Isolation Exercises: Not So Useless After All?

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by TARYN HAGGERSTONE

Isolation Exercises: Not So Useless After All?

If you haven’t read them, check out Parts I and II of this 3-Part Series on “The Crossfit Exercise Prescription”:

Whether you love CrossFit or hate it, there’s no denying its success (both as a sport and a form of exercise and a sport), and a large part of this is due how it has managed to restructure the “traditional” way of working out into something that’s (almost) always fun and varied and can make us all push a little bit harder by adding a competitive element. Now add the fact that it has replaced a lot of “isolation exercises” (bicep curls, lateral raises, leg lifts) with functional multi-joint movements (squats, deadlifts, Olympic lifts, etc.) and you typically get, well, better results.

Functional multi-joint movements

However, I feel as though sometimes there is a misplaced sense of superiority within the CrossFit culture with regards to isolation exercises and the people who use them. We mock “normal” gym-goers for doing bicep curls, joke about quarter squats and wonder why people waste their time doing reverse flys… Something like this:

  • Do they have any idea how ineffective their method of working out is compared to a WOD?
  • Those exercises build “show” muscles; ours develop real bad-ass functional ones.
  • Don’t they know isolation movements wont create the same “Neuroendocrine response”?

I think this sense of superiority is misplaced for two reasons.

  1. Isolation Movements are not actually useless and, when used correctly, can seriously improve multiple aspects of our performance.
  2. The term neuroendocrine response is thrown around WAY too much, and when it comes down to it, most people don’t have more than a vague understanding of what it really means.

**n.b. The “neuroendocrine response'”is really big topic that deserves its own separate post, so I will not be addressing it further here.

Our ability to efficiently and correctly execute the functional movements is often limited by individual weaknesses, injuries or even “mental quirks.”
In terms of getting as much as possible (AMAP…GAMAP?) out of an hour-long workout session, I would definitely recommend full-body, functional movements because they allow us to use multiple muscle groups at the same time, perform more complicated movements, and move heavier loads (i.e. we do more work). Unfortunately, however, our ability to efficiently and correctly execute the functional movements is often limited by individual weaknesses, injuries or even “mental quirks” — this is where isolation movements as accessory exercises come into play.

Correcting muscular imbalance(s)

A little muscular imbalance is ok… (i.e. right-hand dominance, a slightly more flexible left leg, etc.)

…but if, for example, one glute takes over 80% of the work every time someone does a deadlift, then there is a problem and sooner or later this imbalance will seriously f#@$ them up. Getting rid of this type of imbalance isn’t simply a matter of continuing to deadlift (that will only make it more pronounced), and reversing or preventing the problem usually requires a decent amount of accessory work and isolation exercises to properly retrain the muscles.

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