by Travis DeGraff

Pre Exhausting Muscle Training

Pre-exhaustion training is something utilized by many bodybuilders.  The idea is simple.  If you intend to train your chest (for example), you first do a chest isolation exercise such as pec flys.  Then follow it up with a compound movement like the barbell bench press.  Some believe this is to overload the muscle (greater EMG activity), others believe this is to induce a greater level of fatigue in the target muscle (chest in this case).  In either case people believe it is needed because it doesn’t “feel” like the first muscle that fails when you bench press.  Typically you might feel the triceps fail first.  In such a case it feels as if you are not completely working the chest to failure.

To date, there has been research on both sides of the coin showing both benefit, and no benefit.  Much of the previous research has flaws (just as no single research paper paints the entire picture).  Here’s a quick look at the history of pre-exhaustion training:

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. Conversely, pre-exhaustion exercise may have disadvantageous effects on performance, such as decreased muscle activity and reduction in strength, during multijoint exercise.”

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2003

Our findings suggest that performing pre-exhaustion exercise is no more effective in increasing the activation of the prefatigued muscles during the multi-joint exercise. Also, independent of the exercise order (PRE vs. PS), TW is similar when performing exercises for the same muscle group. In summary, if the coach wants to maximize the athlete performance in 1 specific resistance exercise, this exercise should be placed at the beginning of the training session.”

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2007

The pre-exhaustion method might not be an effective technique to increase the extent of neuromuscular recruitment for larger muscle groups (e.g. pectoralis major for the bench press) when preceded by a single-joint movement (e.g. pec-deck fly).”

Journal of Sports Medicine 2012

This brings us to the most recent study on pre-exhaustion, exercise order, and rest intervals [Ref 1]. This new paper is perhaps the best study on this topic today, but again it is not without flaws.  The researchers wanted to measure strength and boy composition over 12 weeks and compare three different training groups:

  1. Pre-exhaustion Group (120 seconds rest between supersets 1-3, then 60 seconds before the last superset)
    • Pec-fly followed superset with chest press
    • Leg extension superset with leg press
    • Pull-over superset with pull-down
    • Abdominal flexion superset with hyper extensions
  2. Same Order with Moderate Rest Between Sets  (60 seconds)
    • Pec-fly
    • Chest Press
    • Leg extensions
    • Pull-overs
    • Pull-downs
    • Abs
    • Hyperextensions
  3. Compound Lifts First with Moderate Rest Between Sets (60 seconds)
    • Chest press
    • Leg press
    • Pull-downs
    • Pec-fly
    • Leg extensions
    • Pull-over
    • Abs
    • Hyperextensions

The reason I like this study over previous papers is that it put the trainees through a full 12 weeks of this protocol. Unlike other studies which measured results after one workout or a few short weeks. The second positive is that they used real gym goers in a gym called Discover Strength in Minnesota. They also used realistic training splits and pretty typical machines such as hammer strength and nautilus.

The major issues with this protocol was the training volume and frequency. They only completed 1 set per lift (after warm up) to failure. And they only trained 2x per week which equates to far less time under the bar than most dedicated bodybuilders actually spend (all though in some ways this is similar to Dorians HIT training).

Results? Egh

HIT studyAt the end of the twelve weeks they found no significant changes in body composition or strength in all three groups. Disappointing. The authors go on to support this finding by discussing previous research on pre-exhaustion training. They discuss several acute (single workout) studies where pre exhaustion training did not elicit any greater muscle EMG activity than a typical training split.

“Thus it seems that for upper-body compound exercises, the majority of involved musculature may be maximally stimulated.”

Exercise Order Doesn’t Matter Either?

You might be thinking the third experimental group which trained compound movements first may have had the greatest results. But again they experienced similar gains in strength and body composition as the first two groups.

“Our results seem to suggest that for trained participants, performance of single set per exercise RT to MMF produces considerable strength gains independently of exercise order, rest intervals, or indeed application of PreEx.”

Keep in mind that lifts performed earlier in the workout are typically at a higher intensity, and/or volume. So the lift you choose to do first in any given workout should also be the lift or body part you most want to improve. This is why I love Mountain Dog training and it’s application of weak body part training first. For example Meadows often programs a hamstring movement (an area of which most guys are lacking) before any form of direct quad training. And this works quite well if you check out any of his clients severe ham drop.

Female Dominated Study

One major limitation I left out earlier is the overwhelming ratio of women participants in this study. In fact there were only between 2 and 4 men in each study group while there was as many as 13 women in one group. The authors admit extrapolating this data to apply to a larger male population may be imprudent. Meaning it might not work the same in a group of experienced male bodybuilders.

I wasn’t trying to fool you by leaving this critical detail out until now. I left this out to at least get you thinking that when it comes to training techniques there are not a lot of magic bullets. Consistency and hard work will forever reign supreme. Nonetheless if you go into the gym and find the squat rack taken it may not hurt to hit some Romanian Deadlifts first.


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