Compound movements will always be king. I stress it in all of my writing and programs, and no matter how you spin the argument, you must recruit more muscle to build more muscle. The beginner lifter, or the person struggling to add mass or strength should be focusing on compound movements.
That’s not to say that isolation movements and bodybuilding does not have its place. Quite the contrary in fact; you just need to know how to use isolation movements in your training to maximize your results.
The following situations are times where I incorporate isolation movements.
#1: Adding Pounds to Big Lifts
Accessory work is vital to improving your numbers on things like overhead press, squats, and deadlifts.
A big part of that is isolating the primary and secondary movers on those lifts and building size and strength in them.
If you want to be a better presser, you have to build up your triceps and shoulders, so things like tricep pushdowns and front and side delt raises are great movements.
Want better squat and deadlift numbers? Glute ham raises and RDL’s are crucial to isolate your hamstrings.
This situation is, by far, the most prevalent time I and a lot of my Primal Strength Gym members use isolation, and we usually hit at least one isolation movement per training session.
#2: Direct Arm Work
Arms tend to respond well to higher-volume training, and while I train my arms indirectly through pull-ups, row variations, and heavy pressing, it may take some added sets of curl variations and tricep work (push-downs, dips, close-grip bench) to add mass to your arms.
I tend to do a lot of direct arm work on my lower body days, as opposed to upper body days where my arms already get a lot of indirect time under tension. I also use movements like light banded curl variations for tendon health and rehabilitation from strained and achy muscles.
#3: Bringing Up Weaknesses
If you are doing a lot of compound lifts, especially if you split your routines into an upper-lower split like I recommend, chances are you will need to incorporate some isolation movements to bring up neglected muscles, imbalances, and weaknesses.
Hamstrings are the prime example of this as it seems the vast majority of the population has weak hamstrings.
Upper back can be another common area, especially if you train a lot of compound movements. For example, outside of deadlifting and farmers carries, I have to be conscious to make sure my upper back is getting trained frequently enough. So at least once a week, I’m dedicating some time to isolate my upper back with face pull variations and even shrugs.
Those examples aside, directly targeting and isolating any muscle that is lagging behind in development is a great strategy if you aren’t getting the results you want from heavy compound lifts.
#4: Adding More Volume to Increase Hypertrophy
Sometimes, especially for more experienced lifters, the solution to build more muscle mass is to increase training volume. If you are doing a lot of compound movements and recruiting a ton of muscle, your physical and neurological exertion will be elevated, making it very difficult to increase your training volume effectively (and it’s stressful on your central nervous system (CNS)).
Isolation movements are a great way to introduce more volume into your training to try and produce mass gains and hypertrophy, without over-taxing your body and CNS.
All the best,