Pre-Exhaust Training – Power Up Your Muscle Building Efforts

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Every time we step in to the gym our goal should be progression. For most, this means increasing volume and load by adding weight to the bar, repetitions to a set, or sets to the workout. I am a firm believer that consistency and progression are the two most critical factors for improving your strength, size, and endurance.

Unfortunately, we often get so caught up in progressing by any means necessary that our form breaks down and muscle imbalances develop. I know when I’m suffering from progression-at-all-costs-itis when my squat turns in to a good morning and my deadlift turns in to a Romanian deadlift. While it may seem that I’m progressing on paper, my form is suboptimal and the appropriate muscles are not engaging at the correct times.

Related: Pre-Exhaust Principle Guide and Workout

What if I told you there was a way to improve your form on compound movements, decrease wear and tear on your joints, increase the mind-muscle connection with targeted muscles, and accelerate size and strength gains by lifting lower weights on compound movements? Enter, pre-exhaust training.

Pre-exhaust training is the approach by which you first perform one to two isolation movements for a moderate to high number of repetitions for a target muscle group before performing the main compound movement.

The Benefits of Pre-Exhaust Training

Muscular BuildPre-exhaust training offers benefits for weightlifters of all experience levels regardless of whether they’re primary goal is increasing muscle mass, strength, or endurance.

First and foremost, pre-exhaust training is one of the few intensity techniques that increases the safety of your overall workout. For example, let’s take the average chest workout. You maybe do some light cardiovascular activity and stretching but then immediately jump on to the flat bench press.

You’ve been slouched over your keyboard all day but you’re eager to start moving some serious poundage. So, you perform one, maybe two sets with the bar and then keep adding 25 and 45 pound plates until you reach your working weight.

At this point your muscles are just beginning to wake up but chances are your chest muscles are not firing nearly as effectively as your shoulder and tricep muscles due to the slouching posture you’ve held for most of the day. You unrack the bar with the coveted two plates per side and instantly you feel a sharp pain in your right pec. That could be a minor pec strain or an infamous pec tear.

Now let’s consider a routine built around pre-exhaust principles. You complete your warm-up as usual but instead of hopping on the bench you begin with bodyweight pushups and chest flies to wake up and drive blood to the pectorals. After performing these sets, you hop on the flat bench and crank out some working sets.

Sure, you may not be able to put as much weight on the bar but chances are that possibility of a pec injury is a pipe dream and you leave the bench with a sick chest pump. Furthermore, you may begin noticing faster chest growth and bench strength that meets or exceeds your previous personal bests.

After you complete the pre-exhaust training block and begin performing the compound movement first, I can guarantee you will feel more comfortable moving previously heavy weights and will bust through previous plateaus injury-free.

By performing the isolation movement first, you directly engage, warm-up, and drive nutrients to the target muscle group. For those of us with lagging muscle groups or experiencing form breakdown during heavier sets of a compound movement, pre-exhaust training is your ticket to injury-free gains.

For example, let’s take the barbell back squat – the king of squat movements for building a monstrous set of wheels. Most people maybe warm up with the bar and then jump right in to adding 25 and 45 pound plates to the bar.

After a long day of sitting in the office their hips are tight, glutes are asleep, and hamstrings are in the shortened position. Instead of performing exercises to open the hips, activate the glutes and quads, as well as stretch the hamstrings, they allow their squat to turn in to a good morning.

The result, progression on paper but form that would disappoint even the most lenient of powerlifting judges. While you don’t have to implement pre-exhaust training year-round, experiment with an eight to twelve-week block and evaluate your results.

Pull Ups

Sample Pre-Exhaust Workout Routines

To get you started I’ve provided two sample workouts for each muscle group with sample exercises, set parameters, and rep ranges. If you are unable to or do not have the equipment to perform one of the exercises listed below then feel free to substitute an equivalent exercise.

The workouts are structured so that first second exercises are pre-exhaust movements and the third exercise is a compound movement targeting a muscle group. Rest 30 to 60 seconds between pre-exhaust movement sets and 90 to 120 seconds between compound movement sets.

If desired, add three to five sets of abdominal exercises in the 12 to 20 rep range on two to three non-consecutive days of the week.

Legs Workout A

Workout a
Leg Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
 Seated Leg Extensions – Quadriceps Pre-exhaust  4  15-20
 Lying Leg Curls – Hamstrings Pre-exhaust  4  12-15
 Back Squats – Quadriceps Compound  3  5-8
 Romanian Deadlift – Hamstrings Compound  3  5-8
 Low Pulley Cable Pullthroughs – Glutes Pre-exhaust  4  12-15
 Walking Lunges – Glutes Compound  3  8-10/Leg
 Standing Calf Raises  4  12-15

Chest & Back Workout A

Workout a
Chest and Back Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
 Machine Chest Fly – Chest Pre-exhaust  4  15-20
 Push Ups – Chest Pre-exhaust  4  AMRAP
 Low Incline Barbell Bench Press – Chest Compound  3  5-8
 Dumbbell Pullover – Back Pre-exhaust  3  15-20
 Lat Pulldown – Back Pre-exhaust  4  12-15
 Barbell Row – Back Compound  3  5-8
 Chest-Supported Dumbbell Shrugs  4  12-15

Shoulders & Arms Workout A

Workout a
Shoulders & Arms Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
 Dumbbell Lateral Raises – Shoulder Pre-Exhaust  4  15-20
 Machine Reverse Fly – Shoulder Pre-Exhaust  4  20-25
 Standing Overhead Press – Shoulders Compound  3  5-8
 Rope Pushdown – Triceps Pre-Exhaust  4  15-20
 Close Grip Bench Press – Triceps Compound  3  8-10
 Concentration Curl – Biceps Pre-Exhaust  4  10-12
 Barbell Curl – Biceps Compound  3  8-10

Leg Workout B

Workout B
Leg Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
 Seated Leg Curls – Hamstrings Pre-exhaust  4  15-20
 Trap Bar Deadlift – Hamstrings Compound  3  5-8
 Step Ups – Quadriceps & Glutes Pre-exhaust  4  8-10/Leg
 Reverse Lunges – Quadriceps & Glutes Pre-exhaust  3  10-12/Leg
 Barbell Front Squat – Quadriceps Compound  3  5-8
 Barbell Hip Thrust – Glutes Compound  3  8-10
 Seated Calf Raises  4  12-15

Chest & Back Workout B

Workout B
Chest and Back Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
 Cable Chest Fly – Chest Pre-exhaust  4  15-20
 Incline Dumbbell Press – Chest Compound  3  8-10
 Reverse Grip Bench Press – Chest Compound  3  10-12
 Straight Arm Cable Pulldown – Back Pre-exhaust  3  15-20
 Chin-up – Back Compound  4  AMRAP
 Dumbbell Row – Back Compound  3  10-12
 Barbell Shrugs – Traps Pre-exhaust  4  12-15

Shoulders & Arms Workout B

Workout B
Shoulders and Arms Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
 Chest-supported Dumbbell Reverse Flies – Shoulder Pre-exhaust  4  15-20
 Cable Lateral Raises – Shoulder Pre-exhaust  4  12-15
 Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press – Shoulders Compound  3  8-10
 Overhead Rope Extension – Triceps Pre-exhaust  4  15-20
 Tricep-Emphasis Dips – Triceps Compound  3  AMRAP
 Incline Dumbbell Curls – Biceps Pre-exhaust  4  10-12
 Dumbbell Hammer Curls – Biceps Compound  3  8-10

What is your favorite way to implement pre-exhaust training? Let me know in the comments below!

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Name: Nick Ludlow

Bio: When it comes to fitness I enjoy reading about historic weight lifters, non-conventional weightlifting approaches, nutritional protocols, and the science behind supplements.