After you’ve done resistance training for a while, you may find that your muscles stop growing. That’s because your muscles adapt to the stimulus you place on them and have no further reason to grow. You may experience strength gains and an increase in muscle size initially but over time those gains stop. If your goal is to build muscle, this is a frustrating problem to have. Plus, some people are “hard gainers,” meaning they have to work harder than average to build lean body mass. This is especially true for women due to their differing hormonal structure. If you fall into one of these categories, you may need to use a variety of ways to stimulate stubborn muscles that refuse to grow. One technique you can use to challenge your muscles differently is pre-exhaust and post-exhaust sets.
What is a Pre-Exhaust Set?
You may already be familiar with compound and isolation movements. Compound movements are resistance exercises that target multiple muscle groups through multi-joint movements. Examples of compound movements are squats, push-ups, dips, pull-ups, bent-over rows, deadlifts, and overhead presses. Compound, or multi-joint exercises, recruit more muscle fibers, burn more calories and maximize muscle recruitment. Most experts believe you should emphasize compound exercises if you want your muscles to grow and become stronger.
In contrast, isolation exercises work a single joint and muscle group. Triceps extensions and biceps curls are examples of this type of exercise. Isolation exercises don’t recruit as many muscle fibers and aren’t really optimal for building strength. They’re also less time expedient because they only work one muscle group at a time. Isolation exercises do, however, allow you to closely target a single muscle group to correct muscle imbalances.
Pre-exhaust sets use a combination of compound and isolation exercise to thoroughly exhaust the target muscle. When you exhaust the muscle you’re targeting before doing the compound exercise that follows, you’re assured the focus muscle will be thoroughly fatigued when you finish the compound movement.
To do a pre-exhaust set, begin with an isolation exercise. After completing the isolation exercise, do a compound exercise that targets the same muscle group. An example would be leg extensions (isolation exercise) followed by squats (a compound exercise). The purpose is to fatigue the muscle you’re trying to work and then overload it with a compound exercise.
Are pre-exhaust sets effective? Many bodybuilders swear by them but not all research supports their benefits. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed pre-exhaust sets were no more effective than standard training techniques for muscle growth. This study also showed doing an isolation exercise before a compound reduces performance on the compound exercise. Since the compound movement is more important for overall development, that’s not a good thing.
Post-exhaust sets are the mirror image of pre-exhaust sets. To do a pre-exhaust set, start with a compound exercise that works the muscle you want to target followed by an isolation exercise that works the same muscle. Because you’re beginning with a compound exercise when your muscles aren’t fatigued, you can maximize your performance on the exercise that counts most. Once the muscle you’re targeting is fatigued, challenge it further with an isolation exercise. After completing the isolation exercise, the muscle will be thoroughly exhausted and the muscle fibers maximally damaged. An example of a post-exhaust set would be bench press (compound movement) followed by dumbbell flies (isolation movement).
Which Works Better?
Both pre and post-exhaust methods offer a way to stimulate stubborn muscle fibers that won’t grow or have stopped growing to a new stimulus. Of the two, post-exhaust sets make the most sense from a growth standpoint. The compound exercise recruits more muscle fibers and offers greater metabolic benefits relative to an isolation exercise. Shouldn’t you maximize your performance on the exercise that offers the most muscle bang for the buck? If you do the compound exercise second, fatigue will limit the amount of weight you can lift or reduce the number of reps.
Pros and Cons of Pre and Post-Exhaust Sets
At least in terms of pre-exhaust sets, there’s no evidence that pre-exhaust sets offer benefits over performing compound exercises the traditional way. That being said, both pre and post-exhaust sets are types of “supersets.” Supersets are exercises performed one after another with minimal rest in between. This type of training can stimulate muscle growth when you’ve reached a plateau and need to tweak your approach a little. At the very least, pre and post-exhaust training offer a way to work your muscles differently when you’re having problems getting a certain muscle or group of muscles to grow. If your body has plateaued with traditional training techniques, it’s a way to wake them up. Supersets can do that.
Pre-exhaust and post-exhaust sets offer a different approach to working muscles. Post-exhaust sets will likely offer the most benefits since you’re beginning with a compound exercise, the more intense of the two moves. Use this technique intermittently to add variety and a fresh stimulus to your workout.
The Bottom Line
Pre-exhaust and post-exhaust sets are another way to make your workout more varied and interesting. Supersets, in general, have advantages for muscle growth and fat loss. Supersets create a greater stimulus for growth hormone release and maximize the post-workout after-burn – all good things for fat loss and increasing muscle size. If you’re looking for a different approach, give this form of training a try.
J Strength Cond Res. 2003 May;17(2):411-6.
Increase Workout Intensity with Supersets. Wuebben and Jim Stoppani, Ph.D.
J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr;24(4):1043-51. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d3e993.
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