Adelfo Cerame - Road to Wheelchair Championships: What Sitting in a Chair Teaches You About Isolation Exercises

Image 1: "Hey Dude! Those arms come from rolling around in the chair, right?
The time is flying by, it's almost June (just a few couple of hours left in May) and for Adelfo his next big day is approaching fast. After last weeks brief panic attack (see "Don't Let Red Flags and Banana Skins Stop You!), he is back on track this week and that despite the fact that he has a hell lot of work to do that is not related to working out or dieting... or writing his weekly blogposts on the SuppVersity, of course. Usually you would think that sitting in a wheelchair does make all that more complicated and troublesome, but as you will see in this week's installment of Adelfo Cerame's Road to the Wheelchair Championships, sitting in a wheelchair can also have certain advantages, even when it comes to building a better physique!

The overlooked advantages of training in a wheelchair

I don’t get approached much, but when I do, the majority speculates that I have attained and maintain my physique from pushing my wheelchair around. I assume many people will think that I would expend more energy than the average able body person, and get my fair share of low intensity cardio on a daily basis, due to being and moving in a chair throughout the day, but I am neither sure that this is actually the case (assuming that the aforementioned person is not the average obese couch-potato), nor do I believe that the actual act of moving around in the chair has much of anything to do with my ability to achieve and maintain the physique I have.

In a wheelchair or not, it takes dedication, consistency and balance to be able to achieve the physique you want. I’m no exception to the rule; I still have to diet and train just like everyone else. There’s no magic pill or in my case magic wheelchair, that will get you your results.

With that being said; it was brought to my attention the other day by one of my training partners, that I must really get a good isolation when I do my exercises, just for the fact that I cannot use my legs as a leverage.  I paused and thought about it... and yeah, being in a wheelchair does have some training advantages. At least, as far as upper body development and strength are concerned. I think some of the more or less involuntary, since obligatory isolation movements, I do for certain body parts did and still do contribute to my size and strength gains; and what's more, I believe able persons, like you probably are, could benefit from some of them, as well!.
Image 2: Let's face it guys, THIS can't be the result from rolling around in a wheelchair all day, right?
Due to being paralyzed from the waist down, the isolation may come more "naturally" (whatever that may mean in this context), but there is nothing that would hinder you from emulating it and grasping similar benefits from
  • not planting your feet/ legs on the floor and thusly having less leverage and a less solid base, when doing exercises like bench presses
  • not curling or pushing (down) from your legs, when you do biceps curls or triceps push-downs
  • not being able to bend over like crazy and compensate with your legs, when you did actually sit down to counter exactly those compensatory movements that will hinder you to isolate a certain muscle group as for example during single-arm DB side laterals
Don't get me wrong I am not even accusing you of "cheating", it is totally normal for your body to try to make it as easy as possible for you - or in this case, the "target muscle" - to lift the weight. When an object is too heavy to lift with your lats alone, that little extra kick with your legs will help you the inertia and allow you to complete the rest of the lift.

The unstable bench is probably not ideal for maximal leverage, but a means to isolate the pecs

Simlarly, on a bench press, people will start arching their backs like crazy (something that obviously will require leg involvement), whenever the load gets to heavy to be lifted properly. In some cases this may be the conscious application of a lifting technique, for 99% of the average gymrats, however, it is simply an instinctive reaction of your body to a load it feels your chest, front delts and triceps (the major muscle groups the flat bench press should activate) won't be able to lift, without a little help from your legs that would put them in a favorable position.
Image 3: This is how I feel every time I get under a flat press bench *lol* As you can see, able people must lift their legs, so they can isolate the chest, and when you isolate a muscle, you stimulate and target the area much more efficiently - at least on a pound per rep base.
Now, it goes without saying that, in my case, this mechanism, or rather its practical realization are no longer operating, since most of the connection between my brain and legs is out of whack. When I do a flat bench exercise – it’s not that my chest, my delts and my tris are unable to make things easier for themselves by signaling my brain to use the legs to position my body differently, I will also have to accommodate for the lack of stability (to the left and right) able people derive from planing their legs firmly on the ground. If you still don't get where this is headed to, check out the image 3.

To isolate or not to isolate? Is that a question, at all?

Image 4: For your isolation movements, you want to pick muscles that are lagging and exercises that work for you. For me a lagging body part are my rear delts and the rear delt cable fly is the exercise, of which I feel that I get the best contraction in this part of my body.
While some people will tell you that "isolation does not even exist" and that all your efforts to train a certain muscle group in isolation were futile, my take on it is slightly different. Allegedly, when you do compound exercises, heavy pulling and pushing, this will always involve a whole host of muscles / muscle groups. Take my EDT training split for example; there’s not a single of those "fancy isolation exercises", as critics like to refer to them, involved - just basic compound movements: Hard, heavy and intense!

Still, there are benefits in some isolation movements, in my opinion and I think Dr. Andro would have to agree on the fact that the addition of a couple of well-chosen isolation exercises (keep in mind, well-chosen implies that you pick those exercises that work for you, not for Adelfo Cerame, Dr. Andro, or Jay Cutler), when executed with proper form and intensity can provide advanced trainees with the additional accentuated training stimuli neither a "compounds only"- nor the average muscle mag "do every biceps isolation exercise known to man in one single session and repeat that ten times"-workout

Muscle groups and exercises for isolation

As I have already stated before, your exercise choice will be based mainly on on your personal preferences and goals - with the latter having priority before the former: You would, for example not do tons of hammer DB hammer curls on a preacher bench, if your brachialis was already bigger than your biceps. On the other hand, you would maybe chose standing calf raises on one of those funky machines over doing them freely, if you feel that you are getting a better contraction on the machine.
Video 1 (click to watch): Here’s a clip of me training rear delts. I don’t really do much for my rear delts, since they are constantly getting hit when I do chins, DB rows, and seated back rows (Adelfo Cerame. 2012).
As a rule of thumb, the smaller muscle groups usually benefit most from isolation work. For me, those are the side and rear delts, so so much my front, though; for one, my front delts are already in pretty decent shape and for two, they get hammered with almost every pressing movement you do. It would therefore not make sense for me to do additional isolation work for them. For the side and the rear delts this is, as I said, differently, and with the usual trial & error (no, you cannot avoid that completely ;-), I have found that for me also due to being in my chair, two exercises work particularly well:
  1. DB side laterals – Gripping one side of my chair, I lean towards the other, so that I can balance the weight of the dumbbell in my hand, then I grip the wheel and do the raises, probably similar to the way you do them. While you could possibly use other muscles than your delts to help yourself out and cheat the DB up, though, the rest of my body is pretty much occupied with keeping me stable so that I get a very decent contraction in my delts - and only in my delts ;-)
  2. Bent over reverse cable fly’s – I've been through basically every rear delt exercise you can possibly do, I believe, and it was by no means easy to find one that works for me. Either I cannot do them at all, or they don't really isolate the muscle, the way I want them to. What I did find works pretty well, though are the bent over reverse cable fly's (see video 1). And again, not being able to rock to the left or to the side from the legs, must not necessarily be a disadvantage here.
Now, as you can see, this are two, I repeat, TWO, isolation movements for muscles you can actually isolate. Many of the intitially mentioned guys who speculate that it must be my wheelchair due to which I build those "great arms", on the other hand, will be "hitting" their chest, their biceps and some also their triceps "from every angle" in hope for "full development" - I am using quotationmarks here, because I've heard that time and again and usually the laughable results speak for themselves... in other words, isolate where it makes sense, but stick to one exercise per muscle and max. two exercises per muscle group; do only a couple of sets and focus on form and contraction - everything else is just a waste of time.
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