Before we jump into the countdown, it’s important to think about why you want to add body building exercises to your current regimen.
Do you want to gain muscle (hypertrophy) while staying as lean and ‘functional’ as possible?
If that’s the case, then you’ve come to the right place.
This countdown will reveal my favorite isolation (single joint) exercises for CrossFit® athletes who want to put on size and strength.
Two Notes Before You Jump Into the Countdown
Note 1: This is merely a list to spark ideas and allow you to build some movement variety into your current training. It’s not a program.
But as a general rule of thumb for hypertrophy work, pick a moderately heavy load (40-80% 1RM) and complete it to high fatigue: a 1 to 2 ‘rep reserve.’ In other words, stop just before you fail.
Rest and repeat for 3-4 sets for most folks. I don’t like giving blind prescriptions, but if you stick within those guidelines, you should see some pretty solid results.
Note #2: Isolation “bodybuilding” exercises will be most effective when paired with compound, multi-joint exercises that involve mainly muscle groups and systems.
Provided you are already doing squats, deadlifts, presses, jerks, and upper body pulling like pull-ups or muscle-ups -well then- you’re well on your way to having a well-rounded program.
Now that we’ve got those items addressed, let’s dive in.
#25 – Barbell “21s”
For many athletes, myself included, this was a favorite in their high school weight room. They are called 21’s because you will complete 21 total reps in each set. You start with 7 bottom-half only curls, then 7 top-half only, and finish with 7 full reps. Partials are an underrated tool for developing size, and they’ll be sure to give you a big arm pump.
#24 – Hanging Hamstring Curls
Hamstring Curls are a great exercise for developing strength and size for hinging movements, like deadlifts. The issue is most CrossFit gyms don’t have machine. But what they do have in Rings and Plyo boxes. So with a little creatively, you can make it happen.
#23 – Slider Plank Pikes
Too often core exercises aren’t effectively because frankly they just aren’t very challenging. If you’re looking for an exercise that turns up the intensity dial, here you go. It’s not only challenging, but functional as well. The ability to be able to compress your core is an important skill in the Sport of Fitness, allowing you to do movements like Toes-to-Bar.
#22 – Dumbbell Curl & Press
I like to think of this as a strict clean and jerk. It’s the same vertical pull and vertical press patterns, but in a way that challenges the upper body musculature more than the hips and positional strength.
#21 – Tabletop Glute Bridges
Sometimes your body is the only tool you need. Glute bridges are always excellent options, which is probably why two of them made their way into this countdown. It activates your glutes, hamstrings and back while simultaneously stretching out the chest, shoulders and biceps.
#20 – Exercise Ball Crunch
This issue with doing crunches on the floor is the range of motion is very limited. You can are unable to extend through your spine and get a bigger stretch because the floor is in the way. By putting the small of your back on the ball, your upper body hangs off and demands your core to engage and also allows for you to extend past neutral on each rep. This intensifies the burn.
#19 – Two-Way Banded Side Step
Glute accessory and isolation work isn’t just for wannabe fitness models. Bodybuilders, Powerlifters, CrossFitters and other athletes can all benefit from getting some additional glute-focused work in. It will help bulletproof your knees and cool your overworked quads while only helping to up your squat numbers.
#18 – Rear Leg Elevated RDL
Even with lots of hinging exercises, like deadlifts and good mornings, I would have a hard time building strength and adding size to my hamstrings. My lower back and positions would begin to wear out before I could elicit a powerful response. Then I found the rear leg elevated RDL. It works great for two reasons. One, all your bodyweight in addition to the weight of the bar is all forced onto a single leg. And two, the rear leg can’t assist to lift the load, but it can assist in stabilizing so your are never limited by balance.
#17 – Dumbbell Incline Pec Fly
The reality is CrossFit® has very few exercises in it that involve the chest and the pecs. Besides ring dips, ring muscle-ups, push-ups, burpees and the occasional bench press, there is almost no other exercises that target the chest. Stop the madness!
#16 – Slider Hamstring Curls
These don’t look like much, but they will light you up like a Christmas tree. Work to keep your shoulders, hips and knees in a straight line as you pull in. No sagging!
No sliders? Sub out a towel on a hardwood floor and that’ll do the trick.
#15 – Dumbbell Incline Front Delt Raise
Your delts (visible shoulder muscles) are in an ideal range to contract and create the most force when your hands are just in front of your body. This means that I traditional standing front raise isn’t as effective as it could be. The solution is putting your body at an incline because it changes the orientation of your body relative to where gravity is pulling the weight. These are killer and they work a range of motion that many people have neglected.
#14 – Double Dumbbell RDL
The great thing about dumbbells is that you can have your hands trace all the way down to the laces of your shoes, whereas an RDL with a Barbell you can only go to about the middle of your shin before the plates touch down. Since the bottom portion of an RDL is really what hits your hamstrings, elongated that portion of the lifts requires them to work even more.
#13 – Dumbbell Pullover
Too often athletes do pulling with a bent arm. In fact, a lot of people don’t even realize that straight arm pulling is a thing. Pull-Ups and rows are great, but just like you isolate the elbow (e.g. bicep curls) you should also isolate the shoulder. This is a great variation that hits your lats and core.
#12 – Calf Raises
Movements like box jumps, sprints and double unders will work your calves, but likely they won’t cause them to grow in size. The main reason for this is because these movements take advantage of the elasticity of your connective tissue and minimize the muscular work being done. While this is efficient in terms of movement, it’s the main reason why people struggle to grow their calves. Here’s how we fix that…
#11 – Sandbag Static Holds
I intentionally haven’t been putting many odd object exercises into this countdown, but I would regret not putting at least one into the list. Whenever you lift a big, awkward object (like a sandbag or d-ball), the weight inevitably has to be in front of your body, making the musculature on the opposite of the body (your posterior chain) work even harder. This will toast your hamstrings, glutes and low back.
#10 – Barbell Upright Row
I find people do a lot of strict pulling from above or in front. In other words, exercises like pull-ups, muscle-ups, bent over rows, prone rows, etc. Adding some upright rows adds some much needed variety while hitting the shoulders, traps and upper back much harder than the other variations.
#9 – Cyclist Squats
It’s much easier to isolate muscles in the upper body than it is the lower body. For example, how to you mainly work the quads without doing something like a leg extension? This is by far the most effective way to hammer your quads without trashing your hips and back with high volume squats.
#8 – Barbell Glute Bridge
The glutes are often worked in a vertical plane of motion (squatting, deadlifting, etc.) but it’s much more rare to have them work horizontally. Yet when they are, glutes are in a very strong position to produce force. Load up the bar and maximize your gluteus maximus.
#7 – Barbell Skull Crushers
Skull Crushers have been a personal favorite of mine for over a decade. This variation shifts pressure the shoulder to the elbow, and in doing so this exercise hits all three heads of the triceps.
#6 – Incline Bicep Curls
A muscle that is stretched carries much more tension. And this tension -at times- can act like a tourniquet. Blood can still get into the working muscle, but it can’t escape. The result is a massive pump.
#5: Freestanding Dumbbell Bent Row
Bent row variations are super effective for building back strength and pulling power. Horizontal pulling is very effective for building mass because you can load that pattern heavily. Well-balanced athletes will be able to this variation with upwards of 25% of the Deadlift one rep max for several reps.
#4 – Barbell Good Morning
The Good AM is unique movement because it loads the posterior chain without taxing the grip. And since the load sits high on your shoulders, it demands more of your back. This means that it is great for taxing the erectors and lower back without trashing your hands.
#3 – Dumbbell Concentration Curls
An appropriately named exercise, this curl concentrates the intensity to just the biceps. Since you are blocking off backwards elbow travel with your thigh, there’s no way to ‘cheat’ the movement. The muscle tends to reach a point of failure much faster as a result.
#2: Banded Lat Row
This is my favorite straight arm lat exercise. Not only will this movement light up your lats, but it will also increase your ability to close down the shoulder joint. This is an essential quality for stringing together big sets of muscle-ups and expressing higher level gymnastics.
#1 – Plank Variations
Sometimes the best movement is no movement at all: it’s isometric. Remember, just because a joint isn’t moving doesn’t mean the muscles manipulate it aren’t working. Sometimes the best thing you can do for developing movement quality, size, strength, capacity, etc. is getting into a tough position and staying there. It’s foundational.
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