As often happens in the health and fitness industry, every decade sees a monumental shift away from the previous decade’s trends. Right now, there is a 'whole body exercise' based movement that is sweeping gyms and clubs throughout the country. The focus on the big four (squats, deadlifts, bench press, and overhead shoulder press) is a welcome change in the world of fitness. The idea is to maximize exercises that allow for absolute functional movements. For instance, a squat helps to build the muscles required for bending down to pick something up. Developing these muscles will, in turn, protect you from injury.
With this focus on function, those in the industry are witnessing a movement away from isolation exercises. Let’s take a look at why and how isolation exercises need to remain an important part of your workout.
Do You Need to Isolate?
Isolation exercises, such as bicep curls and triceps extensions, are often associated with the bodybuilding world as these athletes would often work on one muscle group per day in order to maximize growth. While full body movements such as the deadlift are essential for your body composition and development, isolation exercises are also needed. With pure hypertrophy aside, isolation exercises can be utilized as functional tools just as much as compound movements.
Correct Strength Imbalances
Everyone has experienced the dominance of one muscle group over another. The best example: Think about which hand you write with. Now consider the ease of performing exercises with that side of your body. Isolation exercises can help to correct strength imbalances. For instance, perform several sets of a bench press exercise with dumbbells, not a barbell. Using dumbbells forces each side of the body to produce the same amount of force output. Try this for several weeks and you’ll notice a vast improvement in your overall performance when you return to the barbell.
Get Rid of Overcompensation
You can also use isolation exercises to rid yourself of overcompensation issues. For instance, many exercises are forward favoring, such as the dumbbell shoulder press, front dumbbell raise, and lateral dumbbell raise. Many times, people forget about the back of the deltoid, resulting in a weak rear deltoid that needs to be assisted by the other two. Isolating that muscle will strengthen it and allow it to become part of the whole functional unit once again. The result is amplified performance at bigger, compound movements such as the bench press.
Supporting Your Rehabilitation
One of the best ways to utilize isolation exercises is when you are going through rehabilitation. Whether you were injured or required surgery, the muscle group that experienced a lengthy period of inactivity isn’t going to be able to simply jump back into the game with the others. It will require several weeks, maybe even months, of consistent isolation work in order to be brought back up to speed. For instance, if you injured your hamstring, the last thing you would want to do to strengthen and support recovery would be to jump back into squats or lunges. Instead, you would want to isolate the muscle using a lying hamstring curl. Slowly, the muscle will regain its strength via muscle memory, allowing you to return to full body exercises.
While compound exercises are important to achieving functionality and an overall balanced body composition, isolation exercises are equally as important as they pick up the pieces that larger exercises leave behind. Whether you need to correct strength imbalances or prevent muscle overcompensation, isolation exercises need to have a home in every workout program that you perform.
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Tristan Hill, Masters of Sports Coaching, author of Lifting the Bar and mentor to Personal Trainers.