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Why doing isolation exercises is good for you

Isolation exercises are the cornerstone to a fit and active life. Lounge speaks to some of India's top trainers to tell you why you should be doing them

Strength training with isolation workouts is good for you.
Strength training with isolation workouts is good for you. (Istockphoto)

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This is a subject that always gets the active lifestyle community talking. Some are in awe of it, listing its benefits with show and tell demonstrations, while others, especially the boot camp and CrossFit enthusiasts, dismissing it as an exercise in vanity and a waste of time. The subject under consideration here is isolation exercises: movements that involve the training of just one muscle or muscle group. These exercises also involve movements that engage only a single joint. For example, bicep curls for biceps, calf raises for calves, lateral raises for deltoids, triceps extensions for triceps and dumbbell flies for chest.

Isolation movements are an integral part of any transformation programme, regular gym routine and body building regimen, because they can help you focus on a particular part of your body to tone and shape it. Sculpting the finer details of the small muscles, which is required while training for aesthetic goals, is possible only through specific focus on exercises performed using only a single muscle group, explains A.K. Abhinav, coach and founder of Bengaluru’s Namma Xfit. “The philosophy of isolation movement training is rooted in body-building. So, it’s easy to understand why nothing else works as well as isolation movements when it comes to transformations where aesthetics is priority,” says Abhinav. 

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It is this focus on aesthetics that makes HIIT, CrossFit and functional fitness enthusiasts often slam isolation exercises, especially exercises for biceps, triceps and calves. They argue that all of these are small muscles that anyway get enough attention and improve in strength while performing compound exercises such as burpees, pull-ups, clean and press, deadlifts, squats. They aren’t wrong either. You engage your biceps while performing cleans, pull-ups and even front squats. Moreover, isolation exercises don’t really help improve strength as compared to compound exercises. “Isolation exercises do not increase strength directly as they have little or no effect on the body’s neuromuscular system, which is a complex electro-mechanical system that facilitates muscular contraction,” says Abhinav.    

Yet isolation exercises remain the most popular form of exercise out there today. Those who include them in their training end up inadvertently benefitting in the form of injury prevention and, also, improving one’s performance of compound exercises. So, not only do you get the body aesthetic you are after, you also get better at sport and exercise. “Until each and every muscle doesn’t fire together and in the right sequence, you won’t be able to get the most out of that lift or movement. And that’s where isolation work comes in,” says Shivoham, a Mumbai-based celebrity trainer who has worked with stars including Aamir Khan and Ranbir Kapoor. 

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Abhinav adds that isolation exercises act as support systems to whole-body compound movements and definitely improve overall performance. “There comes a point during a set — while performing a compound lift — where we need extra support from a single muscle group. And building capacity in these muscle groups with isolation exercises help in these situations. For example, bicep curls will definitely augment your pull-up numbers. Triceps extensions will definitely augment your push-ups and parallel bar or ring dips,” he says. 

Shivoham gives the example of squats. He explains, “If you want to get your squat stronger then you have to work individually on your lower back, hamstrings, glutei, quads and calves. And to do that you will have to turn to isolation exercises.” Another fine example of a useful isolation exercise is the hip thruster. Yes, it's an isolation movement and it will definitely improve your deadlifts and squats, adds Abhinav. The only thing you need to bear in mind while performing isolation exercises, Abhinav insists, is the fact that you will get a better bang for your buck when they are performed with free weights such as dumbbells, kettlebells and barbells rather than with machines.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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