The Pre-Exhaustion Technique

How to target muscles by doing isolation exercises first.


Here’s the thing with compound exercises. By using more than one muscle group, you’re able to pack on the most heavy metal. 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 prescribes you do an isolation exercise just before a compound lift in order to fatigue the targeted body part alone before it goes to work in tandem with others. In 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 preexhausted (or, more accurately, pre-fatigued) when you start benching. Therefore, during the 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 research has proven pre-exhaust is counterproductive. A study in 2003 and another in 2007 both 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). In other words, because of the first exercise, the targeted area works less during the second exercise. The 2007 study even focused on pec-deck flyes and bench presses, as in 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. 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 during the compound exercise 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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