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Pre-Exhaust Primer

A quick review on a technique I LOVE to use.

Pre-Exhaust Primer

Not only is misinformation rampant among many so-called fitness "experts," but some training techniques are simply misunderstood. A prime example of this is pre-exhaust.

Pre-exhaust is a technique that involves training single-joint or isolation exercises first in your workout followed by multijoint exercises. Using legs as an example, to pre-exhaust the quads you'd typically perform leg extensions first and then follow that up with a multijoint leg exercise such as the leg press.

The point of pre-exhaust is to fatigue the target muscle group (the quads in this case) so that when you perform the multijoint exercise, which involves other muscle groups as well, the quads are exhausted first. This ensures that the target muscle receives ample overload on the multijoint exercise without the set ending due to fatigue of other muscle groups. This method was shown in a 1996 study to build more muscle than the standard training protocol where multijoint exercises are performed first.

More recently, a 2007 study by Brazilian researchers incorrectly claimed that pre-exhaust did NOT work. They had weight-trained men perform one set of the machine chest press and one set of the pec deck in alternating order while they measured muscle activity of the pecs, anterior deltoid and triceps. In one workout, the subjects did the standard method of training by doing the chest press first followed by the pec deck, and in the other workout they used the pre-exhaust method of training by doing the pec deck first followed by the chest press.

The researchers reported in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that when the subjects used the pre-exhaust system, the triceps muscle activity was higher and the pec muscle activity was lower during the chest press exercise. Therefore, they concluded (erroneously, I might add) that pre-exhaust is ineffective.

This is similar to the results reported in a 2003 study by Swedish researchers. They had trained males perform one set of the leg press with or without pre-exhausting on the leg extension first. They reported that the activity of the quadriceps muscles were significantly less during the leg press when they used pre-exhaust. They concluded (again erroneously) that, "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."

Unfortunately, the Brazilian and Swedish researchers are misinformed regarding the reason why bodybuilders use the pre-exhaust technique. Pre-exhaust was not designed to increase muscle activity of the muscle of interest; it was created to increase the fatigue of the muscle of interest, hence the name. Therefore, these two studies showing that the pecs (Brazilian study) and quads (Swedish study) experienced a decrease in muscle activity during pre-exhaust proves that it works for what it was designed to do – exhaust the target muscle. When a muscle becomes fatigued, it decreases muscle activity.

Jim's Take-Home Point:

Be careful what you read. Even scientists get it wrong. Of course, that's not surprising, as not very many scientists actually train as bodybuilders. Except, of course, for a few of us that not only talk the talk, but walk the walk and train hard in the gym. The bottom line is that pre-exhaust works. Bodybuilders who have utilized this technique can tell you the muscle gains they've experienced using pre-exhaust are real and legit.

The reason pre-exhaust works is because it fatigues the muscle of interest so that when you perform a multijoint exercise, that muscle reaches absolute fatigue. This has been documented in the studies discussed above, despite the fact that the researchers erroneously claimed that their results showed it to be ineffective. So keep using pre-exhaust in your training. It works, despite what the lab coats are trying to tell you.

You can find great examples of pre-exhaust in my Down and Up Mass and Back and Fourth Training programs only at JimStoppani.com.

And here's a video where I discuss all these key pre-exhaust points:


Augustsson, J., et al. Effect of pre-exhaustion exercise on lower-extremity muscle activation during a leg press exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17(2):411-416, 2003.

Gentil, P., et al. Effects of exercise order on upper-body muscle activation and exercise performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 21(4):1082-1086, 2007.


Westcott, W. Strength training for life: Make your method count. Nautilus Magazine 5(2): 3-5, 1996.

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