How To Progress Better At Isolation Exercises

The key to getting results from your workout is progressive overload. If you’re not increasing the demands being placed on your body in some form over time, your body won’t be improving.

With weight training, the most basic and common way of increasing those demands is by increasing the amount of weight we lift.

So once we’re capable of lifting 100lbs on some exercise, we go up to 105lbs. At some point after that, 110lbs. This then continues as often as we can (while keeping good form intact) and for as long as we can. Or at least for as long as we need to for our desired results to be achieved.

If you’ve been a reader of mine long enough, this was already obvious information to you (and that alone instantly makes you smarter than half the people in your gym).

But Wait… There’s One Big Catch

However, you may have noticed my use of the phrase “while keeping good form intact.” This is crucial. You don’t want to end up sacrificing your form in order to add weight.

Because what you’ll often see are people who think they’ve gotten stronger, but in reality their form has just gotten slightly worse to compensate for the slightly heavier weight.

Now they’re using too much momentum, or no longer going all the way up or down, or they’re swinging the weight up and/or just letting it drop back down, bouncing the weight, lifting their back/ass/whatever off the bench/seat or any number of other things people do when their form goes to crap.

What SHOULD happen instead is that the same good form that was being used with the previous weight remains intact, only now it’s with a weight that’s a bit heavier and maybe harder to lift. Here’s an example…

Let’s say you bench press 200lbs for 3 sets of 6-8 reps. Now let’s say you got 8 reps in the first, 7 in the second, and 6 in the third. Hooray! Your set/rep goal in this case (3×6-8) has been met and you’re ready to up the weight to 205lbs next time you bench. And when that time comes around, it’s pretty normal for you to get something like 7, 6, 4.

Your form was still good, you just couldn’t do as many reps. This is perfectly fine and normal of course. It just means your goal is to add reps. So you may get 7, 7, 5 the next time. Then 8, 7, 5 the time after. Then 8, 7, 6 after that at which point you’d go up to 210lbs the time after that and repeat this process.

Once again, if you’re a regular reader of mine, you know this already. However…

It’s Not Quite The Same With Isolation Exercises

The above scenario used the bench press as the example exercise. And in my experience, this is pretty typical of how successful progression often goes. Not just on the bench press, but with most compound exercises (various presses, rows, pull-ups/pull-downs, squats, deadlifts, etc.).

But with isolation exercises, things don’t usually go as smoothly.

What I mean is, adding slightly more weight to a compound exercise will usually just cause you to get slightly fewer reps than you were getting with the previous weight. BUT, your good form will (or at least should) still remain exactly the same.

But if you do the same thing with certain isolation exercises (e.g. lateral raises), you’ll often find that the smallest weight increase can sometimes make it impossible to keep good form intact.

Why Does This Happen?

Well, I can think of 3 main reasons…

1. The Mechanics Of The Exercise

Compound exercises are big multi-joint movements requiring various muscle groups to play significant roles in moving and stabilizing the weight throughout the lift. Isolation exercises such as bicep curls, tricep extensions and lateral raises are just these little single-joint exercises that mainly target one muscle group, often a small one.

2. The Increase Is MUCH More Noticeable

Because of what I just mentioned, you’ll always be lifting significantly more weight (and progressing much more often) on compound exercises than isolation exercises.

So even though you may bench press or deadlift hundreds of pounds and do lateral raises with just light dumbbells, it’s the lateral raises that are going to feel the biggest difference when you add 5lbs to it. The percentage of weight that has been added is just WAY more for the lighter isolation exercise than it is for the heavier compound.

Think about it. Let’s say you can bench press 200lbs for 10 good reps and do lateral raises with 25lb dumbbells for 10 good reps.

Now let’s say you increased your bench press by 5lbs (a 2.5% jump) and tried to bench 205. You’ll still be able to lift it for good reps, maybe just not 10 of them.

But with an exercise like lateral raises, going up those same 5lbs to 30lb dumbbells (a 20% jump!) won’t just cause you to fall a rep or two short of 10… there’s a good chance you may not be able to do a single rep with equally good form.

It’s the same 5lbs in both cases, but it just represents a much larger increase in terms of percentages when going from 25lbs to 30lbs than 200lbs to 205lbs. You can bet your ass you’re going to feel it, often to a surprisingly form-destroying degree.

3. Accumulated Fatigue

In addition to all of the above, isolation exercises are almost always going to be minor parts of our training program that are left for the end of the workout after the more important and demanding stuff has been done.

The thing about this is, when we progress and work our asses off on the compound exercises that came earlier in the workout, we will sometimes find that we’re more fatigued when it’s time for the isolation exercises that come later.

This is fine of course, as the other way around would be WAAAAY more of a problem. But what it means is that performance on those later isolation exercises can vary. We may have curled those dumbbells for 12 reps last week, but after adding 5lbs to our pull-ups and rows earlier in this same workout this week, our biceps (and grip) are more fatigued by the time we get to curls and maybe we can only get 11 reps this time.

Now, if 12 reps was your rep goal for curls, you would have actually increased the weight this workout. So whereas you couldn’t even get the same 12 reps with the same weight from last time, you would have attempted doing it with an even heavier weight this week.

Here’s How To Do It All Better

As you can see, progressing at isolation exercises isn’t quite as straight forward as progressing at compound exercises. The good news is that there are 2 methods that I use to fix that…

1. Confirm It… A Few Times

With compound exercises, you’d typically go up in weight the first time you reach your set/rep goal for a given exercise. So if you’re trying for 3 sets of 6-8, and you get 8, 7, 6… you’re ready to add 5lbs next time.

This is good.

But, I DON’T want you to do this with isolation exercises. I don’t want you to go up in weight the first time your set/rep goal is met. Instead, I want you repeat that same amount of sets/reps on that exercise with that same weight 1 or 2 more times… maybe more.

There’s 2 reasons for this. First, to confirm that you can consistently hit those numbers with perfect form. Second, to allow your body to get stronger/better at lifting that same weight for those same reps (essentially progressing without progressing). Here’s an example…

  • You may get 2 sets of 12 reps for tricep press-downs one week, but those last reps were really grinded out and hard to finish… you just barely got them (and maybe you cheated a bit on that last rep or 2).
  • Next time maybe they were a bit smoother… less of a grind. Definitely less cheating too, but it still doesn’t exactly feel you’d be able to keep this same solid form intact if more weight was added. Close, but not yet.
  • And the time after that? A LOT smoother. They felt awesome this time! Stronger than ever.
  • And the time after that? It felt like you could have done 13 reps with perfect form! Now it sounds like you’re ready to add weight.

Adding weight at this point rather than the very first time you hit the intended set/rep goal will allow your transition to the next heaviest weight to go a whole lot smoother, especially in terms of not having to sacrifice form to use that new heavier weight.

It’s also worth noting that while the above example took 4 workouts to reach that point, it can certainly take less. It can sometimes take more, too.

2. Push For More Reps By Extending The Rep Range

My second suggestion is something I’ve been doing more and more lately with exercises like skull crushers, lateral raises, curls and press-downs. And that is, going for more reps and exceeding the prescribed rep range.

Here’s an example. Most of the isolation exercises in The Muscle Building Workout Routine are prescribed as 2 sets of 10-12. Let’s extend that to 2×10-15. So…

  • Let’s say you get 12, 10 with a given weight. Instead of increasing the weight, progress further at reps instead.
  • Go for 13, 11 next time.
  • Then maybe 13, 12 the time after that.
  • Then maybe 14, 13 the next time.
  • Then maybe 15, 13 the time after that.
  • At that point, add weight.

Since you worked up as high as 15 reps, adding weight now will often feel way better and allow you to end up in the intended 10-12 rep range with the new heavier weight while still keeping perfect form intact.

Not to mention, isolation exercises seem to be better suited for rep increases rather than weight increases anyway. They’re also better suited for higher reps than lower reps.

So with this type of set up where you’re pushing further for reps, you get a chance to use this to your advantage and make more progress on these types of exercises than you normally would have if you were only looking to add weight as often as possible (which, with isolation movements, isn’t very often).

Can’t We Do This With Compound Exercises Too?

Yup, you can. Both of these methods can work for progressing at compound exercises as well.

However, for most people, I wouldn’t recommend it.

I just think it would be overkill and end up slowing your progress unnecessarily. In my experience, isolation exercises are the ones that will benefit most from this sort of slower, hand-holding style of weight progression.

As long as you’re keeping your form solid, ignoring your ego and not lifting like an idiot, you won’t have anywhere near as big of a problem adding 5lbs to an exercise like the bench press or deadlift as you would going up to the next heaviest dumbbells for lateral raises or bicep curls.

So for compounds, I’d still recommend increasing the weight the first time you successfully get all of your sets to reach their prescribed rep goal with good form.

But with isolation exercises, I think you’ll do a whole lot better incorporating the above methods and not jumping up to the next weight too quickly. Your form, your joints and your results will likely benefit from it.

69 thoughts on “How To Progress Better At Isolation Exercises”

69 Comments

  1. Oh damn- even though I read your site a lot I still managed to goof something- I had been assuming I should progress my reps to the top of the range for each exercise before moving on. So for example, bench pressing each set to 8 reps before increasing weight and not before. Would it be just as valid if one were to increase weight after doing the minimum reps, 3 sets of 6 reps?

    Also I have a somewhat specific question. I’m in to my first week of eating a caloric deficit. Last week I hit my bench pressing goal- while I was still in surplus mode. Because I hit that goal- should I increase weight this week, or just maintain that since I’m in deficit mode?

    • If the goal is 3×6-8, you COULD push all 3 sets to 8 reps before adding weight. That’s not really bad or wrong or anything. It’s just that, I find (especially for myself) that people aren’t always great at maintaining reps like that and being capable of getting the same number of reps for multiple sets with the same weight. Which is why I prefer a rep range, so if you naturally lose a rep each set, you’d get 8, 7, 6 and still hit the goal. More about this here (see “Modified Straight Sets”): https://www.aworkoutroutine.com/pyramid-sets-vs-reverse-pyramid-training-vs-straight-sets/

      But, my actual recommendation for progression when I prescribe 3×6-8 is this:

      “Basically, as long as your first set reaches the top end of the prescribed rep range (8 in this example) and the other sets are anywhere within the range, you should increase the weight being lifted by the smallest possible increment the next time you do that exercise.” That’s from here: https://www.aworkoutroutine.com/the-muscle-building-workout-routine/

      So you could get 8, 8, 8. Or 8, 7, 7. Or 8, 7, 6. Or even 8, 6, 6.

      For the other question, yup… you can. Strength gains in a deficit ARE possible when things are set up correctly. Maintenance is the goal (or really not losing strength is the goal)… but progression is still something you should do if it can happen.

      • The problem I find with trying to reach the same number of reps on each set (ex: all 3 sets to 8 reps) is that I won’t push myself as much on each set as if I was working in a rep range.

        For example, if I am able to bench press 8x200lbs on all 3 sets, chances are that the first set won’t be very challenging. On the opposite, if on my first set I bench press 8x200lbs, on my 2nd, 7x200lbs, and on my 3rd 6x200lbs, I probably pushed myself close to failure on each set.

        I assume you will still make some gains on both methods because either way you are following the ”progressive poundage” principle. However, I would tend to believe you will progress faster on a rep range because you push yourself close to failure more often.

  2. you know Jay I’ve been bugging you about my bench press plateau for a while…i’m weiging..178…..i’m stuck at benching 170lb ….doing 7-6-3 one week…6-5-4 the next and maybe more the next…..i’m up and down…..with everything else i’m doing good…u think doing Push For More Reps By Extending The Rep Range will help me?…you’ve told me about being on a surplus….I am for the most part…definatly not on deficit…i’m gonna try it out

  3. Great advice. And there’s something else I do with isolation exercises: I purchased ankle weights that have removable 1/4 pound weight bars in them. So I am able to increase an iso weight by as little as 1/4 pound, or up to 2.5 pounds, just by wrapping them around my wrist or the curl bar or whatever I’m lifting. Because you’re right, going up five pounds on a curl in one jump may be too much, but going up 1/2 pound or 1 pound likely won’t be.

  4. Great article ! This is the main reason why I hate doing biceps exercises.But I’ll try to progress there too from now on.

  5. You mentions using correctly form all the time, Can you give me an explanation of good general form om exercises??

  6. Impressive as usual, Jay… I intend to apply especially the second method in my workouts, it is seems very useful. Thanks for the tip man, you’re great!

    Greetings from Brazil!

  7. Wow this blog post is so on point to my recent experience. Isolation exercise, that one more rep, a little more weight progression always takes longer. Weeks sometimes. I just told myself it is because my main exercises were increasing, thus increasing the fatigue by the time I got to isolation exercises.

    So I generally stick with what I am doing until I can for at least two weeks in a row hit the same weight and same (or more) reps with the same form and ease; then I progress. I also sometimes will do more reps with the first set and see what I can grind out in the second and third as well. For example, I was stuck doing 40 pound dumbbell curls on a preacher machine for a really long time; hitting 10-12 reps, but the second or third set, those last 1 or 2 were real work and often cheated, so I scored it at the last good rep. After almost two months, I was banging them out with ease and could do 15 reps across three sets, so I jumped to 45 pound dumbbells. Now, that third set, I am doing 10-12 reps, but the last two or so are really hard and sometimes I cheat them….so I will work it as it is for a while. Seems to work well.

  8. As Sammy above mentioned, I really think microloading (as it is often called in the fitness community) is a good way to go here. Of course, you have to acquire the proper equipment — either some small plates, magnets, chains, or whatever — but I think for those serious about making progress, it may be a worthwhile investment. Microloading can even be used on compound exercises — by, say, adding 2 pounds to your bench press each workout. I find microloading more satisfying than just increasing reps, as it’s always good to know that you’re lifting more weight. 🙂
    That said, varying the rep range is still a valuable strategy, for those times you don’t have access to microweights….or if you just feel like varying your rep range.

  9. As you know Jay, I’ve been having to change my compound exercises from using barbells to dumbbells… Should I follow the same progressive overload principle for dumbbells as for barbells, or follow more of this method of progression? I’ve been able to increase my shoulder press with dumbbells but it has become more difficult actually trying to get the dumbbells positioned. Could you elaborate on this a little bit?

    • Unless you have some way of microloading the dumbbells, you’re going to be stuck going up in 10lb increments… and that’s definitely a pain in the ass and one of the downsides of using dumbbells over a barbell.

      So, you will probably be better off with a slightly slower method of weight progress than just going up to the next dumbbells the first time you hit your goal reps. Getting those same goal reps a second time might be a good idea (confirms that the previous workout wasn’t just a really good day).

      Or, you could hold off on adding weight until you get a rep or two above the goal rep amount (so if the goal is 8, wait till you get 9 or 10 before going up in weight). But, this assumes you’re good at adding reps. Some people suck at it.

      And regarding getting the dumbbells into position, the best solution is to get a spotter to help. The next best is to learn how to do it better on your own. See #2 here: https://www.aworkoutroutine.com/4-random-weight-training-tips/

      • Thank you! Well my dumbbells are not hex like ones, so I can go up in 5lb increments (it’s plated), either way these options do help out a lot. It sure does make me miss the barbell though. I’ll have to look at that article again, thanks again!

    • Microloading dumbbells IS possible. Get some heavy duty velcro straps (I got some from Amazon for under $10), and use them to attach some small weight plates to the db handles. It’s a bit clunky, but it can work.

  10. Great information Jay, this has been bugging me for long with isolations exercises. I am always adding weight, then reducing the week after because I could barely get 3 reps with the higher weight.
    Is it true that you are either good in Push or Pull exercises? I mean you progress much faster in Back and Biceps than in Chest, shpoulders and triceps or vice versa?

    • It’s true for some people, but not everyone. Some are equally good (or equally bad) at most exercises. Some are better at certain movement patterns than others. Some can squat a ton but can’t bench press worth a damn.

      It has a lot to do with body type, limb length, various genetic factors, etc. along with some technical and mental factors as well.

  11. Great advice, I have been repeating rep counts for a while on few exercises due to poor form, its not unusual for me to up a weight on an exercise and then drop it back when I can’t get many reps in with acceptable form, and simply go for more reps for a few more weeks with the lesser weight.

    I presently don’t do it, but have tried doing drop sets which has been suggested by a couple of friends, simply to get a bit more burn/fatigue from exercises.
    eg Doing maximum/new weight for as many reps as I can then using lighter weight to complete the set, sometimes during the last set it may require to drop weight twice.

    I can see the benefit in doing this but generally find it impractical and often the time it takes to change weight I have probably recovered enough to hit the heavier weight again for a couple more reps.

    I basically found upping reps easier and more practical, form is usually my biggest enemy when I add weight, so I like to be sure to be sure.

    Are there any advantages to drop sets as opposed to upping reps?

    • Big difference between drops sets and doing additional reps in this scenario.

      One (drop sets) mostly just increases the amount of volume being done (and whether that volume is more beneficial or detrimental is debatable… usually leans towards the latter), while the other (more reps) is straight up progression.

  12. Great article. You just don’t find this stuff anywhere else.

    Personally, I have recently begun using some of these ‘tactics’ on many compound movements as well. I find that if I jump up in weight when hitting even 3 sets of 8, the new heavier weight forces me to cheat even though I know I shouldn’t, simply because I want to hit that target rep so bad. It’s like a discipline issue and it seems to be the only way that I can keep my form in check. Too many times I’ve gone into the gym, hit a workout and throughout pretty much the whole thing I’m thinking…’I have no business lifting the amount of weight I’m lifting.’ Haha. I then proceed to lower the weight across the board to recover my lost form, which is totally the opposite direction that I want to go and it TOTALLY MESSES WITH MY HEAD MAN!

    So what I try to do is overshoot my rep ranges to ensure I’m ready to go heavier. Example: If I’m aiming to bench 3 sets of 8, I will wait until I get 3 sets of 10 before I up the weight. So I guess you could say I’m aiming for 3 sets of 10, but in a way not really. I’m aiming for 3 sets of 10 in preparation for the next heavier 3 sets of 8, if you know what I’m sayin, which I know you do Jay!
    I’m still progressing every workout, whether it be extra reps at the same weight or just extra weight. That’s what it’s really all about isn’t it? And I am still in a moderate/acceptable rep range for building muscle, not like I’m doing sets of 30 os something ridiculous, so I think I’m safe.

    There, my spiel is done.

  13. Great stuff – so glad I found this site!

    Been dealing with the same issue and haven’t found anyone who can explain it without sounding like a douchebag – “just add more wheight and push , maaan”

    You know your stuff, Jay!

  14. I’ve been active all my life, but started out at the beginner full body workout. Is this a workout I can stay with if I keep adjusting with progressive weight and or reps? When should I move on to intermediate?

  15. Great article Jay .

    Isolation exercises are meant to support hypertrophy not strength , that’s what I understand .

    Let’s say my goal is to reach 10-12 with a certain weight .

    So let’s say in the first rep I will barely hit 10 reps , do you think that it is better for hypertrophy to lower the wright a bit to stay in the 10-12 rep range ?

    Or I should stay with the same weight and I will be able to do maybe 7 reps

    Which way support growth better ?

    Thank’s Jay

  16. Jay

    Would you recommend an alternative to isolation progression? My gym has dumbbells that go up in 2.5 increments, but one of the ones I’ve needed to make progression has been missing and has not been replaced.

    I’ve been doing lateral raises, and your e-book says 2 sets of 10-12 reps. But at the time to move up, I can only get 6 reps with the 5 lb jump. I was thinking something along the lines of adding another set in because I can’t reach the prescribed range. If I could get 3 sets of something like 6/4/3 reps with good form, is that I viable option. If this is okay, at what point do I move to 2 sets again? Im trying to compensate for the lost volume by adding this one set.

    • Nope. Stick with the current lower weight until you can get 15 reps, maybe even a little more. When you can, go up to the heavier weight and see if you can get something closer to 10 by that point.

  17. Jay,

    I realize that isolation has a different form of progression,but can I keep the progression similar to the compound style?If I can’t do 100lbs,I will do it again on the next workout.

      • I think I should have explained a bit more earlier.

        I am doing the beginner routine and I am doing the lat pulldowns.Should I treat the lat pulldowns as an isolation or compound?

        I wish I could start with your muscle building workout since I am huge fan of iso exercises, dunno why but I feel like I am progressing more and feel the sore better.

          • I didn’t know lat pulldowns was treated as a compound movement..I treated all machine workouts as iso movements,and free weights as compound.

            Thanks for clearing that up.

          • Yup. The type of equipment being used has nothing to do with whether an exercise is compound or isolation (e.g. barbell curls are isolation, dumbbell lateral raises are isolation… a machine row or machine chest press are both compound).

            Compound or isolation depends on the type of exercise and the amount of body parts involved.

  18. I can only do the 3 – day per week full body routine due to my family/work obligations so advancing to the intermediate four day split won’t be an option anytime soon. I’ve been thinking about adding an extra set (instead of only one in your prescribed beginner routines) to the biceps and triceps exercises. I understand this is a difficult question to answer without knowing me personally, but would this be something you would recommend?

      • I was kind of under the impression that if I were to add two sets of arm exercises it would be getting more into an intermediate routine which I know I am not ready for yet, as I just got back into weight-lifting after a very long absence.

        I am going at really good steady pace with the beginner routine I just feel my arms could use a bit more volume.

        You know how hard it is to not fall back into the typical bodybuilding routine?

  19. Hey! Recently started using this training approach to my lifting and I have been making gains that I haven’t seen in a while; great article! I have a question about the 6-8 rep range however. I am not sure if you went over it or not and I missed it but if on the first set you feel like you can do more than 8 reps, is it recommended to hit as many as possible? Say I hit 9 in the first set and then it drops to 7 and then 6, I still hit the rep range but should I instead hit only 8 reps on the first set to maximize output on the next two?

    Thanks!

    • If the goal rep range is 6-8, stop at 8 even if you can do more. It’s good sign that you’ll progress in weight on that exercise pretty soon, at which point you probably won’t be able to do more than 8 on that set.

  20. Hi Jay. i was wondering what if there is no LBS Weight Plates on the gym instead its on KG and the Weight Plates starts at 5, 10, 15, 20 , 25 kg’s.

    here is a short story:

    i have been following your guide which is one of it is “Bench press 3sets 5-7reps”

    i’m lifting at 40kg, 20kg on each side and i have reached that max reps for it and i add 1 more reps on each set meaning i have been doing 3sets “8reps for 2 weeks now” and i want to increase the weight itself but since the lowest Weight Plates on our gym is 5kg adding it would be at 50kg. now i tried lifting it but then i can only do 2-3 reps in each sets.

    now since im having a hard time for 50kg (free weights). im starting to think maybe i should start doing my bench press at a (smith machine) since i tried once and i did a 50kg 3 sets with 7 – 7 – 6 reps.

    i was thinking that maybe i should stick with machine then once i can lift 50kg on it easier ill move to free weights and doing 50kg on it.

    I hope its not that confusing :).

    so my question is that can you give me some opinion if do i still continue this routine?

    which is:

    a. do 50kg benchpress on free weights with low reps and increased it slowly

    b. do 50kg on smith machine then move to free weights if i gain enough strength to do more reps on it.

    Thank you in Advance!

    • Honestly? The best solution to your problem would be to get some smaller plates so you can progress in more ideal increments. My old gym was terrible and never had 2.5lb plates, so rather than add 5lbs to each side, I just bought my own 2.5lb plates and took them to the gym with me.

      • Thank you so much Jay! but then…..

        however, im still a college student and im budgeting my needs and wants from day to day. what if i cant buy my smaller weight plates and *”i try to continue to lift 50kg on free weights (3sets 2- 3 reps)”* and from there i will increase my reps from time to time until i reach 7 reps. is that okay aswell?

        thank you so much once again Jay!.

        p.s from my 10 months of working out and following your guide from beginner to intermediate (bodybuilding 2.0) so far i noticed my Great Results. Thank God i found this and you! 🙂

  21. This is a great article!

    I feel this happens even with compound movements. I’m able to progress for a few weeks, then as the weight gets heavier my form begins to suffer to get more reps or add weight and then feel I should lower the weight again to do it right. It’s kind of frustrating!

    I really enjoy doing lateral raises but can never seem to get it right for some reason. If I try to move up in weight,my form begins to break down. But if I lower the weight to like to 10-12 lbs and do the movement slowly( 2 sec up, 2 sec down) I really feel my shoulders burning but don’t see how I can progress doing it this way.

    Honestly I guess I feel this way about the majority of isolation exercises, curls and tricep ext for example. Should I be more concerned about feeling the muscle then the weight and just move up in reps or weight when the muscle is ready, even it takes weeks or more to progress?

    Thanks!

    • Yup! When it comes to isolation exercises, using them more so for “feel/burn/pump” rather than strictly strength and progression is definitely what I recommend. My book actually explains this in detail.

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