What is wrong with isolated exercises?

Posted by Hans Lindgren on 12 July 2011 | 0 Comments

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Isolation is beneficial

There has been a lot of criticism against the traditional body-building type of training lately and as a result of that the “functional training” concept has emerged. Isolated muscle training is not in any way superior to “functional” type of training, but my aim is to show that training with muscle isolation is not as bad as it has been accused of being. “Train movement not muscles” is a phrase that has been frequently used. First of all we cannot train a muscle without a movement unless we perform isometric exercises. Instead of regarding it as isolated muscles let us call it isolated joint movement.  Secondly to achieve isolation there has to be……Stabilization!

Lack of isolation

I think the biggest problem with traditional gym training is that there is not enough isolation.  People are basically just lifting weights and not trying to train muscles. The difference between an isolation exercise and a compound one is just the number of joints that are involved. The more joints involved the harder the exercise is to execute. Many people that have been lured into training with “functional exercises” would benefit from starting with one joint at a time and groove the stabilization patterns properly before adding the next movement. What makes an exercise functional is the individual’s ability to stabilize the movement, along with their mobility. 

Biceps curls as a core exercise

What is so wrong with performing a standing barbell curl in a good stance with ankles, knees and hips in centration, neutral pelvis and spine, and the shoulder-blades stabilized in a strong functional position? The diaphragm is of course properly activated to increase the intra-abdominal pressure against the activity of the entire abdominal wall and the pelvic floor, while still maintaining a good breathing function. If in that position a big weight can be brought up without any additional movement in joints that are supposed to remain still in the braced stance, the exercise is actually very functional. The stabilization systems have to work very hard to ensure full isolation. The core is activated from the inside supporting the spine from the front. The lumbar short and long extensor muscles are activated to balance the bracing by the IAP and the weight in the hands. Scapular stabilization is necessary preventing additional and unwanted movement around the shoulder girdle. Gluteal muscles as well as hamstrings have to be active thereby preventing the hips from collapsing into flexion.  When performing a curl action the more the movement can be isolated to elbow flexion only, the better will the exercise work as a functional stabilization exercise. Since the core is properly activated from the inside and not just tensed at the circumference of the trunk, it is really a core exercise. I can see the benefits of the Super-stiffness theory by Stuart McGill and recommend that it should be applied to some extent in all gym exercises.

Cortical control

 Single joint movement and proper stabilization patterns are key components of cortical training. Body awareness and the feel of a specific movement pattern are important features that should be trained.  Good cortical control is something that many people are lacking but it can be improved with the right approach to training.

The so highly recommended hip-hinge is really nothing more than an isolated movement. The more isolation of the movement to the hip-joint the less loading there is on the spine. Trainers are using broom-sticks and PVC pipes to teach people not to move excessively when exercising and yet there is such criticism of isolation type of exercises.

Good balance of muscles around a joint is important to be able to train with functional movement patterns. One inactive or weak muscle group will throw the whole chain of muscles off. Targeting the weak group with isolated joint training is a very useful tool to activate and strengthen what is lacking behind.

Rules for gym training

The real secret to make traditional gym-training more functional is to apply one set of strict rules: Train all exercises in a functional stance with a full range and good stability while using as heavy resistance as possible without sacrificing the form. I often see individuals in gyms training without proper stabilization (isolation) just throwing weights around with very poor form and it is not surprising that they haven’t got much muscular development even though they are attempting to use fairly big weights.

Even in a sitting or lying down exercise the whole body should participate! Any segment that is not actively performing the movement is part of the support. Even something as simple as sitting is an activity and the posture matters.  

Choice of exercises

A wise choice of exercises will definitively assist you in maximizing the functional effect of gym-training: use free weights instead of machines, use dumbbells instead of bars, stand instead of sit, use cables with a directional pull from various angles, incorporate unilateral exercises for both upper and lower limbs, and make sure that the core is fully activated from the inside out in all exercises.

Training hints

My advice to anyone who wants to train with traditional gym-methods and want to lift the results to a new level is to pay attention to these simple principles:

  1. Activate the core from the inside out (diaphragm driven core stability). This is the foundation for all the stabilization patterns. This will take the pressure off the lumbar spine, keep the torso stable and provide a firm centre for all limb movements to anchor into.
  2. Be very strict with form. Try to turn all parts of the body that are not actively involved in moving the weight into part of the support. The support starts from the ground up and is dependent upon good joint centration and stabilization of all joints. It is almost like pretending the body is a bronze statue with perfect posture.
  3. Make sure there is good joint centration with stabilization as it makes the difference between pushing off against a rock compared to jelly. Don’t let parts of the body be jelly when training.
  4. Train in full range of movement. The ability to stabilize will determine how much weight and what range can be used.  It is much better to drop some weight off initially in order to increase the range.

Pay attention to joint centration and stabilization as they are the limiting factors of all exercises. No exercises should be performed with a weight and a range where joint centration and stabilization are sacrificed.

Using as much resistance as possible on isolated exercises in a good functional posture, full range and perfect stabilization will give maximum results for the effort put in. Aim at lifting heavy weights but don’t sacrifice the form.

Benefits of isolation exercises

Don’t hesitate to isolate the training to specific joints as long as the rest of the body is actively involved in the support. Compound and “functional exercises” should of course be part of the training regime, but isolated exercises have their place in it too.

Isolated exercises are very useful in the process of learning new exercises with good form and proper stabilization. They are also very effective in the process of correcting weaknesses in a movement pattern. Isolation exercises are beneficial as an injury prevention tool in sports medicine/rehabilitation/ performance programs.

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