Do Powerlifters Do Isolation Exercises? (Yes, Here’s How)

isolation exercises help powerlifters build muscle, prevent injury, and improve technique in their powerlifts

Nearly all powerlifters will do some form of accessory exercises after performing their main powerlifts. But there is one big question:

Do powerlifters do isolation exercises? Yes, powerlifters do perform isolation exercises in their training. Isolation exercises allow powerlifters to train muscles and ranges of motion in a way that many compound movements cannot. They can help powerlifters build muscle, prevent injury, and improve technique in their powerlifts.

In this article, you will find out exactly why powerlifters do isolation exercises, how they integrate it within their training and how to program them for long term development in their training.

If you’re interested in how powerlifers train certain muscle groups, check out my other guides:

Why Powerlifters Do Isolation Exercises (6 Benefits)

The benefits of training isolation exercises for powerlifters are:

  • Build muscle mass
  • Improve stability in powerlifting movements
  • Reduce muscular and movement imbalances
  • Increase strength within specific ranges of motion
  • Prevent injury or rehabilitate recovered injuries
  • Increase enjoyment of training

1. Build Muscle Mass

For the long term development of a powerlifter, muscle mass is key. During the early stages of developing strength as a powerlifter among novice athletes, most of the changes that happen within the body occur in the nervous system (i.e. they get stronger before they get bigger). This is the reason why novice lifters should do isolation exercises.

Many studies have shown that there is a strong correlation with muscle thickness and strength performance among people who lift weights [1,2,3]. Building muscle is key for long term strength gains. One of the ways that powerlifters can gain muscle is through training muscle groups through its full range of motion i.e. through single joint isolation muscles. 

Compound movements can be beneficial too but isolation exercises can often offer more range of motion in muscle groups than compound exercises where there are physical limitations.

2. Improve Stability in Powerlifting Movements

The prime movers are the main muscles responsible for the movement of the powerlifts. However, there are synergists, which are secondary muscles and stabilizers, which improve the stability of the body during the execution.

Training compounds and the powerlifts will definitely train the main muscle groups but the synergists and stabilizers will not be stimulated as much and so over time can lag behind without focused training.

Secondary and stabilizing muscle groups help enhance the technique of the lift (i.e. help keep the barbell in its optimal bar path), and ensure the joints are stable under heavy load, which can decrease the risk of injury. 

This is one of the points I make in my article on How To Increase Your Bench Press Without Benching.

3. Reduce Muscular and Movement Imbalances

The squat, bench press and deadlift are very specific movements and means that they will be trained to a large amount. What may happen over time is that our posture, mobility and physique will adapt to that. What arises is limitations in movement and mobility. This increases the risk of pain and injury.

Within our training, what we need to address are the antagonist muscles i.e. the opposite muscles. Performing isolation exercises on these muscle groups and movements will be extremely helpful at managing these imbalances. 

For example, both squats and deadlifts are hip and knee extension movements, so a knee flexion movement such as hamstring curls will be useful.

4. Increase Strength Within Specific Ranges of Motion

Certain muscle groups can be more active in certain ranges of motion for some exercises and movements. 

For example, the adductors and quadriceps are most active at the bottom range of the squat and the glute muscles tend to be more active half way up the squat to finish. 

Isolation exercises can be useful at increasing capacity if these ranges of motion tend to be where a sticking point occurs. 

In other words, if you have a sticking point in the bottom of a squat, isolation quad exercises might help.  Alternative, if you have a sticking point in the top of a squat, isolation glute exercises might help. 

Other resources to help break through plateaus in strength: 

5. Prevent Injury or Rehabilitate Recovered Injuries

When we do the powerlifts different muscle groups can be stressed to different degrees, especially if we’re going too heavy, too often. 

Overtime we may injure muscle groups that get stressed too much. Rest is the first line of action that should be taken with injuries and it will be appropriate to seek a relevant health professional such as a physical therapist. 

After recovery, it may be useful to isolate these muscle groups to build up work capacity and also address other weaknesses that lead to the injured muscle groups to get injured in the first place. It may prevent future injury of the previously injured muscle group.

Other resources on injury prevention: 

6. Increase Enjoyment of Training 

If an isolation exercise provides the lifter with a lot more fun vs a compound exercise, then even if there’s no other physical benefit, the lifter is more likely to stick to the program in the long term.

Making the training fun can maximise adherence and decrease the chances of you skipping exercises.

How Do Powerlifters Structure Isolation Exercises 

Powerlifters and coaches will select isolation exercises for specific reasons that are relevant to the athlete. There always needs to be a rationale to exercise selection and it should not be selected randomly or because another powerlifter is training it.

The needs of the athlete and the sport will determine what exercises are structured in training. The 4 main considerations when selecting isolation exercises are:

  • Antagonist muscles to prime movers
  • History of personal injury
  • Risk factors of powerlifting
  • Weaknesses and sticking points

Antagonist Muscles to Prime Movers

Muscle groups come in agonist-antagonist pairs where they pull in the opposite direction to each other e.g. biceps and triceps. It is important that we train the antagonist muscles and movements to the prime movers that we train. 

This approach promotes more balance and reduces the risk of postural and mobility issues. Perfect balance is not necessary but not training enough can lead to pain and injury.

Training the antagonist muscles will also be important to keeping stable joints during the execution of the main compounds. 

For example, the upper back and bicep muscles should be trained along with the bench press. Having a strong back will be useful for having healthy shoulders for powerlifters and keep their shoulder blades stable during execution.

History of Personal Injury

A big predictor of future injury is past injury. It is important to increase our work capacity in those previously injured muscle groups but also other muscle groups that lead to the injured muscle groups having taken excess stress.

For example, a hamstring strain that occurred from deadlifts may be resultant from weaker glutes in certain ranges of motion. It may be useful to train both the hamstrings and the glutes.

Risk Factors of Powerlifting

Injuries are individual, but due to the nature of the sport, injuries to certain muscle groups seems to be more common. 

This is because the sport demands a high level of strength from a list of muscle groups i.e. pecs, triceps, glutes, hamstrings, adductors and quads are very important for performance.

Lower back, knees and shoulders tend to be a very common complaint among powerlifters so specific areas such as the abdominals are going to be important in stabilizing the core and hips.

Read my article on the Best Ab Exercises For Powerlifters.  

Weaknesses and Sticking Points

Certain muscle groups may be the weakest link for given movements. Weaknesses will be individual to powerlifters and isolating these muscle groups can be useful and break through sticking points.

For example, training tricep extensions may have a beneficial effect on the lockout of the bench press because the lock-out of the bench press requires strong triceps. 

Read my article on the 16 Best Tricep Exercises To Increase Bench Press Strength

5 Isolation Exercises That All Powerlifters Do

isolation exercises that are common among powerlifters

5 isolation exercises that are common among powerlifters are:

  • Tricep Extension
  • Reverse Dumbbell Fly
  • Cable Pec Fly
  • Seated Leg Extension
  • Scapula Push Ups

Tricep Extension

Tricep extensions are a very popular arm exercise performed by powerlifters. What research has shown is that as the load gets heavier and closer to a 1 rep max, the triceps involvement as a proportion to the pecs and the deltoids increase[4]

Since the most important thing for a powerlifter’s bench press is the 1 rep max, training the triceps is going to be an important involvement long term as larger muscle thickness is associated with a larger potential for maximal strength.

This makes tricep extensions of different variations to be staple in programming. For more information on how powerlifters train arms, read this article about arm training for powerlifters.

Bent Over Reverse Fly

Having stable shoulders for the bench press is important to keeping them safe and decrease risk of injury. This includes being able to retract the scapula i.e. the shoulder blades, throughout the bench press movement. 

A bent over reverse fly with dumbbells or cables are going to be useful at reinforcing this. The muscle groups targeted are the trapezius and the rhomboids.

It is also a very good exercise to increase muscle mass around the rear delts, which is useful for novice to intermediate lifters to develop their back to create a better shelf for the bar during back squats. Find out more about how else powerlifters train back muscles.

Cable Pec Fly

The cable pec fly is a popular movement that trains the pec through its full range. The benefit of this exercise for powerlifters is that this allows the shoulder blades to move more freely, which is good for having healthy shoulders. As powerlifters, we bench press with our shoulder blades pinched back consistently, which can reduce mobility over time.

Cable pec flys are also useful for anyone who is rehabbing from a previously injured pec, and wants to regain work capacity and muscle mass. 

If the pecs are muscles that fatigue the most during bench press, training cable pec flys can be useful for building muscular endurance in those areas. To find out other alternative exercises, check out our article on how powerlifters train their chest.

Seated Leg Extension

The seated leg extension is an easy way to train the quadriceps as most gyms have this machine. The benefit of this machine is the way that the tension on the quads is consistent throughout the range unlike many other compound movements such as leg press and split squats. 

This makes it a very useful exercise to build the quadricep muscles in the off season.

As this is an isolation exercise, you can push the effort quite high without risking as much injury as compared to performing squat isolations. It is also a much safer exercise to push because if you fail, you can just return the machine to the resting position. Pushing any squatting variation or leg press to a high effort can be quite dangerous.

The leg extension may be an exercise of choice if the lifter is returning from a knee injury and cannot perform squats. To find out more leg workout exercises, read this article on how powerlifters can train legs. don’t have access to a leg extension? Try one of our leg extension alternatives.

Key instruction: When performing leg extensions, it is important to allow the legs go through the full range of motion and be able to keep their hips down on the seat throughout. If the hips are coming off the seat, the load is too heavy.

Scapula Push Ups

This is an exercise that some powerlifters do to improve their shoulder health. This exercise specifically targets the serratus anterior, which helps your shoulder to protract and also assists in overhead movements. The serratus is a muscle that is connected from the ribcage to the shoulder blades.

Powerlifters overtime struggle with losing overhead mobility over time, which may be undesirable for some people for everyday functional reasons. The reason why powerlifters lose this movement range is because powerlifters bench with their shoulder blades pinched pack consistently.

Some powerlifters who get shoulder discomfort at the bottom range of the bench press may find that this scapula push up helps. Read this article here for more information on how powerlifters can train shoulders.

Key instruction: When performing the scapula push up, it is important that the back is not over extended and that the shoulder blades are allowed to round forward at the top. Don’t be surprised if your lats get sore doing this push up variation.

How Powerlifters Program Isolation Exercises

3 ways to program isolation exercises to your training sessions

Here are 3 ways to program isolation exercises to your training sessions:

1.  Similar muscle groups after powerlifts

You can perform similar muscle groups after powerlifts e.g. cable pec flys after bench press.

This placement of isolation exercises may be desirable if:

  • Your main powerlift is an easier session
  • You want to limit the weekly training frequency of muscle groups
  • You want to address weaknesses

2.  Antagonist muscle groups after powerlifts

You can perform antagonist (opposite) muscle groups after powerlifts e.g. bent over reverse flys after bench press. This placement of isolation exercises may be desirable if:

  • Your similar muscle groups are taxed from main powerlifts
  • You want to have a more balanced training session
  • These muscle groups are a weakness and need priority 

3.  Muscle groups on a separate day to powerlifts

You may choose to train these isolation exercises on a completely separate day to the powerlifts. This placement of isolation exercises may be desirable if:

  • You want to spread your training out over more sessions
  • Your main training sessions already take too long
  • Your main training sessions are already very taxing
  • You want to have an easier training session

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, there is scope for flexibility with what exercises you want to choose and how you distribute them over the week. 

For the purpose of hypertrophy, you may want to consider the fact that there is an optimal amount of training that maximises the stimulus for muscle gain, so you may want to spread similar muscle groups out over other days. You may also not want to train similar muscle groups on other days because it may interfere with future training sessions.

There are no objectively perfect ways to distribute isolation exercises, but it is important to reflect upon how your training week progresses with the initial plan to decide whether it is working well.


About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach

Norman Cheung

Norman Cheung is a powerlifting coach and an accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience with coaching a variety of lifters from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Along side coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com

References

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  1. Król H, Gołaś A. Effect of Barbell Weight on the Structure of the Flat Bench Press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2017 May;31(5):1321-1337. DOI: 10.1519/jsc.0000000000001816.