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Do You Need Isolation Exercises In Your Workout…

...or can you just stick with big lifts like deadlifts? 

At GGS, we’re all about having a balanced and efficient approach to strength training, focusing primarily on compound movements like the squat, hip hinge, press, and pull. While it certainly isn’t the only way to achieve all training goals, we firmly believe this approach offers more bang for your buck, when it comes to looking good, feeling good and being healthy and strong.

So does this mean that we don’t recommend performing isolation exercises? Not exactly. As with anything in nutrition and training, there isn’t really a hard-and-fast answer to this question. How much “isolation” work is necessary varies from person to person based on a lot of factors, including, but not limited to: training history, strength level, overall aesthetic goal, hormonal makeup, and genetic predisposition for muscle growth. Isolation-Alli-Arms-327x300I say “isolation” in quotations because it’s impossible to truly isolate a muscle group, but that’s a discussion for another day.

A 30-year-old competitive bodybuilder who has been lifting for 15 years will need to perform significantly more isolation work than will a 50-year-old woman who is new to strength training and just wants to look and feel better. Of course, that’s an extreme example. Below I’ll discuss my personal experience and my clients’ experience with isolation exercises and how I structure programs for women who want to look good, feel good, and feel healthy and strong.

My Isolation Work Extremes

I have been on both ends of the isolation-work spectrum. When I first started lifting, I absolutely abused the heck out of body part splits. There were days I worked solely on “rear delts, forearms, and calves” or “hamstrings, front delts, and obliques.” Looking back now, considering I was just getting started with lifting, there was no need for me to break my body part splits down like that. I needed to focus on learning to manipulate my own body weight via push-ups, pull-ups, planks, squats, deadlifts, and other big movements, and I needed to focus on getting stronger in the big lifts. Period.

Why? Because laying a foundation of good movement is critical to long-term lifting success, and that’s what mastering the big exercises does. In addition, when you’re newer to strength training, you will experience rapid increases in strength since your body hasn’t been exposed to this stimuli previously. Choosing compound exercises that stimulate a lot of muscles will help you build the full-body strength that makes achieving future goals easier. The stronger you are the more muscle you can build, the more Isolation-Molly-TGU-450x338calories you can expend via exercise, and obviously, the stronger you can get in the future.

In my experience, as soon as I switched my workouts to be comprised of mainly compound movements, my progress shot through the roof in everything from squats and deadlifts to my Turkish get-ups. I got stronger, I gained muscle mass, and I even lost a bit of body fat while eating more food than I’d eaten in my life. This is anecdotal of course, and I was expending a lot of energy during that time period, but a big part of my higher energy expenditure was training and recovering from those big, compound movements.

My Clients’ Results

In working with my clients I saw similar results. When I first started working with clients, I was only a couple of years into my fitness education, and all I knew to prescribe was exactly what I was doing, which was body part splits five to six days a week. Yes, my clients saw results, but when I switched to prescribing more squats, deadlifts, and rows, and fewer curls and extensions…

…their results came much faster despite dropping them down to three to four days a week of lifting.

In addition, the more clients I worked with, the more I realized that the majority of them aren’t interested in living their lives in the gym, and they don’t have a lot of time to train. Because consistency is key when it comes to long-term progress and sustainable results, I had to write training programs that would get them the absolute best results while spending minimal time in the gym. This means we don’t spend much time doing isolation exercises. Instead, we focus on squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, push-ups, lunges, presses, and direct core work.

When Are Isolation Exercises A Good Idea?

Isolation-Molly-Triceps-327x300To be clear, I do believe that isolation exercise can be beneficial. If you have have a “weak area” you’d like to improve, whether it’s from a strength or an aesthetic perspective, you can incorporate isolation exercises into your program to help “bring that area up.” Maybe your triceps are limiting your bench press strength, or you’d like your shoulder to “pop” a bit more when you rock a tank top, in those cases, isolation work can absolutely help you reach your strength and physique goals. Here are my three favorite ways to incorporate isolation exercises in an effective and efficient way.

1. Place isolation movements at the end of your workout.

This one is simple enough. After you do your big lifts, throw in a couple of isolation exercises at the end. Performing them in a superset or circuit fashion with minimal rest will allow you to bang out a few exercises quickly, or if you have time, you can do the individual exercises with more rest in between. It’s up to you. Here’s an example:

A1. Chin-Up (Assisted or Unassisted)
4 sets of 5-6 reps

B1. Dumbbell Bench Press
4 sets of 6-8 reps

C1. 1-Arm Dumbbell Row
3 sets of 8-10 reps
C2. Lateral Raise
3 sets of 10-12 reps

D1. Cable Triceps Extension
2-3 sets of 8-12 reps
D2. Dumbbell Curl
2-3 sets of 8-12 reps

2. Incorporate a “vanity muscles” day.

If you lift heavy two to three days per week, doing all of the major compound lifts, sometimes it can be fun to have a training day in which you show a little extra love to the muscles you admire most. We all have our favorites. Here is an example:

A1. Leg Extension
4 sets of 8-12 reps
A2. Leg Curl
4 sets of 8-12 reps
A3. Cable Glute Kickbacks
4 sets of 15-20 reps

B1. 3-Way Shoulder Raise (front raises, then lateral raises, then rear-delt raises)
3 sets of 20 reps in each direction

C1. Lying Dumbbell Triceps Extension
3 sets of 12-15 reps
C2. EZ Bar Barbell Curl
3 sets of 12-15 reps
C3. Calf Raises
3 sets of 12-15 reps

3. Use isolation exercises as active rest between conditioning movements.

Instead of standing around huffing and puffing during your rest periods, use isolation exercises as an “active rest” while you recover from your conditioning exercises. You can make this as simple or as complicated as you’d like. For instance, when performing 12- x 20-yard sled sprints, you could pick three isolation exercises to do between pushes. (e.g. overhead triceps extension, alternating dumbbell curl, one-arm lateral raise.) Perform one set after each sprint for a total of four sets per exercise. Your workout would look like this:

20-Yard sled Push
Overhead Triceps Extension
20-Yard sled Push
Overhead Triceps Extension
20-Yard sled Push
Overhead Triceps Extension
20-Yard sled Push
Overhead Triceps Extension
20-Yard sled Push
Alternating DB Curl
20-Yard sled Push
Alternating DB Curl (etc.)

Continue until you have completed 12 Prowler pushes and all of your isolation work.

You could also pair three conditioning exercises (e.g., sled drag, medicine ball slam, kettlebell swing) with three isolation movements. Here’s an example of this type of workout:

A1. Backward Sled Drag
3 sets of 20 yards
A2. Lateral Raise
3 sets of 10-12 reps

B1. KB Swing
3 sets of 8-10 reps
B2. Triceps Rope Pressdown
3 sets of 8-12 reps

C1. Medicine Ball Slam
3 sets of 8-10 reps
C2. DB Curl
3 sets of 8-12 reps


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About The Author: Molly Galbraith

Molly Galbraith, CSCS is co-founder and woman-in-charge at Girls Gone Strong, and creator of The Coaching & Training Women Academy, home for the world's most comprehensive, evidence-based, women-specific coaching certifications. A former figure competitor and powerlifter who has dedicated the last 15 years of her life to helping women achieve their goals and feel more comfortable and at home in their bodies. Learn more about Molly on her website and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.