Q: What is an isolation exercise?

RONNIE COLEMAN: Every exercise I do is a favorite isolation exercise, but it’s also a favorite mass-building exercise. I don’t distinguish between the two. My purpose as a bodybuilder is to ensure that every muscle has received its optimum amount of training by the time I’ve finished my workout. That, to me, is isolation.

Somewhere along the way, bodybuilders began to define isolation in what I call negative terms; i.e., the removal of all supporting muscles from the movement, so that only a single target muscle is allowed to contract. If other muscles are involved, they either prevent the target muscle from doing the work or they cause the body to fatigue before the target muscle is fully exercised.

I prefer a more positive approach. Instead of trying to isolate a muscle, I think in terms of trying to isolate maximum forces into a muscle. With concentration and proper control of the movement, I command supporting muscles to make the target muscle work even harder. Here are some of my favorite exercises.

  • BENCH PRESSES: If your back is pressed flat and motionless against a bench so that only your arms move, your chest muscles are unable to expand and contract through their full range of motion, as they should during this movement. Instead, as the bar descends, lift up your chest to meet it, while pulling your shoulder blades together under your back. This stretches your pecs as wide as possible, so that, as you press upward, more of your chest muscles are activated over a greater range of motion. Involvement of your lats and torso also gives your pecs more power to handle more weight, thus developing more chest mass.
  • STANDING BARBELL CURLS: Since this movement enables you to curl the most weight, all the muscles in your biceps groups are called upon to cooperate, thereby producing a synergistic effect in each of those muscles. Go heavy with these, but start the contraction from the bottom without swinging the weight, then squeeze harder as you curl. You’ll feel the burn all the way from your brachialis muscles into the split of your biceps peaks. You’ve just isolated maximum power into all of your biceps muscles.
  • SQUATS: This is the greatest — and only — thigh (note: thigh, not quad) exercise, because it requires the coordinated strength of every muscle in the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves and midsection complexes. More muscle-building power is isolated into each of those areas than is possible with exercises targeting those muscles individually.

Apply this concept to every exercise in your workout. An attempt to isolate a muscle may result in isolating it from its maximum amount of work. Instead, think of isolating maximum forces to go where you want them to go.