If packing on mass is your workout goal, try this approach before your big compound lifts.
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EVERY LIFTER—from grizzled six-day-per-week bodybuilders to trainees on three-day splits with under a year of training under their weigh belt—hits a plateau at some point. So you shouldn’t feel like your gym life is ending when you hit yours. They key is to find the best way to break through.
Maybe you’re stuck because you’ve been hammering the same workout program for too long. Perhaps your periodization plan isn’t quite periodized enough. Or maybe everything is on point, but constantly targeting your largest muscle groups with compound exercises has exposed a critical weakness: the relative strength of your assistive muscles (e.g., the triceps in the bench press or the hamstrings and glutes in the squat). If that’s the case—and the more seasoned you are, the more likely it is—consider incorporating “pre-exhaustion training” into your fitness program.
Pre-exhaustion training is essentially a superset strategy, but instead of pairing exercises that target two different muscle groups, you pair moves that target the same one. First, you hit the muscle in question with an isolation exercise, and then with a compound one.
Classic examples include performing the dumbbell fly or cable crossover before the bench press, or the leg extension before the squat. In so doing, you increase the odds that the target muscle doesn’t outlast the supporting ones in the compound movement, and thus the set doesn’t end prematurely and the adaptation stimulus for all of those muscles isn’t compromised.
At least, that’s the theory. But in this case theory is paramount, because science is staunchly against pre-exhaustion training for all of the wrong reasons.
Many of the studies that discount the benefits of pre-exhaustion training suggest that targeting a muscle first with an isolation exercise decreases activity in that muscle during the subsequent compound exercise. But here’s the thing (and the issue many studies miss): That’s the point.
The goal of pre-exhaustion training isn’t to boost muscle growth by increasing activity in the target muscle during the compound exercise; rather, it’s to boost growth in that muscle and the supporting musculature by leveling the playing field and making sure that all of the muscles involved can be worked to fatigue. Performance outcomes should be secondary.
Pre-exhaustion training is just like it sounds—exhausting—so only use it to target one or two muscle groups per workout with one or two supersets. Any more than that and you risk overtraining—especially if you have less than a couple of years of pumping iron under your weight belt.
But if you’re an experienced lifter who’s struggling to make gains in big compound moves like the squat, bench press, and deadlift, pre-exhaustion training can help you bust out of a rut—or prevent one from happening in the first place.
Trevor Thieme is a Los Angeles-based writer and strength coach, and a former fitness editor at Men’s Health. When not helping others get in shape, he splits his time between surfing, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, and trying to keep up with his seven year-old daughter.
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