Isolation vs Movement Patterns

I have no real animosity toward isolation exercises, but in my past I found many people tried to use an isolation exercise to enhance a movement pattern. When I investigated why they picked a particular muscle group, let’s say the quads to address a fault where the trunk is wavering back and forth in the lunge, people often make a few assumptions. They automatically think it’s the front quad, that there’s no strength there.

gray-half-kneel We could do some other assessments or some other movements and show that it could be trunk control. It could be an ankle awareness problem. Maybe the person had multiple sprained ankles and just doesn’t have a lot of sensory information. We might need to train that first. Isolation in many cases follows an assumption of what we think is kinesiology.

Sometimes we see somebody who has a quad that’s two inches smaller on one side than the other. The hamstring seems to have adequate strength. There’s nothing wrong with the calf, but there had been an injury. The person learned how to move around without that quadriceps, and now when trying to do some form of squatting or lunging, it’s done without the quad.

There’s an actual medical term for this called ‘quad avoidance syndrome.’ But there are many other areas in the body we can selectively stop using if things haven’t been correctly managed after an injury.

In the instance above, there’s nothing else in the lunge pattern that needs to be trained. The person needs to reconnect the quad with the body map in the brain. We may actually start with some good ol’ knee extension exercises. Those knee extension machines are becoming more and more rare, but in this instance it would have a place.

The problem is that you have to be in a position to really test muscle weakness if you’re going to isolate. In this situation, isolating the quad would probably benefit the whole movement pattern. If you’ve had surgery, there’s a good chance if you’re my patient I may have to isolate something in your rehabilitation process.

We may also see a particular muscle group is deficient. When we look at function, everything else looks good. In that instance, it would be okay to isolate, but don’t assume isolation alone will make a movement pattern good.

long-beach-alwyn-cosgrove Remember, you have an excellent way to check it—just do some type of movement screening or look at the pattern after you’ve done a cycle of strengthening on that body part. You may have made it stronger, but that doesn’t mean it’s reintegrated into the map. Alwyn Cosgrove covers this well in our new Exercise Program DVD.

Now let’s talk about body sculpting for a minute. Maybe we have areas we’d like to see develop, and we have other areas that don’t seem to need a lot of work. For a lot of people, that means wanting to sculpt the body in a different way.

Here’s an interesting point: About 75% of the time, the worst movement patterns run right in line with the deficiencies we see in symmetry and development.

I worked with a lot of bodybuilders early in my career and it used to blow me away to discover the muscles they had the hardest time developing were also prime movers of patterns they didn’t do well.

I can spend time helping you re-pattern, and you can actually do something a little more functional and hit more muscle groups. Unless you’re at the elite level of bodybuilding, there’s a good chance we’re going to have greater gains working this movement-pattern deficiency.

Even in the extreme circumstances of wanting to develop a body part, the only way I’m going to agree with only doing isolation is if your movement screen is fairly clean and you have no movement deficiency.

We should still follow that movement map, and only after it’s clean would we attack a deficiency with specific isolation.

When we take a functional approach and really attack movement deficiencies with movement corrections, I would expect all kinds of new soreness you’ve never had because certain movement patterns were sort of turned off. They have the parking brake on a movement pattern.

Opening up movement patterns first changes everything. Once that muscle is activated, let’s go ahead and put it on isolation.

If you’re really intense on physique development, having somebody run a movement screen every two or three months when you’re training hard is not just this nice little test. It’s a GPS. It’ll point you in your next direction.

My big problem with isolation is not isolation. It’s the assumption that isolation will change movement without adequately checking strength to see if it’s only a single group problem, and without revisiting some type of movement map to see if it really did change something.

Isolation is an excellent tool to have. We just can’t lay assumptions on it.
For more on Gray’s thoughts about the pros and cons of isolation,
check out his talk,
Isolation: It’s Totally Natural.


  1. This fits in really well with Dr. Janda’s work and identifying the body does not work in isolation. Having taken both isolation type of courses and functional movement courses, I generally defer to functional movement to clean up a stability or mobility issue. Clients are more apt to buy in, when they realize that a faulty movement pattern, or lack of stability and or mobility can contribute to their painful, knee, hip etc.

    I used to give out a lot of “clams” for gluteus medius control, then I realized when in life do we lie on our side with our knees bent and lift one knee off of another. The in line kneel is a great way to integrate stability in the hip, core and keep a client safe as they are in relative spinal neutral position.

  2. Thanks Gray this is very eye opening for me. Keep ’em coming!

  3. I think that we must screen movement patterns and do manual muscle tests to asses muscle function (isolation). But even to do muscle tests we must think in patterns or kinetic chains….

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