With the exception of exhibiting poor form and taking unnecessary risks, there is really no wrong way to exercise. Of course, some types of exercises are better suited to certain goals, so it can pay to be adventurous and try new workout techniques in the gym. If you do a lot of cardiovascular exercise or full-body workouts, you may wish to try exercises to isolate your muscles for some much-needed variety. Isolating muscles can offer benefits for certain workout goals, but they aren't ideal in all situations, so choose wisely.
Many of the movements your body makes tend to involve multiple muscles working together -- whether in the course of everyday life or special circumstances such as sports. In fact, exercise physiologists tend to refer to body segments as "chains" of muscles that cause certain movements. For example, the posterior chain, which comprises muscles of your glutes, hamstrings, lower back and calves, moves as a unit when you walk and jump. It can be difficult to isolate your muscles, but you can do so if you focus on smaller movements that only involve one joint. These simpler movements can be performed across your body if you know which muscles to move.
Isolation Exercise Examples
You can perform exercises to isolate nearly any muscle of your body. For example, barbell curls isolate your biceps, as those are the only muscles required to move your arm at the elbow joint. Similarly, you can isolate your calf muscles by performing standing calf raises. Here, only your ankle joint is moving, thanks entirely to the effort of your calf muscles. If you're looking to isolate your abs for some pre-beach toning, you can try weighted crunches, as that exercise isolates the rectus abdominis.
Muscle Isolation Advantages
Exercises driven by small movements can be preferable to larger movements in certain contexts. For example, if you want to gain muscle mass, you need to make sure you don't burn as many calories as you eat. This ensures you have a calorie, or energy, surplus to fuel growth. Isolation exercises burn fewer calories than multi-muscle exercises, so they can limit your calorie burning and allow you to build muscle. Also, if you have a particularly weak muscle you want to strengthen, focusing on that muscle with isolation exercises may bring it up to your desired level of strength more quickly.
Isolation Exercise Drawbacks
No matter what late-night infomercials tell you, no exercise technique is perfect. Isolation exercises do have their drawbacks; they are less efficient than compound exercises, which work multiple muscle groups simultaneously. Also, if you're looking to lose weight, the low calorie burning rate of isolation lifts compared to compound exercises such as the deadlift and squat is a definite disadvantage. Isolation exercises may also be less suitable for athletic training because most athletic movements incorporate multiple muscle groups. Thus, isolation exercises may not translate as well to sports as compound exercises.
Brian Willett began writing in 2005. He has been published in the "Buffalo News," the "Daytona Times" and "Natural Muscle Magazine." Willett also writes for Bloginity.com and Bodybuilding.com. He is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer and earned a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of North Carolina.