Is Pre-Exhaust Training Right for You? What It Is and Tips From a Pro

The best uses for pre-exhaust training all come down to the context!

The principle of pre-exhaustion is a fairly old one in strength training circles: it was a component of Arthur Jones’s famous high-intensity methods in the 1970s, and some evidence for its use predates even that.  However, there’s still quite a bit of controversy with regard to the usefulness of pre-exhaust training.

First, let’s discuss exactly what pre-exhaustion workouts entail. Generally – but not always – they’re comprised of supersets, pairing an isolation movement with a compound one for the same muscle group. For example, if you’re training the bench press, you might begin with dumbbell flyes; or if you’re training the squat, you could use leg curls or leg extensions. 

In theory, this strategy allows for more muscle recruitment because supporting muscles (like the triceps or adductors, in our examples) no longer serve as limiting factors for an all-out set. Furthermore, because lighter weights must be used with the compound movements (you’re tired, after all), the risk of injury is reduced.

That’s the theory. In practice, controversy arises because there’s also a case to be made for using maximal weights. Some argue that a 600-pound squat will always produce more benefits than a 450-pound squat, and in fact, there’s quite a bit of anecdotal evidence to support that viewpoint – just take Ronnie Coleman’s legendary leg workouts:

So, what’s the real deal?  As always, the truth is somewhere in between – and the “right answer” depends on your body and your goals.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Why Pre-Exhaustion Might Be Right for You

When you’re considering program design, there are two main variables to start with: volume and intensity. Volume refers to the number of reps you perform in a given period of time (a training session, a week, whatever); intensity typically refers to the weight on the bar (typically expressed as a percentage of your one-rep max). If you’re a beginner, you can probably focus solely on intensity: every time you train, add a little weight to the bar. That’s linear progression.

At some point, you’ll no longer be able to walk in the gym and crank out five pounds more than last time – at least not for the same number of reps and sets. At that point, you’ll also need to manipulate your training volume using some form of periodized training. With that setup, over time, you’ll start out with high training volume and relatively lower intensity, and slowly progress to using less volume and more intensity. Both research and practice show that this is a great method of building strength over the long term.

No matter what your goals, these two setups should comprise the vast majority of your training for at least the first couple of years of serious progress.

At some point, however, you’ll need to get more specialized. Again, this is the case regardless of your goals. Strength athletes will likely need to incorporate more technique and re/pre-hab work, and perhaps higher training frequencies. Physique athletes will need to use a higher training volume (and perhaps more frequency as well).

This is where pre-exhaustion comes in: it’s a hugely useful tool for reducing injury risk, incorporating variety, and stimulating muscle growth for very advanced lifters. With bodybuilding in particular, adding more weight to the bar isn’t always the answer. John Meadows explains this very succinctly:

Stop saying the only way to get bigger is to get stronger! This is ABSURD. Getting stronger is awesome and can work… but do you realize that when you get to an advanced stage, and have trained for years, you won’t just keep piling up the reps and amount lifted. If you can, congrats on benching 2000 pounds or repping 1000 15 times (and having adamantium for connective tissue), because that’s what will happen. You will have to find other ways to tax the muscle.

Jay Cutler touches on the same point:

You know, the squat was always my No. 1 exercise when I was younger. It seemed like as I got older it started to feel like, “whoa, this is a little too heavy.” When I was squatting 700 pounds, it got to a point where it felt like I didn’t need to be squatting 700 pounds. I became a little timid about going over four plates a side, but I didn’t have to go that heavy. I was winning the Olympia, and I never went over 405 pounds; I’d squat that for sets of 12 or 15 reps.

When adding muscle tissue is your ultimate goal, and you’re very strong, demonstrating that strength in the gym isn’t worth the risk.

Other situations where pre-exhaustion might be helpful:

  • If you’re a strength athlete deep in the offseason, and want to avoid the physical and mental wear and tear caused by heavy weights
  • You’re easing back into training after an injury and want to balance your training loads a bit more evenly across muscle groups
  • You need a little variety to maintain interest in your training program

When to Avoid Pre-Exhaustion

In my opinion, the biggest mistake beginning lifters make involves jumping into the “deep end” of training techniques too quickly. I see no need for the guy who squats 225 to be doing leg extensions at all, let alone supersetting them with squats! 

Instead, go back to that progression I described above: start with linear progression, move to a periodized plan, and fully exhaust those avenues of growth before investigating alternative methods.

Admittedly, that requires a lot of patience – patience I didn’t have when I first started out. But in the long run, it will definitely pay off. If you absolutely must give pre-exhaustion a shot, and you’re not truly an advanced lifter, try to limit yourself to using the methods on your lighter training days, so that you’re not taking too much away from your strength-focused sessions.

Of course, I’ll reiterate my disclaimer above: you have to find what works for you. If, for whatever reason, that means the use of pre-exhaustion, go for it. Just make sure that you’re at least mindful of the reasons for and against the method (or any method, for that matter) and you’re implementing it for the right reasons.  

Good luck, Think Strong, and Train Hard!

Pre-Exhaust Training FAQs

What is pre-exhaust training?

Pre-exhaust training is a style of training that is designed around a theory to maximize muscle recruitment and intensity without necessarily increasing physical load. Basically, by performing an isolation movement to pre-exhaust muscles needed for a compound, we can potentially increase muscle recruitment due to muscles being previously exhausted.

Who should use pre-exhaust training?

Generally, pre-exhaust training is reserved for advanced lifters who need to stimulate muscle growth without adding extra load to exercises. Advanced in this case could be defined as time spent training for a particular sport or by the amount of weight on a bar based on one’s maximal strength potential.

Can athletes besides bodybuilders benefit with pre-exhaust training?

Yes, but it comes down to the context of this training methodology’s intent. For example, other strength athletes that might be experiencing the following could benefit with pre-exhaust style training:

  • Overcoming an injury and rehabbing.
  • Working through different methodologies in the off-season.
  • Adding more variation.

Feature image from sportoakimirka/Shutterstock