What are isolation exercises?
Isolation exercises put emphasis on making muscles work in isolation. In weight training, isolation exercises refer to exercises that make only one joint or one muscle group work. To truly isolate a muscle group you need to remove work from the others. For example, performing a biceps curl while bending over would not be in full isolation as you would be curling at the elbow and hinging at the hips.
Sitting down with support for your torso and performing a biceps curl would be the best form of an isolation exercise as the support work is handled by the seat so you can focus on the curl.
You are still using the wrist joint, no matter what tool you use. That wrist has to be kept straight. With the kettlebell, this can become more complex, but not impossible, and certainly not ineffective. It just requires you to know your kettlebell grips and how to adjust your posture during the movement.
Kettlebell Isolation Exercises
A question asked over and over again “can kettlebells be used for isolation exercises?”, and usually met with the answer of “kettlebell cleans are great for the biceps”.
The short answer to whether they can be used for isolation is YES they can, and NO, kettlebell cleans are not intended to target the biceps. It’s usually people that have just started kettlebell training or been doing things wrong for a long time that suggest this. For this, I suggest reading our Preventing Kettlebell Training Injuries book.
Are kettlebells as easy to isolate with as dumbbells? No, they’re not, but that does not make the kettlebell less inferior for this. In fact, kettlebells are in a way superior for this topic, however, it requires a lot more investment, the investment of time to learn how to use them properly and knowing how to adjust your stance, your posture, and above all, knowing how to perform the movements (see Kettlebell Exercise Encyclopedia).
Don’t confuse posers with functionality
Your biceps and every other muscle of the elbow flexors are functional. Don’t confuse hypertrophy with strength. There is a difference between working to grow your biceps and making them stronger (more functional). Biceps curls have gotten a bad rep because people immediately associate them with posing and aesthetics. This is incorrect.
I could go on and on about this topic. But let’s dive into some isolation exercises with the kettlebell.
Kettlebell Kneeling Curl
I am following the curl up with a side press, as I like more interesting combos, but for the purpose of this article, just focus on the kneeling curl. The kneeling and bending forward removes a lot of work usually done by the body stand upright, hence, a great way to isolate the curl.
Kettlebell Gorilla Curls
I started using the Gorilla curl back in 2018 when designing a workout that focussed on gorilla-like exercises, like the gorilla cleans, etc. The gorilla curl is awesome, but you need to get the angle of the elbow right, know how to grip and transition the handle. You can work with one bell so you can use your other elbow for support, i.e. more isolation.
Curling from the squat requires a lot of flexibility and a lot of back work, which is why I like this exercise so much. But you could apply nearly the same position but seated and curl with just one arm to work more on isolation. You could even use your other arm for support on the ground.
Here is a video with several different techniques I played around with a long time ago. The thing that’s important with most of them is knowing the grips (download Master Kettlebell Grips) and using a loose/gorilla grip.
The versatility of the kettlebell doesn’t end here, there is so much more, and this is why I enjoy working with the kettlebell. For me, it’s about working everything while keeping it interesting, but that does not mean you can’t use the kettlebell for isolation, it just means you need to invest additional time and effort.
Once again, if you are looking for total isolation and easy to learn, then go for a seated curl with a dumbbell and make sure the seat has support for the elbow and your torso. But, if you have kettlebells, are willing to invest the time, and are looking for something different, then have a go at these kettlebell exercises. And above all, the message to take away from this is that kettlebells can be used for isolation exercises.