Readers, I am fascinated by the concept of movement nutrition. Some big names in the movement game, like Katy Bowman and Ido Portal, have been talking for a while now about the idea that movement is another form of nourishment. Much as we need a certain things in our diets to be hale and healthy, we need to regularly experience physical loads in a variety of positions to keep our bodies functioning optimally. I find this concept of a movement diet helps me understand how training tools like isolation exercises fit into a complete movement practice.
The true utility of isolation exercises is in supplementing those nutrients that are lacking in our daily movement experience to address our movement deficiencies. Just as lacking certain dietary nutrients comes with predictable physical consequences (pirates who don’t eat their limes get scurvy), when we aren’t exposed to certain natural movements we start to run into trouble after a while. Our bodies are powerfully adaptive machines, and to fail to use a function is to adapt to its non-use. If we aren’t up standing and walking enough to balance the time we spend sitting, for instance, we end up with issues like stiff hips and ankles, floppy glutes, and angry spines.
Depending on how deficient you are in a movement input (i.e. how long you’ve gone without exposure), you may be so adapted to the non-use that you have to take more refined steps to solving the problem. For example, if you sat in your office job for years and your hips are stiff, just getting out and doing some walking probably won’t be enough to undo the stiffness and movement consequences all on its own. This is where isolation exercises come in. You might need to do some targeted mobility work to unlock your hips in order to “absorb” all the nutrients from walking. Once you’ve got your lower body moving well again, natural movements like walking can help you maintain and reinforce those gainz.
Sidebar: By “isolation exercises” I mean to refer to any exercise that targets something really specific about movement. It could be a strength exercise like the back fly that you use to isolate shoulder horizontal abduction to target weakness. It could be a mobility exercise like a lunge stretch that you use to isolate structures limiting hip extension to target stiffness. It could be a basic movement drill like partial squats that you use to isolate the first part of the squat range of motion. They come in lots of flavours.
The idea that one should only engage in functional, full-body activities has some merit, but it assumes that the individual already has a perfectly balanced, well-functioning physical system. Yes, a wide spectrum of “real” movements should be at the core of our practices, but we would be remiss to neglect the importance of patching up the holes in our movement profiles. To some extent, large movements can help address our deficiencies (if you are missing overhead range of motion, hanging can be useful, assuming you’re not experiencing painful impingement), but supplementing those large movements with more focused efforts to restore the key limitation is likely to speed along the process.
I think this is important for fitness and rehabilitation professionals alike to consider. Too many people fill their programs with preacher curls, leg extensions, and shoulder rotations without a good reason to do so, and too often this is promoted as acceptable or ideal by those who profess to be authorities on the subject of human movement. Recognize that isolation exercises exist to fill specific needs, not to make the bulk of your training program. Use them to address the components of your movement profile that are holding you back so that you can build a physical practice that supports your life and your physical goals. Build a body with a broad and balanced capacity for movement so that you can explore greater complexity of movement in your practice.