Five tips for isolating muscles when weightlifting

January 2, 2012

Q: I have never had trouble motivating myself to go to the gym and work out, but I sometimes have trouble knowing if I’m doing the exercises correctly. Do you have any suggestions that might help me understand proper form?

A: Many years ago I learned that working out hard wasn’t good enough to get results. If I wanted make progress and stay injury free, I had to do each exercise correctly, or I might as well not do them at all. Here are five basic tips I learned over the years to help anyone who works out make sure they are doing the exercises correctly.

Keep your elbows in when working triceps
It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing tricep dips, extensions, pushdowns or skull crushers; you’re not doing them correctly if you allow your elbows to move away from your body. To truly isolate the tricep muscles at the back of the arm, you have to pull your elbows in tight to the sides of your body and keep them planted throughout the entire movement. Failure to do so simply means the weight is too heavy, and you’re using shoulders and back instead of isolating the triceps.

Never allow your knees to track past your toes when doing squats or lunges
When performing any type of squat or lunge, it’s essential to keep your knees from tracking past your toes, for two very good reasons. First of all, allowing your knees to extend over your toes puts extreme pressure on the knee joint and will eventually cause injury. Secondly, to take the pressure off the joints and put it squarely on the leg muscles, you have to stick your chest and butt out and make sure your shin and thigh bones are at a 90-degree angle.

Arch your back when working the chest
About 90 percent of the people I see at the local gym make the same mistake when attempting to work their chest: they press the weight with their back flat on the bench or machine,causing their shoulders - front delts - to do the majority of the work instead of isolating the chest. To fix this problem, simply arch your back, squeezing your shoulder blades closer together and putting your chest out in front of your body when doing any type of chest press or fly. This technique will ensure that you are isolating the chest muscles, keeping the shoulders from taking over the movement.

Keep your knees slightly bent when doing standing bicep curls
When doing standing bicep curls with a barbell or dumbbells, it’s important to keep your knees slightly bent, your butt out, and your feet spread to shoulder width. These techniques will not only keep the pressure firmly on the muscles being worked, but it will also protect the lower back from being injured during the movement.

Pause for a split second at the top and bottom of any weightlifting movement
People often ask me how fast they should lift the weight when performing any exercise, and my answer is always the same, “Lift fast enough to move the weight and slow enough to pause it for a split second at the top and bottom of the movement.” You don’t have to hold the weight long, just long enough to stop the motion, and then you can go for another repetition. This not only reduces any momentum, but it will also prevent joint injury caused by moving the weight too fast.

Just like a good carpenter knows that a house is only as strong as its foundation, a true weightlifter understands that form is essential for getting results. So take the time to learn to exercise correctly, and the results will speak for themselves.

  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out

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