Key Takeaways

  1. Getting stronger on isolation exercises takes longer than compound exercises because you’re using less muscle and the equipment available at most gyms force you to add more weight each week than you really should.
  2. The first six strategies on this list all revolve around either progressing in smaller increments or doing more reps and sets.
  3. The last two strategies are often neglected by many weightlifters, but are probably the two most effective ways to continue getting stronger on isolation exercises for years to come . . .

If you’re serious about weightlifting, one of the worst things that can happen is getting stuck. 

Your workouts become robotic chores, you stop giving each exercise your all, and you begin to wonder if you’re simply at the end of your genetic rope for muscle and strength gain.

This is particularly true of isolation exercises like the dumbbell side raise, barbell curl, calf raise, and the like. 

For one thing, you’re forced to lift what seem like relatively light weights compared to your heavy compound exercises. 

Every pound of progress is precious, and it can be maddening to show up to the gym every week and lift the same weight for months (or years) on end, with no idea how to pull yourself out of this rut. 

Moreover, you may find yourself plateaued on most of your isolation exercises despite making steady progress on your heavy compound exercises, which is even more puzzling. 

Why does this happen, and what can you do about it? 

Well, the short answer is there are several very simple explanations for why progressing on isolation exercises is more difficult than compound exercises. 

Once you understand what these are, you can use the eight strategies in this article to get stronger on all of your isolation exercises for years to come. 

A word of warning before you continue: 

Progress will always be painfully slow on isolation exercises once your newbie gains are gone. Anyone who seems to defy this rule is either new to lifting, returning to lifting after a long hiatus, or on drugs. Period.

If you keep at it, though, and commit to the process, you can make consistent, predictable progress on even the most stubborn isolation exercises, without taking steroids.

So, if you want to learn why isolation exercises are so damn difficult, and the eight best ways to get stronger despite this, venture forth once more unto the breach, dear friend, for this article will show you the way.

Why It’s So Hard to Progress on Isolation Exercises

when to do isolation exercises

Many people are baffled as to why isolation exercises always seem like such a slog, but they’re able to progress quickly on most compound exercises.

When you crunch the numbers, though, the answer becomes obvious:

By definition, isolation exercises involve much less muscle than compound exercises, and thus you aren’t able to lift as much weight. 

Since you can’t lift as much weight with isolation exercises as you can with compound exercises, you need to add weight in much smaller increments. 

Unfortunately for you, though, the weights available in most gyms only allow you to add weight in 5- or 10-pound increments. 

These weights are typically fine for progressing on compound exercises, but tend to be too much for progressing on isolation exercises. 

For example, let’s say you currently bench press 150 pounds and barbell curl 50 pounds.

You work out at a gym where the smallest plates weigh 2.5-pounds, so if you’re adding one 2.5-pound plate to each side of the bar, you’re forced to add weight in 5-pound increments.

Now, let’s say you add 5 pounds to your bench press, which is an increase in weight of about 3%—a very manageable progression for most people. 

If you add 5 pounds to your barbell curl, though, that’s a 10% increase in weight. 

As you can see, although the absolute increase in weight for your compound and isolation exercise is the same in this example—5 pounds—when looked at as a percentage, you’re adding three times more weight to your isolation exercise.

This problem is amplified if your gym uses pre-loaded barbells or dumbbells that only go up in 10-pound increments. 

For example, in the gym where I currently train, the pre-loaded barbells only progress in 10-pound increments. 

If I’m curling 100 pounds, that means I need to increase my weight by 10% to progress, which means I either have to take my sets very close or to absolute failure or do 3 to 4 fewer reps if I want to add weight, neither of which are good solutions.

Based on my experience trying many different strength training programs over the past 10 years, and interviewing many of the top coaches, athletes, and researchers, most people can productively increase their weights by about 2.5 to 5% per week for several weeks before deloading

If you’re new to weightlifting you may be able to add slightly more weight than this, but the closer you get to your genetic potential for strength, the less weight you’ll be able to add each week.

Many people try to force their way through this problem by simply working harder, but all their huffing and puffing usually amounts to is a long weightlifting plateau and some sore joints.

The good news is there are a number of alternative ways to nudge your numbers upward on your isolation exercises, which you’ll learn about in a moment. 

Before we get into that, though, let’s make a quick digression to talk about weightlifting form . . . 

Summary: Using the weights available at most commercial gyms, you’re generally forced to make much larger percentage increases in weight on your isolation exercises than your compound exercises. 

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A Quick Note About “Good Form” 

If you lift weights long enough, you’re going to get a visit from the good form Gestapo.

These technique nazis prowl gyms and social media to ferret out every kind of real and imagined flaw in your lifting form, and knit pick each and every aspect of your movements.

For example, you’ve probably seen and heard comments like these on YouTube, Instagram, and in your gym:

“Your pinky ALWAYS needth to be extended when doing dumbbell side raithez.” 

“Your back shouldn’t move AT ALL during cable rows or barbell curlthz.” 

“You should NEVER bend your elbowthz when doing dumbbell flyes.” 

What’s particularly irksome, is that if you follow all of their advice and adhere to their arbitrary standards, you’ll find it’s almost impossible to progress on a number of exercises. 

While these people have their heart in the right place—poor form is a major problem among many people new to weightlifting, and it can hinder progress and increase the potential for injuries in all lifters—they miss the forest for the trees.

The fact is that as you begin using heavier and heavier weights, it’s okay to slightly modify your technique on certain exercises. In some cases it’s unavoidable. 

For example, I’ve never seen a natural weightlifter do dumbbell side raises with more than 50 pounds without swinging their torso a little to help get their arms parallel with the ground. 


Because it’s basically impossible to do heavy dumbbell side raises without moving your torso a little. 

Based on the way your shoulders are designed, dumbbell side raises become increasingly more difficult as you raise your hands away from your sides. 

The first part of the exercise is relatively easy, but once your arms start to get close to parallel with the floor, the mechanics of your shoulders start working against you, and the weights typically grind to a halt.

That’s why just about all intermediate to advanced weightlifters swing their upper body just a hair when doing heavy dumbbell side raises, like Mike here: 


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Another good example is the seated cable row. Once again, I’ve never seen a natural weightlifter do heavy seated cable rows without moving their back at least a little to pull the handle through the full range of motion. 

Same with every guy’s favorite exercise: the bicep curl. Try doing curls with any real weight without moving your torso at least a little. If you do, I’ll snort a bowl of mayonnaise through a straw, wearing a clown costume. 

Anyway, despite what proper form pedants claim, the fact is there’s no such thing as “perfect” form. 

As long as you’re getting the fundamentals of the exercise correct and progressing over time, it’s fine to slightly modify your movements to accommodate heavier weights. And with many isolation exercises this is a necessity. 

Now, there’s obviously a limit to this—you don’t want to be doing half squats to help whip your arms up when doing dumbbell side raises, doing quarter reps of cable flyes because you’re using too much weight, or bouncing your knees up and down like a pogo stick when doing calf raises.

This is simply sacrificing good technique in the pursuit of heavier weights, and it’s not something I recommend.

But small modifications here and there aren’t a big deal, especially on isolation exercises that are nearly impossible to progress on otherwise. 

Summary: There’s no such thing as “perfect” technique, and it’s fine to make small modifications to your form once you start lifting heavier weights, especially on isolation exercises.

How to Progress on Isolation Exercises

We’ve established that the reason progressing on isolation exercises is so difficult is largely because you’re forced to progress in much larger increments using the weights available at most commercial gyms. 

We’ve also established that it’s okay to make small variations in your technique on certain exercises as you begin using heavier weights.

Now let’s talk solutions.

Here are the eight best ways to progress on your isolation exercises: 

  1. Use double progression to add weight to your isolation exercises. 
  2. Add weight in smaller increments.
  3. Do more reps.
  4. Do more sets.
  5. Try rest-pause training or blood flow restriction training.
  6. Periodize your isolation exercises.
  7. Change your isolation exercises strategically.
  8. Track your isolation exercises.

1. Use Double Progression to Add Weight to Your Isolation Exercises

When you’re new to weightlifting, you don’t need to put much thought into your workout programming.

You show up at the gym, try to add a little weight each week, eat lots of food, and you get bigger and stronger. This is known as linear progression, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: 

Doing the same number of reps and sets, but adding weight every week to all of your exercises. 

After your first year or so of weightlifting, though, you’ll quickly find this method isn’t sustainable.

You may be able to keep using linear progression on some of your compound exercises, like the squat, bench press, and deadlift, but it will be almost impossible to progress linearly on your isolation exercises for all of the reasons we covered a moment ago.

Adding weight at all will be difficult, and adding weight in 5 to 10% increments will be impracticable. 

What to do, then? 

Well, one of the most effective solutions to this problem is to use what’s known as double progression to add weight to your exercises.

Here’s how it works: 

You work with a given weight in a given rep range, and once you hit the top of that rep range for one, two, or three sets (depending on the programming), you move up in weight, and work with it until you hit the top of your rep range again for the required number of sets, move up, and so on.

In this way, you first progress in your reps with a given weight, and then progress with the amount of weight you’re lifting. Hence, “double progression.”

For example, let’s say I’m doing dumbbell biceps curls with 50-pound dumbbells for three sets of 8 to 10 reps, and I can only progress in 5-pound increments. (That is, the next heaviest set of dumbbells weighs 55 pounds).

That’s a 10% increase in weight, which is going to be very difficult to pull off without dropping my reps or reaching failure. 

I can use double progression to solve this problem, though.

Here’s what my progress would look like over six weeks: 

Week 1

50 x 10

Week 2

55 x 8

Week 3

55 x 9

Week 4

55 x 10

Week 5

60 x 8

Week 6

60 x 9

Now, you’re probably wondering, should you increase the weights if you hit the top end of the rep range for one, two, or all of your sets? 

That is, if your sets in Week 4 of the above example looked like this . . . 

Set 1: 55 x 10

Set 2: 55 x 9

Set 3: 55 x 7

. . . should you increase your weights on Week 5, or keep using 55-pound dumbbells until you can do 10 reps for all 3 sets? 

Well, I recommend you wait to increase your weights until you can hit the top end of your rep range for all of your prescribed sets. 


If there’s a significant drop off in reps after your first set or two, it means you’re probably taking your sets too close to absolute failure, which can eventually cause you to hit a plateau

By using the same weight for the same number of reps for all of your sets, you ensure your progress has really “stuck,” and you’re ready to progress to heavier weights. 

If you want to learn more about how to use double progression to progress on your exercises, check out this podcast and article: 

This Is the Best Guide to the RPE Scale on the Internet

How to Use Double Progression to Get More From Your Workouts

Summary: Double progression involves first progressing within a given rep range and only adding weight once you’ve hit the top of that rep range. I recommend you only add weight once you’ve completed all of your sets with a given weight at the top end of your rep range.

2. Add Weight in Smaller Increments

isolation workout plan

If you use the weights available in most commercial gyms, you’re going to be forced to add weight in 5- to 10-pound increments. 

As you learned a moment ago, this means you’ll often have to add much more weight than you really should to your isolation exercises. 

Thus, an obvious solution is to increase your weights in smaller increments. 

The best way to do this is to buy some “microplates,” also known as “fractional plates,” for both barbells and dumbbells.

Barbell microplates are just very small weight plates that typically range in weight from 0.25 to 1 pound, and come in pairs so you can add anywhere from 0.5 to 2 pounds to your barbell exercises. 

Dumbbell microplates are generally magnetic and come in 1.25 to 2.5-pound increments. They also come in pairs so you can add anywhere from 2.5 to 5 pounds to your dumbbell exercises.  

For example, let’s say I’m doing barbell curls with 100 pounds. If I’m forced to add weight in 10-pound increments, that means I need to increase my weights by 10% each week, which isn’t manageable long-term. 

If I were to increase my weights by 2.5-pounds per week, though, that’s an increase of only 2.5%, which I can likely sustain for several weeks or months. 

You progress using microplates the same way you would using heavier plates: either adding weight every week and keeping your reps the same, or using double progression. 

The important thing is that you’re able to keep adding weight over time without constantly taking your sets to failure. 

When it comes to barbell microplates, I recommend you get this set from Ader Fitness.

And when it comes to dumbbell microplates, I recommend you get this set from PlateMate

(One downside of magnetic plates is they like to pop off when you drop dumbbells, so some people like to secure them with elastic bands or tape. I don’t like fussing with any of that, so I just reattach them between sets.)

Summary: A highly effective way to keep progressing on your isolation exercises is to buy a set of barbell and dumbbell microplates and add weight in smaller increments (generally 1.25 to 2.5 pounds at a time).

3. Do More Reps

This is basically an exaggerated form of double progression.

As you probably know, progressive overload is the key to gaining muscle and strength. That is, adding weight, reps, or sets to your exercises over time is the primary driver of muscle and strength gain.

While double progression can help you accomplish this, you may still find it difficult to keep adding weight or reps to your isolation exercises.

One way to fix this problem is to increase the top end of your rep range. That is, you do more reps before increasing the weight. 

For example, let’s say you’re doing dumbbell curls with 50-pound dumbbells for 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps, and your progress looks like this: 

Week 1

50 x 10

Week 2

55 x 8

Week 3

55 x 9

Week 4

55 x 10

Week 5

60 x 5

Week 6

60 x 6

As you can see, even though you hit the top end of your rep range on Week 4, you were only able to do 5 reps on Week 5 after switching to 60-pound dumbbells. 

In this case, a 5-pound increase in weight was still too much.

Although you could try to inch your way back up to the 8 to 10 rep range, you’re probably going to have to take most of your sets to failure to make this work, and likely won’t be able to maintain the same number of reps in all of your sets. (You may get 8 or 10 reps on your first set, but you probably won’t maintain that number of reps in your subsequent sets).

One way to avoid this problem is to increase the top end of your rep range. 

That is, instead of doing 8 to 10 reps per set, you could do 8 to 12 reps or even 8 to 15 reps per set. 

In this case, your progress would look more like this: 

Week 1

50 x 10

Week 2

55 x 8

Week 3

55 x 9

Week 4

55 x 10

Week 5

55 x 11

Week 6

55 x 12

What this does is it gives your body more time to adapt to your training before you add more weight. 

Adding a rep or two to the top end of your rep range allows you to keep making incremental progress for several more weeks before adding weight, at which point your body will hopefully be ready to handle heavier weights in your prescribed rep range. 

Summary: Increasing the top end of your rep range is a reliable way to continue getting stronger on your isolation exercises, especially when combined with double progression.

4. Do More Sets

As long as you’re using sufficient weight, adding sets is a surefire way to drive muscle and strength gain. 

What’s more, this strategy is particularly effective for progressing on isolation exercises.


Well, the main downside of doing more sets is this also causes more and more fatigue. This is especially true of heavy compound weightlifting—like heavy deadlifting—where each additional set causes a substantial increase in whole-body fatigue. 

That’s not usually the case with isolation exercises, though.

For example, doing four hard sets of deadlifts is much harder than three hard sets, but doing four hard sets of barbell curls usually doesn’t feel that much more difficult than three sets of barbell curls. 

This is primarily due to the fact that most isolation exercises simply don’t involve as much muscle mass as compound exercises, and thus don’t tax the body as heavily as a full-body exercise like the squat, deadlift, or bench press.

You don’t want to increase your sets willy nilly, though. 

Usually, all you need to do to get the needle moving again is add a set or two to the isolation exercises you’ve been struggling with most. 

For example, if you’ve been running into a wall with your calf raises, and you’ve been doing three sets for the past few months, try doing four sets for the next few months and see how your body responds. 

Keep in mind this strategy typically takes at least 8 to 12 weeks to bear fruit, but if you’re willing to stick to the plan (no skipping that last set!) it almost always works.  

Another effective way to add more volume without incurring much fatigue is to do a set of rest-pause training or blood flow restriction training after your normal sets, which brings me to the next strategy . . . 

Summary: Add a set or two to the isolation exercises you’re struggling with most, and you’ll likely begin making progress again after 8 to 12 weeks.

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5. Try Rest-Pause or Blood Flow Restriction Training

workout a and b (1)

There are multiple ways to increase your training volume: you can do more sets, more reps, supersets, and so forth.

You can also increase volume using “special” training methods like rest-pause sets and blood flow restriction training with the added benefit of putting less stress on your tendons, ligaments, and joints. 

They also cause less muscle damage and soreness and don’t eat into your recovery like normal sets do.

These two training methods stimulate muscle growth in much the same way, but you go about them quite differently.

Rest-pause training involves taking a set to absolute failure (or just short of it), resting for a short period, and doing another set to near-failure, followed by a short rest and another set, and so on.

Blood flow restriction training involves intentionally restricting blood flow to either your arm or leg muscles and then taking multiple sets to or close to absolute failure.

Both of these methods work by allowing you to reach muscular failure several times in one set without greatly increasing your workout volume, muscle damage, or fatigue.

These methods also take far less time than traditional sets and because they involve lighter weights than your normal sets, the additional volume doesn’t put the same amount of stress on your joints or muscles. This also makes them a good choice to use when you’re nursing an injury.

Furthermore, since both methods call for taking your sets to or close to failure, they’re much better suited to isolation exercises than compound exercises. 

In other words, they’re both effective ways of racking up additional training volume without overly taxing your body’s recovery abilities, which makes them perfect for adding volume to your isolation exercises.

If you want to learn more about how rest-pause and blood flow restriction training work and how to include them in your training, check out these two articles: 

How to Use Rest-Pause Training to Gain Muscle Faster

Does Blood Flow Restriction (Occlusion) Training Really Work?

Summary: Rest-pause and blood flow restriction training are highly effective ways to add extra volume to your isolation exercises without overly taxing your body’s recovery abilities.

6. Periodize Your Isolation Exercises

If you’ve followed any popular strength training programs, you’ve probably noticed they typically don’t include detailed instructions on how to progress your isolation exercises.

While you’re often given detailed instructions on how to progress your compound exercises, the only instructions you usually get for progressing your isolation exercises are to “add weight every week” in a certain rep range. 

Of course, you already know this doesn’t work so well after a few weeks or months.

Double progression will buy you a few more weeks or months of progress, but eventually you’ll still hit a plateau on most of your isolation exercises unless you modify your programming. 

How best to do that?

Periodize your isolation exercises just as you would your compound exercises.

Periodization refers to how you organize your training over time, typically leading up to a competition or an attempt to set a new personal record.

At bottom, periodization splits your training into different periods (hence the word) in which you focus on different aspects of your fitness. 

In the case of strength training, the goal is to get stronger over time, so periodized programs generally start with higher reps and lighter weights and transition toward lower reps and heavier weights. 

You can apply this system to isolation exercises just as you would with compound exercises. My preferred method of periodizing isolation exercises is to work in one rep range for several weeks before lowering the rep range slightly, adding slightly more weight, and repeating. 

When progressing within each rep range, I also use double progression and add weight in small increments.

Once I hit finish several weeks of training with the lowest rep range and heaviest weights, I start the process over again but with slightly heavier weights. 

Generally, I program my isolation exercises in 12 week cycles, spending 4 weeks in 3 different rep ranges. Here’s what this looks like: 

Weeks 1 to 4: 10-to-12-rep range

Weeks 5 to 8: 8-to-10-rep range

Weeks 9 to 12: 6-to-8-rep range

Every fourth week is a deload week, where you cut your sets and reps in half but continue using the same weight. 

For example, here’s how this might look over the course of 16 weeks (12 weeks plus the first 4 weeks of the next cycle). Let’s say you’re able to barbell curl 100 pounds for 12 reps in Week 1.

Week 1: 10 to 12 reps

100 x 12 (Completed Workout)

Week 2 10 to 12 reps

105 x 11

Week 3: 10 to 12 reps

105 x 12

Week 4: 5 to 6 reps

105 x 5

Week 5: 8 to 10 reps

110 x 10

Week 6: 8 to 10 reps

110 x 11

Week 7: 8 to 10 reps

110 x 6

Week 8: 4 to 5 reps

110 x 4

Week 9: 6 to 8 reps

110 x 7

Week 10: 6 to 8 reps

110 x 8

Week 11: 6 to 8 reps

115 x 7

Week 12: 3 to 4 reps

115 x 3

Week 1: 10 to 12 reps

105 x 12 

(5 pounds more than Week 1 from the previous 12-week cycle).

Week 2: 10 to 12 reps

110 x 11

Week 3: 10 to 12 reps

110 x 11

Week 4: 10 to 12 reps

110 x 5

(Then you’d do 8 to 10 reps on week 5 through 8 and 6 to 8 reps on week 9 through 12). 

In this theoretical example, you’re able to make consistent progress—adding weight or reps—up until about week 7. At this point, you actually drop below your prescribed rep range of 8 to 10 reps and are only able to manage 6 reps with 110 pounds. 

In a non-periodized weightlifting program that doesn’t change the rep range over time, this is normally where you’d get stuck. You’d probably spend the next few weeks taking every set to failure in the hopes of getting 10 reps, and probably dig yourself into a plateau.

In this periodized weightlifting program, though, the program calls for slightly reducing your rep range on week 9, which means you can keep progressing without pushing every set to failure.

In other words, this plan is designed to anticipate roughly when you’d normally plateau, and strategically reduce the rep range so you can continue adding weight throughout the 12-week plan.

Then, after finishing the 12-week cycle, you’d start it all over again but with slightly heavier weights. In this example, since you started your first cycle with 100 pounds for 10 to 12 reps, you’d start the next cycle with 105 pounds for 10 to 12 reps, and so forth. 

This system has been a total game-changer for me.

I’ve been able to keep progressing on some of the most stubborn isolation exercises for months and years, whereas in the past I would be stuck using the same weights for months before being able to add weight or reps.

Of course, no program will allow you to progress forever, but you’ll be able to make much more consistent, predictable progress with this periodization plan than you would with most non-periodized strength training plans. 

Summary: Periodizing your isolation exercises in 12-week cycles where you rotate between the 10-to-12-rep range, the 8-to-10-rep range, and the 6-to-8-rep range can allow you to progress much longer than you would be able to with most non-periodized strength training programs.

7. Change Your Isolation Exercises Strategically

You’ve probably heard that if you get stuck on one isolation exercise—making little to no progress for several weeks—a good workaround is to simply change exercises. 

And this is true, periodically changing exercises is a good way to keep progressing. 

Most people go about this all wrong, though.

The number one mistake people make is switching exercises too often. 

As soon as they stop making progress for a week or two, they figure they’ve wrung out all the gains they’ll ever get from that exercise, and move on to another. 

Instead of throwing in the towel so soon, though, it’s much more productive to use the other strategies on this list to see if you can progress a little further with that exercise.

Making progress on isolation exercises is like mining for gold ore. You’ll strike rich veins, then spend a few weeks smashing through a wall of rock, strike another vein, then slog through a layer of mud, strike another vein, and so on. Progress is never linear and you’ll often get stuck for a few weeks before being able to add weight or reps, but if you keep hammering you will keep making progress. 

This is why I generally recommend you stick with an isolation exercise for at least 8 to 12 weeks before switching to a different one.

If you’ve been doing the same isolation exercise for several months, though, and you haven’t added weight or reps for at least three weeks, it might be worth swapping it out for something else. 

This brings us to the second mistake people make when changing exercises: They choose the wrong exercises. 

When it’s time to change isolation exercises, you want to pick a variation that’s similar to the isolation exercise you were doing previously. 

For example, if you get stuck on barbell curls, switch to dumbbell curls or cable curls. If you get stuck on seated calf raises, try leg press or standing calf raises. 

What you shouldn’t do is switch to a totally different isolation exercise that trains a different muscle group.

For example, it’s not uncommon for people who get stuck on a stubborn exercise like dumbbell side raises to think, “Oh well, time to work on my arms for a while instead,” and switch to doing curls and triceps extensions. 

This is fine if you want to bring up your arms and spend less time training your shoulders, but don’t expect to be any stronger on side raises when you start doing them again in 8 to 12 weeks. Chances are good you’ll actually be even weaker when you start training shoulders again.

The main reason for switching isolation exercises is to train the same muscle groups in slightly different ways. Over time, this should shore up any weaknesses and lead to greater strength and muscle gain over time. 

Instead of switching to an isolation exercise that trains a totally different muscle group, switch to a variation of the same isolation exercise that trains the same muscle group. 

For example, here’s a list of isolation exercise variations for each major muscle group. 

Chest Isolation Exercises

  • Dumbbell Flyes
  • Machine Flyes (Pec Deck Machine)
  • Cable Flyes
  • Pushup (Wide Grip)

Back Isolation Exercises

  • Lat Pulldown
  • One-Arm Dumbbell Row
  • Seated Cable Row
  • T-Bar Row
  • Seal Row
  • Barbell Row
  • Yates Row
  • Landmine Row

Arms Isolation Exercises

  • Barbell Curl
  • Dumbbell Curl
  • Dumbbell Hammer Curl
  • Cable Curl
  • Rope Curl
  • Cable Triceps Pressdown
  • EZ-Bar Skullcrusher
  • Cable Triceps Overhead Press
  • Dumbbell Triceps Extension
  • Dumbbell Triceps Kickback

Shoulders Isolation Exercises

  • Dumbbell Side Raise
  • One-Arm Cable Side Raise
  • Reverse Dumbbell Flye
  • Reverse Machine Flye
  • Dumbbell Front Raise
  • Upright Barbell Row
  • Cable Face Pull

Core Isolation Exercises

  • Weighted Situp
  • Weighted Ab Crunch
  • Hanging Leg Raise
  • Plank
  • Captain’s Chair Leg Raise
  • Lying Leg Raise
  • Dragon Flag

Legs Isolation Exercises

When you haven’t added weight or reps for at least three weeks, you’ve tried the other strategies on this list, and you’ve been doing the same isolation exercise for 8 to 12 weeks, pick a similar exercise from one of these lists and repeat the process all over again.

Summary: Stick with your isolation exercises for at least 8 to 12 weeks before swapping them out, and when you do, pick another isolation exercise that targets the same muscle group.

8. Track Your Isolation Exercises

the workout routine

Many people don’t track their workouts at all, which is a major mistake.

What’s more, even the people who track their workouts often only track their compound exercises and don’t track their isolation exercises. 

And, low and behold, these are often the same people who “inexplicably” progress steadily on their compound exercises but struggle to add weight or reps to their isolation exercises. 


Here’s an example.

Let’s say you do dumbbell side raises for 12 weeks. You start out lifting 25 pounds for 10 to 12 reps, and after three months you’re able to lift 40 pounds for 6 to 8 reps. Woohoo!

You don’t track your isolation exercises during this time, though. Instead, you just make a mental note of what you lifted last week and try to lift a little more the next week. Your memory is good enough that you can remember your maxes from the previous week, so you don’t bother to write them down. 

After three months of progress you switch to barbell upright rows instead of dumbbell side raises.

This is a fine choice—both exercises train more or less the same muscles—but here’s the problem: 

When you switch back to dumbbell side raises, chances are good you won’t remember how much weight you were lifting before. 

Even if your muscles are slightly bigger and stronger, exercises you haven’t done in a while will always feel a little rusty, and this can deceive you into using weights that are lighter than you should based on feel alone.

When you switch back to dumbbell side raises again, you’ll probably find yourself thinking something like this . . . 

Did I do 25 pounds or 30 pounds last time? Thirty pounds feels kind of heavy, so I’ll go with 25

And after 12 weeks, you’ll probably be stuck at 40 pounds for 6 to 8 reps again.

This is one of the key reasons people may be able to add weight to an isolation over a few months, but if you look at their progress quarter over quarter or year over year, they aren’t getting stronger. 

You have to fight for every small increase on your isolation exercises, and you have to be meticulous about tracking your progress so you don’t backslide. 

The easiest way to track your workouts and use this data to retain your gains is to use a spreadsheet on your phone, a handwritten workout journal, or an app like Stacked to track each and every workout. 

Once you return to an isolation exercise you haven’t done in a while, comb through your spreadsheet, journal, or app, and see how much weight you were lifting a few months ago. Do your best to start the next training cycle with a slightly heavier weight. If you can’t do that, at least try to progress slightly faster so you’re lifting slightly heavier weights at the end of the next three month cycle.

For example, you could start your next training cycle with 30 pound dumbbells instead of 25 pound dumbbells, or push yourself to progress to 45 pounds for 6 to 8 reps instead of 40 pounds. 

As I’ve mentioned throughout this article and will keep repeating, progress on your isolation exercises is going to be almost imperceptibly small. You’re going to move forward in inches, not yards, so don’t give up any ground.

Summary: Track your weights, reps, and sets on your isolation exercises the same way you would on your compound exercises, and review your workout log every time you return to an isolation exercise so you can try to beat your old lifts.

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The Bottom Line on How to Progress on Isolation Exercises

Progressing on isolation exercises is always more difficult than progressing on compound exercises.


Since you can’t lift as much weight with isolation exercises as you can with compound exercises, you need to add weight in much smaller increments. 

Unfortunately, most gyms don’t have weights that are light enough to progress in smaller increments, so you’re stuck adding too much weight each week if you want to progress at all.

Another confusing quirk of progressing on your isolation exercises, is you’ll almost certainly have a self-proclaimed good form Gestapo officer tell you your form is falling apart when you try to add weight to your isolation exercises. 

In most cases, you can safely ignore their blathering, as it’s fine to slightly modify your form to accommodate heavier weights. 

Aside from slightly adjusting your form, here are the eight best ways to continue progressing on your isolation exercises after your newbie gains are long gone: 

  1. Use double progression to add weight to your isolation exercises. 
  2. Add weight in smaller increments.
  3. Do more reps.
  4. Do more sets.
  5. Try rest-pause training or blood flow restriction training.
  6. Periodize your isolation exercises.
  7. Change your isolation exercises strategically.
  8. Track your isolation exercises.

Improving on your isolation exercises will always be a tedious, difficult, and time-consuming task, but if you implement the strategies in this article faithfully, you will make progress. 

What’s your take on progressing on isolation exercises? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!