What is an isolation exercise?

Phil Goulding Nuffield Health Senior Personal Trainer More by this author
Nuffield Health Senior Personal Trainer Phil Goulding explains what isolation exercises are, what they’re good for and when to use them.

Isolation exercises are those used to tackle one specific muscle group or joint ‘in isolation’, rather than affecting multiple muscle groups and joints.

While in reality no exercise will only use one muscle group, isolation exercises specifically target one area.

While isolation exercises can be very simple, they are best used once you have built good over-all strength, so are typically used in more advanced training routines.

What are isolation exercises good for?

Isolation exercises are mostly used in bodybuilding or for people rehabilitating from an injury or muscular imbalance. If you’re at an advanced stage of body training, then isolation exercises can provide more definition to a specific area. It can also help to target areas of the body that are overlooked in compound exercises (those that build strength in more than one group of muscles).

When should isolation exercises be used?

Isolation exercises will mostly benefit those with a good solid base of fitness, but some people who are new to the gym may find isolation exercises easier to do than compound exercises. It's better to use compound exercises to build good overall strength before attempting isolation exercises, but if you perform isolation exercises make sure that you balance it by training the opposing muscle group as well. For example: if you're going to do a leg extension, balance it by training your hamstrings with a leg curl to retain balance in the body.

Examples of isolation exercises 

  • Bicep curls
  • Ab crunches
  • Leg extensions

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