Today’s tip is to get single jointed – the benefits of isolation exercises
“What are the best types of exercises to include in my workout routine?” I get this question a lot. My answer always is “Well that depends on why you are working out – what your goals are”. Pretty much every exercise you can think of has some kind of benefit however not every exercise has a benefit for you. It’s important to know the benefits of each different type of exercise so you can decide for yourself what to include in your routines.
In episode 79 of the Willpower Not Required Podcast, I talked about the benefits of multi-joint or compound exercises. In other words, exercises that work multiple muscle groups across more than one joint. Exercises like the squat that works the quadriceps, glutes, calves and hamstrings involving the joints of the ankle, knees and hips.
Click here listen to that one if you missed it.
Today I want to talk about Isolation or single-joint exercises. These exercises work (or isolate) just one muscle group. The bicep curl for example isolates the biceps muscle and involves only the elbow joint.
Now, I personally love compound exercises – they provide the biggest bang for your buck and allow you to work many muscles in a short period of time. However isolation exercises serve a very important purpose and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Benefits of Isolation Exercises
Here are a few benefits of isolation exercises:
They allow you to focus your attention on one specific muscle
It can be easy to just whip through a set of lunges and not even think about the muscles you are working. As a result you may not realize that the degree to which each muscle is activated depends on your stance, anatomy, movement patterns & range of motion. If you want to focus on strengthening weak hamstrings for example, it takes extra thought to find the right foot stance and lunge variation to specifically target the hamstrings. A leg curl on the other hand is an isolation exercise that would be more effective at targeting the hamstring.
Isolation exercises allow you to rest muscles while targeting specific muscles.
For example, if your hamstrings are sore or you are recovering from a hamstring injury, compound exercises like squats or lunges might lead to more muscle pain or further injury. Instead you could try an isolation exercise like leg extensions to focus on your quads without involving your hamstrings. This gives your hamstrings a rest and will promote faster healing. Of course it’s critical to first check with your doctor or other health care provider before attempting any exercises if you are experiencing any pain or injury.
They allow you to correct muscle imbalances
Isolation exercises allow you to work on muscle imbalances in the body and focus on any weak links that may be holding you back or contributing to pain or injury. For example, for you avid runners. Running relies on a few specific muscles to propel us forward. Mainly the quads and calves. If cross training is not a part of your weekly routine, muscle imbalances between the quads and glutes can arise (quads becoming stronger than the glutes). Muscle imbalances between these two muscle groups can lead to problems like knee pain and IT band & piriformis issues. Adding some glute isolation exercises on your off days and giving those quads a rest will help to correct this imbalance and keep you running pain free.
Types of Isolation/Single-Joint Exercises
So what does this look like in your workout?
Here are a few examples of isolation exercises you can add to your workout routine:
Leg Extensions – targeting the quadriceps
Set up the leg extension machine so the pad is at the top of your lower legs at the ankles. Your knees are at 90 degrees. Select a weight that will give you a moderate load for 10 to 12 repetitions.
- Place your hands on the hand bars.
- Lift the weight while exhaling until your legs are almost straight. Do not lock your knees. Keep your back against the backrest and do not arch your back.
- Exhale and lower the weight back to starting position.
- Do three sets of eight to 12 repetitions.
Leg Curls – targeting the hamstrings
Lie face down on the leg curl machine, stretching your legs out fully. The roller pad should rest a few inches over your calves, just above the heels. Grasp the support handles on each side of the machine.
- Exhale and flex your knees, pulling your ankles as close to your buttocks as you can. Keep your hips firmly on the bench. Hold briefly.
- Inhale as you return your feet to the starting position in a slow and controlled movement.
- You can use your toes to help target your hamstrings or calves throughout the movement. Dorsiflexing the toes (curling them toward the shin) engages the hamstrings, while pointing your toes (plantar flexion) isolates the calf muscles
Lateral Shoulder Raises -targeting the shoulders
- Stand tall, a dumbbell in each hand. Arms are at your sides, palms facing in. Position your feet roughly hip-distance apart. Set your posture—roll your shoulders back, engage your core and look straight ahead.
- Maintain this posture while raising your arms up and out to each side, keeping your arms almost completely straight, stopping when your elbows reach shoulder-height and your body is forming a “T” shape. Breathe in as you lift.
- Pause and hold for a second at the top of the movement.
- Lower the weights slowly (take about twice as long to lower the weights as you took to lift them), bringing your arms back to your sides. Breathe out as you lower the dumbbells.
Calf Raises – targeting the calf muscles
- Stand straight with a tight core and flat back. You can stand on the floor or on a step for greater range of motion. Keep your hands at your sides or hold on to a wall for balance.
- Bring your feet to be hip distance apart.
- Focusing the tension in your calf muscles, slowly press your toes into the floor & raise yourself up on to the balls of your feet.
- Pause at the top of the movement and slowly return to the starting position.
Biceps curls – targeting the biceps muscles
- Begin standing tall with your feet about hip-width apart. Keep your abdominal muscles engaged.
- Hold one dumbbell in each hand. Let your arms relax down at the sides of your body with palms facing forward.
- Keeping your upper arms stable and shoulders relaxed, bend at the elbow and lift the weights so that the dumbbells approach your shoulders. Your elbows should stay tucked in close to your ribs. Exhale while lifting.
- Lower the weights to the starting position.
- Ensure that you do not lean forward or back or activate the shoulders or traps as you lift.
Triceps Kickbacks – targeting the triceps muscles
- Holding a dumbbell, kneel one knee on a bench
- with one foot still on the ground. Bend over and place a palm on the bench to support yourself (the hand on the same side of the body as the knee that’s on the bench) and hold the dumbbell with the other hand.
- With your palm facing in toward your body, raise your elbow to waist height and bring it tight to your side.
- Extend your hand back to create a straight arm, keeping your elbow still, and hold for a moment while you squeeze the triceps muscle then slowly return your arm to a 90 degree angle.
Isolation exercises often get a bad rap, especially with the rise in popularity of functional exercise. However as you can see, they do fill a gap that compound exercises miss.
So when you are building your workout routine, think about your specific goals and what you want to achieve.
Make compound exercises the foundation of your workout then consider any weaknesses or muscle imbalances and sprinkle in a few targeted isolation exercises to correct them.
If you need any help designing a program that is right for you, send me a message, I’m happy to help
When you take the time to build a well rounded fitness routine, you will reap the rewards of a stronger, healthier and pain free body – willpower not required.
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