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How To Apply Progressive Overload To Isolation Exercises

Progressive Overload is one of the most guaranteed methods that you can use to build muscle and strength. The human body is designed to adapt to external stimulus and progressive overload is a tool you can use to force your body to adapt and change. 

This concept however inspires people to take it to the extreme and use progressive overload for every exercise in their routine. This might work for some people, especially those that are genetically gifted but for the average person this isn’t an optimal training strategy. 

Progressive overload works best on multi joint, compound exercises because there is more scope for growth due to the number of muscle groups involved, think a squat and deadlift which require multiple muscle groups to be active during the movement. 

How to apply progressive overload to isolation exercises? To apply progressive overload to an isolation exercise you will need to change the selection of exercises whilst using the same movement pattern, eg cable curl instead of a dumbbell curl to create a new stimulus. 

It’s worth noting that as a beginner you will have much more room for progress and will take a long time to reach a plateau (though whatever weight you use to start with will feel heavy, that’s just the nature of getting started). 

Once you get past the beginner stage however then progressing on isolation exercises becomes much harder. 

What Is Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is a training method that revolves around consistently placing your body under more stress than it is currently used to in order to force adaptation. The main concept of this is to utilize it to force muscle growth and adaptation. 

Muscle tissue works in a unique way, by lifting weights and causing tiny microscopic tears to the muscle fibre which then repair stronger and in a greater number than previously. This is in order to better handle this action again in the future. 

A similar thing can be observed in martial arts, you have likely seen videos of people able to punch through wood/concrete and other items that would break most people’s bones. The way they’re able to do this is to start with a material much lighter than concrete, over time performing the same action on materials with increasing density will cause the bones to adapt and repair thicker and stronger than before.

Therefore muscle growth has to occur by first breaking the muscle tissue down. This is done through weightlifting in order to then have the fibres repair both bigger and stronger than before to better handle the load next time. This is why progressive overload is an essential tool to promote muscle growth, you need to force your muscles to adapt and this is what has led to a popular quote:

“Train the same, remain the same”

There isn’t a one size fits all approach to progressive overload and people will respond differently to different methods.

The main progress you will look for is weight on the bar, you should be looking to add weight you your lifts every time you enter the gym, especially as a beginner. This is not a linear method and you will eventually plateau on certain weights (otherwise everyone would be able to lift infinite amounts of weight, the body of course has limitations). The goal should however be to consistently increase the weight on your lifts over time. 

When you plateau on the weight and can’t physically add any more then this doesn’t mean the end for progressive overload, you simply need to use another form of overload. 

This can be adding more reps or sets in order to increase total volume, reducing rest periods between sets to increase workout intensity or increase the tempo of your exercise to increase time under tension.  

The key point is that you need to constantly push your body to levels it’s not used to in order to force it to adapt, if you are using the same weights a year from now then chances are you are going to look very much the same. The human body likes to remain at Its own comfort level, most people aren’t genetically capable of naturally holding large amounts of muscle mass and therefore you need to force it to grow.

Focus On Compound Exercises

When using progressive overload your main focus should be on progressing the multi joint, compound movements. These exercises offer the greatest scope for progression due to the fact that they utilize multiple joints and muscle groups. 

Some of the key exercises that you should be focusing on are; squats, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, loaded carries, lunges and rows. All of these exercises use multiple and large muscle groups that offer plenty of room to progress.

It’s not however just a case of lifting more weight, having this mentality will lead to lifting more at any cost and this is where breakdown in form will occur which will lead to injury. The goal of progressive overload should be to increase the weight you lift overtime whilst maintaining good form.

I’d say good form over strict form because once you get to a certain weight then it will be very difficult to move it with the strictest form, this should be reserved for advanced lifters who can safely use a bit of momentum or ‘loose’ form to complete the movement.

If you focus on the basic compound lifts then you are going to be quite taxed by the time it comes to your isolation exercises (if your routine even requires it). To progress on isolation exercises requires a slightly different approach. 

What Are Isolation Exercises

An isolation exercise is a single joint movement that focuses on one particular muscle group. They are often used to focus on underdeveloped muscle groups or to place a concentrated effort on a particular muscle. The best example of this would be a bicep preacher curl. 

To perform a bicep preacher curl (this can be with a barbell or one arm at a time with a dumbbell) you can either use a preacher curl bench designed specifically for this exercise or a regular bench which will work fine. Place your upper arm onto the bench with your triceps resting on the pad and armpit locked on top, this should leave you in a physical position that means the only part of your arm that can move is your forearm up and down. 

This has isolated the elbow joint and as this is the only joint moving it means the attached muscles are the only ones that will be doing the work, in this case it’s going to be the bicep. 

Isolation exercises are perfect for those who struggle to feel the muscle working during certain movements (eg difficulty feeling the deltoids working during a shoulder press). By targeting them with particular exercises and pushing blood into the area you’ll get a better pump and contraction of the muscle. 

The issue with isolation exercises and progressive overload is that there is a very limited scope for progression. A tricep kickback for example is limited by the weight that you’ll be able to use whereas a close grip bench press or weighted dip has a much higher progression potential. 

A close grip bench press at 225lbs will do more for your triceps size and strength than a 40lb (being generous) kickback. 

As the maximum weight potential for isolation exercises are so much lower than compound movement a different progressive approach needs to be taken.

How To Apply Progressive Overload To Isolation Exercises 

Firstly, it’s worth noting that whilst the scope for progression in terms of weight on the bar for isolation exercises is lower than for compound exercises there is definitely still plenty of potential to increase the weights lifted. 

As you get stronger in the difficult compound exercises the crossover effect is that you will naturally get stronger on the isolation exercises. Squatting 300lbs will indirectly result in having much stronger hamstrings, this alone will help you get stronger on the hamstring curl than just doing hamstring curls in isolation. 

Focusing on getting stronger overall will result in your weight increasing on isolation exercises so this should be a priority. 

If you do want to focus purely on isolation exercises, then the next best approach to get stronger on isolation exercises is to vary the implement whilst keeping the movement the same. 

What I mean by that is a side lateral dumbbell raise to target the deltoid is a notoriously difficult exercise to progress on. As the weight gets further away from your body it drops down on the strength curve.

To demonstrate that point pick a barbell up with one hand using the middle of the barbell, this should be easy for most to do. Now try to pick it up with one hand using one end of the barbell. Chances are it’s not only harder but most won’t actually be able to do it. 

This concept is similar for a side lateral raise, you are very much limited by the weight you’ll be able to lift, especially with good form and therefore to progress you will need to vary the implement used. To do this using the example of a side lateral, if you’re currently using 25lb dumbbells for your side laterals and have hit a wall and can’t lift anymore then you are going to change this exercise to a cable side lateral. 

This will change both the resistance and strength profile of the exercise, even though the movement will be exactly the same you will be stimulating the muscle differently. Using a cable will keep tension at the top of the movement whereas a dumbbell will lose tension once you get to the final third portion of the movement. 

The same process can also be applied to unilateral movements. Switching from a barbell curl to a single are dumbbell will introduce your body to a different stimulus as you are now focusing on one specific limb and muscle at a time instead of two. 

The key way to progress on isolation exercises is to keep switching up the implement (or switch between bilateral and unilateral) in order to keep providing the body with a new stimulus whilst focusing on the isolation exercise that you wanted to target in the first place.

Other Progressive Techniques For Isolation Exercises

Even taking the above into account, there are more progressive techniques that can be applied to isolation exercises however these are not necessary for beginners and should therefore be applied to those who are more intermediate or advanced in their training.

The first progressive technique is to introduce drop sets into your workout. These are extended sets that involve using a lighter weight immediately after reaching failure with your chosen weight. In the example of dumbbell side lateral raises you will start your set with the 25lb dumbbells, once you reach failure and can’t do another rep at this weight you will then immediately drop the weight by 20% – 30% and continue your set with this lighter weight again going to failure before dropping the weight again by 20% – 30% so your last set might be around 14lbs and going again to failure. 

This is a drop set and is designed to fatigue multiple muscle fibres which include the fast twitch and slow oxidative fibres. As you can imagine this is excellent to implement when you feel you can’t progress past a certain weight on an isolation exercise however it’s incredibly taxing to the nervous system so should be used sparingly. Using drop sets on every exercise will quickly see you burnout. 

Another tactic you can use is eccentric overloading. The eccentric (lowering) portion of a movement is in fact where most people are strongest, it’s easier to lower a barbell during a bench press then it is to actually press the weight back up. Therefore in traditional workouts, the eccentric portion of the movement never reaches close to muscle failure and this leaves a large portion of muscle fibres not fully stimulated. 

** note however that the eccentric portion of a movement is what causes the most muscle damage and therefore constantly going to eccentric failure will make it more difficult to recover after each session. You should look to stimulate the muscle but not annihilate it and therefore use this technique sparingly.

Isolation exercises are the best to use this method for if you don’t train with a partner as the machines/exercises are easier to apply this method. Take the example of a seated machine preacher curl, you can curl the weight with both hands however then lower the weight using only one arm, this means the weight will be twice the amount for the eccentric portion. This wouldn’t be possible to do safely or effectively with a barbell as removing a hand would immediately then require balancing the barbell with one arm, the machine however eliminates the need to balance it. 

One final progressive technique you could look to use for isolation exercises are giant sets. These are muscle rounds that mimic circuit style training but with a focus on hypertophy and muscle growth instead of conditioning. A giant set is a range of exercises completed on after the other with no rest and target a different movement pattern. 

If we use the bicep as an example a typical muscle round could look like this:

  • Incline dumbbell curl x 8 reps
  • Seated dumbbell curl x 8 reps
  • Seated hammer curl x 8 reps 
  • Seated reverse curl x 8 reps

With the above set you would essentially be doing one giant set of 32 reps, you would however be targeting different muscle groups within the bicep with each extra exercise. If you’re reached a plateau at any given weight for these exercises then including them in a giant set will mean you can use that weight but stimulate more muscle fibres by combining it with other exercises to target different parts of the muscle. It’s also best to start with the movement that you are mechanically the weakest in and move to the exercises that you are stronger in as the exercises progress. 

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