How To Progress Better At Isolation Exercises

The key to getting results from your workout is progressive overload. If you’re not increasing the demands being placed on your body in some form over time, your body won’t be improving.

With weight training, the most basic and common way of increasing those demands is by increasing the amount of weight we lift.

So once we’re capable of lifting 100lbs on some exercise, we go up to 105lbs. At some point after that, 110lbs. This then continues as often as we can (while keeping good form intact) and for as long as we can. Or at least for as long as we need to for our desired results to be achieved.

If you’ve been a reader of mine long enough, this was already obvious information to you (and that alone instantly makes you smarter than half the people in your gym).

But Wait… There’s One Big Catch

However, you may have noticed my use of the phrase “while keeping good form intact.” This is crucial. You don’t want to end up sacrificing your form in order to add weight.

Because what you’ll often see are people who think they’ve gotten stronger, but in reality their form has just gotten slightly worse to compensate for the slightly heavier weight.

Now they’re using too much momentum, or no longer going all the way up or down, or they’re swinging the weight up and/or just letting it drop back down, bouncing the weight, lifting their back/ass/whatever off the bench/seat or any number of other things people do when their form goes to crap.

What SHOULD happen instead is that the same good form that was being used with the previous weight remains intact, only now it’s with a weight that’s a bit heavier and maybe harder to lift. Here’s an example…

Let’s say you bench press 200lbs for 3 sets of 6-8 reps. Now let’s say you got 8 reps in the first, 7 in the second, and 6 in the third. Hooray! Your set/rep goal in this case (3×6-8) has been met and you’re ready to up the weight to 205lbs next time you bench. And when that time comes around, it’s pretty normal for you to get something like 7, 6, 4.

Your form was still good, you just couldn’t do as many reps. This is perfectly fine and normal of course. It just means your goal is to add reps. So you may get 7, 7, 5 the next time. Then 8, 7, 5 the time after. Then 8, 7, 6 after that at which point you’d go up to 210lbs the time after that and repeat this process.

Once again, if you’re a regular reader of mine, you know this already. However…

It’s Not Quite The Same With Isolation Exercises

The above scenario used the bench press as the example exercise. And in my experience, this is pretty typical of how successful progression often goes. Not just on the bench press, but with most compound exercises (various presses, rows, pull-ups/pull-downs, squats, deadlifts, etc.).

But with isolation exercises, things don’t usually go as smoothly.

What I mean is, adding slightly more weight to a compound exercise will usually just cause you to get slightly fewer reps than you were getting with the previous weight. BUT, your good form will (or at least should) still remain exactly the same.

But if you do the same thing with certain isolation exercises (e.g. lateral raises), you’ll often find that the smallest weight increase can sometimes make it impossible to keep good form intact.

Why Does This Happen?

Well, I can think of 3 main reasons…

1. The Mechanics Of The Exercise

Compound exercises are big multi-joint movements requiring various muscle groups to play significant roles in moving and stabilizing the weight throughout the lift. Isolation exercises such as bicep curls, tricep extensions and lateral raises are just these little single-joint exercises that mainly target one muscle group, often a small one.

2. The Increase Is MUCH More Noticeable

Because of what I just mentioned, you’ll always be lifting significantly more weight (and progressing much more often) on compound exercises than isolation exercises.

So even though you may bench press or deadlift hundreds of pounds and do lateral raises with just light dumbbells, it’s the lateral raises that are going to feel the biggest difference when you add 5lbs to it. The percentage of weight that has been added is just WAY more for the lighter isolation exercise than it is for the heavier compound.

Think about it. Let’s say you can bench press 200lbs for 10 good reps and do lateral raises with 25lb dumbbells for 10 good reps.

Now let’s say you increased your bench press by 5lbs (a 2.5% jump) and tried to bench 205. You’ll still be able to lift it for good reps, maybe just not 10 of them.

But with an exercise like lateral raises, going up those same 5lbs to 30lb dumbbells (a 20% jump!) won’t just cause you to fall a rep or two short of 10… there’s a good chance you may not be able to do a single rep with equally good form.

It’s the same 5lbs in both cases, but it just represents a much larger increase in terms of percentages when going from 25lbs to 30lbs than 200lbs to 205lbs. You can bet your ass you’re going to feel it, often to a surprisingly form-destroying degree.

3. Accumulated Fatigue

In addition to all of the above, isolation exercises are almost always going to be minor parts of our training program that are left for the end of the workout after the more important and demanding stuff has been done.

The thing about this is, when we progress and work our asses off on the compound exercises that came earlier in the workout, we will sometimes find that we’re more fatigued when it’s time for the isolation exercises that come later.

This is fine of course, as the other way around would be WAAAAY more of a problem. But what it means is that performance on those later isolation exercises can vary. We may have curled those dumbbells for 12 reps last week, but after adding 5lbs to our pull-ups and rows earlier in this same workout this week, our biceps (and grip) are more fatigued by the time we get to curls and maybe we can only get 11 reps this time.

Now, if 12 reps was your rep goal for curls, you would have actually increased the weight this workout. So whereas you couldn’t even get the same 12 reps with the same weight from last time, you would have attempted doing it with an even heavier weight this week.

Here’s How To Do It All Better

As you can see, progressing at isolation exercises isn’t quite as straight forward as progressing at compound exercises. The good news is that there are 2 methods that I use to fix that…

1. Confirm It… A Few Times

With compound exercises, you’d typically go up in weight the first time you reach your set/rep goal for a given exercise. So if you’re trying for 3 sets of 6-8, and you get 8, 7, 6… you’re ready to add 5lbs next time.

This is good.

But, I DON’T want you to do this with isolation exercises. I don’t want you to go up in weight the first time your set/rep goal is met. Instead, I want you repeat that same amount of sets/reps on that exercise with that same weight 1 or 2 more times… maybe more.

There’s 2 reasons for this. First, to confirm that you can consistently hit those numbers with perfect form. Second, to allow your body to get stronger/better at lifting that same weight for those same reps (essentially progressing without progressing). Here’s an example…

  • You may get 2 sets of 12 reps for tricep press-downs one week, but those last reps were really grinded out and hard to finish… you just barely got them (and maybe you cheated a bit on that last rep or 2).
  • Next time maybe they were a bit smoother… less of a grind. Definitely less cheating too, but it still doesn’t exactly feel you’d be able to keep this same solid form intact if more weight was added. Close, but not yet.
  • And the time after that? A LOT smoother. They felt awesome this time! Stronger than ever.
  • And the time after that? It felt like you could have done 13 reps with perfect form! Now it sounds like you’re ready to add weight.

Adding weight at this point rather than the very first time you hit the intended set/rep goal will allow your transition to the next heaviest weight to go a whole lot smoother, especially in terms of not having to sacrifice form to use that new heavier weight.

It’s also worth noting that while the above example took 4 workouts to reach that point, it can certainly take less. It can sometimes take more, too.

2. Push For More Reps By Extending The Rep Range

My second suggestion is something I’ve been doing more and more lately with exercises like skull crushers, lateral raises, curls and press-downs. And that is, going for more reps and exceeding the prescribed rep range.

Here’s an example. Most of the isolation exercises in The Muscle Building Workout Routine are prescribed as 2 sets of 10-12. Let’s extend that to 2×10-15. So…

  • Let’s say you get 12, 10 with a given weight. Instead of increasing the weight, progress further at reps instead.
  • Go for 13, 11 next time.
  • Then maybe 13, 12 the time after that.
  • Then maybe 14, 13 the next time.
  • Then maybe 15, 13 the time after that.
  • At that point, add weight.

Since you worked up as high as 15 reps, adding weight now will often feel way better and allow you to end up in the intended 10-12 rep range with the new heavier weight while still keeping perfect form intact.

Not to mention, isolation exercises seem to be better suited for rep increases rather than weight increases anyway. They’re also better suited for higher reps than lower reps.

So with this type of set up where you’re pushing further for reps, you get a chance to use this to your advantage and make more progress on these types of exercises than you normally would have if you were only looking to add weight as often as possible (which, with isolation movements, isn’t very often).

Can’t We Do This With Compound Exercises Too?

Yup, you can. Both of these methods can work for progressing at compound exercises as well.

However, for most peopleI wouldn’t recommend it.

I just think it would be overkill and end up slowing your progress unnecessarily. In my experience, isolation exercises are the ones that will benefit most from this sort of slower, hand-holding style of weight progression.

As long as you’re keeping your form solid, ignoring your ego and not lifting like an idiot, you won’t have anywhere near as big of a problem adding 5lbs to an exercise like the bench press or deadlift as you would going up to the next heaviest dumbbells for lateral raises or bicep curls.

So for compounds, I’d still recommend increasing the weight the first time you successfully get all of your sets to reach their prescribed rep goal with good form.

But with isolation exercises, I think you’ll do a whole lot better incorporating the above methods and not jumping up to the next weight too quickly. Your form, your joints and your results will likely benefit from it.

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