Workout Tips

Why Compound Exercises Aren't Working for You

Gain mass by targeting your muscles by doing isolation exercises before doing a compound exercise.

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Here’s The Thing With Compound Exercises:

By using more than one muscle group, you’re able to lift the most iron. So far, so good. More weight can equal more mass, but you may also fail to target the right body part, and that can be a big problem. If, for example, the weak link in your bench press is your triceps, which tap out before your pecs have been fully stressed, benching won’t do much to expand your chest. Thankfully, there’s a solution. Hit the targeted muscle before doing the compound exercise to weaken that link in the chain. This is done via pre-exhaust, and it’s an effective, if unduly controversial, technique.

Pre Exhaust Basics 

  • Do an isolation exercise before a compound lift. The former should target the muscle(s) you want to emphasize during the latter.
  • Push all sets to failure or near failure in the 10- to 15-rep range. Pre-exhausting will reduce the amount of weight you use in the compound exercise.
  • You can pre-exhaust more than once during a workout, as in our sample triceps routine (next page).

Active Duty 

Pre-exhaust has you perform an isolation exercise right before a compound lift in order to fatigue the targeted body part alone before it goes to work in tandem with others. This way, you can be assured that it gives out first during the compound lift. Let’s return to our chest example. If you do pec-deck flyes, which isolate the pecs, before bench presses, which work the pecs along with the anterior deltoids and triceps, your pecs will be pre-exhausted when you start benching. Therefore, while you’re benching, your chest will give out before your delts or triceps. Pre-exhausting assures that your targeted muscle does all the work it can during a compound exercise.

That brings us to the controversy. Google “pre-exhaust science” and you’ll find many so-called experts who are convinced that the pre- exhaust method is counterproductive. Both a Swedish study in 2003 and a Brazilian one in 2007 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning showed that muscle activation in the pre-exhausted muscle was reduced during the compound exercise when compared with post-exhaustion (doing the compound exercise first). The 2007 study even focused on pec-deck flyes and bench presses, per our example. The conclusion of both studies was that this reduction in muscle activation was a reason to avoid pre-exhaust.

Good results, wrong conclusion.

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In fact, the reduction in muscle activation proves the effectiveness of pre-exhaust. The whole point of doing the isolation exercise first is to fatigue the targeted body part. Of course, that area isn’t going to be capable of carrying as much of the workload after the fact and thus won’t be as activated. But that’s good, because it means it’ll fail first. Think of it this way: If those same studies had shown pre-exhaust did not reduce muscle activation in the targeted area during the compound exercise, that would argue for the ineffectiveness of the technique.

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