Isolation Exercises For Every Muscle Group

Updated: Jun 26

Introduction | Upper body isolation exercises | Lower body isolation exercises

A picture of the 10 best isolation exercises.

In this article we’ve pulled together some of the best isolation exercises for the major muscle groups. For ease of access, the isolation exercises have been compiled in an upper body to lower body order.


Also, each of the isolation exercises features a list of the primary and secondary muscles engaged. This way, when you have identified an exercise, you’ll know exactly which muscles it works.


Inspiration and ideas for the following best isolation exercises were taken from Arnold Schwarzenegger's The New Encylopedia of Modern Bodybuilding and Frederic Delaviers' Strength Training Anatomy. Both high informative sources of exercise and training information.


How to use these isolation exercises

The structure of this article makes it useful for a number of applications. For example, you could use the isolation exercises as a reference guide. When you need an exercise to target a specific muscle, you can consult the guide and quickly locate the one most appropriate for your training needs.


Alternatively, you could use the isolation exercises to create a workout. Either arrange them into an upper-body / lower-body workout or create a whole-body routine.


Fitness benefits of isolation exercises

Isolation exercises have received a bad rap from puritanical fitness trainers. The argument is that isolation exercises are for vanity training and bodybuilders. There is some truth to this. After all, why perform an exercise that targets just one muscle when you can perform a compound exercise that targets several?


However, though isolation exercises are ineffective at developing functional fitness and whole-body strength, they can confer a number of benefits.


Isolation exercises are best for beginners

Because isolation exercises are performed in a controlled manner, typically with low resistances, they are ideal for beginner trainers. Slow, simple movements such as shoulder raises and biceps curls offer a safe exercise learning experience for those just starting out on their fitness journey.


In contrast, compound exercises require the coordination of multiple muscle groups through two or more transitional phases. To perform such complex movements requires considerable technical expertise. Consequently, compound exercises put the inexperienced trainer at greater risk of injury and thus should be avoided until they have developed a level of competency.

Isolation exercises can help injury rehabilitation

In addition, for the same reason above, isolation exercises can provide injured people with a training alternative. A person suffering from a lower back injury will likely have to avoid big compound movements. Even with relatively low weights, deadlifts, squats, and hang cleans place a lot of stress on the body.


Isolation exercises are a lot less stressful. Consequently, they can enable that injured person to maintain a training routine. It's for this reason that isolation exercises are used extensively in injury rehabilitation programmes.


Isolation exercises benefits
  • Enable you to target a specific muscle

  • Are effective at sculpting a defined physique

  • Offer a safe learning ground for beginner trainers

  • Can be used for injury rehabilitation


Upper body isolation exercises

Bicep curl

Purpose of exercise: to isolate and engage both heads of the biceps brachii


The bicep curl can be performed in a few different ways. Typically, the dumbbells are curled simultaneously. However, as Arnold Schwarzenegger reminds us in The Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding, there ‘is a variation of a Dumbbell Curl in which you curl the dumbbells alternately, first one arm and then the other.’


This variation, he goes on to counsel, gives ‘you that extra bit of isolation, allowing you to concentrate your energy on one arm at a time and to minimise cheating.’


Execution

  • Stand in a neutral position holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides.

  • The palms of the hands face inwards.

  • Curl the dumbbells either simultaneously or singularly.

  • Remember to rotate your hand 90 degrees once the dumbbell passes the leg.

  • When curling, ensure to keep the elbows steady at your waist.

  • Watch the video demonstration.

Barbell preacher curl

Purpose of exercise: to develop both heads of the biceps but especially the lower end.


If you are unfamiliar with the ‘preacher’ bit of the name of this exercise, it merely refers to the position in which the arms are fixed when curling. In contrast, when performing a conventional barbell curl the arms float at the sides. This enables you to cheat by using the body to assist the curl, either by generating momentum or leaning back.


However, by applying the preacher method, the arms are locked in place against a bench. Consequently, the entirety of the load is lifted by the biceps. Most bicep curl variations can be performed as a preacher.


To do so you must fix your arms into position either with a specific preacher bench or an ‘arm blaster’. ‘Preacher Curls are an even stricter movement than regular Barbell Curls,’ (The Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding).


Execution

  • Position yourself by pressing your chest against the cushioned pad and fixing your arms over the preacher bench.

  • Grasp the barbell and support it at your front with a slight bend at the elbows.

  • Under control, smoothly curl the barbell until right-angles form at the elbow joints.

  • To increase the effectiveness of the preacher curl, squeeze the biceps for two seconds at peak contraction.


triceps extension

Purpose of exercise: to engage all three sections of the triceps from the elbow to the lats.


Triceps extensions come in many different shapes and sizes. For example, this one exercise can be performed lying down, standing up, with a barbell, dumbbells, or cables. Irrespective of how you chose to do them, extensions are one of the best isolation exercises for targeting the triceps.


The following execution explanation is for lying triceps extensions as described in The Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding.


Execution

  • Lie on a workout bench with your head just off the end. Your knees are bent, and feet are planted at the opposite end of the bench.

  • Take a close-grip on a barbell (preferably an E-Z curl bar) and position it directly above your face.

  • Slowly and under control lower the bar ensuring to hinge at the elbow. The deltoids are firing isometrically to fix the shoulder joint in position.

  • When the barbell dips below the back of your head, pause momentarily before pressing the bar up.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


shoulder raises

Purpose of exercise: to engage all three heads of the deltoid but, specifically, to develop the sharpness of the medial head.


Standing lateral shoulder raises, performed either with a pair of dumbbells or cables, ‘isolates, almost exclusively, the medial deltoids, which are composed of several pennate heads converging on the humerus,’ (Strength Training Anatomy).


The one limitation with the standing lateral raise is the tendency to cheat by using body mechanics to generate momentum through the range of movement. But ‘this can be avoided,’ Schwarzenegger reminds us, ‘if the same exercise is done in a seated position,’ (The Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding).


Execution

  • Holding a pair of dumbbells at your front, adopt a neutral body position: feet shoulder-width, knees bent, back straight, eyes fixed forward.

  • In this posture, the dumbbells are resting against the upper part of the quads.

  • In one fluid movement sweep the dumbbells up level with the shoulders.

  • As you do so ensure to keep the palms of the hands facing down to the floor. If you tilt the palms forward or back this will shift the emphasis of the exercise to the anterior and posterior deltoids respectively.

  • There is no need to take the dumbbells above the shoulder line.

  • Return under control and repeat.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Chest isolation exercises

Cable flys

Purpose of exercise: to shape and sculpt the pectorals.

If you want to sculpt a super-chiselled chest you need to start including cable flys in your routine. Though chest flys can be performed with a range of different exercise equipment – dumbbells and training bands – cables engage the muscles most effectively.


‘Doing a flying motion using cables to provide resistance,’ Schwarzenegger says, ‘is a specialised exercise that works the centre of the pecs and brings out those impressive cross striations, as well as develops the middle and lower pectoral region,’ (The Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding).


Execution

  • Prior to starting the exercise, ensure to select a weight appropriate for your strength. Because the pectorals are in a stretched position and under significant tension, a relatively light load is usually enough. When performing flys for the first time, practice with an unloaded cable.

  • Set the cables at about shoulder height.

  • Standing between the cables, grasp the handles and step forward a little.

  • With your arms spread wide and parallel to the floor, there should be a stretch in the chest.

  • At the elbow joint, there is a shallow bend. The angle of the elbow joint should not change throughout the movement.

  • In one smooth movement fly the hands together.

  • When they meet directly in front of your chest, squeeze them together for a second or two before returning to the start position.

  • Watch the video demonstration.

Back isolation exercises

face pulls

Purpose of exercise: to develop the definition of the upper back muscles – more specifically the trapezius.


Face pulls are widely used by bodybuilders and vanity trainers to sculpt and shape the muscles of the upper back. The exercise primarily targets the mid-section of the trapezius. But it also brings out definition in other back muscles as well – such as the rhomboids and infraspinatus.


Face pulls are typically performed on a cable machine. However, if you don’t have access to a cable machine, you can face pull with a resistance band. Also, the exercise can be performed isometrically by pulling on a rope.


Though the following description is for cable face pulls, the mechanics are the same for the two variations suggested above.


Execution

  • Stand in front of a cable machine holding the rope attachment level with your face.

  • Before executing the exercise, it helps to step back a little from the machine so that the cable is under tension.

  • Organise your posture so that you are comfortable and have formed a stable base. If you are going heavy, you will need to place one foot forward otherwise you’ll be pulled off balance.

  • Under control, pull the rope ends toward your face.

  • As you do so splay the rope slightly by widening your arms. This enables you to pull the rope past your face.

  • When your hands are level with your ears, pause for a two-second squeeze before returning to the start position.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Lat pulldowns

Purpose of exercise: develops the strength and shape of the latissimus dorsi.


The lat pulldown is a brilliant mid-back building. Though primarily used to sculpt defined muscles, it can also build strength. Bruce Lee used this exercise extensively in his workouts to forge his impressive ‘wings’.


Execution

  • First, ensure that the lat pull machine is set up correctly. Adjust the leg supports so that you can wedge yourself in securely. Also, check the weight stack to make sure that it is not too heavy.

  • Grasp the curved bar taking a wide grip. It’s important to space your hands equally across the bar. A seemingly obvious teaching point, but many make this mistake.

  • When your hands are positioned sit down and wedge your legs under the supports. This will stop you from being pulled up out of your seat during the lift.

  • Keep the back straight and your eyes fixed on the bar.

  • In one smooth movement pull the bar to your chin. When doing so, keep the elbows pointing to the side – don’t allow them to close together.

  • Return the bar under control and repeat.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Stiff leg deadlifts

Purpose of exercise: to increase the strength of the glutes and erector spinae.


Other benefits of the stiff leg deadlift include:

  • Places primary emphasis on the glutes and erector spinae

  • Increases strength in the major muscles of the legs and back

  • Develops power in the posterior chain

  • Improves hamstring flexibility

  • Improves posture

  • Stimulates growth across a wide range of muscle groups

  • Improves sports performance


Execution

  • To get the Olympic barbell into position, execute the first phase of the standard deadlift.

  • Adopt a shoulder-width stance.

  • Lock a slight bend in the knees.

  • Under control, hinge forward at the hips until the bar is level with the upper knee.

  • To start with, constrict the range of movement (ROM). When you feel more confident with the exercise, increase the ROM until the bar is level with the midpoint of your shins.

  • Pause momentarily, and return to the upright position.

  • As you stand erect focus on executing a smooth movement.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Lower body isolation exercises

Quad extensions

Purpose of exercise: to isolate the ‘four heads’ of the quadriceps – rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and vastus intermedius.


Delavier, the author of Strength Training Anatomy, endorses the quad extensions. ‘This,’ he tells us, ‘is the best quadriceps isolation movement.’ He goes on to suggest how to modify your posture to enhance the effectiveness of the exercise.


‘The more you incline the back of the seat, the more your pelvis is tilted backwards. The rectus femoris will then be stretched and will be more intensely worked as you raise your legs,’ (Strength Training Anatomy – p86).


Execution

  • Before starting the exercise ensure that the machine is set up correctly.

  • The roller pads should be positioned low down the leg, just above your trainers or over your laces.

  • Seated in the quad extension machine, the inside of the knees should be over the cusp of the bench.

  • Having selected a light weight, proceed to perform the exercise.

  • From the 90-degree start position, smoothly raise both legs to a little under 180 degrees. Focus on applying even force through both quads.

  • If you feel one leg is dominating the movement, consider switching to the single-leg variation.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Single leg quad extension

The single leg quad extension engages the four heads of the quadriceps just like its double-leg big brother. Also, the setup and exercise execution are the same. So, this all begs the question, why bother performing the single leg version?


Single leg quad extensions enable you to isolate each leg separately. This prevents one leg from over-compensating which in turn rectifies strength balances.


Hamstring curls

Purpose of exercise: to develop muscular definition in the primary muscles of the hamstring – specifically the semitendinosus and biceps femoris longus.


Hamstring curls are conventionally performed on an exercise machine. But, as the saying goes, there’s more than one way to perform a hamstring curl.


If you do not have access to the necessary exercise machinery, you can use a resistance band instead. Yes, I’ll admit, it can be a bit of a fiddle to set up the band. But the payoff is worth it – that is, of course, if you’re adamant about isolating the hamstring muscles.


Because an explanation is not really required for the machine version, the following explanation is for the resistance band single-leg hamstring curl variation.


Execution

  • First, fasten your resistance band to a stable object about 6-inches above the floor.

  • Place a weightlifting bench or stool a couple of feet in front of the resistance band.

  • This is the fiddly bit.

  • Before sitting down, loop the resistance band around your ankle. There should be tension in the band as it pulls against your Achilles.

  • Extend the leg out as far as it will go before the band slips from the back of your foot.

  • Now, under control, contract the hamstring and pull your foot back. Pause momentarily before extending your leg.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Calf raises

Purpose of exercise: to increase the overall size of the calves while also developing strength and shape.


To develop the ‘overall mass of the calves’, Schwarzenegger recommends standing calf raises (The Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding). To maximise the effectiveness of the exercise, he suggests that once you have exhausted the muscle with heavy lifts to ‘finish off the set with a series of partial movements to increase the intensity of the exercise.’


Execution

  • First, set a fixed-rail barbell on a smith machine at shoulder height.

  • Place a raised block under the barbell. It’s wise to test the setup before initiating the lift.

  • Stand with the balls of your feet on the block ensuring that the insides are parallel. The heels hang over the edge of the block.

  • Position the barbell on the traps as you would when performing a squat.

  • Un-hook the barbell and, if needs be, make a few minor adjustments to your position.

  • Lower the heels then raise them up through the full range of movement.

  • Pause at the top position and squeeze at peak contraction.

  • Watch the video demonstration.

 

When you’ve mastered these isolation exercises, it’s time to work your way through this compound exercise list.

For more exercise ideas and tutorials, see our Exercise Archive page.

 

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This image shows the Hungry4Fitness book of circuits and workouts volume two. Inside the image it identifies the key features of the book which include: Over 70 fully customisable circuits and workouts suitable for all levels of fitness and ability; 4-Week Functional Fitness Training Programme; How to create your own circuits and workouts including essential training principles; Key exercise explanations and tutorials; A complete guide to fitness testing; The 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge; CrossFit-style training sessions including EMOM, AMRAP, and HIIT workouts; An illustrated, step-by-step guide to stretching.
 
In this text box it says: As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance! Blog Author: Adam Priest, former Royal Marines Commando, is a personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.

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