Pre-Exhaustion: Exhaust Every Fiber

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Effectively Use the Pre-Exhaustion Method to Bring on Untapped Muscle Growth

There’s always another plateau on the horizon.

Eventually you’re going to get to a point where your growth slows or flat-out stalls. And it’s likely because you’ve been doing the standard sets and reps schemes for months now.

You need to wake shit up.

There’s a timed tested method that always works and will always work. I’m going to give you the old, classic version and a little updated one I use to spark new growth and give me dat der skin tearing pump.

Hello Mr. Pre Exhaustion

I’m not talking about going into the gym tired after a night of drinking and already being exhausted before you pick up your first weight. I’m talking performing extended sets using the pre-exhaustion method.

Pre-exhaustion is simply fatiguing the muscles using isolation exercises before hitting them with compound, multi-joint exercises.

Extended sets are just ways to increase the total time under tension on the muscle. You’re extended a set, or a stress placed on the muscle, more than it normally would be by either dropping weight or changing an exercise slightly so it targets different fibers.

So instead of getting 8 or 10 reps, you’re now getting 15 or 20 or even more without having to sacrifice weight.

The greater the tension, the greater the muscle is forced to work, the greater your growth is going to be.

Now combine these two into the same set and you got a recipe for instant growth.

This method is simply fatiguing a muscle group by performing an isolation exercise and then following it up with a compound exercise targeting the same muscle group.

You may be wondering, why would I want to pre-exhaust it?

One, it’s great for eliciting muscle growth. It’s an easy way to add more time under tension to the muscle and completely fatigue every fiber of its being.

And if you have a lagging body part, this is a great way to bring it up to speed. Best still, you don’t need to do much with this technique, so recovery is easy.

On the other hand, if you have difficulty getting certain muscles to fire during an exercise, this is a great way to “wake them up” before you go into the compound movement. This results in a more “cooperative” muscle versus when you perform the compound exercise by itself.

But beware, it’s tough.

The Old and the New

The old method is simple: pick a body part, and then pick an isolation exercise and a compound exercise.

Since I just performed an upper body push day focusing on my shoulders, I will use the shoulders as the first example.

A pre-exhaustion pairing would look like this:

  • A1. Seated DB Lateral Raises – 2021 – 3 x 12 rest 10 seconds

  • A2. Seated DB Neutral Grip Shoulder Press – 3010 – 3 x 8-10 rest 60 seconds

By the end of this superset you will find that all muscles within the shoulder are completed exhausted and used to their fullest extent.

 If you’re hitting legs today, here’s a variation for the quads:

  • A1. Seated Leg Extension – 2011 – 3 x 15 rest 10 seconds

  • A2. BB Squat – 4010 – 3 x 8-10 rest 60 seconds

And for the hammies:

  • A1. Lying Hamstring Curls – 3010 – 3 x 15 rest 10 seconds

  • A2. BB RDL – 3011 – 3 x 8-10 rest 60 seconds

Oh, you don’t use machines because they aren’t functional?

Whatever, not going to argue with you today – so use a backward sled drag instead of a leg extension and replace the lying hamstring curl with a stability ball leg curl or glute-ham raise.

That’s the old school method.

Simple, to the point. You fatigue the muscle before using a simple basic exercise and then go into the compound movement.

However, what if you wanted to use this method using heavier weights and gear it more towards strength development?

I got you. I saw this technique first used by Poliquin and coined as functional hypertrophy supersets, however, it is also a method of pre-exhaustion and extended sets.

Not in the same as you would think.

You’re going to be choosing 3-4 similar movements that target the same body part. However, you’re going to be going from the slightly similar exercises to the exact exercise. Or you could go from harder to easier variation of the movement.

This is how it becomes pre-exhaustive – You use the other variations before you attack the exercise you want to go up. By the time you finally get to your primary exercise, you won’t be able to use as much weight as normal, however, you’ll still be able to use a significant amount more than if you were to just hit a high-rep set with that variation.

To illustrate this, let’s use the bench press as an example.

  • A1. Floor Press – 40X0 – 3 x 5 rest 10

  • A2. Incline DB Bench Press – 30X0 – 3 x 5 rest 10
A3. BB Bench Press – 20X0 – 3 x 5 rest 90-120

We use two similar movements but different enough that when we switch to the bench press the change in movement pattern will allow us to use the muscle to bang out some more reps.

For the legs, in particular the quads, it could look like this:

  • A1. Front Squat – 40X0 – 3 x 5 rest 10 seconds
A2. Heels Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift – 30X0 -3 x 5 rest 10 seconds
A3. Squats – 20X0 -3 x 5 rest 90-120 seconds

This method also allows us to use a much higher intensity for a higher time under tension set. You’re going to be using weights between 80-85 % yet put the muscle under tension for 45 seconds.

Good Swolesday To You, Sir!

When it comes down to building the greatest amount of muscle or bringing up lagging body parts, it’s not always about how much weight we move — it’s about the tension on the muscle.

Just because the load is light, don’t sleep on it. It will feel 10X heavier than it normally is because you already fatigued it.

You’re also going to want to check your ego at the front door. There’s no looking awesome doing these – well, you will look awesome because the pump is unparalleled.

Throw them into your upcoming workouts – let me know how you feel after!

About the Author

Bob Thompson is a strength coach based out of Philadelphia where he owns multiple sports performance and body transformation facilities. He can be found over at his site discussing the finer points of transforming your eating steak, crushing carbs, chasing the pump, and lifting heavy things.

Comments for This Entry

  • Take Fitness

    Going to give those bench variations this afternoon to mix things up a bit. Looking forward to it!

    July 19, 2015 at 11:43 am

  • John Fawkes

    I've done this, and it's sort of worked, but I didn't do it with as much of a clear plan as you're offering here- I assume that would have made a big difference. Gonna start working this into my routine, since I'm on a bulk right now.

    July 18, 2015 at 6:42 am

  • Robert Dodds

    I've kind of done the reverse of this without knowing what I was doing. I would exhaust myself on squats before moving to incline leg press to get some more volume in. Is there any benefit to doing it this way round?

    July 8, 2015 at 11:15 am

    • Bob Thompson

      Were you still performing it as a compound set or were you performing squats early in the workout and then moving to leg press later on? Both approaches work. Compound setting squats and leg press is a great approach that is sure to smoke the quads

      July 21, 2015 at 8:36 pm

      • Robert Dodds

        Sometimes either. Squats followed immediately by leg press. Sometimes squats at start of workout, and leg press as last exercise. When I do this I can really notice the difference

        August 5, 2015 at 2:57 pm

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