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Another View on Isolation Exercises

April 24, 2007 12:24 PM

Leg extensions, Leg curls, Calf raises, Leg press, Lat pull-down, Bicep curls, Tricep extensions . . . who in their right mind would continue to do these ridiculous exercises? It's true, isolation bashing has hit an all time high in the fitness world ? to the point where it is almost laughable. It comes as no surprise to me though. The industry has been guilty of taking a concept and not just applying it, but utterly abusing it while taking it completely out of context. Sure, many trainers love to talk about how useless isolation movements are; but guess what? Most of the top powerlifters, strongmen and bodybuilders in the world still use them in their routines on a regular basis! It's time to set the record straight about these verbally abused exercises.

Now that I have your attention let's discuss why isolation has been bashed in the first place and why top strength athletes continue to utilize them within their program. First off, isolation of any single muscle group is physiologically impossible. This is not news to most strength athletes, but what might be news is that strength training can accurately be described as a practice of creating tension throughout the body. So the idea of teaching anything but that, creating total tension, when it comes to pure strength training is utter inefficiency. When we tell a trainee to "focus on pumping the biceps" during a bicep curl; well that is just ridiculous if we are trying to teach strength. However, if we tell the trainee to grip the barbell like you mean it, stick your chest out, squeeze your glutes, push down your diaphragm, lock your knees, contract the quads, brace the abs and curl the bar with bad intentions . . . well then there is a different effect in the body. The practice is now on increasing tension within the body and not on passively pumping the muscle. These principles are described very well in Pavel Tsatsouline's book Power to the People! If you don't understand what I am talking about in this paragraph, then you need to buy that book. It should come as no surprise that, Pavel is also one of the guys who unmercifully bashes isolation movements; however, I don't believe that it is because he sees them as "useless" but rather the way people approach them as being useless. In this case I couldn't agree more with Pavel and many others who share that exact point of view.

Don't get me wrong here, I realize that most of the top guys mentioned above are not consciously telling themselves to squeeze their glutes, brace their abs, etc. etc. while performing bicep hammer curls, but that is because 1) this state of preparedness is already in their bodies from years of HEAVY max-effort lifting and 2) because of the templates they follow (more about that later) tension is second nature to them; however, it is not second nature to "Joe athlete" in the gym and certainly not to the "40 something house wife of 3 who needs to drop some inches." That is not to say that we need to hand the 40 something house wife a barbell and inundate her with these instructions until she physically and mentally passes out on her first trip to the gym! Instead, introduce one instruction every other week or so. For example: tell her when she curls the bar to think about gripping it really tight. Two or three weeks later give the instruction to continue to grip the bar and now brace the abs tight etc. etc. Depending on how strong the individual is will dictate how quickly you can introduce these concepts.

Now I know what you are thinking "So Tom, are you saying we should focus on isolation movements with the idea of teaching ourselves to increase tension in our bodies?" Well that is only part of what I am saying. The much more important part is the fact that ALL of the top guys mentioned above include these isolation movements within their program almost always AFTER lifting something really heavy or lifting a bar with tremendous speed. In this case the isolation component is primarily to focus on a muscle group that is lagging behind. For example: if you can't lock out your bench press, then it is time to get to work with some tricep hypertrophy and isolation for this purpose is just fine! If you have trouble getting down into the squat, it is probably because your hamstrings are too weak so get to work on the leg curl or better yet the GHR if you are man enough.

Therefore, the practice of tension is developed within the template by lifting really heavy weight, then isolation movements are put in as supplementary lifts for the purpose of hypertrophy for YOUR lagging muscle groups. However, you had better believe that these movements are done with the principles of body tensions in mind. If you watch a top strength athlete do tricep extensions for their supplementary work, you will see BOTH the concentric and eccentric motions . . . and if you look hard enough you might see their finger indentations on the bar when they are done with the set. That doesn't mean they are training to failure either! It means they are creating a lot of tension through the whole body as they perform the movements.

A few months back this exact point was emphasized continually when I went to see Marty Gallagher and Kirk Karwoski do a seminar in Washington D.C. As you can imagine I asked a lot of questions because I am not very familiar with Gallagher's philosophies ? turns out there wasn't much I hadn't heard before; however, what they did make VERY clear is the importance of creating tension in ALL of the movements. Marty would grind his teeth intensely as he spoke about doing basic supplementary work such as calf raises emphasizing both the concentric and eccentric parts of the lift. His eyes were on fire as he spoke about grabbing the dumbbells to do shoulder or arm movements ? you raise, you lower, you grip ? control, tension, form. His point was well taken.

On the other hand, if you are a trainer and want to teach your client how to create tension in the body ? well guess what? Doing basic isolation movements with the idea of teaching total body tension is a great way to get the point across. The client will quickly learn for themselves it is really hard to do! Then let them know that in order to squat, deadlift, bench press, etc. etc. they need to learn how to create this tension in their bodies and make it second nature; and yes, I believe everyone who walks into a gym should learn how to squat, deadlift and bench press correctly (eventually) - including the 40 something house wife. But that is a different topic for another article.

As you can see, there are plenty of reasons to include isolation movements within your routines; however, I can't think of too many reasons to do isolation movements for the sake of isolating a muscle. Practice tension even in your supplementary lifts and you will continue to get even stronger. Don't neglect those isolation movements otherwise you will find the guys who practice those lifts regularly (for the purposes outlined in their templates) will blow right past you in both strength and muscular development. This includes the body builders. Think about it, if a body builder can practice creating more tension in their "isolation lifts" that means they can eventually handle more weight which means even more growth . . . and who doesn't want that?


Thomas Phillips is the co-owner of Fit-for-life in Marlboro, NJ. He is the 2002 Body-for-life Grand Master Champion. He placed first in the deadlift at the National AAU, received first place at the AAU PL Nationals 181 raw division, and is a national qualifier for the sport of kettlebell lifting. Thomas also won back-to-back first place finishes in the National TSC elite class (www.the-tsc.com) and the U.S. Army certificate of Achievement in Physical Fitness. Thomas is a certified personal trainer, sport specific trainer, and kettlebell instructor under Pavel Tsatsouline. Visit his website at www.ThomasPhillipsFitness.com or www.FitforLifeMarlboro.com.
 

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