strength training

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:

How to Write a Warm-Up for Strength Training

Walk into any commercial gym and here are the various warm-ups folks execute: -       Swing the arms back and forth

-       Quad stretches

-      What warm-up?

What if you could enhance your workouts, prevent injuries, and perhaps strike up a conversation with that cute guy or girl in just 10 minutes? (Well, no promises on that last one.)  The easy, albeit not-so-sexy, answer is: perform a dynamic warm-up! I get it, warm-ups are boring and unimpressive, but when done right, can go a long way to increasing the benefits of strength training and extending your lifting career.

What’s the point of performing a dynamic warm-up anyway?

  1. Increase bodytemperature- cold muscles, joints, and ligaments are more likely to get angry and sustain an injury.
  2. Prepare the body for movement, part 1- especially if you fly a desk all day long, the joints are probably a little gunky. Warm-ups help restore range of motion (link for temp loss of ROM) lost during periods of lack of motion.
  3. Prepare body for movement, part 2- exercises employed in warm-ups can help “groove” the nervous system for certain movements, making the body more efficient, which in turn allows it to hoist heavier weights. For example, a quadruped rock can prime the nervous system for hip hinging or squatting patterns.
  4. Activate dormant muscles- along the same lines as point #2, prolonged positions (i.e. sitting) can reduce the function or certain muscle groups, either through changes in muscle length or tension. A classic example is, prolonged sitting tends to shut down the glutes and tighten the hip flexors.; supremely unhelpful when trying to deadlift massive loads from the floor. If you want the maximum benefit, you need the muscles turned on!
  5. iYou look like a Jedi- true story: the first time I saw someone going through a dynamic warm-up (my to-be husband actually) I thought he was doing tai chi or some other marital art thingamabob.

Right, so you’re convinced you need to have a dynamic warm up before hitting the weights, but what do you do?

Let’s think in *very* general terms, everyone needs:

Correct breathing mechanics

Hip mobility

Glute activation

Thoracic spine (T-spine) mobility

Core stability

CNS (central nervous system) activation

Granted, depending on sport played, injury considerations, and whether or not you have laxity, the specific needs for each individual will be different. However, I’ve found that if you include exercises that encompass those components, you’ve got a pretty solid warm-up that will take care of 90% of the demands for general fitness preparation.

Here are some sample exercises geared toward the above mentioned characteristics:

90/90 Breathing

What it’s good for: breathing mechanics. This is a good beginner breathing drill if you or your client is having a hard time attaining 360-degree expansion of the diaphragm and rib cage.

I’m not going to delve into breathing today but if you want to know more (and you absolutely DO want to know more) you can read a few posts HERE and HERE (Also, indirectly, improving breathing mechanics will improve both t-spine and hip mobility.)

Crocodile Breathing

What it’s good for: breathing mechanics. Another good beginner drill as the floor provides tangible feedback for expansion.

Bulldog Hip Mobility

What it’s good for: hip mobility and core stability and a wee-bit of glute activation. Maintain a neutral spine and relatively stable hips as the knee moves around for maximum benefit.

Adductor Rockbacks

What it’s good for: hip mobility. Specifically this helps work out some of the gunk the adductors accumulate. If you don’t know what I mean, try a few rockbacks and you’ll instantly know where your adductors are. These bad boys are the “groin” in groin pulls and knotty, nasty adductors are more susceptible to pulls. Keep ‘em happy by rocking!

Half-Kneeling Hip Flexor Mob

What it’s good for: hip mobility and (indirectly) glute activation. This one, as the name implies, targets the hip flexors (front of the hip). Tight hip flexors can wreck havoc on pelvic position- which can set you up for back injuries or hamstring pulls- and, delightfully, shut down glute function through a process called reciprocal inhibition. Considering that most athletic endeavors require high-functioning glutes, this is a problem.

Glute Bridge

What it’s good for: glute activation. Wake up your sleepy glutes!

Quadruped Rockback

What it’s good for: hip mobility, core stability, CNS activation. Primarily, at SAPT, we use this to groove the hip hinge and teach neutral spine while moving. It also tells us if someone can squat to parallel or not by how their spine and hips move. Read more about that HERE.

Bird Dog

What it’s good for: glute activation, core stability, CNS activation.  Try to maintain a neutral spine and pretend you have to balance a glass of water on your butt. You’ll feel it in the right places. The cross-body movement (opposite arm and leg moving) fires up the CNS and solidifies coordination between the brain’s two hemispheres.

Spiderman with Overhead Reach

What it’s good for: hip and T-spine mobility. This hit everything and feels amazing. Make sure you follow your hand with your head so the neck isn’t cranked around.

Bear Crawl

What it’s good for: core stability and CNS activation. Similar to the bird dog, by maintaining a neutral spine and level hips, the core muscles have to fire and the brain has to coordinate the cross-body limb movement. (Technically, there’s a some glute action in there as they come in to stabilize the hips laterally.)

Yoga Pushup to T-Rotation

What it’s good for: All of the above. If you’re very limited on time, this is a great all-around movement to hit everything in one swoop. As a bonus, it grooves the pushup technique and encourages scapular movement- which is often non-existent in most people.

Stepback Lunge with Over-The-Shoulder Reach

What it’s good for: all of the above.  Plus, you’ll look like one cool cat doing this one.

Walking SL RDL with Reach (forward or backwards)

What it’s good for: all of the above. In addition to all the other benefits, this one will challenge your balance.  This is another exercise that can help groove a pattern, namely the hip hinge.

Putting it all together

Another note, I try to program warm-ups to progress- loosely anyway- from ground, to quadruped, to standing. For example:

Crocodile Breathingx 8 breaths

Quadruped Rockbacks x 10

DL Glute Bridge x 8, hold :02

Bulldog Hip Mobility x 8 each

Spiderman w/ OH Reach x 6/side, hold 1 breath

Bear Crawl x 8 yds

Walking SL RDL x 6/side

That whole thing should take about 5-8 minutes; a small commitment for big benefits!

The body is like a car: you can’t expect the car to speed off at 80 miles and hour on a cold day. Likewise, you can’t expect your body to jump into heavy strength work while it’s still cold. Prevent injuries and capitalize on your time under the bar by employing a proper warm-up before each training session.

Read This! Training Tips from a Toddler

A huge portion of my job boils down to this: teaching adolescents and adults alike how to move with the same precision and excitement that comes inborn for all of us, but that most of us lose over time. Forget about performance or a one-repetition squat maximum… I’m talking about re-teaching the basics of pushing and pulling. It sounds totally cliché, but watching my 2-year old daughter’s development across all platforms is truly a joy for me. I could, of course, talk endlessly about her cognitive development, but I’ll try to exhibit some self-control and keep this limited to the lessons we would all be well served to apply to ourselves in our physical training:

1. Focus: Last week Ryan and I picked up the kids from daycare and were walking home. As we crossed our neighborhood pool’s parking lot, Arabella suddenly shouted “FAST!” and took off running! I laughed to myself and thought how wonderful and meaningful that short exclamation was.

She wanted to run fast, got into the proper mindset, and sprinted. How simple this is! And yet, so often I have to coach athletes in the “how” of getting themselves into this same focused mindset.

2. Go through a full range of motion: Toddlers are notorious for having impeccable squatting form. Part of this is because they’re all built like power lifters (short legs, long torso, and the classic belly), but even after we lose that physique, full-ROM should be the RULE, not the EXCEPTION. You’ll be strong, stable, and have some pretty excellent mobility all around.

3. Pick-up heavy stuff: Arabella walked up to SAPT’s line of kettlebells on Sunday, grabbed a 10-pounder and carried it a few steps. It was definitely heavy for her, but she moved it a few feet and was satisfied.

4. Be athletic: Run, jump, kick, throw. Doing these things every once in a while is fun and inherently human.

5. Show enthusiasm for what you’re doing: Adults who pine all day about going to the gym at night are setting themselves up for failure. Accept that humans are meant to be active and strong. Once you do, maybe you’ll start looking forward to doing something other than being witness to your body wasting away.

The next time I squat, I’m considering yelling out “STRONG!” before the set – I may get a few looks, but I guarantee it would do me some good.