Create Your Own Workout - Part 3: To Isolate, or Not To Isolate?

We've touched on the importance of placing a major emphasis on compound movements rather than isolation exercises when writing your programs in Part 1 and Part 2. To start out today's post, let's review a couple of definitions:

  • Isolation Exercises: Movements that incorporate a single joint and target the musculature that performs the given joint action.  These are generally lower skill movements such as bicep curls, lateral raises, and hamstring curls.
  • Compound Exercises: Movements that incorporate more than one joint. These movements are more complex and activate a wide variety of muscle groups such as squats, deadlifts, and KB swings.


We want to be as efficient as possible when designing our weight lifting routines.  No one wants to spend more time than they need to in the gym, and choosing exercises that will give us the most bang-for-our-buck will help us reach our goals faster and more effectively.  

Compound movements help us do just that.  They target a large amount of muscle, inducing an anabolic training effect that is much more potent than that of localized strength work, while also mimicking movement patterns that every human being should perfect and strengthen.  Taking this into account, exercises such as the squat, deadlift, pullup, and pushup should make up the majority of our strength work.  We should never be programming isolation exercises as the "main lifts" of our program.  This is how you spin your wheel and make little, if any, progress in the gym, just like the people in the video below:

Are isolation exercises worthless?

I don't think "worthless" is the correct term, but, in my opinion, isolation exercises are very, very, very optional.  There are a few instance where they may be useful.

  • For bodybuilding purposes isolation exercises can be useful for bringing up lagging muscles.  If you have poorly developed biceps, then throw in some bicep curls at the end of the workout.  The extra work will be useful, but if you're not already performing rows and pullups, then you might as well go home and eat a cheeseburger.  The compound movements absolutely must be in place before layering on isolation exercises.
  • To activate a muscle with poor tone or motor control.  For a physical therapist or personal trainer who uses a protocol such as NKT, we often find muscles that exhibit poor function.  For some reason or another, the wiring in your body is malfunctioning, preventing the nervous system from effectively communicating with your muscles.  This is often the case for the gluteus medius, a muscle on the back and outside of your hip responsible for hip stability, abduction, and rotation.  The reason behind this faulty wiring will need to be saved for another post, but a glute med activation drill in this scenario may serve you well
  • For ego purposes or simply for enjoyment.  I'm not gonna lie, bicep curls are kinda fun.  Plus, they give you a reason to wear tanks such as this one:

A Little Deadlift Experiment, Part 1

Over the past five weeks of training I added 40lbs to my deadlift.

"Whaaattt?? Are you some kind of magician?" you ask?

No, not necessarily, but I've been doing a little bit of experimenting, along with training my deadlift with a bit of unconventional methodology. First, a bit of background information.

In early 2011 I deadlifted 410lbs for a PR. Then, in mid-2011, I contracted Lyme's Disease. I was bed-ridden for weeks and literally did not even have the strength/energy to watch the movies that friends brought by my house to help me pass the time. Fortunately (*understatement alert*), I was on the road to recovery relatively early considering my illness, and the doctors told me how amazing it was that I was up and walking so soon.

Needless to say, I now have a much deeper appreciation for how blessed I am to be where I currently stand with my health. Lyme's is an absolutely miserable disease and my heart goes out deeply to all those who find themselves battling it for years on end.

Moving on with the story, Lyme's completely sapped any strength I had previously obtained, and nearly left me back at Ground Zero with regards to my training.

To give you an idea, my first training session back in the gym (Fall 2011) entailed 3x6 pullups and 3x8 pushups.

And I nearly puked.

Even though I lived in convalescence for quite some time, I continued with my training, trying to be as perseverant yet prudent as possible. Eventually I worked back up to deadlifting 225lbs, but it felt heavy. And I mean heavy.

Fast forward six months, and - after feeling completely healed from the disease - pulled 385lbs for a single.

My Experiment

Next, I decided to play Mr. Scientist and play with a deadlifting experiment. To be honest, I was spinning my wheels a bit with my training, so I decided to work on a lift that I admittedly suck at: The Deadlift.

Over the past five weeks, I deadlifted every day, Monday through Friday. Yep. Every. single. day. Take the weekend off, rinse, lather, repeat.

What were the results? I went from 385lbs to 425lbs in those five weeks of training! Here is the video from Test Day 1 (I'll be "sort of maxing" every four to five weeks):

Some Closing Thoughts:

1. I am, admittedly, not a good deadlifter. Squatting has always felt more "natural" to me personally, primarily due to the fact that I have a very long torso relative to the length of my legs. I've had to work much harder than (some) others to bring my deadlift up, and it's still not what I would consider awe-inspiring by any means.

This was, however, a major victory for me after experiencing the large serving of humble-pie that Lyme's served me with in 2011. Not gonna lie, I gave myself a little, personal fist bump after doing this, and praise God every day that He has given me back my health in order to continue one of my greatest passions.

Like I said, you don't truly appreciate your health until it is taken from you.

2. Honestly, when I woke up on Testing Day last week, I wasn't sure what was going to happen. Was I going to pull less than 385lbs? Was I going to be stuck at the same weight? Could I pull more?

My original goal was to climb back up to 405lbs, but I was pleasantly surprised to find how fast and "easy" the weight felt. This is why I went ahead and added another 20lbs to the bar to go for the 425 pull.

3. Note that I "sort of maxed," as I had a bit of room in the tank on that 425lb pull. I still stand by what I said that this is the way to go to avoid burning out and ensure (at least as much as one can ensure) continued progress.

4. No, I am not going to unveil the exact program I used. I'm going to continue tweaking and refining the plan, and see where it continues to take me. I do ask that you refrain from going out and performing heavy deadlifts every day after reading this. This is NOT what I did and you'd be digging your own grave if you go out there and begin pulling heavy Monday through Friday.

5. Although I improved 4olbs over this 5-week period, it was, admittedly, a lifetime PR of 15lbs. I'm interested to see how things progress (if at all) and how my body continues to react to this type of training plan.

6. Don't worry, after I'm done with the experiment, I'll unveil what I did. So keep your eyes peeled.

Friday Musings: Females Unplugged from the Matrix, Training for the Skinny Fat Ectomorph, Deadlifting, and More

1. Below are two great articles that (if you haven't already read them) you'll really enjoy.

4 Things Your Girlfriend Should Know: A Girlfriend's Response - by Lisa

I had the pleasure of having dinner with Lisa (along with her other half, Tony Gentilcore) while my wife and I were up in Boston for our honeymoon. It was immediately clear to both Kelsey and I that Lisa is a high-class woman, and is "the real deal" in her own right.

Anyway, Tony had written a post (linked in the article above) that blew up on the interwebz and definitely ruffled a few feathers. Lisa then popped in on Tony's blog to give a response to the upheaval that occurred as a result of the original "4 Things Your Girlfriend Should Know" post.

Given that women are constantly bombarded with misinformation regarding how they should exercise (and subsequently, how they should look), I felt that Lisa did a SUPERB job addressing this issue. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Even if you're a male, it may help you relate better to your female counterpart.

Solutions for the Skinny Fat Ectomorph Part III: Programming and Training - by Anthony Mychal

It wasn't so much the training program that made me raise an extra eyebrow to this post (although it is a good program) but the words of wisdom Anthony prefaced the program with. For example: "There are no Holy Grail exercises. There are no Holy Grail programs. So stop looking. Results come from consistent training. That’s it."

It seems that everywhere I turn, people are always looking for the "latest and greatest secret" that will get them to their goals. New fitness products are pushed out every week promising to get people where they've never been before. I hate to break it to you, but you're not [insert athletic performance or physique  goal here] because you have yet to find the Holy Grail exercise or diet trick.

Well done on this one Anthony.

2. My Cup-O-Strength coffee mug recently arrived in the mail, and I can tell you that I'll be using this with reckless abandon. As a matter of fact, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research is conducting a study to show that consuming a caffeinated beverage out of this mug will increase your deadlift by 8%.

Okay, maybe that's not completely true, but they will be doing that study at some point. They just don't know it yet. Do yourself a favor and pick up one of these awesome bad boys HERE.

3. Speaking of deadlifting, I've been doing a little deadlift experiment. I'm not going to go into too much into the details here and now, but needless to say I've been getting more than my fill of this movement recently.

Over the past four weeks, I have pulled 155 reps in singles. Yes, I have "dipped, gripped, and ripped" on 155 separate occasions over the past month.

That's all I'll say about that for now though.

4. Metamucil has changed my life. I recently started taking it regularly!!! I'm not joking you when I say that if you haven't been taking this stuff, you're missing out on one of the greatest things man has ever manufactured.

5. Haha:

I don't know why but this made me laugh pretty hard. Maybe it was just the mood I was in. Anyway, I don't know about you, but we have some good movies coming up in 2012: Hunger Games, The Avengers  (<-- maybe it will be corny but I still want to see it) Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit, etc.

Is anyone as excited about this as I am????

Have a great weekend everyone.