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Pre-Exhaust Your Muscles to Awaken New Growth

Flip-flopping single- and multijoint moves in your workout can smoke your muscle via pre-exhaust training.

As a bodybuilder, you train to exhaustion, but if a beginning bodybuilder asked you, could you confidently define it? If not, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Even some of the most experienced bodybuilders tilt their heads and pause, searching for a way to describe one of the best techniques for mass we’ve ever encountered that’s still somewhat confusing in concept.

Plan to Fail

The simplest way to describe pre-exhaust training is that it’s a method using isolation (also called single-joint) exercises to target a particular muscle group before moving to compound (multijoint) movements for the same muscle. 

The objective of the technique is to get the target muscle as fatigued as possible before subjecting it to multijoint exercises. Take the chest for example. Before hitting your bench presses, a pre-exhaust exercise would be the flat-bench dumbbell flye (or even the cable crossover or pec-deck machine). During the flye only the pectorals are involved in performing the movement. When the chest is fatigued, you move to the bench press, where the pecs gain assistance from the shoulders and triceps. During a typical bench press the chest gets help from the delts and tri’s, but that assistance limits the amount of fatigue it can achieve. Since the triceps and delts are much weaker than the chest, the bench press always ends because the triceps or delts fatigue, not because of the exhaustion of the chest-muscle fibers.

Related: Pre-Exhaust Your Shoulders

For that reason the pre-exhaust method is used to break down the target musculature before adding in the help of other assisting muscle groups. In the bench press example the triceps are delts are fresh so they won’t be subject to such quick fatigue as are the already-worked pectoral fibers, which further compound the exhaustion of the pecs. The ultimate goal is that once the triceps and delts are fatigued, so too is the chest. All three bodyparts involved in the exercise are completely worn out and used up. That’s the basic premise of pre-exhaust.

Doubters Debunked 

In a normal bodybuilding workout you do the isolation movements at the end of your training session after the multijoint exercises; however, reversing the scheme to target the muscle fibers in this way is a phenomenon only the pre-exhaust method can duplicate. In the normal routine, with the isolation exercises coming last, you can’t know for sure if the target muscle is completely fatigued simply by using the isolation movement as your litmus test. The pre-exhaust method is a surefire way to know the job is done because you’ll have completely failed and fatigued at both the compound and isolation exercises after removing the assistance muscles from the equation.

Probably one of the main reasons guys shy away from pre-exhaust is that it obviously limits the amount of weight you can lift on the compound exercises because you’re not doing them first when your energy level is highest. That can be a tough mental hurdle to surmount, but from a physical standpoint you’ll probably break down the muscle better with the pre-exhaust method than ever before, despite the fact that you’re using less weight on the subsequent compound exercises. Because you’re going lighter on the multijoint movements, you’re actually extending the life of your elbow, shoulder, hip and knee joints. To a young bodybuilder that might not sound like much of a benefit, but if you’ve been in the sport for a while, you understand exactly how important it is.

Angles come into play during pre-exhaust training as they do in regular training. To pre-exhaust your chest before doing heavy incline bench presses, you wouldn’t use the decline flye as your pre-exhaust exercise. You’d use an incline flye. You want to mimic, within reason, the angle for both exercises simply because you’re recruiting the same fibers, not different ones. For chest exercises pre-exhaust is relatively easy, but it’s not so easy on other bodyparts such as back. In the end the main characteristic is fatigue of the target muscle, with exercise angles being secondary in importance. 

Perfecting Pre-Exhaust 

Here’s a brief tip sheet to get you started on using pre-exhaust, an advanced technique that can help deliver serious muscle growth.

  • Try the pre-exhaust method for each bodypart for about four weeks before going back to your standard routine.
  • Your rest periods between the isolation exercise and the compound movement are normal. Rest 1-2 minutes between sets. This is not a superset in which you want to rest as little as possible.
  • Though you’re starting with the isolation exercise, you’ll still want to do a few warm-up sets. When you get to your working weight, you’ll be able to go slightly heavier than usual because you haven’t done any presses yet to fatigue the muscle. Choose a weight with which you can do about 10 reps to failure. This set also serves as a warm-up for the compound exercise to follow. You may need only 1-2 warm-up sets to get ready for your working weight. Remember, the weight you’re able to lift when following a pre-exhaust movement will be substantially less.
  • In your pre-exhaust routine do 3-4 sets of the isolation exercise (excluding warm-ups) with the same number of sets for the compound movement that follows. After you’ve performed the pre-exhaust method, you can complete your routine in straight-set fashion on your favorite exercises for that muscle group. Many pre-exhaust devotees actually repeat the method with other exercises and angles throughout the routine, but be careful not to overtrain.