Work the movement or the muscle? The plain and simple truth about isolation vs movement based development

Spend five minutes in a gym and somebody will shout it out… “work the movement not the muscle”! Most of the time it will be some trainer who has their client dripping in sweat but failing miserably at maintaining any modicum of quality form. I don’t know where this saying started, but I suspect it was someone who hated bodybuilders saying “isolate the muscle”.

Let’s face some sad facts. The truth is, most people don’t know why they are doing the particular exercise they are doing at any given time. Sure they know that the bench is for their chest and pull-ups are for their back, but commonly that’s where their knowledge ends. They exercise chest because it’s Monday and legs because it’s Friday (or whatever their bigger faster whateverer friend told them to do). Often they grab the daily workout prescribed (and I use that word extremely loosely here, as a prescription usually factors in some of the needs of the patient) by some website that knows nothing about them, their goals and/or their current levels of fitness. The truth is most people not only don’t know why they are doing what they are doing at any particular time, they don’t know why or how resistance training (strength training or weight lifting as it’s more commonly referred to) changes their body for the better or worse.

So what are the reasons for using resistance training to change your body? It’s really very simple. Without getting into deep science that requires lots of notations at the bottom of this page, the simple of it is that when you overload a muscle or muscle chain, the body adapts to the stimulus. To be clear, when we say a muscle, think just the bicep or just the quadriceps etc. When we say a chain of muscles, we are talking about a collection of muscles that create a movement, such as how the bicep shoulder and back muscles work together in order to pull something. How you go about overloading will determine what type of change your body undergoes. In another post we will jump into how to improve things such as how to jump higher or how to build bigger muscles or how to increase power, but that’s another day. Today, our question is simple…work the muscle (common to bodybuilding approach) or work the movement (common to power lifting/Olympic lifting/crossfit style lifting)?

The answer, to be clear, is both and neither. The truth is that it depends completely on your goal and your chosen methods of progression. Improving your bench press numbers utilizes many muscles both front and back of the body, and working the movement will help develop the skill and the coordination between those muscles, allowing for a far better (and quicker) progression. At the same time, most people plateau because they have a weak point in the chain of muscles they are working, and if they spent some time developing that weak point, they could progress the movement much faster. So again, exclusively working the movement or the muscle is an incomplete plan as far as maximum progression goes.

There is an easy way to think about it though…if you are trying to improve the function of a particular piece of your body (think ability to utilize, not necessarily strength), your chest for example, isolating it is more commonly the way to go. If you are trying to improve a skill to increase your ability to move weight, such as the bench press, training the movement is usually the way to go.

In the end, just remember to always have a reason for whatever it is you’re doing. The gym is an awesome place where we can become better than we were before, but if you have no direction you might end up somewhere you didn’t want to be. Create a plan that will help you achieve YOUR goals. If you don’t know how to program a workout towards your goals, look for the help of a professional who has the education and training to help you.


To be clear, there is a lot more to this rabbit hole of muscle vs movement. In a future post I will discuss the major pros and cons to each method, and where understanding both isolation and movement training will allow for the safest and most productive patterns.




About the writer – Josh Gordon is a husband/father first, personal trainer second, business man third… writer 78th…

Josh co-founded Train Better Personal Trainers with Nate Furlong in 2013 and has been a featured speaker for hospitals, medical, social and athletic groups.  Josh works with all sorts of physical goals but specializes in power based performance development and the correction of muscular imbalances.  He got fit after deciding he didn’t want to die young, and stays fit because “they have me on tv a bunch and I can’t be all out of shape on tv!”…supposedly it has something to do with wanting to be strong capable healthy and feeling great too.  He lives in Southeastern Michigan where he was born and raised and says he will stay as long as he can survive the snow!

me sideways