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Pre-Exhaustion Workouts

If you want your muscles to grow, you have to constantly keep stressing them. Unfortunately, over time, your muscles adapt to the stress and the growth tends to level off. To keep growing, several training techniques have been promoted, including one called "pre-exhaustion" training. This is how it works.

In a typical workout, most people train using multi-joint exercises. Multi-joint, also called compound exercises, work large amounts of muscle mass in a single movement.

Examples of multi-joint exercises include the bench press (for your chest), shoulder press (for shoulders) and squats (for legs). Each of these exercises works the primary muscle, and the primary muscles are assisted by smaller secondary muscles.

When you're unable to lift any more, it's often because the smaller secondary muscles fail. The end result is that your primary muscles don't get fully fatigued and the set isn't as effective.

To get around this problem, pre-exhaustion training has you perform a single-joint movement first, before moving on to the multi-joint exercises.

(Single-joint exercises are also known as "isolation exercises" because they focus primarily on one muscle, they isolate it, without much engagement of secondary muscle groups.)

The single-joint exercise "pre-exhausts" the target muscles. Then when you follow it up with a multi-joint exercise, the main target muscle is already fatigued and assisting muscles are called on to help complete the set. Theoretically, once the major muscle has been "pre-exhausted," when you perform the multi-joint exercise, all the muscles will fail at the same time.

Examples of single-joint and multi-joint combos include:

Muscle Targeted
Starting Exercise
Ending Exercise
Cable Pullovers Close Grip Pull-ups
Barbell Curls Close-grip, Palms-up Pulldowns
Machine Fly Machine Bench Press
Dumbbell Laterals Presses Behind Neck
Dumbbell Pullovers Barbell Rows
Dumbbell Side Laterals Overhead Press
Leg Extensions Squats
Shrugs Upright Rows
Pressdowns Dips

There are a few problems with the pre-exhaustion theory. The first and most obvious is that it's impossible to completely isolate any single muscle. No matter what you do, there will always be some assistance from secondary muscles.

The second is that if you're pressed for time, a pre-exhaust workout isn't the most efficient way to train. Multi-joint movements hit more muscles during each exercise, allowing you to get it done faster.

Finally, the big problem. Pre-exhaustion workouts haven't stood up to scientific scrutiny. In May of 2003, researchers at the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, Gotenborg University in Goteborg, Sweden, released a study that tested the pre-exhaustion technique using a leg press exercise.

Researchers concluded that activation of primary muscles was significantly LESS when subjects were pre-exhausted. What they said was, "Our findings do not support the popular belief of weight trainers that performing pre-exhaustion exercise is more effective in order to enhance muscle activity compared with regular weight training."

In 2007 another study was conducted in Brazil. Researchers reported in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning that subjects who used the pre-exhaust system during chest exercises had lower pectoral muscle activity than after traditional chest exercises. They concluded that pre-exhaust training wasn't effective.

So pre-exhaustion training doesn't do what its supporters claim. Should you ever try it?

Surprisingly the answer may be yes, but not for the reasons most people suggest. If you've been working out for more than a year and you've hit a plateau, pre-exhaustion training can be a way to shake-up your routine and force your body to react to something new. Whenever you challenge your muscles in new ways (as long as you're not hurting yourself), you force the muscles to grow.

Some Simple Rules for a Pre-Exhaustion Training Workout:

  1. Limit any pre-exhaustion workouts to 1 or 2 every three months. They're to be used as a shock to your system, not a regular training program.

  2. Go slow. If you start a workout with a single-joint exercise, you'll probably be able to lift more weight than usual because it's first, and your body isn't as fatigued as normal. That also means when you get to your multi-joint exercises, you probably won't be as strong as usual because the primary muscle has already been fatigued.

  3. Don't use excessively heavy weights when you're doing your single-joint exercises. You're trying to fatigue the muscle, not work it to failure.

  4. Perform the single joint set and then the multi-joint set back to back. If you wait too long, the pre-exhausted muscle will begin to recover.

  5. If you're trying to pre-exhaust a muscle using supersets, don't rest until after you've finished the second set.

  6. Stick to using machines, so you don't have to concentrate on the finer aspect of balancing the weight but more on the muscle being worked.

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Updated 3/18/2013