Isolation Exercises 101: A Complete Guide From Beginner to Pro

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Updated: January 25th, 2023

Ultimate guide to isolation exercises, maximize the growth and definition of your muscles with it.

Elevate your strength training game with our in-depth guide to the best exercises for specific muscle groups, the right reps and sets, and how to incorporate them into your workout routine for optimal results; whether you’re a beginner or a pro.

What is Isolation exercises?

Isolation exercises 101

Isolation exercises are exercises that target a specific muscle or muscle group with minimal involvement of other muscle groups. These exercises are designed to focus on a single muscle or muscle group, allowing you to work on that specific area in isolation. Examples of isolation exercises include bicep curls, tricep extensions, leg extensions, and calf raises. These exercises can be performed using a variety of equipment such as dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands or machines. Isolation exercises are often used to target specific muscle groups that may need more work, or to isolate an injury or weakness. These exercises can also be used to increase the intensity of a workout by focusing on a specific muscle group after it has been fatigued by compound exercises.

When to incorporate isolation exercises

Isolation exercises can be used in a variety of situations, including:

  • Target specific muscle groups: Isolation exercises allow you to target specific muscle groups, which can be particularly useful if you have a muscle imbalance or want to focus on certain areas of your body.
  • Improve muscle definition and symmetry: By isolating a specific muscle group, you can work on sculpting and defining that muscle, which can help improve your overall physique and muscle symmetry. 1
  • Increase intensity of a workout: This exercises can be used to increase the intensity of a workout by focusing on a specific muscle group after compound exercises have fatigued it.
  • Rehabilitation and injury prevention: Isolation can be used to rehabilitate an injury or weakness by targeting the affected muscle group. They can also help prevent future injuries by strengthening specific muscle groups.
  • Variety: Incorporating isolation exercises into your workout routine can provide variety and prevent boredom, as well as challenge different muscle groups.
  • Improve performance: These exercises can help improve performance in specific sports or activities by strengthening the muscle groups used in those activities. 2
Note:
It’s important to note that while isolation exercises can be beneficial, they should not be the only exercises included in a workout routine. A balanced program that includes a combination of compound and isolation exercises, as well as proper form and technique, is the best approach to achieving overall strength and fitness.

Incorporating both compound and isolation exercises

Compound exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, and bench press, are often praised for their ability to work multiple muscle groups at once and provide a full body workout. 3 However, isolation exercises, which target a single muscle or muscle group with minimal involvement of other muscle groups, also have a place in a well-rounded fitness routine.

Isolation exercises, such as bicep curls, tricep extensions, leg extensions, and calf raises, can be useful for targeting specific muscle groups that may need more work or for isolating an injury or weakness. They can also be used to increase the intensity of a workout by focusing on a specific muscle group after compound exercises have fatigued it.

In addition, isolation exercises can also be beneficial for bodybuilders, fitness competitors, and athletes looking to enhance their physique or improve their performance in a specific sport. They can be used to sculpt and define specific muscle groups and create a balanced and proportionate physique.

While isolation exercises can be beneficial, they should not be the only exercises included in a workout routine. Compound exercises are also important for overall strength and fitness, and a balanced program that includes a combination of both isolation and compound exercises is the best approach to achieving overall strength and fitness. 4

Include a variety of exercises in your routine to challenge different muscle groups and prevent boredom. 5 Additionally, proper form and technique are crucial when performing any exercise, including isolation exercises, to avoid injury and ensure effectiveness.

Bottom line:
While compound exercises are commonly praised for their ability to work multiple muscle groups at once, isolation exercises also have a place in a well-rounded fitness routine. They can be used to target specific muscle groups, increase workout intensity, enhance physique, and improve performance. A balanced program that includes a combination of both isolation and compound exercises, as well as proper form and technique, is the best approach to achieving overall strength and fitness.

The best isolation exercises

Here are some of the best isolation exercises for each muscle group:

1. Best chest exercises

Isolating the upper, mid and lower chest can be achieved by using different angles and exercises that target the chest at different points. Here are some examples of isolation exercises for each chest area:

Upper chest: The upper chest, also known as the clavicular head of the pectoral muscle, 6 is an area that can be difficult to target with traditional chest exercises. Some of the best exercises for targeting the upper chest include:

  • Incline Dumbbell Fly: This exercise is performed on an incline bench, with the bench set at an angle of 30–45 degrees. The incline dumbbell fly targets the upper chest specifically and also allows for a greater range of motion than the barbell press.
  • Incline Cable Fly: This exercise is performed on an incline bench, with the bench set at an angle of 30–45 degrees. The incline cable fly targets the upper chest specifically and allows for a greater range of motion than the barbell press.

Mid-chest: Mid-chest or the sternal head of the pectoral muscle, is an area that can be targeted with isolation exercises. Here are some examples of isolation exercises that can help to target the mid-chest specifically:

  • Cable Crossover: This exercise is performed with a cable machine and targets the mid-chest specifically. The cable crossover allows for a greater range of motion than the barbell press.
  • Dumbbell Fly: This exercise is performed on a flat bench, with the bench set at a 90-degree angle. The dumbbell fly targets the mid-chest specifically and also allows for a greater range of motion than the barbell press.

Lower chest: The lower chest, also known as the abdominal head of the pectoral muscle, is an area that can be difficult to target with traditional chest exercises. However, there are several isolation exercises that can help to target the lower chest specifically. Some of the best exercises for targeting the lower chest include:

  • Decline Dumbbell Fly: This exercise is performed on a decline bench, with the bench set at an angle of -30 to -45 degrees. The decline dumbbell fly targets the lower chest specifically and also allows for a greater range of motion than the barbell press.
  • Decline Cable Fly: This exercise is performed on a decline bench, with the bench set at an angle of -30 to -45 degrees. The decline cable fly targets the lower chest specifically and allows for a greater range of motion than the barbell press.

2. Best back exercises

There are several muscle groups in the back that can be targeted with isolation exercises. Here are some examples of the best isolation exercises for each muscle group:

  • Face pulls: This exercise targets the upper back specifically and can be performed using a cable machine or resistance band.
  • Seated rows: This exercise targets the upper back specifically and can be performed using a cable machine or resistance band.
  • Bent-over rows: This exercise targets the mid-back specifically and can be performed using a barbell, dumbbells, or resistance band.
  • Seated cable rows: Seated cable rows are an isolation exercise that targets the back muscles, specifically the latissimus dorsi and the rhomboids. You sit at a machine with a cable attached to a bar and pull the bar towards your chest, returning it to the starting position.
  • Pull-downs: Pull-downs are an isolation exercise that targets the back muscles, specifically the latissimus dorsi. You sit at a machine with a bar attached to a cable, grasp the bar and pull it down towards your chest, returning the bar to the starting position.
  • Dumbbell rows: Dumbbell rows are an isolation exercise that targets the back muscles, specifically the latissimus dorsi and the rhomboids. You hold a dumbbell in one hand and bend forward at the waist, lifting the dumbbell towards your side, returning it to the starting position.
  • Deadlifts: This exercise targets the lower back specifically and can be performed using a barbell or dumbbells.
  • Good mornings: The Good morning exercise targets the lower back specifically and can be performed using a barbell or resistance band.
  • Superman: This exercise targets the lower back specifically and can be performed using bodyweight or added resistance.
  • Upright rows: This exercise targets the trapezius muscle specifically and can be performed using a barbell or dumbbells.
  • Shrugs: The shrugs exercise targets the trapezius muscle specifically and can be performed using a barbell or dumbbells.
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3. Best arm exercises

There are several muscle groups in the arm that can be targeted with isolation exercises. Here are some examples of the best isolation exercises for each muscle group:

Biceps: The biceps muscle is located in the front of the upper arm. It is a two-headed muscle, consisting of the short head and the long head. The best isolation exercises for biceps, each muscle group:

  • Standing Dumbbell Curl: This exercise targets the biceps specifically and can be performed using dumbbells.
  • Seated Dumbbell Curl: This exercise targets the biceps specifically and can be performed using dumbbells.
  • Incline Dumbbell Curl: This exercise targets the biceps specifically and can be performed using dumbbells.
  • Hammer curls: Hammer curls are an isolation exercise that targets the biceps. You hold a pair of dumbbells in each hand with a neutral grip, and curl the weight towards your shoulders, returning them to the starting position.
  • Dumbbell Concentration Curl: This exercise targets the biceps specifically and can be performed using dumbbells. The movement involves curling the dumbbells towards the shoulders while sitting on a bench with one elbow resting on the inside of the thigh, which targets the biceps muscle fibers in a concentrated manner.
  • Standing Cable Curl: This exercise targets the biceps specifically and can be performed using a cable machine.
  • Seated Cable Curl: This exercise targets the biceps specifically and can be performed using a cable machine.
  • Preacher Curl: This exercise targets the biceps specifically and can be performed using a preacher curl machine.
  • Dumbbell Inward Curl: This exercise targets the biceps specifically and can be performed using dumbbells. The movement involves curling the dumbbells towards the shoulders while keeping the palms facing each other, which targets the inner biceps muscle fibers.
  • Cable Inward Curl: This exercise targets the biceps specifically and can be performed using a cable machine. The movement involves curling the cable bar towards the shoulders while keeping the palms facing each other, which targets the inner biceps muscle fibers.
  • Cable Concentration Curl: This exercise targets the biceps specifically and can be performed using a cable machine. The movement involves curling the cable handle towards the shoulder while standing with one elbow resting on the inside of the thigh, which targets the biceps muscle fibers in a concentrated manner.

Triceps: The triceps muscle is located on the back of the upper arm, opposite the biceps. It is a three-headed muscle, consisting of the lateral head, medial head, and long head. The following isolation exercises work to isolate the movement to the triceps muscle group, allowing for maximum emphasis on that muscle group, including:

  • Cable tricep extensions: Cable tricep extensions are an isolation exercise that targets the triceps. You stand in front of a cable machine and grasp the handle with both hands, extend your arms straight, and then return to the starting position.
  • Dumbbell tricep kickbacks: Dumbbell tricep kickbacks are an isolation exercise that targets the triceps. You hold a dumbbell in one hand and bend forward at the waist, extending your arm behind you, returning it to the starting position.
  • Cable Tricep Kickback: This exercise targets the triceps specifically and can be performed using a cable machine. The movement involves extending the arm behind the body while keeping the elbow close to the body, which targets the triceps muscle.
  • Dumbbell Skull Crusher: This exercise targets the triceps specifically and can be performed using dumbbells. The movement involves extending the arm towards the floor while holding dumbbells, which targets the triceps muscle.
  • Cable Press Down: This exercise targets the triceps specifically and can be performed using a cable machine. The movement involves pushing down the cable bar towards the thighs, which targets the triceps muscle.
  • Cable Reverse Grip Press Down: This exercise targets the triceps specifically and can be performed using a cable machine. The movement involves pushing down the cable bar towards the thighs with a reverse grip, which targets the triceps muscle.
  • Rope Press Down: This exercise targets the triceps specifically and can be performed using a rope attachment on a cable machine. The movement involves pushing down the rope towards the thighs, which targets the triceps muscle.
  • Rope Tricep Extension: This exercise targets the triceps specifically and can be performed using a rope attachment on a cable machine. The movement involves extending the arm towards the ceiling, which targets the triceps muscle.
  • Close-grip bench press: Close-grip bench press is an isolation exercise that targets the triceps. You lie on a flat bench with your hands close together on the barbell and press the bar towards the ceiling, returning it to the starting position.

Forearms: The forearms are located on the lower portion of the arm, between the elbow and wrist. They are composed of several muscle groups that work together to perform various movements. These muscles include the wrist flexors, wrist extensors, and brachioradialis muscle.

The following isolation exercises isolate the movement to the specific muscle group, allowing for maximum emphasis on that muscle group:

  • Wrist curls: Wrist curls are an isolation exercise that targets the flexor muscles of the forearms. You sit on a bench with your forearms resting on it and a weight in your hands, then raise your hand and lower them again, using only your wrist muscles.
  • Reverse wrist curls: Reverse wrist curls are an isolation exercise that targets the extensor muscles of the forearms. You sit on a bench with your forearms resting on it and a weight in your hands, palms facing down, then raise your hands and lower them again, using only your wrist muscles.
  • Farmer’s Walk: Farmer’s walk is an isolation exercise that targets the grip and forearm muscles. You hold a heavy weight in each hand and walk for a certain distance.
  • Plate Pinch: Plate pinch is an isolation exercise that targets the grip and forearm muscles. You hold a plate between your thumb and fingers and hold it for a certain amount of time.

4. Best shoulder exercises

The shoulder is a complex joint that is composed of several muscle groups. These muscle groups include the deltoids, rotator cuff muscles, and the trapezius.

Isolation exercises that isolate a movement for a specific muscle group, allowing maximum emphasis on that muscle groups, include:

  • Dumbbell shoulder press: The Dumbbell shoulder press is an isolation exercise that targets the shoulders, specifically the deltoids and the trapezius. You sit or stand with a dumbbell in each hand and press them overhead, returning them to the starting position.
  • Standing Dumbbell Lateral Raise: The dumbbell lateral raise exercise targets the shoulders specifically and can be performed using dumbbells.
  • Standing Cable Lateral Raise: This exercise targets the shoulders specifically and can be performed using a cable machine.
  • Standing Dumbbell Front Raise: The dumbbell front raise exercise targets the shoulders specifically and can be performed using dumbbells.
  • Cable front raises: Cable front raises are an isolation exercise that targets the shoulders, specifically the deltoids. You stand in front of a cable machine with a handle attached and raise it up to the front of your body, returning it to the starting position.
  • Rope Front Raise: This exercise targets the deltoid muscle specifically and can be performed using a rope attachment on a cable machine. The movement involves lifting the rope towards the front of the body, which targets the anterior deltoid muscle.
  • Cable Side Raise: This exercise targets the deltoid muscle specifically and can be performed using a cable machine. The movement involves lifting the cable towards the side of the body, which targets the medial deltoid muscle.
  • Plate Front Press: The plate front press exercise targets the deltoid muscle specifically and can be performed using a plate weight. The movement involves pressing the plate weight towards the front of the body, which targets the anterior deltoid muscle.
  • Cable Upright Row: This exercise targets the deltoid muscle specifically and can be performed using a cable machine. The movement involves pulling the cable towards the body with the elbows pointing upwards, which targets the deltoid muscle.
  • Dumbbell Upright Row: This exercise targets the deltoid muscle specifically and can be performed using dumbbells. The movement involves lifting the dumbbells towards the body with the elbows pointing upwards, which targets the deltoid muscle.
  • Plate Upright Row: This exercise targets the deltoid muscle specifically and can be performed using a plate weight. The movement involves lifting the plate weight towards the body with the elbows pointing upwards, which targets the deltoid muscle.
  • Plate Rotations: The plate rotations exercise targets the rotator cuff muscles specifically and can be performed using a plate weight. The movement involves holding a plate weight in front of the body and rotating the plate weight in a circular motion, which targets the rotator cuff muscles. This exercise can be done in both clockwise and counter-clockwise direction, to target both internal and external rotator cuff muscles.
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5. Best legs exercises

The legs are composed of several muscle groups that work together to perform various movements. These muscle groups include the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.

Isolation exercises that isolate the movement to the specific muscle group, allowing for maximum emphasis on that muscle group, including:

Quadriceps: The quadriceps are a group of four muscles located on the front of the thigh. They are responsible for extending the knee and straightening the leg.

  • Leg press: The Leg press is an isolation exercise that targets the quadriceps. You sit in a leg press machine and press the weight away using your legs, returning to the starting position.
  • Leg extension: Leg extension is an isolation exercise that targets the quadriceps. You sit at a machine, place your lower legs under the pad and extend your legs, returning to the starting position.
  • Cable Leg Extension: This exercise targets the quadriceps specifically and can be performed using a cable machine. The movement involves extending the leg at the knee joint, which targets the quadriceps muscle.
  • Single-leg Extension: This exercise targets the quadriceps specifically and can be performed using a leg extension machine. The movement involves extending one leg at the knee joint, which targets the quadriceps muscle.

Hamstrings: The hamstrings are a group of three muscles located on the back of the thigh. They are responsible for flexing the knee and bending the leg.

  • Lying leg curls: Lying leg curls are an isolation exercise that targets the hamstrings. You lie on your stomach and curl your legs towards your glutes, returning them to the starting position.
  • Seated leg curls: Seated leg curls are an isolation exercise that targets the hamstrings. You sit at a machine and curl your legs towards your glutes, returning them to the starting position.
  • Single-Leg Curl: This exercise targets the hamstrings specifically and can be performed using a leg curl machine. The movement involves flexing one knee, bringing the heel towards the glutes, which targets the hamstrings muscle.
  • Stiff-legged deadlift: The Stiff-legged deadlift exercise targets the hamstrings specifically and can be performed using a barbell or a pair of dumbbells. The movement involves bending forward at the hips, with a straight back, while keeping the legs straight, this allows the hamstrings to work as a prime mover.

Glutes: The glutes are a group of three muscles located in the buttocks. They are responsible for extending the hip, rotating the thigh, and stabilizing the pelvis.

  • Glute bridges: Glute bridges are an isolation exercise that targets the glutes. You lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, and then lift your hips towards the ceiling, returning to the starting position.
  • Cable kickbacks: Cable kickbacks are an isolation exercise that targets the glutes. You kneel in front of a cable machine with a handle attached and kick your leg back, returning to the starting position.
  • Dumbbell Lunges: This exercise targets the glutes specifically and can be performed using dumbbells. The movement involves stepping forward with one leg and lowering the body, which targets the glutes muscle.
  • Cable Clamshell: This exercise targets the glutes specifically and can be performed using a cable machine. The movement involves lifting one knee towards the ceiling while the other leg remains on the ground, which targets the glutes muscle.

Calves: The calves are a group of two muscles located on the back of the lower leg. They are responsible for pointing the toes and lifting the heel.

  • Standing calf raises: Standing calf raises are an isolation exercise that targets the calf muscles. You stand on a raised platform with your toes pointing forward and raise yourself up on your toes, returning to the starting position.
  • Seated calf raises: Seated calf raises are an isolation exercise that targets the calf muscles. You sit at a machine with your toes on a platform and press your heels down, returning to the starting position.
  • Donkey calf raises: Donkey calf raises are an isolation exercise that targets the calf muscles. You kneel on a raised platform and press your toes down, returning to the starting position.
  • Single-leg Calf Raise: This exercise targets the calves specifically and can be performed using a calf raise machine or a block and a barbell. The movement involves standing on one leg and lifting the heel up, which targets the calf muscle.

6. Best abs exercises

The abs, also known as the rectus abdominis and the obliques, are a group of muscles located in the abdominal region. These muscle groups work together to provide stability to the trunk, help with breathing and support the spine.

Isolation exercises that isolate the movement to the specific muscle group, allowing for maximum emphasis on that muscle group, includes:

Rectus Abdominis: The rectus abdominis is the large muscle that runs vertically on the front of the abdominal wall and is responsible for flexing the trunk, such as when performing a crunch or sit-up.

  • Crunches: Crunches are an isolation exercise that targets the rectus abdominis muscle. You lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, then curl your shoulders off the floor towards your knees, returning to the starting position.
  • Sit-ups: Sit-ups are an isolation exercise that targets the rectus abdominis muscle. You lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, then curl your shoulders and hips off the floor towards your knees, returning to the starting position.
  • Leg raises: Leg raises are an isolation exercise that targets the rectus abdominis muscle. You lie on your back with your hands under your hips and raise your legs up towards the ceiling, then lower them back down to the starting position.
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Obliques: The obliques are a group of muscles located on the side of the abdominal wall, and are responsible for rotation and lateral flexion of the trunk.

  • Russian twists: Russian twists are an isolation exercise that targets the oblique muscles. You sit on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat, holding a weight, and twist your torso to one side, then the other.
  • Side planks: Side planks are an isolation exercise that targets the oblique muscles. You lie on one side, prop yourself up on one elbow, and hold your body in a straight line for a certain period of time.
  • Cable twists: Cable twists are an isolation exercise that targets the oblique muscles. You stand at a cable machine with a rope attachment, hold the rope with both hands and twist your torso to one side, then the other.

How many reps of isolation exercises should you do?

The number of reps you should do for isolation exercises will depend on your fitness level, goals, and the specific exercise you are performing.

Generally speaking, the rep range for building muscle is 8–12 reps per set. This rep range will allow you to use heavier weights and recruit more muscle fibers, leading to muscle growth over time.

If your goal is to increase muscular endurance, a higher rep range of 12-20 reps per set is more appropriate. This rep range will allow you to perform more reps with less rest, which will increase your stamina over time.

For injury rehab or injury prevention, a lower rep range of 10-15 reps per set is recommended. This rep range will allow you to work the targeted muscle group with lighter weights and reduce the risk of injury.

It’s important to note that these rep ranges are general guidelines and that you should consult with a personal trainer or fitness professional to determine the best rep range for you, your goals and your fitness level.

It’s also important to consider that progression is key, meaning that you should increase the weight, reps or sets over time as your strength increases.

Pros and Cons of Isolation Exercises

Pros of Isolation Exercises:

  • Target specific muscle groups: Isolation exercises are designed to target specific muscle groups, which can help to create a more defined, symmetrical appearance.
  • Improve muscle imbalances: Isolation exercises can help to correct muscle imbalances by targeting weaker or underdeveloped muscle groups.
  • Rehabilitation: Isolation exercises can be beneficial for those recovering from injury or surgery, as they can be used to target specific muscle groups and help to rebuild strength and range of motion.
  • Good for beginners: Isolation exercises can be a great starting point for beginners who are new to strength training. They allow for a more focused, controlled movement and are less complex than compound exercises.

Cons of Isolation Exercises:

  • Time-consuming: Isolation exercises can be very specific and require a lot of time and effort to target each muscle group.
  • Limited overall fitness benefits: Isolation exercises can be beneficial for targeting specific muscle groups, but they may not offer the same overall fitness benefits as compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups at once.
  • Risk of overuse injuries: Overuse of isolation exercises can lead to muscle imbalances and increased risk of injury.
  • Limited functional benefits: Isolation exercises may not improve overall functional fitness like compound exercises.
Bottom line:
Overall, isolation exercises can be a useful tool for those looking to target specific muscle groups and improve muscle imbalances, but they should be used in conjunction with compound exercises to create a well-rounded fitness routine.

Who Should Do and Don’t Isolation Exercises?

Isolation exercises are exercises that target a specific muscle or muscle group. They can be beneficial for both beginners and advanced fitness enthusiasts, but there are certain considerations to take into account when determining whether or not to include isolation exercises in a workout routine.

Who should do isolation exercises:

  • Beginners: Isolation exercises can be a great starting point for beginners who are new to strength training. They allow for a more focused, controlled movement and are less complex than compound exercises, which can be beneficial for those just starting out.
  • Bodybuilders and physique athletes: Isolation exercises are commonly used by bodybuilders and physique athletes to target specific muscle groups and create a more defined, symmetrical appearance.
  • Rehabilitation: Isolation exercises can be beneficial for those recovering from injury or surgery, as they can be used to target specific muscle groups and help to rebuild strength and range of motion.

Who should avoid or limit isolation exercises:

  • People who only have limited time for exercise: Isolation exercises are very specific and require a lot of time and effort to target each muscle group. If you only have limited time for exercise, you may want to focus more on compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups at once.
  • People who have specific goals: If your goal is to improve your overall fitness and functionality, then isolation exercises may not be the best option. Compound exercises, like squats, deadlifts, and lunges, will give you more overall benefits.

Bottom line

Isolation exercises are exercises that target a specific muscle or muscle group. They can be beneficial for both beginners and advanced fitness enthusiasts, but there are certain considerations to take into account when determining whether or not to include isolation exercises in a workout routine.

Isolation exercises are great for targeting specific muscle groups, correcting muscle imbalances, and rehabilitation. But they can be time-consuming, offer limited overall fitness benefits, and have a higher risk of overuse injuries.

To get the most out of your workout routine, it’s important to combine isolation exercises with compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups at once.

The number of reps you should do for isolation exercises will depend on your fitness level, goals, and the specific exercise you are performing. It’s always a good idea to consult with a personal trainer or fitness professional to determine the best workout routine for you.

ⓘ Sources

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