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The Isolation Exercise Misnaming, Myths, and Misuse

By Tanner | In Training | on April 4, 2012

The has been much argument and debate (read: fussing, crying, even screaming) over the use, purpose, and worth of single joint exercise amongst functional fitness enthusiasts.  Many, or even most, CF’ers say there’s no use, purpose, and/or worth in the single joint movement.

They are wrong.

If can get yourself past the childish “Globo-Gym” bashing and the verbal murder of bodybuilding workouts, you may be able to fathom the functional application of supporting exercises.  I don’t bash either, doing any workout versus none is a good thing.  Bodybuilders have their goals and they train to them.  I give them credit for the discipline it takes to get ripped down, show ready body fat percentages.  I’m not a big fan of how most of them do it as I consider it very unhealthy, but I can respect them fundamentally.  And not all bodybuilders forego squats and deads either.  Tim B., a bud of mine and the manager at one of the Gold’s in Wilmington, pulls over 600lbs for reps.

Most importantly, many CrossFitters used to workout at a big gym.  So I figure the big gyms are still full of future CrossFitters and I simply cannot see how talking bad about potential clients is good for business.

Right now there are “functional” movement only “coaches” reading this and they are already getting mad.  Chill out boys and girls, I’ve only just begun to insult your lack of exercise physiology and anatomy education/understanding.  Open your mind, read on and you will learn something…

So anyway, the so called  ”isolation” exercise is misnamed.  Words develop our perception and cognitive association of all things.  Single joint exercise  is better at defining them, but I prefer to call them supportive exercises.  This term gives them a true definition with purpose.  They are supportive to multi-joint (so called functional movements) and sport specific movements.  Not to mention, there is no such thing as isolating one muscle.

Let us digress and define functional.  Webster says…

FUNCTIONAL
1.)  A : OF, CONNECTED WITH, OR BEING A FUNCTION  B : AFFECTING PHYSIOLOGICAL OR PSYCHOLOGICAL FUNCTIONS BUT NOT ORGANIC STRUCTURE <FUNCTIONAL HEART DISEASE>
2.)  : USED TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE DEVELOPMENT OR MAINTENANCE OF A LARGER WHOLE <FUNCTIONAL AND PRACTICAL SCHOOL COURSES>; ALSO :DESIGNED OR DEVELOPED CHIEFLY FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF USE
3.)  : PERFORMING OR ABLE TO PERFORM A REGULAR FUNCTION

So if a single joint, or supportive exercise, increases joint stability and that joint stability translates to increases in the weight you can lift and overall sports performance, is that supportive exercise not functional?

So if you argue the muscle up is a functional exercise but a row or a tricep extension is not, you are lost.  A ring muscle up mimics no movement found in real life.  It is a sport specific movement found only in gymnastics…  men’s gymnastics to be precise.  Oh, and CrossFit.  There’s nothing functional about it. It does have strength and some skill transfer, but not enough for any training program for any power or strength based sport to utilize it in training protocols to make athletes better at that sport.  It is an end, not a means.

Conversely the tricep extension and row, can both increase stability and strength in the shoulders and elbows.  Stability and strength that can be developed with minimal risk of injury.  I don’t know anyone that can argue the same can be done with a muscle up.  The function here is, the rows and extensions could lead to your clients achieving their first muscle up.  But more important to the average client, adding those two movements, and other supportive exercises, can improve presses, pulls, grip, and a plethora of other things used in everyday real life.

Still not getting it?  Understandably…  the chances are you may not have much strength and conditioning experience beyond what you are doing now.  If the only type of exercises you have your clients do are prime movements, they will develop imbalances.

The one I see most often in CrossFitters are in the upper back and shoulder posterior.  If your programming foregoes subscap pull ups, bent over rows, and the other “isolation exercises” for the upper back and shoulders, your clients will lack the strength in the shoulders to support and perform well at all the overhead stuff you have them do.  Their OH presses, OH squats, jerks, snatches, pull ups, bench press, front squats, and their muscle ups will never reach full development.  That type of development is most often reached with the proper application of supporting exercises.

The supporting exercises also increase the effectiveness of the mind, muscle link.  A good example of this is the posterior deltoid, infraspinatus, and supraspinatus.  If a lifter has never trained that muscle to fire specifically with an exercise like rear delt raises, then the athlete cannot recruit the posterior deltoids optimally during a press, neither bench or shoulder.  Wait, I’m probably losing some of you…

Yes, the rear deltoids, infra and supraspinatus muscles are used in pressing movements.  They pull the humerus to the rear and supports the shoulder during the press, especially when the leverage at the elbow becomes the weakest (the “sticking point”).  If your brain hasn’t been trained to fire those muscles, your shoulder press will remain less than that of a 12 year old girl.

Even the biceps curl is supportive.  Strongman competitors do them.  They do so they can pick up stones and all the other cumbersome apparatuses they have to move.

If you are worried if you do program the supportive exercises in your CrossFit gym someone might scold you for not being a CrossFit purist.  Don not be.  I was once accused of being anti-CrossFit and even reported to CrossFit Headquarters when, back in 2008, I wrote a post about the muscle up not being functional or found in real life.  The dim-whit said I was going against what CrossFit taught.  He had discovered CrossFit and exercise for that matter and had no idea how to house train a poodle, much less athletes to perform optimally.  Long story short, it only got my article posted on the CrossFit Affiliate page and I think CFW’s results and reputation speak for our programming.
CrossFit is fundamentally based on varying your workouts, loads, intensity levels, and doing exercise that improves your life.  If that means doing biceps curls, then I figure biceps curls are therefore CrossFit too.

Take 6 weeks and do a strength phase with supportive exercises and when you return to your regular scheduled programming, you’ll be better at it…  and stronger.

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