolation exercises, they definitely wouldn't be getting as much stimulus to the muscles as they could with a big, heavy compound lift.”

How many isolation exercises you should do in a workout depends on your training split (read: how many times you train a week) and your goals. Generally, you’ll want to perform one isolation exercise per muscle group trained, notes Su. Say you’re doing a two-day training split. Each day, you’ll do one upper-body compound exercise, one lower-body compound exercise, and a handful of isolation exercises that complement the muscle groups worked during the compound moves. (BTW, you’ll want to cap your total number of exercises per workout to eight to 15 moves, she suggests.) “If you're doing a squat and bench press day, the main muscles working are your quads, glutes, triceps, and pecs, so you could [choose] isolation exercises that work the muscles that you just worked during the compound lifts,” says Su. You might do quad extensions, glute kickbacks, triceps extensions, and chest flies, for example. 

You can also perform isolation exercises unilaterally, aka on one side. It’s totally normal for one side of your body to be stronger than the other, but you may not realize muscle imbalances exist until you perform your fave exercises using just one side of your body at a time, says Su. Plus, training unilaterally can help you correct any imbalances you do have, which can ensure your movement patterns aren't compensated and thus keep injuries at bay, according to the American Council on Exercise.


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