At the Chalkboard: Isolation

By Greg Glassman

In Reference, Rest Day/Theory, Videos

February 22, 2010

Video Article

“The total is more than the sum of its parts.”

In CrossFit, that old adage holds true and in fact forms the basis for much of what we do. While certain methods of training treat the body as a collection of parts, CrossFitters train the body as a whole through functional compound movements. You can certainly break a squat down into agonists, antagonists and synergists working to achieve core stability and hip and knee extension, but doing so may not do much for fitness.

“It’s a false reductionism,” Greg Glassman says of this approach. “I lose the essence of the damn thing.”

In front of a chalkboard in his garage, Coach takes a closer look at the shortcomings of isolating various parts of the body and what a cohesive, whole-body approach to training can do for health and fitness.

6min 20sec

Additional reading: Functionality and Wallball by Greg Glassman, published Aug. 1, 2003.

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19 Comments on “At the Chalkboard: Isolation”


wrote …

hey, i was just looking for an elaboration on the comment coach glassman made regarding the development of the hip and thigh muscles being dependent upon that of the midline stabilizers.


wrote …


Have you done any studies on Chaos or Complexity theory? I have been doing some studies recently in Systems Theory. The punchline is this: In a non-linear system, one cannot reduce a system to elemental parts and then try to improve the parts individually, and then put the system back together and have a better system.

This reductionist approach doesn't work with diet, physical training, economics, physics, or any other non linear system.

Affecting the system on an individual level only does one thing: Disturb the system - and rarely for the better.

Affecting the system as a whole, (meaning working with whole system), has better results (assuming one fully understands the system and what they are doing). Regardless, the results are more consistent, and better.



wrote …

Tony and Coach Glassman: Thank you for this series. I love it.

Christian: Holy C@#p! That comment was awesome! Well said and utterly appropriate.


wrote …

I am kind of lost on the point of this video. Is Glassman saying don't use isolation exercises ever, or is he saying don't exclusively use isolation exercises?


wrote …

If you take anything to extremes you will lose the possible benefits. Of course if one only trained isolation exercises performance would suffer. Conversely only training large movements, eg. snatch, squat will be missing out on the benefits of isolating and training one's weak points in the exercise


replied to comment from Tom Sheeran

I disagree with your last sentence. If you use proper technique those weak points should balance out.

Say for example, you are a quad dominant squatter. There is probably a reason for it, and it shouldn't happen with perfect form, so it's probably because of your form, eg not going below parallel. Once you begin going below parallel, your posterior chain will have to work harder than it previously did and your quads won't be carrying all of the load.

Or, as Rip puts it, "Yes, if you squat wrong it fucks things up. If you squat correctly, those same fucked-up things will unfuck themselves."


replied to comment from Tom Sheeran


I see where you are coming from, but consider this: if the weak muscle, or group, is strengthened in isolation, it still needs to be integrated into the larger movement. In contrast, training the larger movement works towards both ends. Increased force production of a particular muscle/group is the singular benefit of isolation exercises. That isolated benefit is one of many that result from training the larger, more functional movements.

So, at the very least, removing the redundancy that isolation movements provide increases training efficiency and effectiveness.


replied to comment from Jimmy DaVolio

I don't believe he ever said that. Coach G references one breath later bodybuilders who have massive hypertrophy in their legs. What he was referring to there was that these same people with the giant legs fail much earlier than would be assumed in a functional "leg exercise" because of a failure in midline stabilization, which is largely neglected in isolation training. If the midline begins to fail, everything fails, or the spine is sacrificed.


wrote …

Jimmy - To put words in Coach Glassman's mouth, I believe he is saying that mid-line stability/strength/endurance is paramount to coordinating the same characteristics through the extremities (hip/thigh, shoulder complex). Without the mid-line characteristics, integration of those characteristics cannot occur to the extremities and everything gets jacked = my back hurts.

To comment on the isolation vs. integration, I think that integration is obviously the best way to go but there is a place for something like isolation. In my practice, early in the treatment process, I utilize two concepts: 1. Lengthen before you strengthen & 2. Activation (in place of isolation). In other words, range of motion should come before applying significant load (yes, load can be applied to increase ROM - work with me) and appropriate activation/force-coupling (core to extremity) is highly important in sequencing neuromuscular patterns that promote optimal integration in functional movements. AKA - neuro-muscular re-education!

Simple terms - do some dynamic warm-up stuff to "wake-up" the patterns so that the integration in the workout can be optimized.


wrote …

Oh yeah - I think this series is awesome!


wrote …

Holy crap...I feel like I'm in Bioengineering 111 lecture. Lol! Professor Glassman. Seriously. I'm a medical student and I'm having a hard time keeping up with lectures! Lol. Great series though. Keep em coming!


wrote …

This doesn't mesh with my experience. Ronnie Coleman (and a great deal of other body builders) can dead lift 800 lbs. It would appear he has no problem stablizing his mid-line.


Dane Thomas wrote …

Daniel - Coleman deadlifts 800 because he trains for it. The point is that those who only train isolation (like some other bodybuilders, not necessarily Ronnie Coleman) are able to build large muscles without them necessarily being able to demonstrate function that is in line with their size. This can result in control issues that can lead to injuries.

Another thing to consider is that working muscles in unnaturally isolated movements may hinder maximal activation and force generation. I was once a subject in a study that attempted to elicit DOMS in the quads in a controlled, repeatable manner. The method chosen was repeated max effort eccentric isokinetic contractions. I had plenty of experience with isokinetic machines, both as a tester and a subject, so I had no trouble "maxing out" during the test. Even so, I was not anywhere near as sore in the quads as I have been after performing considerably fewer max effort eccentric isokinetic squats in a Bromsman (essentially a controlled speed and ROM machine-assisted back squat with much more weight than you can handle and scales under each foot to measure effort

Both motions were close to the same angular velocity. Both motions were eccentric. Both attempted to elicit maximal contraction of the quadriceps, but the Kin-Com was a seated, open kinetic chain, single joint movement while the Bromsman back squat is a standing, closed kinetic chain multi-joint movement.

I believe that appropriate proprioceptive input from the entire body is essential to achieving maximal muscle contraction. The lack of weight bearing and joint approximation forces during seated knee extension may cause quad/ham inhibition in much the same fashion as a standard grip on the verge of failure results in a much weaker deadlift, but switching to opposing makes heavier lifts possible immediately.

Something in the nervous system recognizes impending failure and moderates force generation to prevent injury. The system is evidently smart enough to save us from our own folly, that is to say if we are not dumb enough to attempt to train around those reflexes.


replied to comment from Dane Thomas

I dunno, I don’t really buy the whole “don't have function in line with their size” varieties of argument. First, it is typically used by people who don’t even believe in it in the first place. Second, I doubt many people could do certain types of isolation routines -some are really difficult- despite talking trash about them because they often involve machines, use lighter weights, etc. (ie. very humbling) Last, which came first, the function or the muscle? The muscle is always with us, no matter what specific function you enjoy doing. Therefore a case could be made for finding an exercise for the muscle that works out that muscle "best" which is often irrelevant to the certain tasks you enjoy doing.



Justin, I'm not calling into question whether or not isolation exercises can build large or strong muscles, and I'm not in any way doubting that they require a great deal of intensity, skill and dedication to execute. I'm simply saying that if isolation exercises to improve size, appearance and symmetry take too much focus from functional exercise it can result in decreases in capacity in one or more of the following 10 general physical skills:
1. Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance - The ability of body systems to gather, process, and deliver oxygen.
2. Stamina - The ability of body systems to process, deliver, store, and utilize energy.
3. Strength - The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply force.
4. Flexibility - the ability to maximize the range of motion at a given joint.
5. Power - The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply maximum force in minimum time.
6. Speed - The ability to minimize the time cycle of a repeated movement.
7. Coordination - The ability to combine several distinct movement patterns into a singular distinct movement.
8. Agility - The ability to minimize transition time from one movement pattern to another.
9. Balance - The ability to control the placement of the bodies center of gravity in relation to its support base.
10. Accuracy - The ability to control movement in a given direction or at a given intensity.

For my own purposes I find it easier to justify focusing on maximizing function rather than enhancing appearance, but I've certainly got nothing against hot bodies, I'm not hating and I'm not saying that going for size is wrong. People can prioritize whatever the heck they want to, and I would much rather have them lifting than not, no matter what.


wrote …

Justin & Daniel - your comments are valid and I think Dane puts them into great context.

I used to get in the same type of argument with a good friend. My comment was that one-function competitors(runners, swimmers, powerlifters, etc.) were impressive specialists, but their one-function ability did not necessarily make them good athletes. She said I was a piece-of-crap, blah, blah, blah.

Reading it, seeing it, and experiencing it every day, I can say that functional training prepares you for nearly an infinite amount of potentially damaging stimuli; whereas isolation training prepares you for only stimuli that are similar to that isolated function. In other words, if your goal is to be as well-rounded, protected from injury, and overall "prepared for anything", functional training is what you need.

But Dane is also right in saying if you are going to do iso or nothing... do iso and rock it out!


wrote …

I see the points above, but I'm not so sure that enhancing appearance or hot bodies are the only purposes of isolation exercises. To equate isolation exclusively with those goals is not quite correct.



Daniel Schmieding wrote …

Coach clearly referenced one goal of isolation movements being to maximize contractile potential within specific muscle. His point is simply that it doesn't often lend itself to real life function, as multi-joint movements like deadlift, squat, etc does.


Dane Thomas wrote …

Justin - As a former practicing PT I agree that there are many valid reasons to use isolation exercises, particularly when it comes to injury prevention or rehabilitation. They are essential when it comes to proper evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of injuries or muscle imbalances. Even in the asymptomatic patient or client they are very useful when there is a need to increase awareness of a specific muscle group or action.

That having been established, I think that a healthy, balanced, wholistic approach includes isolation exercises most often as part of a teaching progression to enhance mastery of more complex, functional movements. Isolation exercises should be viewed most often as some of the essential means to larger more functional ends and more seldom as ends unto themselves.

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