Are Isolation Exercises Really Worthless? Are biceps curls evil?

Isolation exercises tend to get massive hate from the majority of the fitness gurus out there, but quite frankly I think that that isolated single joint movements are just misunderstood.

What are the benefits of isolation exercises?


Well, the worth of isolation exercises is contained in the term – “isolation“. The main goal of isolated single joint movements is to work on a specific muscle directly. This is something that regular compound exercises do not allow.

For example, let’s say that you have weak biceps. While movements such as chin-ups and pull-ups obviously work the elbow flexors, adding biceps curls as additional assistance exercise for a couple of sets will work the weakness directly, without affecting other major muscle groups.

Biceps curls are actually extremely popular among arm wrestlers, powerlifters, baseball players and many other athletes who use the movement to condition the generally vulnerable biceps tendon as part of a rehab/prehab of the elbow joint.

Why do isolation exercises have bad reputation?

The main reasons why isolation exercises have bad reputation are as follows:

1. Isolation exercises are less stressful on the CNS (central nervous system) and people afraid of hard training stick with them.

Obviously, doing isolation exercises is much less stressful than performing heavy compound exercises. The stress and intensity of a heavy squat or deadlift cannot be replicated by something like calf raises or triceps pushdowns. Thus, there are more people doing the “easy” stuff.

In simple terms – isolation exercises are often associated with people who are not willing to train hard enough and would rather mess around with pink dumbbells, cables and lateral raises. However, it’s not the fault of the actual exercises. The people who overdose on them and use them wrong are to blame.

2. Isolation exercises progress slowly and do not look “EPIC”.

The dumbbell rack is not evil.

The dumbbell rack is not evil.

Adding 50 lbs to your biceps curls can take many years, if you are relatively strong. On the other hand, adding 50 lbs to your deadlift can happen much faster, sometimes in a few months. Deadlifting heavy also looks way more “alpha” than a boring bicep curl. session As a result not many people stick with isolation exercises long enough to get truly strong.

One of the reasons the true value of isolation exercises is rarely seen is the lack of programming when it comes to the “small stuff“. In order for everything to be truly optimal your assistance exercises must also follow some sort of progressive overload and cycling. Keeping the weight the same while only focusing on pushing the compound exercises upwards makes the additional assistance movements largely ineffective.

3. Fitness gurus hate isolation movements

In general, most fitness gurus seem to despise isolation exercises. Phrases such as “biceps curls are for sissies” are often made by the hardcore lifting community.

The isolation stuff is considered trademark of skinny teens and bodybuilders a.k.a. men who flex muscles in the mirror. Cool, except that similar attitude will not benefit anyone and will only limit your training.

How to use isolation exercises?

Isolation exercises should be used as assistance movements for rehab/prehab and a mean to develop a weak and lagging muscle group. For instance, a lot of people seem to like heavy biceps curls while working towards one arm chin-ups. Another popular example would be calf raises done by people who have weak lower legs. I don’t care how much you squat. Your lower leg is never a limiting factor when it comes to squatting, which means that exercise is not the most demanding movement for that part of the body. Adding a couple sets of calf raises WILL NOT send you to hell. Even if you have genetically bad calves when it comes to growth (high calves), calf raises are still a pretty decent exercise to prevent some injuries around the ankles.

The examples are literally endless. The main rule, however, never changes – isolation exercises are meant to address a very specific problem. Think of isolation movements as applying skin treatment to a very specific area of your body which has been reporting malfunction. A good example would be those creams made specifically for your hands.

Should I perform isolation exercises for high reps?

It really depends on the exercise and why you are doing it. For example, performing heavy rotator cuff exercises seems like a bad move while heavy biceps curls could be fine. There is not a straight answer to this question. Your training goals and current situation will determine the proper course of action.

Is it true that doing isolation exercises will mess your recovery for the big compound movements?

It’s possible, but only if you do an extremely high volume and too many exercises. If you keep everything in check, a couple sets of biceps curls will hardly destroy you before your next bench press session for example. If you are following one of those simplistic 5×5 routines, don’t be afraid to do some isolation work, but don’t kill yourself. There is a threshold which should never be crossed.

Can you give me an example of isolation exercises for my arms?

In general, I prefer using dumbbells for biceps training because the barbell, even the EZ curl bar, tend to cause wrist pain. Dumbbells allow you to find a plane of movement which suits your joint mobility and flexibility. Thus, I would say standing or sitting biceps curls done with full range of motion are a decent biceps assistance.

When it comes to triceps training I prefer PJR pullovers because they are less stressful to the elbow joint. However, I think dips are simply the best triceps exercises, although the movement is far from being isolation.

In conclusion

Don’t be afraid of isolation exercises. They are not evil at all. They are here to help you. That can only happen when you use them in the right context. When applied properly isolated therapy will only bring your game up. All of this makes isolation exercises far from worthless.

Here’s a question for the haters of isolation movements?

Do you consider your toothbrush worthless too. After all, its main purpose is to isolate the bacteria in your mouth and remove it.

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