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:

Squatting: It's Not Just For Muscle Building (another poop post)

As regular readers of both SGW and SAPTstrength, you all know I love talking about poop. Not only is a never-ending source of entertaining jokes, it's also a splendid indicator of your overall health. I think just about every athlete at SAPT has heard the cue, when learning how to squat, "push your butt back as if you're about to poop in the woods," (this nearly always garners a smile and often a chuckle out of the trainee). Well, we're going to explore, literally, squatting as if you're pooping in the woods (except the "woods" is actually your bathroom).

 Why in the world would one want to squat instead of sit while relieving oneself? Well, first off, humans have been doing it for thousands of years to great success. The phrase "cop a squat," didn't just appear for no reason! There's a few exceptions in history, some snooty Pharaohs and upper-crust Romans, but we'll ignore that for the moment because up unti the 19th century, nearly everyone squatted when they released their bowels. Really, it's mainly a Western thing to sit while pooping, and, currently, roughly 1.2 billion people squat instead of sit to do their business.

Confession: I'm one of those 1.2 billion. And I highly recommend it!

Ok, Kelsey, thanks for that sharing of information but is there any real benefit to squatting? Glad you asked!

1. It reduces "straining" because it opens up the recto-anal angle (how's that for a phrase?!)- Sitting constrains that passageway and requires more straining to push the fecal matter through. This could be a solution for those who, after adjusting their diets (ahem!), still struggle with constipation. In fact, Israeli Dr. Berko Sikirov, ran an experiment (several in fact) showed that squatting relieved constipation:

"Primary (simple) constipation is a consequence of habitual bowel elimination on common toilet seats. A considerable proportion of the population with normal bowel movement frequency has difficulty emptying their bowels, the principal cause of which is the obstructive nature of the recto-anal angle and its association with the sitting posture normally used in defecation. The only natural defecation posture for a human being is squatting. The alignment of the recto-anal angle associated with squatting permits smooth bowel elimination. This prevents excessive straining with the potential for resultant damage to the recto-anal region and, possibly, to the colon and other organs. There is no evidence that habitual bowel elimination at a given time each day contributes considerably to the final act of rectal emptying. The natural behavior to empty the bowels in response to a strong defecation reflex alleviates bowel emptying by means of the recto anal inhibitory reflex."

2. The same good Dr. Sikirov also demonstrated, albiet with a smallish sample size, squatting relieved hemorrhoid symptoms in a group of pained sufferers. Here's a table indicating the changes. According to the Mayo Clinic, half of Americans by the age of 50 have experienced hemorrhoid symptoms. Here's a lovely article from Slate about such things.

3. It takes less time to poop. Once again, our pooping hero Dr. Sikirov examined the benefits of squatting with a group of willing volunteers. He split them into three pooping groups: one used a 16-inch toilet, a 12-inch toilet, and the last squatted over a plastic container (don't want to know how that clean up went). Unsurprisingly, the squatting group reported an average of 51 seconds poop time compared to the average 130 seconds of the two sitting groups (I imagine this was the time it took from pants down to finish, not including wiping). He also asked the participants to record the ease of passing; the squatting group reported using the least amount of effort.

So, how does one squat to poo if there is no squatty potty available?

- You can squat over your toilet with your feet on the seat, perch if you will. I don't really recommend this as it can be precarious if you're a) taller than 5 feet or b) have terrible hip mobility.

- You can purchase an actual Squatty Potty, which is a little step stool you can put underneath your feet to get you into a squatted position.

- Forgoing purchasing anything (this is the option I chose), you can just scoot back with your upper back against the tank of the toilet and pull your heels up to the front of the seat. This is actually fairly comfortable (as long as your hips are ok).

There we go. Ladies and gentlemen, I challenge you to try squatting for a week and see if you have any improvement in your business time.

It's nice to take care of your butt.

Are You Really Squatting Correctly?

We all know the cue of “drive your knees out” when squatting but have you ever had someone observe your squat or watched yourself on camera when squatting?  If you haven’t you’d be surprised to find out that your knees are probably tracking incorrectly.  When coaching the squat to our athletes and clients for the first time I notice two things that happen.  The first thing is the knees just do not drive out at all leading to improper tracking and you get something that looks like this…

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As you can see from the video the knees never track with the middle of the feet and you are left with a continuous valgus collapse.  This is due to a number of reasons (poor glute strength, lack of body awareness, tight adductors) but mostly because people grow out of the habit of squatting correctly because they simply stop doing it over the years.  Yes, it is true that if you don’t use it you lose it.  We all at one time possessed the ability to squat correctly we just don’t do any up keep and then quickly forget how to do it.

Anyways, after seeing this I'll tell the person for the next set that as they lower they need to actively drive their knees out or “towards the wall”.  This is when I notice the second thing that typically goes wrong during a squat which you can observe from the video below.

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This time you’ll see that yes the knees actively drive out but they drive out way to much at the beginning, they will shoot in as they get close to the bottom, then will shoot in once they switch to the concentric portion.  Cue face in palm…

So what do you do now?  When it comes to this I will simply ask the person what they feel is going on with their lower body throughout the movement.  Undoubtedly they will say it feels weird or it feels like they are actively driving their knees out.  I’ll go on to tell them what is actually going on and/or film them to show them. Most of the time I don’t need to film because I will explain what I want to see happen on the next set.  I'll say, “On the next one I don’t want you to drive your knees out until you feel you are half way down.  Once you feel you’re about half way I want you to really overcompensate by driving your knees out about twice as hard as you feel you need to”.  What I’ll get out of this is exactly what I was looking for which is the knees tracking with the “middle” toe of the foot throughout the whole movement as you can see in the video below.

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It’s amazing how well this has worked but also a little crazy.  It takes someone literally trying to overcompensate twice as much from what they think “feels right” in order to get them to squat correctly.  I’ll ask the person how that felt and they will always say “really weird!” My immediate response is well that’s actually exactly what it should look like and eventually the more you do it the more it will start to feel right.

I encourage you to have someone look at your squat who knows what they are doing or have someone record you so you can make sure you are squatting correctly.  If your knees aren’t tracking correctly you probably won’t get much stronger and you will also be setting yourself up for injuries later on.

Hope this helps!