What is Pre-Exhaust Training and Can It Help You?

I am not a big fan of pre-exhaust training but for an occasional change of pace, this is a really intense way to go.  The principle behind the concept is that the smaller muscle groups in any compound movement will give out first; the reason being simple in that the weaker muscle will always give out first in any given exercise.  It does make sense

For example, when doing bench press; it is the triceps and shoulders which will fail before the chest muscles.  Even after having gone to total failure on the bench press, in reality, your chest still has some gas in the tank left.  Following that line of thought, it really becomes difficult to truly take a major muscle group to total failure.  What gives out first during chins, your biceps or your lats?

Back when Arthur Jones was pushing his nautilus equipment and his training philosophy, he argued that pre-exhaust was critical to muscle growth.  During the mid to late 70’s, Mike Mentzer become the ambassador for this training concept to the general bodybuilding world. 

Mike Mentzer, and his brother Ray, essentially claimed that the popular six day split routines doing 4 to 5 exercises per body part with up to 30 sets were actually counterproductive and an idiotic way to work out.  It was quite a controversy at the time, culminating in the showdown between Mentzer and Schwarzenegger at the 1980 Mr. Olympia contest. 

Part of Schwarzenegger’s return was to demonstrate the superiority of his methods versus Mentzer’s.  After the contest, Mentzer basically went away, as far as competitive bodybuilding went.  He was a tad disillusioned. 

But back to Mentzer’s pre-exhaust methods; Mike (let us be on first name basis) advocated supersetting an isolation movement with a compound movement to truly punish the muscle.  What he wanted to do was to create a situation where the smaller muscle was temporarily stronger than the major muscle.  So that instead of the chest muscles pushing the triceps to failure; it is the triceps pushing the Pecs to failure.

So he recommended that you do a set of bench flyes which pretty much isolates the chest muscles first.  Immediately following that set (with zero rest); Mike would instruct you to plunge right into a set of bench press.  Right at that moment, as you start your bench press; theoretically, you triceps are stronger than your chest muscles.  Triceps would be fresh and being the stronger muscle, it will not fail before the chest muscles.

That was his method, to temporarily make the smaller muscle stronger in the compound movement by doing an isolation exercise first for the major muscle group.  Other examples would be:

 – Lats:  Nautilus machine pullover (I hate this machine) followed by reverse, close grip pull downs

 – Quadriceps:  Leg extension followed by leg press or squat

 – Delts:  Lateral raises followed by dumbbell presses

To further push the muscle to failure, Mike would do forced repetitions followed by negatives.  His simple objective was to work the muscle to complete and total failure within that one superset. 

Yes that is right; Mike advocated one superset per body part.  His suggested work out time would easily be under 30 minutes. 

How good are Mike’s methods?  I would not presume to pass judgment.  That said, I think this is probably too advanced for most of the general public looking to get in shape.  I think the best, and safest, method is pyramiding 4 sets from 15 repetitions to 6 or 8 for major body parts and 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions for smaller muscle groups.

Without proper warm up and without a good understanding of your own body, a one superset of all out effort could lead to muscle pulls and tears.  Pyramiding allows you to warm up in the movement that you will eventually max out your efforts.  That is safe.

All weightlifting principles and methods have a place and Mike’s pre-exhaust methods should be a part of your arsenal.  When you hit a plateau, a short super intense work out like Mike’s can help you plow through your stall.  In that light, if you have been working out for a year or two; give this a try for a month, just to keep your body on its toes.

But do about 3 warm-up sets before you jump into the lion’s den and starting whacking those supersets.

About the Author:
Hyo was never athletically inclined and a skinny geek to boot.  But after 35 plus years of exercising and dieting, Hyo remains a terrible athlete, but not so much a geek.  Plus, he’s learned a lot and shares loads of good information at his SmartWeightGain Blog; so, come check it out.
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