By Jim Burch

Bicep Curls

Elite athletes know what targeted muscle exercises are going to improve their athletic performance, and bodybuilders and fitness competitors rely on them to build winning physiques. But are they for everyone?

Nearly everybody can name an area of their body that they wish they could improve upon, and would like to know how.  Whether you’re an athlete, a bodybuilder, or maybe you just want to look better in the locker room mirror, here’s why targeted muscle exercises should be a part of your fitness life.

Targeted Muscle Exercises

As the name implies, a targeted muscle exercise is any movement that isolates one muscle group.  Bicep curls are a perfect example because the movement has only one purpose—build bigger biceps. While the shoulders and core (assuming the curls are done standing up) do get some work, all the attention is on the biceps. Scientific studies have even gone as far as discover the specific movements that are most effective for one muscle group. If you can name a muscle group, there’s a targeted exercise for it, and some groups even have multiple movements that yield different results (such as movements to increase strength vs. movements to increase size).

Targeted vs. Compound Exercises

Pull-ups are another popular bicep-building workout with a key difference—they are just as productive, arguably more so, for the upper back and shoulder muscles. Compound workouts, such as core workouts like squats, deadlifts, and bench press, train more than one key muscle group and are a great way to get a faster overall workout (think three compound exercises vs. six targeted ones.)

Bodybuilders and fitness competitors love to use targeted muscle exercises for “minor tweaking” to specific muscle groups, but still rely on compound workouts for overall strength and muscle hypertrophy.

So which type of workout is better? For most people, neither. A well-rounded workout routine uses both targeted and compound movements to build strength and physique.

Examples of Targeted Muscle Exercises


  • Dumbbell flies target the inner chest muscles when done on a flat bench and hit upper and lower pectorals when done on an incline or decline bench, respectively.


  • Lateral raises (mentioned as a tennis player’s workout above) target the deltoid muscles in the shoulders. Front raises, which are similar to lateral raises except the weight are lifted out front, work a different section of the deltoid muscles.


  • Bicep curls target the biceps but there are many variations of the movement. Seated curls and hammer curls are two different ways to train the same muscle group (yielding different results).
  • Tricep extensions and “skull crushers” (not as scary as the name sounds) are two different ways to work the same tricep muscle group.
  • Hanging from a pull-up bar for as long as possible helps improve grip and forearm strength.



  • Leg curls and extensions isolate the hamstrings and quad muscles, respectively, and the machines for each are common to almost every gym.
  • Calf raises isolate the calf muscles and can be done with just a set of stairs.
  • The Smith machine (looks like a squat rack but the bar is attached to a track) allows for different stances and movement angles, and is perfect for targeting specific muscle groups that normal squats cannot.
Leg Extensions

Find What’s Right for You

Compound workouts will help you get more done in less time but don’t be so quick to dismiss targeted muscle exercises to help fill the gaps to reach your goals. There are exceptions to the rule, but targeted muscle exercises are typically associated with a better physique and more commonly overlooked for strength training. However, don’t be so quick to dismiss them if stronger muscles are a priority.

Use a combination of both targeted and compound movements in your exercise routine and find what ratio is right for you.

Jim Burch
Jim Burch

About the Author:

Jim Burch is a St. Louis native but moved to Arizona in 2009 where he is obsessed with the outdoors. Whether hiking, backpacking, or camping up in the northern Arizona mountains, he just loves to be outside. Jim’s passions include Cardinals baseball, weightlifting, road trips, and National Parks.