Pre-Exhaustion Principle Guide & Workout: Build Muscle Using Fatigue

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Unlike the current political environment, traditional straight set training has plenty going for it. These timeless principles favor the big multi-joint exercises, a hefty dose of barbell and dumbbell work and large amounts of heavy weights.

But you may be the type who has toiled away at this old-school philosophy and walked away with stalled progress. Sure, in the beginning you soaked it all in and grew like a weed, but now certain muscle groups are lagging and it’s thrown off your perfect plans for the ultimate physique.

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Maybe your quads are lagging your upper body or your back has outpaced your chest. Whatever the case may be you’ve decided that either these muscle groups are destined to be forever a weak point and chalk it up to genetics or you switch gears, dig deep and find a new way to unlock their untapped potential.

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Enter Pre-Exhaustion

The old, but oftentimes forgotten training principle of pre-exhaustion could be your key to unlocking that potential. If you are new to this concept, here is a quick primer.

Pre-exhaustion (in training terms) is simply the act of exhausting a muscle group with a single-joint isolation exercise immediately followed by a multi-joint compound exercise. This technique works the targeted area extensively without fatiguing surrounding supportive muscle groups before subjecting that area to a bigger, heavier, compound exercise.

In short, you attack with precision before unloading the big guns on an area you’re having difficulty developing. This technique is highly and instantly effective for the simple fact that you can fatigue your pecs, for example, and save strength in your shoulders and triceps before moving on to heavier barbell and dumbbell press work. You target small first and then finish an area off in a big way.

Pre-exhaustion is mainly reserved for the larger muscle groups that require a great deal of multi-joint movements to increase muscle and strength. Areas such as the chest, back and quads are the main players when it comes to effectively applying this principle.

Think about it this way, bench pressing with a barbell or dumbbells also taxes your shoulders and triceps, pull-ups and rows additionally tax your shoulders and biceps and squats and leg presses also tax your hamstrings, glutes, lower back and other supportive areas of the hips.

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How to Make Pre-Exhaustion Work

Now that you have an idea of what pre-exhaustion is, let’s take look at how to put it into action. There are several ways to place pre-exhaustion into your current training plan and no one is superior to the other. However, you may need to put your ego away for the time being since pre-exhausting will fatigue the targeted area and initially decrease strength during the set.

For example, if you performed chest flys prior to a dumbbell chest press your strength on the dumbbell press will be slightly reduced during the set. But no worries, over time you will have developed your weak pint into a strength.

Let’s now look at some of the more practical places to practice pre-exhaustion.

First thing in your routine: This practice has you performing a pre-exhaust isolation exercise at the beginning of your chosen routine. You may, for example, perform a number of sets of chest flys first prior to any multi-joint pressing moves.

You could do four sets of flat bench dumbbell flys and then move on to your normal routines of barbell and dumbbell presses. By the time you move on to presses your shoulders and triceps are fresh and your pecs are primed to do most of the work.

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Back-to-back superset: One of the more traditional ways to implement pre-exhaustion is to perform a superset style pairing of exercises. This way you will perform a set of flys immediately, without rest, followed by a set of barbell or dumbbell presses.

After one superset is completed rest for one to two minutes and then perform three or four more supersets in the same fashion. The amount of weight for your presses will be reduced but you will have honed in on your pecs more effectively.

Straight sets: Conversely, if you wanted to forego the superset suggestion straight sets will be just as effective. As mentioned above in number one, you can implement straight sets of any isolation exercise before moving on to multi-joint exercises. You can place these anywhere in your routine as long as they are done prior to a multi-joint exercise.

Alternating sets: Much like the superset technique above another way to perform pre-exhaust sets is to alternate straight sets from an isolation exercise to a multi-joint exercise with rest in between each set. So, sticking with the chest example, you would perform a set of flys, rest for one minute, perform a set of dumbbell presses, rest for one minute and then continue to alternate like this until four or five sets of each exercise are completed.

At the end of your routine: If you’re the type who likes to save your strength for the bigger exercises then ending your routine with pre-exhaustion will work just as well. Using the chest example above you can easily end with a pre-exhaust superset of flys and a machine press to finish off that area. That way you knock out the heavy pressing early on when your strength is at its best and then fry your chest with a pre-exhaust scorcher.

The Best Pre-Exhaustion Combinations

Now that you have the gist of pre-exhaustion down pat let’s look at what pairs with what the best. Below are some of the more common combinations of isolation and multi-joint exercises. All of these examples include gym-based, home gym and bodyweight exercises.

Chest: Isolation exercises include flat and incline dumbbell flys, machine and pec deck flys, low, mid and high pulley cable crossovers, suspension trainer chest flys and banded flys.

Compound exercises include decline, flat and incline barbell and dumbbell presses, machine and Hammer Strength presses, floor presses, parallel bar dips and flat and feet elevated push-ups.

Back: Isolation exercises include dumbbell and barbell pullovers, straight bar and rope straight-arm pull-downs, machine pullovers, ab wheel roll-outs and suspension trainer straight arm pulls.

Compound exercises include wide, medium, narrow and reverse-grip pull-ups, barbell and dumbbell rows, pull-downs, pulley rows, machine and Hammer Strength rows and deadlifts.

Quadriceps: Isolation exercises include leg extensions, cable leg extensions and banded leg extensions.

Compound exercises include front and back barbell squats, leg presses, machine leg presses, lunges, single-leg Bulgarian split squats, pistol squats, jump squats, box jumps, machine squats and hack squats.

Hamstrings: Isolation exercises include barbell and dumbbell Romanian deadlifts, lying, seated and standing leg curls, flex ball floor leg curls, suspension trainer leg curls and Russian leans.
Compound exercises include forward, reverse and walking lunges, step-ups, leg presses (feet high on plate) and feet-forward Smith machine squats.

Shoulders: Isolation exercises include front, side and rear dumbbell and cable lateral raises, machine lateral raises, rear deltoid machine flys and single arm front, side and rear lateral raises.

Compound exercises include dumbbell and barbell shoulder presses, dumbbell and barbell upright rows, cable upright rows, cable face pulls, hang cleans, push presses and pike and handstand push-ups.

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Sample Pre-Exhaustion Workout Routineg

Now let’s put all of this new-found information to good use. Below is an example of how pre-exhaustion can fit into any existing program. Stick with the program for at least four weeks. Perform the following program four days per week such as Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday with Wednesday and the weekend off.

Monday and Thursday
Pre-Exhaustion Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Superset: Machine fly with flat bench dumbbell press – Rest 60 sec after each superset  4  10-15/6-8
Incline bench barbell press – 60 sec rest between sets  4  6-12
Superset: Straight-arm cable pull-down with wide-grip pull-up – Rest 60 sec after each superset  4  10-15/AMAP
Bent-over barbell row – 60 sec rest between sets  4  6-12
Superset: seated dumbbell side lateral with barbell upright row – 60 sec rest between sets  3  10-15/10-15
Dumbbell shoulder press – 60 sec rest between sets  3  6-12
Superset: Leg raise with floor crunch – 30 sec rest between sets  3  15-20
Tuesday and Friday
Pre-Exhaustion Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Barbell or incline bench dumbbell curl – 60 sec rest between sets  4  6-12
Close-grip bench press or weighted parallel bar dip – 60 sec rest between sets  4  6-12
Superset: Leg extension with leg press – Rest 60 sec after each superset  4  15-20/15-20
Barbell front squat – 60 sec rest between sets  4  6-12
Superset: Lying leg curl with forward lunge – 60 sec rest between sets  3  10-15
Dumbbell Romanian deadlift – 60 sec rest between sets  3  6-12
Standing or seated calf raise – 60 sec rest between sets  3  10-15
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Name: Brad Borland

Bio: Starting out as a scrawny 125 pound kid at 6’ 2” I took up weight training at the tender age of 14 and ended up a 220 pound competitive drug-free, natural bodybuilder several years later. Now armed with both knowledge and muscle I have helped countless individuals domestically and abroad.