Do You Need Isolation Exercises?

You may not be familiar with the term isolation exercise, but it refers to a very common type of exercise that’s typically included in traditional strength-training programs. If you’re a busy person looking to make the most of your workout time, it’s important to know what isolation exercises are and when they are appropriate to use.

What Are Isolation Exercises?

Isolation exercises are strength-training movements that require the use of only a single joint to perform; some common examples are biceps curls, leg extensions, and triceps pulldowns. In most commercial gyms, a large percentage of the machines on the floor are for some type of isolation exercise.

Too Many Options

Thousands of isolation exercise options exist, which can make picking exercises for your workout program overwhelming. Too many options can encourage people to include many more exercises in their routine than needed. When it comes to isolation exercises, the key questions are which ones are really necessary and are there better alternatives?

Yes, there is a better option than isolation exercises: compound exercises. The downside to isolation exercises is that, because they use only one joint, they work a relatively small group of muscles. This means that many isolation exercises are required to exercise the entire body, resulting in longer workouts and more complicated programs.

Compound-Exercise Benefits

Compound exercises such as the squat or bench press use multiple joints to work a larger group of muscles. For instance, with a leg squat, you primarily use the knee and hip joints during the movement, which engages most of the lower-body muscles. Compare that to an isolation leg exercise such as the leg extension, which works fewer leg muscles because it requires moving only the knee joint.

The ultimate benefit of compound exercises is that fewer movements are required to exercise the whole body. You can work every major muscle group with a strength-training program that includes the following basic compound movements:

  • A horizontal pushing motion
  • A horizontal pulling motion
  • A vertical pushing and pulling motion
  • A hip dominant pulling motion
  • A quad dominant leg push

The Drawbacks of Isolation Exercises

If your workout program is based on a high number of isolation exercises, it will require two or three times as many exercises, making your workouts significantly longer.

In addition to much longer workouts, isolation-based routines are more tedious and time-consuming to prepare for because they involve setting up and adjusting many more pieces of equipment. If you plan to exercise at home, which is generally a good approach for busy people, isolation-based programs tend to require buying more equipment that takes up more space in your home gym.

The Only Isolation Exercise You Need

Despite the many drawbacks of isolation exercises, one type isn’t advisable to skip: abdominal exercise. While some compound exercises, such as the bench press or squat, provide some ab activation, a strong case can be made for doing something more specific to strengthen your midsection muscles. Doing isolated ab work is important because ab muscles help stabilize your spine during movement; they are critical for stability and core strength.

How do you choose the best ab exercise for you? Should you do planks, yoga poses, or Pilates or buy an ab machine from an infomercial? No. The simplest and best choice is the good old-fashioned abdominal crunch. While there are many novel and trendy options, a 2014 study done by the American Council on Exercise found that the standard crunch involves more overall ab muscle activation than just about any other ab exercise.

Technique and Resistance Required

Meeting two basic requirements will help you get the most out of a crunch. The first is that the abdominal crunch must be done with proper technique. When crunching, keep your lower back flat on the ground throughout the motion and really focus on pausing and squeezing your abs when you’re at full contraction before returning to the starting position.

The other requirement for getting the most out of a crunch is keeping the exercise challenging by adding resistance. It’s common wisdom to do hundreds or thousands of crunches, but this is not effective if your goal is building strength.

Like any muscle group, your ab muscles need about thirty to ninety seconds of challenging work in each set to get stronger. It’s best to aim for three sets of (roughly) six to twelve repetitions with significant resistance that brings you near muscular failure on the last few reps.

Increasing Difficulty

If you can do fifteen or more proper crunches without struggling, it’s time to increase the resistance if you want to continue improving. One easy way to do this is holding a pair of weighted dumbbells above your head while doing the movement. Just adding two and a half or five pounds of extra resistance can make the crunch much more challenging.

Another option for increasing the challenge of crunches is doing them on a decline bench, an exercise known as a decline curl-up. To do curl-ups effectively, your bench needs some type of anchor to hold your feet in place. You can further increase the challenge of curl-ups by holding a dumbbell or weight plate against your chest while performing the movement.


For busy people wanting to improve their health and fitness and make exercise a regular habit, it’s usually best to steer clear of isolation exercises because they create too much friction—the inefficient use of time and energy. The key to building long-term exercise habits is eliminating inefficiencies, and primarily relying on compound exercises for strength training is a great way to do this.

Remember, the one exception is for abdominal exercises. Do something to strengthen your abs for stability and spine health but keep it simple. A basic ab crunch with challenging resistance is all that’s needed to isolate your midsection and make you stronger.