This article isn’t about the kind of “isolation” that we have come to dread since the covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020. No, here we are talking about “isolation workouts”: exercise moves that work just one joint and one muscle or muscle group at a time. Isolation movements help you strengthen a specific muscle or muscle group that is typically not the focus in compound movements. Examples of these include bicep curls, lateral raises and tricep extensions.
Ever since functional fitness and HIIT workouts became popular, isolation workouts have lost some of their shine among fitness enthusiasts. However, over the last couple of years, they are staging a comeback. Isolation training has a very important place in all sports and fitness in general, says Shivoham, co-founder of Shivfit in Mumbai. He had included plenty of isolation exercises in his 12-week transformation programme a couple of years ago, one in which celebrity chef Kelvin Cheung had participated.
Isolation exercises tend to aid and enhance the performance of compound exercises. “No matter what sport, gymnastics, powerlifting, Olympic lifting, sprinting, you name it… until and unless 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. If you want to get your squat stronger then you have to work individually on your lower back, hamstrings, glutes, quads and calves through isolation exercises,” says Shivoham, who is currently training Bollywood actor Ranbir Kapoor.“Due to the specific nature of the exercise, isolated movements can achieve far greater gains on the muscle that is worked both in terms of strength and endurance,” explains AK Abhinav, founder of Bengaluru’s NammaCrossfit and a strength and conditioning coach at Life of Tri, a triathlon training centre.
In the world of Olympic and power lifting, isolation movements are called “accessory work.” There are stabilising muscles, tiny ones that can’t be seen but lie beneath the superficial muscles; these are the ones that give you the real stability and strength, and they need individual attention. The rotator cuff muscles that stabilise the shoulder joints are a great example. They are crucial for executing clean, snatch and push and jerk lifts.
When you’re executing a pull-up, you are performing a compound exercise for the upper back. Biceps are an assisting muscle in the pull-up. Abhinav says that adding an isolation exercise like the bicep curl to your training not only helps you to perform more repetitions of the pull-up, but also lessens the stress on the primary muscle, the latissimus dorsi, better known as the lats. “Isolation workouts are the only way to strengthen such muscles which cannot be worked otherwise,” says Shivoham, adding, “That’s what laid my foundation and when I combine it smartly with my functional training it just delivers the results.”
Injury prevention and aesthetics
Of late, isolation strength training has also been deployed for injury prevention and rehabilitation protocols.
Professional and recreational athletes who run, cycle, swim, play football, tennis, cricket, golf or other sports are prone to repetitive stress injuries. This is due to the nature of the movements which involve the smaller muscles of the upper and lower limbs, says Abhinav.
However, using isolation movements in conjunction with multi-joint complex training movements will negate the incidence of an injury, he says. “For example, performing tricep extensions as part of a tennis player’s upper body strength training regimen, which also includes exercises like bench press, pull-up and push-up,would ensure that the chances of the athlete developing a tennis elbow is greatly reduced,” he says.
Even athletes in exercise sports like boot camps, functional fitness, gymnastics and CrossFit greatly benefit from isolation movements and reduce their chances of picking up an injury.
Since the philosophy of isolation movement training stems from body-building, nothing works as well as isolation movements when it comes to looking good.
Compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, cleans, military-press and bent-over rows, work the larger muscle groups that provide a robust framework to the body. However, “sculpting the finer details of the small muscles which are the hallmark of training for aesthetics, is possible only through specific focus on exercises performed using only a single muscle or muscle group,” says Abhinav.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.