Drop Isolation Exercises to Get Through Sticking Points

April 14, 2009

Here is a good strategy for people who like isolation exercises, but who also want to get strong in the basic lifts. This strategy is to include isolation exercises at the beginning of a strength gaining cycle, but dropping them as soon as you hit a sticking point. We will talk about why this works so well.

girl in white sunglasses

[Another cool photo that has nothing to do with the article. This photo reminds me of summer time. I can’t wait for sunny weather!]

Sticking Points in Strength Are Inevitable, But Can Be Limited

You can’t get strong forever using the exact same routine. Simply trying harder doesn’t work. A lot of times people try to get psyched-up before a set and scream and grunt. What normally happens is that they just use sloppy form and try to throw the weight into position instead of lifting it. If “trying harder” isn’t effective…then what is the solution?

Quit Being a Jack-of-all-Trades and Specialize on Fewer Lifts

The problem with too much variety in your routine is that you never allow your body to master a movement. Think of it this way…if you wanted to perfect your golf swing, you wouldn’t spend half of your time swinging a bat. Although swinging a bat and swinging a golf club appear to work similar muscle groups, the “groove” is a bit different…the bat and the golf club are going through a different space…a different “groove”.

The Concept of “Greasing the Groove”

Greasing the groove is training the same movement over and over again. The movement is trained often and never to failure. The exercise isn’t done to fatigue the muscle it is done to train the nervous system to become extremely efficient in that lift.

Why Building Strength is Much Different Than Building Muscle

To build muscle, the goals is to fatigue the muscle with medium to heavy weights. Many women don’t want to lift heavy with fear of getting big. If they lift heavy in a way that fatigues and tears down the muscle, then their fears are justified…they probably will put on some mass. Strength training in the way I recommend will build true muscle tone without tearing down the muscle at all. This is what allows the muscle to get stronger without building size.

Variety Is Fine When Starting a New Routine

Typically variables should be changed up every 4-5 months to keep things fresh. I think it is great to use a variety of exercises when first starting a new routine. Since the routine is new, forward progress in strength is inevitable. Even though you are using a bunch of different movements, you will probably get stronger just because it is a new stimulus.

Pay Close Attention to the Compound Lifts

The compound lifts like bench press, chins, rows, and military press are the lifts that should be monitored closely. If you get stuck at a certain weight for a week or two, it is time to limit your movements. If you were doing 3 different exercises for chest, drop one of them. The first thing to drop is any isolation work. If you were doing bench press, incline press, and flyes for instance…drop the flyes.

Do the Same Amount of Sets Per Muscle Group

Here is where the “greasing the groove” concept comes into play. Say you were doing 5 sets of 3 different exercises for chest…for a total of 15 sets of 5 reps. Even though you are dropping an exercise, I want you to stick to 15 total sets. So now you are doing 8 sets of one exercise and 7 sets of another. This is allowing your nervous system to master that exact motion with more sets of each particular movement.

Lets Take it One Step Further…

Let’s say you get to a sticking point again. You can drop one more exercise, so now you are mastering just one exercise per muscle group. I know it sounds crazy to do 15 sets of bench, but you will master this lift and milk that exercise for another 10-20+ pounds. The key is to not go near failure and do low reps with ample rest in between sets.

I Learned This Technique from A Former Navy Seal

About 5 years ago, a guy about my size asked me for a spot. Judging by his gray hair, he must have been in his early to mid 40’s. I walked over to the bench to give him a spot and saw 315 pounds on the bar. He did a steady 5 reps. I spotted him about 10 more times, but never had to touch the bar…5 easy reps every time. I asked him how he was so strong and he explained to me the technique of dropping an exercise as he reached sticking points.

The Former Navy Seal’s Workout Routine

That day he was just working chest and back. All he did was 15 sets of bench and 12 sets of weighted chinups. He was using the concept of greasing the groove and it worked well for him. I know that some people won’t be impressed with a bench of 315 pounds, but this guy was 6’3″ and around 190 pounds. His arms weren’t huge, but looked like they were cut out of stone. To this day I don’t think I’ve seen such dense muscles.

Note: If you are at a sticking point, consider giving this technique a try. Focus on less lifts over time as you progress through your routine.

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

anne April 14, 2009 at 7:06 pm

what exactly is a “sticking point”?

also – could you provide a routine for women? i’ve been doing the same routine for about a year now and i know i should switch it up, but there’s so much out there i’m sort of overwhelmed.

here’s my schedules (3x per week is all i can manage):
12×2 of bench press with 10lb dumbbells
12×2 of shoulder press with 10lb dumbbells
12-15×2 of bicep curls with 10lb dumbbells
12×2 of tricep kickbacks with 10lb dumbbells (on leg on the bench)
12×2 of lat pull down with 50-60lb

sometimes.. 12×2 of side/front arm raises with 8lb

i would prefer to leave out squats and lunges because i feel my legs are already too muscular! thanks rusty

Adam Steer - Better Is Better April 14, 2009 at 8:39 pm

Refreshing!

I love the way you put the lie to many of the mainstream myths Rusty.

I totally agree with finding your “groove” exercises and always coming back to them. For me, they become a benchmark as much as a training tool. Even if I move away from them to achieve some other goal, I can see how I’m doing by coming back to them.

I use my Clubbells a lot for that purpose.

Great post.

Cheers,
Adam

Greg Cook April 14, 2009 at 9:28 pm

Hmm. This is an interesting concept. You know it is not really that complicated, but I have never thought of this before. I am going to have to give this a try whenever I hit a plateau again. Thanks for the cool post!

Scott N April 14, 2009 at 10:17 pm

Also what I like doing to get through a sticking point is going to a gym and slapping on 99.5 percent of my max dead lift and doing it once waiting a couple of minutes then doing it again and again about 10 times then go home. Never decreasing the weight. The same thing goes the next day when doing chins. Use a weighted belt and hang weight that I can only do once and hit the same procedure mentioned.

Scott N April 14, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Also what I like doing to get through a sticking point is going to a gym and slapping on 97 percent of my max dead lift and doing it once waiting a couple of minutes then doing it again and again about 10 times then go home. Never decreasing the weight. The same thing goes the next day when doing chins. Use a weighted belt and hang weight that I can only do once and hit the same procedure mentioned.
Don’t get me wrong I love Isolation exercises but Ill do this for about a week and switch back over to my usual routine.

Yash April 14, 2009 at 11:37 pm

Hey Rusty,
You’re eerie man. Your posts always seem to come at a very appropriate time. Just the other day in my neuropsychology class, we discussed the motor function of the brain. After class, I went to chat with the professor about how this relates to athletic movements/trained movements in general. Basically, when you perform any sort of movement, even as basic as lifting a cup of coffee, your brain is simultaneously sending out motor signals and receiving feedback from the body, i.e. in this case: “am I gripping the mug strong enough?” I actually asked the prof specifically about the “groove” [which is why this post is so weirdly coincidental]. Part of building that groove is practicing the movement enough that your brain has to perform less of those calculations as the movement becomes natural. Obviously, when it comes to strength training, you’re going from a different neural effect, which is to get your brain to send stronger signals to more muscle fibers, but I thought you might be interested in that other little tidbit.

A few things though: as of now, my strength training routine consists entirely of the multi-joint movements you mentioned. Since I don’t have any exercises to cut back, do you have any other tips for getting through plateaus? I’m going to try periodization soon on some of the lifts that I haven’t made progress in a while. Also, if you’re greasing the groove for a specific movement, will it still carry over to real world strength, or just that lift?

Yash April 14, 2009 at 11:44 pm

Anne:
You could design a routine for yourself that includes a few more multi-joint exercises rather than isolation exercises like lateral raises and curls. An easy way to do this for the upper body is to think in terms of movements rather than muscles: vertical push, vertical pull, horizontal push, horizontal pull, and any angles in between that you feel like. In general, balance out the push and pull exercises so you’re anterior/posterior balanced. Also, sets of 12 with light weights works toward muscular endurance. Even though the idea of high reps has been sold to women as a great toning strategy, strength training with lower reps and higher weights will help you tone. As long as you don’t break down muscle and start eating excess, you will likely only see an increase in tone and density, not size. Throw in some HIIT in place of direct leg work and you’ll be golden!

Kane April 15, 2009 at 12:19 am

Good tip Rusty, I think I’m currently at a sticking point with my biceps, so I guess it might be time to drop those regular bicep curls!

What would you recomend as some of the best excersises for getting wider shoulders are?

Also, I tried the bodyweight routine you recomended last post and I loved it. 15 minutes of pushups does take it out of you!

Thanks

-Kane

Nate - Fit-Life April 15, 2009 at 1:54 am

A simple concept, but a great point. Another awesome article, Rusty.

matt April 15, 2009 at 3:11 am

Nice article again Rusty.

My line of thinking is this is the S.A.I.D principle in action – Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands.

By dropping the iso exercise and focussing more on the main compound move you’re much more likely to improve due to the above principle – that and you get a much better hormonal response through heavy compound exercises than isolation movements anyway.

This is the main reason why powerlifters routines are so basic – to get good at a movement, the over all mainstay of the routine must focus on the lift you want to get good at.

I think one of the main reasons why progress halts is lack of periodisation, and training balls to the wall week in week out.

My own sport of powerlifting would look something like:-
Week 1 70% 1rm work up to set of 5 reps
Week 2 80% 1rm work up to a set of 3 reps
week 3 90% 1rm work up to a single
week 4 easy week using kettlebells and light movements

Each week would see 3 sessions, 1 bench specific, 1 Deadlift and 1 Squat.

By Using this type of periodisation my gains have been coming steadily for as long as i can remember.

Best Wishes

Helder April 15, 2009 at 7:24 am

Solid advice here Rusty, the more you specialize the better results you get. This is specially true for people who have been lifting for years, the workouts should become shorter and the number of lifts too, this is one of the cases where less is more. Before starting to train outdoors, that was the kind of workouts i was doing, one big exercise for each body part with a lot of sets and low reps, things like 10×3 never going to failure, and i was really dense, strong, and even a bit bigger, but not bloated big, bigger with a dense look.

A lot of people tend to think that isolation exercises will improve their weak points, but no, it will make things worse, to improve weak points use compound exercises, the basics always work better, and that’s true for sticking points, and for weaker muscle groups.

An example if one has weak biceps, what do you think it will improve your biceps and give you more strength, chins or curls? I hope everyone answers chins, those will make your biceps stronger and bigger too if you want.

Greg April 15, 2009 at 7:51 am

I’ve given up completely on isolation exercises. I’ve got too little precious time to spend in the gym to waste it on exercises that work single muscle groups. Everything I do is a complex motion that involves multiple muscle groups.

Michiel April 15, 2009 at 8:53 am

Good point you make with this post Rusty, when i reach a sticking point i will keep that in mind. Also i’m working out with your workout schedule 4 days a week. Now some of the workouts i follow your sensible way to built muscle mass and i do this with more sets and low reps (15 sets of 5 reps). Now is it ok to do this for example 1 chest workout and 1 back workout per week, and keep the rest of the workouts low on volume? I would like to keep gaining compact muscle mass and strength without getting the risk off overtraining offcourse.

BTW: Thanks allot for everything you do with this site, it helps me allot with achieving my goals. I’m currently in the less than 5 pound range for obtaining a low bodyfat.

Forrest April 15, 2009 at 9:37 am

Scott N: Yeah, I’ve had similar experiences. When I’m at a sticking point I can usually force it out eventually. Even so, I usually gain more by switching up my workout plan every 6-8 weeks.

Anne: I’d recommend actually increasing the weight periodically. I know it’s hard to find dumbbells in small increments, but if I were you, I would gradually introduce 15lb dumbbells, especially in bench press. If you never increase the weight, the current weight will become easy, but repeating the same workout (with the same weight/reps) for a year will provide very limited gains.

Elena April 15, 2009 at 9:57 am

Rusty and Yash,

“Even though the idea of high reps has been sold to women as a great toning strategy, strength training with lower reps and higher weights will help you tone. As long as you don’t break down muscle..”

Now how do I know that I’m working my strength when I’m doing low reps with higher weight and NOT breaking down muscle ??? should I not be aiming for muscle failure … so when I do 6 reps of an exercise and I feel that I could do another 4 or 5 (but I would struggle on the last 2 reps), should I stop at 6 ?

Patrick April 15, 2009 at 10:47 am

Hey Rusty,
I think this method would be very effective to use on the meat and potato lifts such as bench press, chins, dips, seated dumbbell presses for delts especially when your time is limited and you want to get the most bang for the buck. This is typically what I’ve done for a while now, mastering these basic movements by doing them over and over with an emphasis on perfect form and stopping short of failure with slow reps. I haven’t done the 15 sets because I spend most of my time doing hiit and steady state but the few times I have, I believe it was very effective. When does the fitness blackboard begin? been looking forward to it, I hope I haven’t missed it.
Thanks

Ramon April 15, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Great post Rusty! For whatever reason I never seem to be able to get very strong. I know 300lbs bench press is nothing for a lot of guys, but I can’t seem to even build up to 150lbs. I know it’s part inconsistency with working out, but even when I am dedicated for several weeks I seem to reach a point where I just can’t get any stronger. I don’t even use that many exercises for fear of overtraining.

Helder April 15, 2009 at 1:38 pm

Elena i believe that if you keep your calories low you never will have to worry about gaining too much mass, it’s as simple as that, keep the volume low and the reps low too.

About your other question, if that happens to you it’s because the weight you’re using is too low, if you feel you could do a few more reps just add weight and try to keep under 5 reps per set, but without going to failure. Keep adjusting weights, and you’ll know by experience what’s the right weight for the desired amount of sets, but don’t stress about it

Yavor April 16, 2009 at 3:52 am

The one mode of training or routine that you have’t been doing lately will yield the best results. It’s the simple rule of adaptation. So if you’ve been doing strength training lately, switch it up and pump up for hypertrophy for a couple of months. If you’ve been hitting it with splits, switch it with some low rep strength training or power-lifiing or why not hit the park for some body weight circuits ala Turbulence Training our friend coach Adam Steer’s stuff…

That’s why I consider alternating between training for strength (just a few major exercises for the whole body, multiple times per week, low reps) and training for muscle size (as in split training done 1 per week per muscle with 8-12 reps for 6-10 sets and 2-4 exercises) the ultimate way to avoid sticking points.

Good stuff, Rusty, as always…

-yavor

rob April 16, 2009 at 9:25 am

Hey Rusty,

I’m a new reader. I like your blog because

A. you post nice pictures and
B. you cut the crap.

Keep up the good work.

Rob.

fitness-siren April 16, 2009 at 9:37 am

Hey Rusty, that’s good post right there. I’m actually focusing on getting stronger right now so I decided to do the Stronglifts 5×5 routine. I’m glad that you posted this because it justifies my decision to go back to basics and master them. It was hard to get used to not doing supersets at first because I was so used to Turbulence Training workouts but it is a nice change of pace. I really do feel stronger each time I raise the weights though.

admin April 16, 2009 at 4:23 pm

Anne,

The way I’m referring to sticking point, is being stuck as far as strength goes. Like being able to lift 100 pounds for 3 reps in a lift and being stuck there for weeks at a time.

Adam,

Yeah…I always measure my progress with the basics.

Greg,

It will work for you. It takes some sort of adjustment to get through sticking points and this is one of the best.

Scott,

Same principle with a different rep range. Not a bad call as long as you warmup.

Yash,

Since you are starting with the basics and don’t use isolation exercises. I would recommend that you reduce reps over time. Start with sets of 5. Once you get to a sticking point reduce it to 3 reps. This works well. Getting strong in the groove carries over to real world strength as well.

Kane,

I like standing military press with an olympic bar for shoulders. Get stronger in that lift and you will improve your entire shoulder structure.

Matt,

Good tips. The strongest lifters I have seen limit their exercise variety. Those guys who bench 600+, spend a lot of time just doing set after set of bench press and everything else is just a supplement to the main lift.

Helder,

Great points about reducing the number of exercises as you get more experienced. An experienced person can get much more out of a lift than a beginner. Also…I used to do flyes for chest and they grew quickly while my triceps remained stagnant. I have been playing catchup ever since. Since that time, I don’t go near flyes. I also avoid lateral raises. The basics are where it is at for the most part. Good stuff.

Greg,

I have dropped most of my isolation stuff as well. You really don’t need them at all after years of lifting. I think they do have some benefit for begginners to feel each individual muscle, but once the mind-to-muscle link is strong…there is little need.

Michiel,

That is awesome on the progress you are making! You can certainly just work chest and back once per week…especially if you are building mass. Once you get to the size you like, then go low volume high-tension twice per week.

Elena,

Just stop short of failure and avoid the pump. Keep the calories low and do HIIT and you will be pretty safe.

Patrick,

Sorry about slacking off on Fitness BlackBoard…I have been tied up with a few things. I’ll get to it soon.

Ramon,

There is a time element involved. I’m terrible at bench pressing, but strong as hell at other lifts. You won’t be great at everything you try.

Helder,

Great answers. Thanks buddy!

Yavor,

It is good to mix things up every once in a while. I do it a bit les than most, but you are correct about adaptation.

Rob,

Thanks…I try my best to talk about tips and tweaks that can make the difference between good results or great results. I also spend too long finding good pictures, but I think it does make the experience more enjoyable.

fitness-siren,

I like to mix in Turbulence Training on days that I feel extremely short on time. I also do Turbulence Training body weight circuits once per week.

Have a great one!

Rusty

Chris - fitnessfail.com April 16, 2009 at 4:57 pm

Good article – you do well to point out that most of the strength gains from “greasing the groove” are due to neurological adaptation, not the addition of more muscle. A of people seem to miss this completely.

Anne – any particular reason why you’re using 10lbs for everything?

check out http://www.exrx.net…StrengthStandards.htm (Sometimes Rusty’s blogging software deletes links, search google on “exrx strength standards”)
to get a reasonable idea of 1RM strengths for your gender, experience level and size.

Scale accordingly. But the take home point is that I HIGHLY doubt you should be using toy weights to lift. Lifting heavy won’t make you big, but it will make you stronger and get results.

Ramon – check out the book “Starting Strength”

Alex April 20, 2009 at 4:58 pm

Have you ever heard of Erwan Le Corre? I just read about him the other day and figured you’d like his stuff. Men’s Health has an article about him: http://tinyurl.com/dydexk

Anthony April 21, 2009 at 12:00 am

Alex: Rusty did a post on Erwan Le Corre. Here is the link: http://fitnessblackbook.com…a-competition-of-the-ages/

SB April 24, 2009 at 2:52 pm

Many women don’t want to lift heavy with fear of getting big. If they lift heavy in a way that fatigues and tears down the muscle, then their fears are justified…they probably will put on some mass.

Some mass? Not much, though. Check out this teenage powerlifter . . . at 97 pounds. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLIXQz_8erA&feature=player_embedded

Anthony April 26, 2009 at 12:09 am

Hey Rusty, I’ve got to ask you for clarification in my own workouts, and I thought this post was a good venue because it brought Iso Rows to my mind. It’s a pretty in-depth question, but I value your opinion more than any other person I know who works out.

I have been incorporating the 2 day split, starting on Saturdays. This way, I can rest on Monday because I have school from 10 AM to 8:45 PM (brutal). Anyway, I just want to know if I’m doing everything right, so that I can build upon the correct foundation.

Basically, I eat healthy but don’t follow a specific diet; I am observant of what I eat and try to consume the healthiest range of stuff. I avoid soda, candy, processed and fast foods for the most part (90% of the time). I watch my sugars and carbs, but I can stay skinny all year round because of how my body is; putting on muscle is always harder. I don’t drink protein shakes after working out anymore, or not that much at all for that matter, and I try to eat three meals a day or the equivalent thereof. Once school lets out, I will do HIIT and body weight circuits after working out, but I’ve always been active and play a lot of basketball. I’m 6’1″, and usually hover around 175. I like going to the gym, but I’m definitely not addicted.

Basically, this is my question. In August 2007, I dislocated my shoulder in ju jitsu practice. I neglected physical therapy the first time around, and eventually went from winter 2007 to about May ’08. I am cautious, and I don’t do activity that would endanger the shoulder. I avoid things like deadlifts and skullcrushers(wouldn’t do them anyway), and anything extreme. (Doctor told me to avoid the throwing motion, as if I was pitching in baseball.) I took a break from working out, obviously, and now I am back. So this is what I do:

Saturday: chest, back = (chin-up, bench press, pec deck; iso row[low], seated row [pulling], t-bar[wide])
Sunday: triceps, biceps, {shoulders} = (close-grip bench, cable curls; dumbell curls, barbell curls, reverse grip barbell curls, hammer curls; {fronts, shoulder press, lateral raises}
Monday: rest
Tuesday: chest, back
Wednesday: triceps, biceps, {shoulders}
Thursday: rest
Friday: active recovery? (saw somebody write this in the comments section of 2 day split post and it sounded good to me)

3 sets, 5 reps. Moderately heavy weight, but manageable, (for me), using irradiation, working slowly. For instance, I do 30lb dumbells, 50 barbell, 30 T-bar, 80-90 bench press. 1 minute rest between reps and sets.

I want to know if this is a good way of doing things. I am basically lean and toned, but I want to add a bit of muscle and strive for the aesthetic you have put forth, one I’ve always liked. Cam Gigandet and Brad Pitt from Snatch, and Fight Club is something I always bring myself back to. I’d like to be cut up. I’m not a fan of being huge. I just want to be functionally fit, as I’ve heard you mention. If I need to utilize some strength, I want to be able to do so.
My chest is a little more built than Beckham’s, and it is not too developed. Because of this, I feel as if my shoulders overshadow my chest, since they are more developed. I stopped working out my shoulders with fronts and such because of this. Don’t know if it was the best thing to do. My overall build is similar to his, but I am a little bigger. I sometimes feel like my arms are bigger than my chest, which is the case, and I want to be evenly distributed. My abs are good, will improve, but I feel like my stomach gets bigger when I do seated rows for some reason. I don’t know if seated rows, low rows, or high rows are better, and I feel like lat pulldowns do nothing for me because I’ve done them in the past at like 80lbs, not noticing anything.

I’d like to know what you recommend for chest and back. Things you’ve featured like the standing military press look cool, but I don’t know what to do. As I never concentrated on my chest, I don’t know what I should be doing, and I am also confused about my back exercises. Should I be doing shoulders; more triceps? I don’t do tricep pushdowns because I was doing 50 lb and strained my neck somehow. I guess I didn’t breathe, and felt an immense pressure in my head, like a vice grip. I kind of avoided that from then on. I could really use some kind of set chest and back workout. Any other ideas you have about my other things is welcome too. I just want to make sure I’m well proportioned, well balanced, and doing things right.

Any input is sincerely valued, and I appreciate the time you put into this site and everything you do. I feel like asking other people will give me conflicting answers, and people don’t strive for the same body type as well. Knowing what I’m after, I feel that we are on the same page, and I wholeheartedly trust your expertise. Thank you very much in advance. Hopefully I can get on the right track and stay there.

darrin-lean-muscle May 6, 2009 at 9:04 pm

Very cool theory. I avoid isolation exercises anyway, but if I did do them, this is how I’d apply it. Thanks!

Shane June 13, 2009 at 11:26 pm

This technique works very well. I’m 5’8″ 145 lbs. (cutting weight for the summer). A couple of weeks ago I had a big guy spot me for my last set of reps at 225 lbs. I did 5 solid reps, stopping just before i touch my chest with slow, controlled movements. When I racked the weight I saw what I could only guess was his workout partner look at me for a second then nod in what I’m guessing was approval. The spotter commented on my technique after the set, saying “not many people your age lift with proper form”. (I’m 24) Again, I don’t look like I should be able to lift the amount of weight that I do thanks to finding this site. I used to pump out rediculous numbers of reps like a bodybuilder but this is much better. Keep the advice coming please sir.

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