Using Isolation Exercises to Supplement Your Routine

As you’ve no doubt heard, you can’t spot reduce any area of your body but you can focus on building strength in certain areas if needed. Strive for balance in your body – you’ll accomplish this with compound, multi-joint movements with a few isolation exercises thrown in.

You may have heard that  compound movements are better when it comes to weight training. These are the exercises that use many muscle groups at once, including your abs, instead of just one muscle group.

Compound exercises are not lunges with shoulder presses, though this type of combination is a great way to get a quick, intense workout. Compound movements are those that use several joints and muscle groups at once, such as chest presses, squats, lunges, deadlifts, and shoulder presses. You’re using your core to stabilize and your body is working as a whole to complete the movement.

Isolation exercises, such as lateral raises, leg extensions, bicep curls, and the pec deck are not bad, but they should supplement your workout instead of being the bulk of it. I prefer working large muscle groups (legs, back, chest) with compound movements instead of isolation exercises, because I’m a little paranoid about muscle imbalances. Plus some isolation exercise machines, such as the leg extension, aggravate my knees. These machines force your joints along a fixed plane and can sometimes cause joint problems.

Even small muscle groups, like biceps, get trained with back exercises and may not need special attention, but I do isolation exercises for small muscles just to burn them up a little more. But I’ve found that compound exercises can make my workout faster because they hit many groups at once.

Here are some examples of when you may want to integrate isolation exercises into your routine.


Last year when I had physical therapy for knee pain, the therapist told me I needed to strengthen and loosen up my outer thigh and hip muscles. He gave me outer thigh and hip exercises as well as some foam roller therapy homework, and over time my knee pain went away.

Of course, many sports can overemphasize certain muscle groups and cause imbalances. For example, running develops the calves and hamstrings but not give the quads and hips a chance to be equally as strong. Any time you have muscle imbalances, one area of your body is taking more force than another and can result in injuries.


If you can visually see that one area of your body is not as developed as another area, you can try to bring it up to speed with isolation exercises. My current leg routine emphasizes my hamstrings and I’m doing plenty of hamstring curls to help develop them. Bodybuilders do this all the time to target certain muscles, but you shouldn’t rely on this technique forever or you’re going to see muscle imbalances forming.


Beginning weight lifters often use isolation exercises because they’re easy to learn. This may be fine in the early stages of weight training, but to see real gains you’ll eventually need to learn exercises such as leg presses, dips, push ups, and lat pull downs.


People with injuries use isolation exercises to avoid the injured area. For example, instead of shoulder presses, which can aggravate shoulder pain, you can do front raises and isolate the front shoulder muscle.

11 thoughts on “Using Isolation Exercises to Supplement Your Routine

  1. I agree with compound exercises. I remember feeling slow until I started adding squats into my routines. Finally my legs started to respond rather well!

    I also like how sore I feel from doing squats, my hamstrings, my quads, my glutes, all get a really good workout.

    I think that this is something all runners should read because running in itself is a compound exercise =)


  2. I started out with Isolation exercises for years. I’ve done this intentionally as I find it the easiest way to build that muscle/mind/body connection. Also I find lots of alternating has helped me to develop balance and symmetry. But as the way, I had to switch the workout. Compounds. And it’s different, not my thing. But I think the results are definitely different. 🙂


    • Sorry you don’t care for compounds! But thanks for sharing your take. Apparently a lot (all?) of serious lifters only do a few compound exercises over and over, and that is not for me. I love the variety of trying new things and switching things up, including isolation exercises here and there. I suppose if I really wanted to see some gains I would stick with the basic compound moves only and do something like 5/3/1. And maybe sometime this year I’ll give that a try. I think people should do whatever makes them happy about working out and hopefully that gels with their goals.


  3. isolation moves are something that I’ve been mulling over to great lengths lately. I’ve concluded that they are best used to supplement compound moves when it comes to development of a specific muscle. if you consider not many muscles actually function in isolation in real-world movements, one should build the core of their routine around movements in everyday actions or athletic events. performing a few sets of isolation moves once the target has been sufficiently warmed up with compound moves will ensure a cold muscle isn’t overstressed prematurely.

    my $.02



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