program design

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:

5 Quick & Random Training Tips

Note from Stevo: First, a HUGE congratulations to my wife, Kelsey, for becoming SAPT's latest performance coach. You can read about the new sister website to SAPTstrength, and see Kelsey's bio via the links.

1. How and when you do your abdominal training in a given week is actually fairly important. For example, if you decide to do standing rollouts 24-48 hours before a heavy deadlift session, chances are your deadlifts are going to suffer greatly, and perhaps even be risky to attempt (it will be much more difficult to stabilize your lumbar spine).

This is because rollout variations place incredible eccentric stress on the anterior core, inducing large amounts of soreness and requiring a longer recovery period. The only caveat to this rule would be if your name is Ross Enamait.

Other abdominal programming faux pas I can think of would be pairing an anterior loaded barbell variation (i.e. front squat or zercher grips) with an ab exercise, and/or placing a hanging leg raise before or alongside a farmers walk. The former is a blunder because anteriorly loaded barbell movements already place considerable demands on the core musculature; the latter isn't the greatest idea because your grip endurance is going to become an issue. Spread them apart to receive the maximum benefit of each.

2. If squatting is problematic for you, you don't need to force it. At least not initially. While the squat is a phenomenal movement and undoubtedly should be a staple in one's strength and conditioning program, I'm finding that more and more people need to earn the right to back squat safely, much like the overhead press. This may be due to structural changes (i.e. femoroacetabular impingement) or immobility (i.e. poor hip flexion ROM or awful glenohumeral external rotation and abduction).

If this is the case, simply performing a heavy single-leg movement as the first exercise in the session will work perfectly. You can use anything from forward lunges to bulgarian split squats, but my favorite is probably the barbell stepback lunge with a front squat grip.

You're still receiving the benefits of axial loading due to the bar position, you can still receive a healthy dose of compressive stress in your weekly training (if you're deadlifting), and yes, you'll still be exerting yourself. I recommend performing these in the 3-6 rep range to allow for appreciable loads.

And, keep in mind, when I said "if squatting is problematic" at the beginning of point #2, I was referring to structural, mobility, and/or stability abnormalities that may make it unsafe for you to squat for the time being. I wasn't, of course, implying that if it's "just too hard" that you shouldn't do it. There's a pretty thick line between one being contraindicated for an exercise and someone who's simply unwilling to to do a lift because it takes mental+physical exertion.

3. If your wrists bother you while doing pushups, try holding on to dumbbells. It will take your wrist out of an extended position into more of a neutral one, greatly reducing the stress on that joint.

I also like holding on to dumbbells because they allow you to use a "neutral grip," thus externally rotating the humerus, giving your shoulder more room to breathe.

4. Think twice before consuming dairy as your pre-workout fuel. This may seem obvious, but frankly I still talk to people who consume cereal before a morning workout, or down milk shortly before an evening training session. Your stomach isn't going to like this while doing chest-supported T-Bar rows, anti-extension core variations, or anything for that matter.

Another tip: don't shove a bunch of doughnuts down your pie hole before training. I thought this one would be no-brainer, but I actually had a kid vomit after pushing the prowler at a sub-maximal intensity. Upon asking him what he ate beforehand, he said, "Umm, well nothing all day, and then I ate a bunch of doughnuts before coming here." Fail.

5. Figure out for yourself what training split is best for you personally. For example, I feel that training upper body the day before lower body affects me (negatively) more than if I do it the other way around. However, I know others who feel the exact opposite. Also, for those of you who utilize a bodypart split, and train deadlifts on "back day," be sure to take into consideration when and how you'll do squats on "leg day," due to the beating your spine will receive from both exercises.