March 7, 2015

James Peter Fisher1, Luke Carlson2, James Steele1, and Dave Smith3

  1. Southampton Solent University, East Park Terrace, Southampton, UK.
  2. Discover Strength, 10160 6th Avenue North, Suite A, Plymouth, MN 55441, USA.
  3. Manchester Metropolitan University, Crewe,UK.

Pre-Exhaustion (Pre-Ex) training is an advanced resistance training method whereby a person immediately precedes a compound (multi-joint) exercise with an isolated (single-joint) exercise for the major muscles associated with those exercises. For example performing a pec-fly immediately prior to a chest press to target the chest (pectorals), or performing a pull-over exercise immediately prior to a pull-down exercise to target the main upper back muscles (latissimus dorsi). This method was first mentioned in literature around 1970 by Arthur Jones. However, he states that this was not an original concept and pre-dates his discussion.

The aim of this advanced method is to provide greater fatigue, and thus stimulus, to target muscles by exercising them to a point of momentary muscular failure using the isolated exercise, and then fatigue them even further by using synergist muscles when performing the compound exercise. Since training to momentary muscular failure seems to be the most significant variable which a person can control, affecting increases in strength and muscle mass it seems logical to find optimal methods to provide the greatest fatigue/stimulus to human muscle to catalyse adaptive response. Pre-Ex has been advocated by multiple authors, trainers, websites and strength training associations despite an absence of empirical research…until now.

The present study considered forty-one male and female trained participants divided into 3 groups; pre-exhaustion (moving from isolated to compound with less than 5 seconds rest between exercises – PE; n=14), the same exercises in the same order with a 60 seconds rest between the isolated and compound exercises (PER; n=17) and a control group who performed the same exercises prioritising the compound exercises to the start of their workout (CON; n=8). All participants were tested for repetitions to failure with the same absolute load pre- and post-intervention using the chest press, leg press and pull-down exercises. Participants trained twice per week for 12 weeks performing a single set of 8 exercises; pec-fly, chest press, leg extension, leg press, pull-over, pull down, abdominal flexion, and lumbar extension. All testing and training repetitions were performed at a specific cadence (2 seconds to lift the weight and 4 seconds to lower the weight) which maintains muscular tension and eliminates momentum.

Results of the study revealed significant increases in strength in all groups with no significant differences between groups. The outcome of the study suggests that simply performing a single set of each exercise to muscular failure is as efficacious in catalysing physiological adaptation as using more complicated/advanced techniques such as Pre-Ex. Indeed, the CON group, which prioritised the compound/tested exercises by performing them at the start of their workout attained similar strength gains to the other groups suggesting that there is no benefit to prioritising specific exercises. The data from this study suggest that resistance exercise does not need to be unnecessarily complicated; persons should perform a single set of each exercise to muscular failure, at a repetition duration which maintains muscular tension and choosing the order of those exercises based on personal preference. The evidence supports that even trained persons can make significant increases in strength by performing brief (~23 minutes) resistance exercise sessions only twice per week.


Fisher, J.P., Carlson, L., Steele, J., Smith, D. 2014. The effects of pre-exhaustion, exercise order, and rest intervals in a full-body resistance training intervention. Appl. Phys. Nutr. Metab. 39(11): 1265-1270.

If you intend citing any information in this article, please consult the original article and cite that source. This summary was written for the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology and it has been reviewed by the CSEP Knowledge Transfer Committee.