How to Do Isolation Exercises the Right Way

Marine competes in military press.
Sgt. Justin Mears, retail manager, Marine Corps Logistics Battalion Barstow, competes in the military press during the Battle Skills Challenge of the High Intensity Tactical Training Ultimate Athlete Championship at Del Valle Field, aboard the Combat Center, Sept. 15, 2015. (Lance Cpl. Connor Hancock/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Many people like to go to the weight room and start performing the standard isolation exercises by either using a machine weight system or free weights. Afterward, they do a 20- to 30-minute cycle of cardiovascular exercise.

Then, after a normal day of picking up groceries in/out of the car and into the house and some moderate yard work, they find themselves injured. This injury usually involves the lower back.

I have found after a few decades of training that the body performs best when it is accustomed to movements, not joint isolation exercises. There are training programs out there that focus on core development, yet really perform standard isolation exercises like crunches, sit-ups and some back extensions.

Now do not get me wrong. Isolation exercises have their place, as they are safe, effective ways to train muscles that need rehabilitating. They are also a great way to build a foundation of training that inevitably should lead to tougher movement exercises.

Check out how you can turn a biceps curl, military press and triceps extension into one steady movement involving several joints and balance if you try it standing on one leg. I call this one Multi-Joint Dumbbell #1, or MJDB#1: Biceps curl, military press, triceps extension = 1 rep.

Now add in a squat to the exercise and a real-life movement of picking up something off the floor and lifting it over your head. This develops into MJDB#2: Stand, squat, biceps curl, military press, triceps extension = 1 rep.

Even more challenging is the MJDB#3, where you add in a squat thrust and some pushups: Stand, squat thrust, push-up (up/down), squat thrust, stand, biceps curl, military press, triceps extension = 1 rep.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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