Isolation Lifts

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What are isolation lifts?

Isolation lifts are the lifts that focus on one joint and one muscle group to the exclusion of others. Isolation lifts are the opposite of compound lifts which use two or more muscle groups to perform the lift.

Isolation exercises are often used in the ‘largest to smallest’ training method.

This is where isolation lifts are used to exercise the smaller muscles towards the end of a workout, after the larger muscle groups have already been fatigued by compound exercises.

Isolation lifts involve movements such as curling, extending or raising, each designed to target a specific muscle to the exclusion of others.

Areas of the body targeted by isolation exercises include the biceps, triceps, quads, hamstrings, inner thighs and outer thighs, calves, abdominals, wrists and pectorals.

These exercises are not normally used in weightlifting competitions, as the larger compound lifts are used to test overall strength.

In theory, a person who has a strong lift in one isolated area might not have good strength or muscle development elsewhere, so isolation exercises are not good at testing overall strength.

When should you use isolation lifts?

Although isolation exercises are excellent for fine development and strengthening small areas, they are no substitute for a full range of compound exercises, which can work the whole body and build functional strength.

Isolation lifts should therefore only be used as an ‘extra’ if your aim is overall strength, weight loss or body conditioning.

They are also useful for aesthetic purposes and for working on specific weak muscles:

Isolation lifts for aesthetic purposes

Isolation exercises are good for aesthetic purposes for building muscle in one particular area and to add greater definition.

This is why these lifts are used by bodybuilders to target the development of a certain muscle group and achieve a fine balance in appearance.

However, isolation exercises are only useful for aesthetic tuning if you already have a low body fat percentage, otherwise your body fat will cover up the fine muscle definition.

For example, a well-defined six-pack will only be visible if you have low enough body fat to let the muscle show through.

Isolation lifts to strengthen a weak muscle

Isolation lifts can be useful for working on a weak point that might holding you back in your compound lifts.

For example, if a weak lower back is hampering your deadlift, you could try performing regular sets of back extensions or dorsal raises to build up strength in this particular area.

Isolation lifts are also ideal for if you have an injury and can only therefore focus on specific body parts, while you recover your injured muscles.

My Strength Training explores all the main isolation exercises, so read through our guide to find out exactly which muscles each lift uses, how to perform each lift, and how these exercises can benefit your strength training workout and general gym routine.

Popular isolation lifts

Isolation exercises exist to work all the muscles of the body. Each exercise targets a different specific muscle group.

Here is a list of the most popular isolation lifts – follow the links to read more about each lift:

Bicep curl

Tricep extension

Lateral raise

Leg curl

Leg extension

Seated adductor

Seated abductor

Calf raise

Glute machine

Abdominal crunch

Back extension

Wrist curl

Pec dec

Dumbbell flyes


Do you have any favourite isolation excercises not included here? Let us know in the comments.

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