Do you need isolation exercises or can you just stick with the big lifts like deadlifts?

Do you need isolation exercises or can you just stick with the big lifts like deadlifts?

“I have recently started to focus more on bigger lifts rather than using machines and dumbbells. I use mainly barbell exercises and have been doing heavy lifts mixed with metabolic resistance training. 


I am used to doing more of a workout split targeting all the muscle groups, so it feels weird to not directly work my biceps, shoulder heads, or triceps. I have been doing compound exercises that hit the smaller muscle groups as well such as triceps dips and overhead press, dumbbell snatch, chin ups etc. 

Do you feel that it is necessary to directly train the smaller groups in order to get aesthetic improvements? Such as adding in some biceps curls, cable triceps pressdowns, or lateral raises? I love defined shoulders and arms and as much as I love focusing on strength it is nice to see some aesthetic improvements. I know that most upper body compound exercises do hit the smaller muscle groups in some way but I am just unsure as to whether or not that it enough to see aesthetic improvements?!” – Kate B. 

 

Hey Kate! 

First, off, thank you for submitting this question.  I get this question quite a bit so I am confident others will benefit from the answer. 

As with anything regarding nutrition and training, there isn’t really a hard-and-fast answer to this question.  How much “isolation” work you need will vary from person to person based on: training age/experience, strength levels, overall aesthetic goals, hormonal makeup, and genetic predisposition for muscle growth, among other factors. (I say “isolation” in quotations because I think we all know it’s impossible to truly isolate a muscle group, but that’s a discussion for another day). 

To give you an extreme example: a 30 year old competitive male (or even female) bodybuilder who has been lifting for 15 years will need significantly more isolation work than a 50 year old woman who is new to strength training and just wants to look better and feel better.

Since you have expressed that you like defined shoulders and arms, I’ll assume you want a relatively lean and lightly muscled look; a look many women seem to desire these days, and I will base my answer on an “average” woman wanting to achieve those goals.

I think it’s safe to assume you’re looking for nice arms like Miss Alli and Miss Jen are sportin’ here….

 

My Isolation Work Extremes

But first, I’ll be completely honest, I have been on both ends of the spectrum.  When I first started lifting, I absolutely abused the heck out of body part splits.  There were days I literally worked 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 absolutely no need for me to be breaking 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, split squats, and other big movements, and I needed to focus on getting stronger in the big lifts.  Period.

Fast forward to the last few years and I absolutely despise isolation work.  I hate doing biceps curls, lateral raises, skullcrushers, or calf raises…ugh.  I’d much rather be squatting, deadlifting, snatching, pressing, or pulling.  That being said, isolation work does have its place, and I am starting to realize that I could benefit from more isolation movements.  I know my chin-ups could benefit from some biceps work, my bench press and my Turkish Getups could benefit from some triceps work, and I definitely don’t train my hamstrings as a knee flexor nearly as often as I should.

 

 

I’m a sucker for anything that will help my Turkish Getup!

 

So, as you can probably imagine, the answer is somewhere in the middle for most females who want to look better and feel better.  Focus mainly on the bang-for-your-buck compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, lunges, and swings 3-4 days a week, and supplement with a few sets of the smaller isolation movements 1-2 days a week. 

 

So How Do I Incorporate Them? 

Here are 3 of my favorite options:

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

This one is simple enough.  After you do your big lifts, throw in a few isolation exercises at the end.  You can do them in super-set or circuit fashion, or just do the individual exercises with plenty of rest in between.  Your choice.  An example might be:

 

A1. Barbell Bench Press

4 sets of 5-6 reps

 

 B1. Chin-ups

4 sets of 6-8 reps

 

 C1. 1 Arm DB Rows

3 sets of 8-10 reps

***superset with***

C2. Lateral Raises

3 sets of 10-12 reps

 

 D1. Lying DB Triceps Extension

2-3 sets of 8-12 reps

***superset with***

D2. DB Hammer Curls

2-3 sets of 8-12 reps

 

2. Incorporate a “beach body” day.

If you lift heavy 2-3 days a week doing all of the major compound lifts, sometimes it can be fun to have a “beach body” day at the gym.  This is the day where you focus on all of the “beach muscles” or “vanity muscles” that so many people love training.  Here is an example:

 

A1. Leg Extension

4 sets of 8-12 reps

***tri-set with***

A2. Leg Curl

4 sets of 8-12 reps

***tri-set with***

A3. Calf Raises

4 sets of 15-20

 

 B1. 3 Way Shoulder Raise (front raises, then lateral raises, then rear delt raises)

3 sets of 20 reps each directions

 

 C1. Triceps Pushdowns

3 sets of 12-15 reps

***tri-set with***

C2. EZ Bar Barbell Curls

3 sets of 12-15 reps

***tri-set with***

C3. Hanging Leg Raises

3 sets of 12-15

 

3. Use isolation exercises as an “active rest” in between conditioning movements.

 You can make this as simple or as complicated as you’d like.  If, for example, you were planning on doing (12) 30-yard Prowler Sprints, you could pick 3 exercises and do them for 4 sets each in between pushes.  For example: one arm lateral raise, alternating dumbbell curl, overhead triceps extension.

 Your workout would look like this:

 30 yard Prowler Push

1 Arm Lateral Raise (each arm)

30 yard Prowler Push

1 Arm Lateral Raise (each arm)

30 yard Prowler Push

1 Arm Lateral Raise (each arm)

30 yard Prowler Push

1 Arm Lateral Raise (each arm)

30 yard Prowler Push

Alternating DB Curl

30 yard Prowler Push

Alternating DB Curl…….

 

And so on an so forth until you have completed 12 Prowler pushes, and all of your isolation work.

 

You could also pick 3 exercises for conditioning, (i.e. KB swing, sled drag, medicine ball slam) and 3 isolation movements and pair them together.

 

A1. KB Swing

3 sets of 8-10 reps

***superset with***

A2. Lateral Raises

3 sets of 10-12 reps

 

 B1. Backwards Sled Drag

3 sets of 30 yards

***superset with***

B2. DB Curl

3 sets of 8-12 reps

 

 C1. Medicine Ball Slam

3 sets of 8-10 reps

***superset with***

C2. Triceps Rope Pressdown

3 sets of 8-12 reps

 

 As you can see, there are dozens of ways to fit isolation work into your programming, while still prioritizing the big lifts.  Give one of these programs or workouts a try a let me know what you think! 

Oh, and please comment below and let me know how you like to incorporate isolation movements into your training.

 

 

One Response to Weekly Reader Question # 9: Do I Need Isolation Work?

  1. Matt says:

    Hey Molly
    I just wanted to give you a quick thumbs up on all your content. About 75% of my clientele are female and I regularly check in on your blog to get a female’s perspective. I also refer many of my ladies to your site. Keep up the great work!

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