In resistance training, there are two types of exercises you can do to achieve your fitness goals - isolation and compound exercises. Compound vs isolation exercises is commonly debated in the fitness space. Many lifters tout that compound movements are the best strength training exercises, giving isolation movements a bad rep.
However, as great as compound exercises are, you shouldn't neglect isolation exercises! There are so many reasons to love and include these exercises in your routine. So, to help you build a better, well-rounded strength training program, we're giving you a list of the best isolation exercises that you should include in your routine. Before we dive into our list, let's talk more about what these exercises are and why you should do them...
What are isolation exercises?
The answer is in the name! These exercises are known as single-joint movements because they isolate one joint and muscle group at a time. They target a specific area to helpfully fatigue the muscle in an effort to build lean muscle mass. So, there are a limited number of muscles working as opposed to compound exercises which involve multiple muscles and joints.
They may sound simple, and they are, but they are best for when you've already built a good amount of full-body strength. This is because, unlike compound exercises, other muscle groups aren't helping carry the heavy weight which often leads to less weight being lifted.
Compound moves allow you to lift heavier weights overall, but isolation moves have their benefits too! Here are a few reasons why you should include them in your weight training routine...
- They allow you to focus on form and improve your technique: Because you're focusing on one muscle group only you're able to zone in on your form without worrying about engaging your core and activating several muscle groups at a time, like with compound moves.
- They can help target areas that are overlooked in compound movements: If there's a weaker muscle group that you want to grow, isolation exercises can help you target that area to help build more definition in it. Compound exercises like bench presses and deadlifts work a lot of supporting muscles in the upper and lower body, but they always have one primary muscle group it's targeting. This can leave smaller muscle groups like biceps, triceps, rear delts, and more, behind.
- They will help you lift heavier overall: Muscle isolation allows you to help strengthen and grow a particular muscle more. This in turn will automatically help you lift heavier in key compound exercises since those movements require strong supporting muscles.
The 10 best isolation movements
Start building better overall strength, and improve on other important lifts by throwing in a few isolation exercises in your workouts. We've compiled a list of the 10 best isolation exercises for each muscle group - from your upper to lower body - to help!
Although several pulling exercises, like chin-ups and barbell rows, activate your biceps, they don't hit them enough to really grow them. If you want to show your biceps more love, start doing biceps curls, specifically barbell curls.
Beginners can use dumbbells and work their way up to using a barbell, you'll still reap great muscle-building benefits! However, barbells allow you to lift a heavier load which is better for muscle activation. Plus, barbell curls have the added benefits of working your brachialis, the muscle that is responsible for elbow flexion.
How to do it:
- Grasp bar with a shoulder-width underhand grip. Stand upright with your chest up and core engaged.
- With elbows to side, raise the bar until forearms are vertical. You should feel your biceps activate as you move the bar up.
- Squeeze your biceps for one second and then lower them until the arms are fully extended.
Chest exercises tend to use the shoulders a lot which is not ideal because that particular muscle group is involved in various everyday movements. Overworking the shoulders can lead to an overuse injury, so if you want to avoid that or simply target your chest extensively then start incorporating chest flyes!
Chest flyes are typically performed with dumbbells, and the movement allows you to isolate your pectoral muscles and limit the shoulder joints.
How to do it:
- Grab two dumbbells and lie on an incline bench. Move the dumbbells above your chest with arms fixed in a slightly bent position.
- Internally rotate shoulders so that your elbows are pointing out to sides.
- With the elbows fixed in a slightly bent position, begin to lower the dumbbells to your sides feeling the chest muscles stretched. Avoid going too far back so you don't overstretch your shoulders.
- Bring dumbbells together in a wide hugging motion until dumbbells are nearly together.
Reverse pec deck fly
This exercise requires you to use a weight machine at the gym, but don't worry, we'll give you a home-friendly variation too!
The reverse pec dec flyes are similar to chest flyes except it's in reverse. The movement allows you to isolate the rear delts, a muscle that is often overlooked during shoulder workouts. Bent-over rear delt raises are the free weight variation you can do, but the weight machine allows better muscle activation - so if there's one at your gym, use it!
How to do it:
- Set up the machine so that your hands are at chest level and shoulder height. Proper alignment is needed for better muscle activation.
- Start by gripping onto the handles with each hand. Make sure that your upper arms are parallel to the floor.
- Begin to push the handles back as far as possible, focus on pushing your shoulder blades tightly together.
- Squeeze your back and slowly move back to the starting position.
If your gym doesn't have that machine, or you have a set of dumbbells at home, try this variation...
- Grab a pair of dumbbells. Hinge from the hips until your body is almost parallel to the floor. Allow the arms to hang straight down from the shoulders with a neutral grip.
- Take a deep breath and pull the dumbbells towards the ceiling using the rear deltoids.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position under control.
This exercise is great because it places a focus on a smaller muscle found in the shoulder known as the middle delts! So, if you want to build bigger shoulders start doing lateral raises.
How to do it:
- Grasp dumbbells in front of thighs with elbows slightly bent. Bend over with hips and knees bent slightly.
- Begin to raise upper arms to sides until elbows are shoulder height. Maintain elbows' height equal to wrists.
- Squeeze your shoulders and back, then lower and repeat.
When it comes to toning your upper body, hitting smaller muscles like the triceps is essential! There are various excellent tricep exercises to choose from, but a lot of them work your shoulder joint.
To really zone in on your triceps, use the cable machine to do tricep pushdowns! The cable machine places constant tension on the muscle being targeted which will help to better fatigue it for better growth! You can use any cable attachment, but we suggest using the rope attachment.
How to do it:
- Stand under the pulley and grasp each end of the rope with a neutral grip (palms facing each other).
- Pull your elbows down to your sides and lean forward a little at the hips, keeping your back straight.
- Exhale as you extend your elbows and push the rope down. As your arms extend, twist your wrists so that your palms face down at the end of the movement.
- Inhale as you reverse the motion and return the rope to the starting position.
Straight arm pulldowns
Compound moves like rows and pull-ups are known for building the latissimus dorsi (lats), but if you want to take your training further include this killer exercise to isolate that muscle!
Straight arm pulldowns are an excellent exercise to include at the end of your back workout because it'll help completely fatigue your lats. Plus, it's done on a cable machine which provides the constant tension needed to fry your lats!
How to do it:
- Attach a straight bar to the cable machine
- Stand in front of the lat pulldown machine and grasp the bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Keeping arms straight, abs tight, and elbows locked, slowly pull the bar towards you until it reaches just below your waist.
- Pause for a moment and slowly lower the weight to the starting position, not letting the weight touch the weight stack.
Don't neglect your calves on leg day! Towards the end of your workout, after all your heavy compound lifts, incorporate this calf-strengthening exercise.
Calf raises are a simple exercise that targets your calves and helps you build better balanced lower body strength.
How to do it:
- Place a weight plate on the floor in front of you.
- With a dumbbell in each hand, step on the weight plate. Keep your torso upright and rest your heels firmly on the floor.
- Rise up on your toes as high as possible. Pause, then lower back to starting position.
Strengthen your hamstrings by isolating them using the hamstring curl machine at the gym!
How to do it:
- Adjust the machine lever to fit your height and lie face down on the leg curl machine with the pad of the lever on the back of your legs (just a few inches under the calves).
- Keeping the torso flat on the bench, ensure your legs are fully stretched, and grab the side handles of the machine. Position your toes straight (or you can also use any of the other two stances described on the foot positioning section). This will be your starting position.
- As you exhale, curl your legs up as far as possible without lifting the upper legs from the pad. Once you hit the fully contracted position, hold it for a second.
- As you inhale, bring the legs back to the initial position.
Split squats aren't the only good quad-focused exercise. Develop more muscle and strength in your quads by incorporating leg extensions!
How to do it:
- Select the desired resistance on the weight stack and insert the pin. Sit down and position your shins behind the pad at the base of the machine.
- Take a deep breath and extend your legs as you flex your quadriceps. As you lock out the knees, exhale to complete the repetition.
- Slowly lower your feet back to the starting position.
Cable glute kickbacks
There are various glute isolation exercises that can help you grow stronger and bigger glutes, however, cable glute kickbacks are one of the best! That's because it helps isolate and target the entire glute muscle group.
You'll need to use the cable machine at the gym and have a pair of ankle straps for this exercise.
How to do it:
- Stand facing the weight stack and grasp the cable tower for support.
- With your knees slightly bent and your abs drawn in, slowly kick your right leg back until your hip is fully extended back with your glutes contracted.
- Pause for 1-2 seconds, then slowly bring your right leg back to the starting position and repeat.
Now you know how to build a better strength training routine that targets every single muscle group and gets you effective results (while reducing your risk of injury). Start incorporating these isolation exercises, and others, into your routine. We suggest doing heavy exercises first and finishing off with lighter exercises, which are usually isolation movements.
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