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Isolation vs. activation: The right choice for your workout

So you walk into the gym and see all of those beautiful machines that look like they have lots of bells and whistles – that must be the ticket to total body transformation, right? Or how about that big guy, the one that has muscles on his muscles, standing there, not moving, but curling huge dumbbells and grunting until the vein in his forehead looks like Route 1 heading toward Gillette Stadium? "Hey, I want muscles like that too!"

Not so fast!

Let me help you make the right decision and be sure that before you start your regimen for total body transformation, your program has what you need to get there effectively, efficiently, and most importantly, safely. To do so, we need to talk about isolation, the most common form of exercise, and compare it to my training principle, Maximum Activation.

What are isolation exercises?

These are your traditional exercises. We all know them well, but they often don't get the job done as effectively or efficiently as we'd like. Isolation exercises work only one muscle or muscle group and one joint at a time. Examples include the bicep curl or the seated shoulder press. These exercises are often performed with commercial weight machines or in a stable position. The idea is to isolate one muscle group and move from one machine or exercise to the next until you've "worked" the entire body.

Other isolation programs include time-consuming "split routines," which can take several days to "hit" the entire body due to working only a few body parts in each workout. This is a body-builder mentality that focuses on aesthetics rather than the level of fitness. You can also find isolation exercises in physical therapy or injury rehab, where a controlled situation is key to repairing specific muscle weaknesses. Unfortunately, when it comes to total transformation, this method just doesn't create the energy needed to make it happen in a timely manner.


How does the BMAX training principle of Maximum Activation differ?
In every exercise, muscle fibers are activated on an as-needed basis. The more muscles you work at once, the more fibers you recruit; the heavier you train, the more fibers you activate. The harder or faster you train, the more you will recruit additional fibers to complete your set or interval. Your ability to recruit more fibers will increase based on your use of a combination of dynamic, compound and static exercises.

To put it simply, Maximum Activation is about maximizing your energy levels. In other words, higher tension and faster reps, without sacrificing control, is the key to burning calories and getting rid of unwanted fat while building lean muscle. Typically, there is one larger (primary) muscle that ends up doing the majority of the work, but many smaller muscle groups are recruited secondarily.

Truly, it starts at the brain and works its way down. Being aware of your body is everything when we are talking about significant transformation and real improvement in your level of fitness.

My Recommendations
If your primary goal is performance related (increased cardio health, strength, endurance and flexibility, and significant changes in your body composition), then Maximum Activation exercises should comprise the majority of your workout routine. Isolation exercises should be very limited and even avoided.


If your primary goal is based on looks (building muscle, losing fat, getting toned, etc.) then Maximum Activation exercises should also be your focus. A secondary focus on isolation exercises is also fine.

If you are a beginner with any goal, then Maximum Activation exercises should comprise the majority of your workout routine. Isolation exercises should be kept to a minimum.

To really understand and simplify the differences between the two options, I suggest doing a little experiment. Let's take two basic isolation exercises: the bicep curl and the shoulder press. Now, let's activate and try two of my signature BMAX exercises as a substitution for both: the Plank Curl and the Rockin' Roll Press. Both are designed to hit the same primary groups respectively, the biceps and the shoulders, plus core and more – you'll see!


Now you tell me: isolation or activation?

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