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Why Isolation Exercises Don’t Work to Trim Belly Fat

Updated on July 18, 2019
Lorra Garrick profile image

Former ACE-certified personal trainer Lorra Garrick has trained men & women for fat loss, muscle building, more strength and more fitness.

Many people don’t even perceive their exercises as either isolation or compound. They just go about doing them, not really knowing why. They’ve seen other gym members doing them, or saw pictures in magazines of people doing them, so they’ve adopted them into their training.

Isolation Exercise Defined

An isolation exercise uses only one muscle group (one joint). A compound exercise uses more than one muscle group (more than one joint).

The uninformed person may think, Aren’t just about all exercises compound? The answer: not necessarily. There are many isolation exercises, and many men and women spend over 50 percent of their training time with these kinds of exercises, as part of their overall fat loss program which includes the goal of a flatter stomach and smaller waist.

Why Isolation Exercises Don’t Burn Belly Fat

  • Not enough fat is burned to make a significant difference.
  • Not enough fat is burned to make a significant difference.

This is repeated twice because that’s pretty much THE absolute reason. In order to lose fat in the middle, a person needs to raise their body’s rate of energy usage. Fat is not burned locally. When your body needs stored body fat for fuel, it takes it from all over, in a more diffuse fashion rather than localized fashion.

Many people do not understand this.

They end up spending inordinate amounts of time, often daily, on the floor doing one abdominal exercise after another, and then moving on to the abdominal machines. Repetition after repetition, day after day, month after month—believing that this approach will shave off fat in their middle.

Another mistake is that the rest of their weight training routine consists of too many other isolation exercises, such as arm curls, triceps kickbacks with dumbbells and cables, side bends while holding plates, use of the inner/outer thigh equipment, among other isolation exercises.

Here and there they’ll do some bench pressing maybe, or some presses with dumbbells and some lat pull-downs.

Shift the Ratio

But the ratio of isolation work to compound work needs to be shifted in favor of compound work, so that the bulk of their session is comprised of moves like squatting, the deadlift, leg press, rowing motions (horizontal pulling), presses (seated and lying) and maybe some hybrid movements like picking a barbell off the floor, bringing it to the shoulders, then (with control!) pressing it overhead (deadlift-to-overhead press).

Standing Overhead Press
Standing Overhead Press
Back Squat
Back Squat

To have abs that show, there must be only a small amount of body fat between the ab muscles and the skin. A person can have the strongest abs in the world as far as how many upside-down crunches they can do, but they won’t show if there’s a thick layer of fat over them.

Burning the Most Fat Possible

Look at it this way: There may be seven exercises a person does in a training session, with three sets each. There is a choice between Session 1 and Session 2.

Session 1 with the seven exercises looks like this:

  • Lat pull-down
  • Dumbbell overhead press
  • Bench press
  • Front shoulder raise with dumbbells
  • Triceps kickback with dumbbell
  • Crunch machine
  • Sit-ups

Some of these exercises work more than one major muscle group at a time, while some work only one (the core—abs/lower back). Total main muscle groups worked in this session, excluding the core: 10.

Session 2 looks like this:

  • Deadlift
  • Lat pull-down
  • Dumbbell squat
  • Leg press
  • Weighted walking lunge
  • Bent-over dumbbell row
  • Biceps curl

All but one of these exercises work more than one muscle group. Total muscle groups worked in this session, excluding the core: 23!

Now, these numbers reflect main muscle groups. The deadlift can’t be performed without some biceps action, but the biceps aren’t a major contractor in the deadlift (like the hamstrings are), so they’re excluded from the tally.

Which workout burns more fat throughout the body?

  • One that hits 10 muscle groups out of seven exercises?
  • Or one that hits 23 out of seven exercises?
  • Though the quantity of exercises is the same, the amount of muscle fiber being worked differs considerably. When more fat is burned throughout the body, then more fat will be burned in the midsection.

Deadlift
Deadlift

Abdominal-targeting exercises are inferior when it comes to burning fat in the abdomen. The objective is to burn fat in the stomach. This is best accomplished by burning the most fat possible throughout the entire body. Heavy compound training will achieve this.

Five sets of deadlifts with weight heavy enough to make eight reps very difficult, with 90 seconds of rest in between each set (a routine that can be completed in 9-10 minutes), will burn significantly more fat in the belly than will TWO HOURS of nonstop crunches.

It now should be clear why isolation exercises don’t work to trim belly fat. Isolation exercises do have their place when it comes to shaping and sculpting the body, but when it comes to high levels of burning fat, isolation exercises sink.

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