A Case for Isolation Training

In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb describes the concept of optionality or, fittingly for a training discussion, a “barbell strategy” a term borrowed from Taleb’s finance background and applied as a principle across many domains.
The rationale of this barbell strategy is that environments or situations where the potential risks and rewards are asymmetrical – to the tune of small losses when the risk becomes reality, or a large payoff when you strike a winner – as opposed to the symmetrically “moderate” and risk-averse, will render one robust, or better still, antifragile, while the alternative middle ground can leave a person fragile.

A “Barbell Strategy”, AKA Optionality,
AKA an Asymmetry.

I’m not going to go any deeper in providing an explanation than that here. It’s a dense but fascinating book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wishes to challenge their thought processes.

In short, a situation where worst case you lose minimally, yet best case you win big, is a very desirable situation (obviously, but the key is to recognise when these situations present themselves or, when you can best modify or manipulate a situation to create this position for yourself).

So as I was reading this section I instinctively started thinking about potential scenarios in my life where I could recognise or apply this barbell strategy. Naturally, my mind soon wandered to training.
I began to think to myself how I could evaluate the presence, or the potential presence, of a barbell strategy in training myself and clients. What questions need to be asked?

This is what I came up with:

– What are the potential upsides to this training intervention?
– Are these upsides large or small; many or few?
– What are the potential downsides to this training intervention?
– Are these downsides large or small; many or few?

Let’s take a big, and common, exercise for an example:

Barbell squats.

I heart me some heavy squats as much as the next meathead. However, as great as barbell squats – let’s say back squats in particular – may be for some, and as crucial as I feel it is to at least develop a solid squat pattern, I’m not so sure it fits into Taleb’s barbell strategy mould. It is most likely part of the middle ground.
This doesn’t mean heavy back squatting is ineffective or unimportant. Far from it.
But if we work through the criteria, the upsides are significant and many: Get bigger and stronger, run faster and jump higher. These potential benefits of heavy squatting are well known, often preached, and are both anecdotally and scientifically factual.
The downsides however, are also potentially substantial for some, and can be numerous, too.

Setting aside my affinity for lifting heavy stuff for a moment, if I’m to look at barbell back squats objectively, here’s what I see as potential downsides:

A moderate to high learning curve
If you can’t squat well unloaded, then throwing a heavy barbell on your back won’t help matters.

Coupled with
– An uncomfortable movement
Think back to when you first put a barbell across your upper back. It didn’t feel good. For some, that uncomfortableness never dissipates much.

Largely thanks to
– An awkward and unforgiving object
The straight Olympic barbell, for all its reverence, is cumbersome, inefficient, and generally a bastard of a tool for the human body to attempt to conform to.

Placed on top of
– Inefficient movement competency
Whether due to lack of mobility (functional or structural), lack of stability, a combination thereof or any other limitation, a poor squat pattern will be exacerbated by external loading.

Which can lead to
– A chronic accumulation of niggles, aches, and pains
Load up an unstable spine heavy enough or often enough and you can expect a sore back. Load up stiff ankles and/or hips heavy enough or often enough and you can expect some sore knees.

Or worst case, acutely
– When things go wrong, they can go very wrong
I present Exhibit A:

And Exhibit B (Warning, graphic):

Again let me clarify, none of this is to say that squats, of any variety, are a “bad” exercise. I personally still use many squat variations, with many different loading strategies, for my own training, as well as with a lot – not all, but a lot – of my clients, provided they are proficient in the movement, can perform it pain-free, and it is commensurate with their training goals.

But for the purposes of this random discussion on optionality, or barbell strategy, back squats don’t fit the bill. In my opinion they fall into a moderate to high yield, moderate to high risk category. And they are by no means mandatory in one’s training regime (you’d be hard pressed to convince me that any one exercise is) as there are other options that can yield similar, or even greater, returns while exposing the trainee to reduced risk, a sentiment shared and strongly espoused by Coach Boyle.

We could work all the way through our exercise library and categorise each accordingly, all with our biases, no doubt. However once we remove both potential injurious risk and, perhaps more commonly, higher learning curves, I think we end up with some good ol’ “non-functional” isolation work.
The argument regarding isolation work now comes down to the benefit: what are the potential upsides of including isolation work, and are those upsides significant?

The “All integrated, all multi-planar, all standing, all reaching, all the time” “functional” training crowd typically says there is no benefit.

Conversely, any professional bodybuilder throughout history would likely contend that isolation work is absolutely necessary for “bringing up lagging muscle groups”.

Many power lifters will also advocate the use of targeted isolation work to ensure there are no weak links in the big three lifts. For example, Louie Simmons is a big advocate for adding in extra direct tricep work, as he deemed triceps strength to be a limiting factor in most lifter’s bench press.

Rehabilitation professionals have been some of the biggest proponents of isolation exercises for patients recovering from injury. Sometimes  this advice is bang on point and therefore a case of best practice. Other times this advice flies in the face of current scientific evidence. And other times still the waters become a little murky (exercise X has been shown to produce the highest levels of EMG activity in muscle Y, and as greater cross-sectional area of a muscle can equate to a stronger muscle, therefore X may treat Z…).

But what about for you, the reader – the aspiring athlete, the weekend warrior, the soccer Mum, the “I just want to feel better and look good naked” crowd?

Is there a substantial benefit to be gained from the inclusion of a little extra isolation work? Does this benefit come at a low risk and low cost?

My answer is yes. And by my reasoning, that makes it a suitable barbell strategy in the realm of strength training, which is really just to say that I found a way of drawing a relationship between the chapter of a book I read last night, and bicep curls.

This isn’t about to turn into Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, but here’s a sampling of some smaller, oft-neglected muscle groups that may respond very positively to some focussed isolation work, all for the relatively small cost of a little extra time commitment, usually at the end of a training session, or perhaps as additional work in between sets of bigger lifts:

• Calves. How do you get them big, strong and ripped (guys) or sculpted and toned (girls)?
Through any of, or any combination of:
– Sound nutrition and calorie control to both grow the muscle, and to strip/keep the fat off it.
– Choosing the right parents.
– Spending a long time being overweight.
– Regular high volume activity such as cycling, running or skipping.
– Performing some direct calf training, through calf raise variations.

• Biceps. How do you get them big, strong and ripped (guys) or sculpted and toned (girls)?
Through any of, or any combination of:
– Sound nutrition and calorie control, again.
– Genetics, again (though seemingly to a lesser extent than with calves).
– A high volume of manual work involving lifting and carrying.
– To a significant extent, pull up and rowing variations.
– Performing some direct bicep work, such as curl variations.

• Triceps. How do you get them big, strong and ripped (guys) or sculpted and toned (girls)?
Through any of, or any combination of:
– Yep, food.
– Yep, genetics.
– Pushing and pressing lots of stuff in general.
– Performing some direct tricep work, such as pushdown (see video below) and elbow extension variations.

• Neck. How do you get a neck like a bull?
Through any of, or any combination of:
– Food and genetics, still.
– Lots of big lifts and heavy carries.
– Performing some direct neck training, such as harness work, neck bridging, and various resisted isolated neck motions.

We could go on.

Whether discussing shoulder external rotators, medial deltoids, forearms, even abs, or various components of the hip musculature (again, see vid below) there is almost always a case that we could make for some extra focussed work on a particular muscle or area via isolated exercises within the context of an overall appropriate and intelligently designed training program. These come with low risk, low cost (minimum time) and will likely provide at least some small benefit, but may even pay off with some substantial benefit.

Wrapping up

You got your major lifts in and made progress? Good. Then you don’t need any further excuse to go hit some curls in front of the mirror, machine rear delt flyes, calf raises, tricep pushdowns or everyone’s favourite, band-resisted good girls, bad girls.

Thoughts, questions, hate mail, or anything I missed? Feel free to drop a comment below. And of course, sharing this article will naturally help you jump the queue in your wait for karmic justice to start paying out. 

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