I remember the first time I heard of the pre-exhaust method.
Still in high school, I was reading an interview with the 2009 Mr. Olympia contestants where they all discussed their training leading into the show.
Many of them used the pre-exhaust method on body parts to make sure the target muscle group failed at the same time or before assisting muscle groups during compound lifts.
This was completely mind blowing to me.
Until that point, all I had ever known was performing your compound lifts first in your workout, so that you are the freshest and strongest you’ll be.
However, when it comes to body-part specific split training and gaining lean muscle mass, it makes sense.
So, before I go into the best exercises to pre-exhaust each muscle, I want to touch on why you may want to consider using the pre-exhaust method in your workouts.
The Pre Exhaust Method
The pre-exhaust method is an intensity technique used by intermediate-advanced lifters. In this method, you pick an isolation exercise that focuses solely on the main muscle group you plan on training that day.
There will be several examples (which are my personal favorites that I include in my own training) below, but to give you an idea, let’s say it’s Monday and you’re training chest (Don’t give me that “Monday is Leg Day bro!” nonsense, you know as well as I do it’s International Chest Day).
To pre-exhaust your chest, you hop on the pec deck machine and crank out 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps before moving on to your compound lift (bench press). For most lifters, their chest is stronger than their delts and triceps. When those crucial assisting muscles give out, it’s game over for chest training.
Thus, if your chest still has gas in the tank, you’re leaving gains on the table.
By pre-exhausting your chest with the pec deck flys, it’s more likely to fatigue faster than or at the same time as the other muscles in the compound lifts. It also means more muscle damage for the target muscle group, which is directly correlated with muscle hypertrophy.
You’re most likely to see the pre-exhaust method implemented by someone who takes a bodybuilding approach to training. While many other styles of weight lifting focus on mechanical stress, for bodybuilders it’s all about the total amount of stress and time under tension they can put a muscle through to promote muscle growth.
My Top Picks For Pre-Exhausting
Listed below and in no particular order are my favorite isolation movements to perform when I include the pre-exhaust method into my workouts.
The important thing to remember when performing the pre-exhaust method is it’s all about isolating the muscle you’re working that day. When you perform each rep while pre-exhausting, you really want to squeeze the muscle at the top of the concentric motion.
Not only does this help pump blood into the muscle creating a massive pump, it helps you build your mind muscle connection going into your compound lifts for that day.
When it comes to hypertrophy and isolation training in body part splits, it’s all about honing into the muscle you're working that day. Since you’re only going to be working it once in a week, you’ve got to keep it under enough stress to promote the amount of growth you desire.
Chest: Incline Dumbbell Fly
The upper chest tends to be a lagging area for the vast majority of lifters. Why not address this at the beginning of your chest workouts?
Utilize incline dumbbell chest flys as your pre-exhaust isolation exercise. Really squeeze your chest during each contraction. After 2-3 sets of these, you should feel a great pump going into the compound movement of your chest day (bench variation).
Back: Straight Arm Pull Down
The lats can be a very difficult muscle to isolate, especially if you allow your biceps take over any back movement. The best way I’ve found to combat this problem is by performing straight-arm pull downs and pullovers.
I’ve select straight-arm pulldowns as my preferred lat pre-exhaust exercise, because a lot of lifters can experience more work in their pecs than their lats while performing pullovers, although they’re a close second for me.
So, to avoid a chest pump on back day, start off your next back attack with a few sets of straight-arm pulldowns on the cable machine before moving on to either a bent over heavy barbell row or weighted pullups.
Quads: 1/4 Squats
Some would suggest you pre-exhaust your quads with some leg extensions, but I just don't feel that the movement is appropriate here. You could better tax your quads with a few sets of 1/4 rep squats.
Why only 1/4 rep a squat? Going any further down can and will take the tension off your quads and move them to other leg muscles including the glutes and hamstring complex.
So, next time you go to the gym for a quad dominant leg workout, add in some 1/4 squats before you hit a squat or leg press movement.
Hamstrings: Glute Hamstring Raises
The hamstrings are a particularly hard muscle group to target, as most lifters tend to be quad dominant in their leg training. That’s why it’s so important to incorporate the pre-exhaust method into your hamstring specific and leg day training.
Glute ham raises aren’t exactly an isolation movement, as they do incorporate the glutes and calves, however they are my favorite for developing strong hamstrings. They’re especially beneficial as a pre-exhaust if you plan on hitting both quads and hamstrings in the same workout.
Try to add in a few sets of glute ham raises to pre-exhaust your hamstrings on your next leg day. You may be surprised by how few you can do initially. But, keep at it, as these will prove to be a great exercise for developing hamstring that counterbalance your quads very well.
Shoulders: Band Pull-a-Parts
The band pull apart is by far my favorite pre-exhaust exercise. If you’re a desk jockey, try to do a few before each shoulder workout and you’ll see why. Upper Crossed Syndrome (head protruding forward and shoulders rounding) tends to occur in those who work desk jobs and the band pull apart is a great corrective exercise for this.
With improved posture, you’ll be able to hit shoulder press movements that really target all of your delt heads. Be sure to incorporate this pre-exhaust exercises at the beginning of all of your shoulder workouts (it may even benefit you to incorporate it in your warm ups for all of your workouts too).
Biceps: Concentration Curls
If you’re training biceps, you’re more than likely already performing an isolation movement to target them. However, to really get the benefit of a pre-exhaust exercise, it has to be all about the muscle your training.
While other forms of curls can incorporate your shoulders to some degree (and even your back if you have awful form) the concentration curl takes all other compensations out of the equation.
That’s why concentration curls are my preferred exercise to pre-exhaust the biceps before moving on to exercises that incorporate more than just the biceps (like the barbell curl).
Triceps: No-Handle Cable Tricep Kickbacks
If you have big triceps, you have big arms. Focusing on them with the pre-exhaust movement may prove to be beneficial if your end game is to offer other people tickets to the gun show.
Exercises that directly target the triceps are a dime a dozen. My favorite exercise to pre-exhaust them though is the no-handle cable tricep kickback.
Grab the cable pull by the end of the cable (with nothing attached) and perform kickbacks with the desired amount of weight. The cable keeps constant tension on the tricep and the grip of the cable allows for a more natural feeling motion.
Hit a couple sets of these before moving on to a tricep bench or dip.
Calves: Single Leg Bodyweight Calf Raise
Everybody wants some meaty lower legs, but no one wants to efficiently train their calves. If you want big calves, you’ve got to add calf work to the end of one (or more) of your workouts.
Promote muscle growth by isolating them at the beginning of your workouts with single leg bodyweight calf raises. Performing a single leg calf raise allows you to focus on one muscle at a time and push as much blood into each calf as possible.
There you have it, the pre-exhaust method and all of my favorite exercises to incorporate the method into your own workouts.
Did I leave any of your favorites out? Do you have any other questions about the pre-exhaust method? Drop your comments in the comment section below!