Pre-Exhaust For Growth
By Raymond Shipley
Of the countless training techniques I have employed to one degree of success or another, pre-exhaust is a style to which I continually come back. The concept is simple enough: pre-exhaust or fatigue the target muscle using isolation movements (single-joint exercises, sometimes referred to as circular movements) before moving to heavier compound lifts (multi-joint exercises, sometimes referred to as linear movements). The two biggest reasons I have employed pre-exhaust training for myself and clients are stubborn body parts and to protect joints. Likewise, it is a great way to maintain interest and break plateaus.
Having trained clients for almost two decades I have seen many different goals, injuries and ability levels. The injuries and conditions I have most often come across are bad knees and lower back. Pre-exhaust quickly becomes a godsend for leg training with knees that aren't completely gone as it allows fatigue of the target muscle before moving on to the heavier lifts, where ego might take precedence over hypertrophy. Whether one agrees with doing leg extensions or curls, performing these exercises at a light weight and with a slow, controlled cadence for reps/sets serves to destroy quads and hamstrings. With fresh muscles, an athlete may be tempted to squat, leg press or Romanian deadlift hundreds of pounds with little thought given to whether the knee joint and lower back should be handling such a load. A person, like myself, that can leg press well over 1,000 pounds may too often load up the rack and rep away. Although this may be a good idea on occasion, simply blowing away the quads and hamstrings on isolation movements first allows an easier to handle 600 pounds. The muscles can't tell the difference between 600 pounds and 1,000, but be sure the knees can. The same goes for an injured or weak lower back. Pre-exhausting the leg muscles before squatting allows one to really hit the legs without overkill on the back.
Lagging and stubborn body parts can be dealt with through pre-exhaust as well. Having dominant shoulders and triceps often causes the pectorals to sit idly by while these muscles do most of the pressing. This causes the delts and triceps to fatigue before the chest has really gotten its due, and in the result is shoulders and arms that begin to outpace the chest in growth and development. Performing isolation movements for chest before presses is a quick solve. Flyes and crossovers are great moves to really let the chest know taking a back seat isn't an option. Biceps involvement in back training can likewise be circumvented to a degree by performing movements that isolate the lats, such as pullovers and straight arm lat pulldowns. Complaints about overactive biceps are a mainstay with most beginners, so this assists in cultivating mind/muscle connection.
Breaking plateaus can seem like a nightmare, but it is often the simplest changes that can alter everything. If standard, compound lifts have been exclusively utilized, or the far more common post-exhaust training has been the norm, consider making this simple change. Hitting the muscles in a different way, keeping them guessing, is the key to continued development. Stay consistent and keep things exciting once they grow stale. If one's mind has gotten tired of a training style, the body surely has long since.