Pre-exhaustion is hailed as one of the best techniques to use for a stubborn body part that will not grow.
Pre-exhaustion is the practice of using an isolation exercise before a compound movement. For example, if a bodybuilder performed a cable fly before the incline barbell chest press. This is because it’s believed that using an isolation exercise “pre-exhausts” the muscle. When the chest press is performed, the chest is fatigued and the heavier, compound movement will result in greater muscle activation.
If you try this technique, be prepared to use less weight than you usually would for compound exercises.
Pros of Pre-exhaustion
One benefit to pre-exhaustion is better activation of the mind-muscle connection; the concept of feeling the muscle working while training.
Some believe this is a great tool to help your muscles grow. For instance, you can do cable push-downs before close grip bench press. If using a greater mind-muscle connection on cable push-downs, you are focusing on squeezing the triceps as hard as possible during each repetition. Then when it comes time to do the close grip bench press, you should be able to feel your triceps working without much effort.
Another benefit of pre-exhaustion is you can use less weight on compound exercises. For example, if you are a power lifter, you can use pre-exhaustion with cable crossovers before heavy chest press. If your normal bench is 225 pounds, it would decrease to about 175 pounds because you are pre-exhausted.
This is because the chest is already fatigued from cable crossovers whereby less weight on the bench press would be needed. This could be beneficial for a bodybuilder because it allows the joints and central nervous system time to recover from heavy training.
Cons of Pre-exhaustion
Over time, frequent heavy training causes wear and tear on the joints and stresses the central nervous system; this is known as central fatigue. The central nervous system is responsible for managing fatigue and too much fatigue leads to overtraining.
Overtraining is when the body can no longer recover from training resulting in a chronically fatigued state. Being in this state too long can result in decreased performance and if not fixed quickly, can cause injury and/or sickness. So, breaks in heavy training are vital to keep progressing in the gym.
Central fatigue can also be caused by inadequate nutrition, excessive training intensity, and training volume.
One thing to consider when performing pre-exhaustion is a quicker onset of fatigue which results in decreased training volume. Training volume has a linear relationship with muscle mass1. Meaning that performing less volume can have a negative impact on your gains even though it enhances your ability to use the mind-muscle connection.
Another thing to consider is that pre-exhaustion may increase muscle activation in advanced trainees2. Due to the fact beginners are still learning proper form and technique when they exercise. They are not able to use the mind-muscle connection properly. I would recommend at least six months of training experience before trying a pre-exhaustion technique. Additionally, I would recommend using pre-exhaustion for one body part at a time and monitor training volume to make sure your still progressing.
In conclusion, I believe individuals must experiment on themselves to see if pre-exhaustion is effective. The trick with pre-exhaustion is to manage fatigue which should be more apparent in beginners. Therefore, it makes sense for beginners to focus on the basics before using an advanced technique such as pre-exhaustion. Conversely, if you have some experience and have a struggling body part pre-exhaustion may worth a shot.
- Schoenfeld, B., & Grgic, J. (2018). Evidence-based guidelines for resistance training volume to maximize muscle hypertrophy. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 40(4), 107-112.
- Fisher, J. P., Carlson, L., Steele, J., & Smith, D. (2014). The effects of pre-exhaustion, exercise order, and rest intervals in a full-body resistance training intervention. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 39(11), 1265-1270.