Pre-exhaustion is a training method that was introduced to the bodybuilding world in 1968 by Robert Kennedy in Iron Man magazine. To this day, it stands as one of the most popular ways to pump your muscles into new growth.
With pre-exhaustion, a muscle is first fatigued by a single-joint exercise, and then further exhausted by performing a multi-joint exercise involving the same muscle group and additional muscle groups. You could perform biceps curls followed by chin-ups, or lateral raises followed by behind-the-neck presses.
Although Kennedy created this training method, it was Arthur Jones who popularized it. Jones’ most famous pre-exhaustion combo was his leg workout.
Jones believed that the limiting factor in working the legs with the squat was the strength of the lower back. He recommended pre-exhausting the quads with a set of leg presses for 20-30 reps and leg extensions for about 20 reps, before performing squats for about 10-15 reps – with no rest between each set! The result was that when it came time to squat, often the weight would be half of what that individual could normally use.
Jones says that when he began working with Casey Viator in 1970, Viator weighed 198 pounds, had an upper-arm measurement of 18 1/6 inches, and could not squat 500 pounds once. After 10 months under Jones’ guidance, Viator weighed 218 pounds and had an upper arm that measured 19 15/16 inches; his gains enabled him to win the 1971 AAU Mr. America contest as a teenager, becoming the youngest person ever to do so. Using pre-exhaustion as one of their primary methods of training, Jones says that in one workout Viator performed 20 reps in the leg press with 750 pounds, followed immediately by 20 reps with 225 pounds in the leg extension, which in turn was followed immediately by 13 full squats with 502 pounds!
Jones liked the pre-exhaustion method so much that he even designed several machines that combined two exercises into one to minimize the amount of rest time between sets. For example, he built a leg extension machine that was combined with a leg press machine, and a lateral raise machine that was combined with an overhead press machine. Possibly because these machines were much more expensive than single-station units and because fewer gym members could use them at one time, these units are no longer being produced.
For Jones took pre-exhaustion to the extreme, such as by performing two isolation exercises before the compound exercise, it’s best to start with just one pre-exhaustion exercise. For example, you could pre-exhaust the long head of the triceps with the lying triceps EZ bar extension, and immediately follow it with a multijoint exercise that involves all the heads of the triceps, such as parallel bar dips or close-grip bench presses with chains. For the brachialis, you could perform a pre-exhaustion superset by combining standing EZ bar reverse curls with incline hammer dumbbell curls.
For improving strength in multi-joint exercises post-exhaustion, research published in the May 2003 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggests that post exhaustion is superior to pre-exhaustion. With post exhaustion, you perform a compound exercise followed by an isolation exercise for a muscle group you want to emphasize. So if maximal strength is your primary goal, then you should use pre-exhaustion training sparingly.
You probably won’t achieve the superhuman results of Mr. America Casey Viator, but pre-exhaustion training can provide a shock to your system that will help you achieve your goals faster.