During certain exercises, such as the bench press, several muscle groups are targeted and simultaneously stimulated. In this example, although the primary target muscle will be the pectorals, other muscles recruited will include your anterior deltoids and triceps. Within this lies a problem. Not all muscle groups fatigue and reach failure together, meaning that at the end of the exercise not all activated muscle groups will have been utilised to their full potential.

In the example above, the anterior deltoids and triceps are much smaller muscles and likely to reach failure much earlier than the pectorals. Even though you are performing this exercise to stimulate the pectorals, by the end of the exercise you are left with fully fatigued anterior deltoids and triceps – and partially fatigued pectorals! Not a great scenario if you’re looking to push your chest to the limit and develop your chest.

The Pre-Exhaustion Technique

So what can be done to prevent this common problem? One method available is known as the pre-exhaustion technique; whereby you utilise an isolation exercise prior to the compound exercise. In this example the compound exercise is the bench press itself due to the multiple target muscles stimulated. The isolation exercise in this example makes reference to an exercise which is initially utilised to isolate the pectorals, such as dumbbell flies.

This serves to isolate and exhaust the pectorals prior to the actual bench press, resulting in pre-fatigued pectoral muscles. Consequently, during the execution of the bench press, the anterior deltoids and triceps will quickly match the fatigue levels displayed by the pectorals, causing all muscle groups to tire simultaneously and resulting in maximal gains for the target muscle.

Simple right? This pre-exhaustion technique was developed to ensure all target muscles were fully utilised during the subsequent movement. For this reason, it is important to complete the isolation movement followed immediately by the compound movement without any rest. If rest intervals are permitted, then it allows the primary target muscle valuable recovery time, which will reduce any potential benefits created by the pre-exhaustion isolation exercise.

It should be noted that this is an advanced training technique and requires a solid strength foundation. As a result it should not be conducted by novice gym users.

Pre-Exhaustion Exercise Check-List

Although the pectoral muscles and bench press have been utilised as an example within this article, the principles of this pre-exhaustion technique work for any compound exercise. Below, are several more examples of where this technique can be utilised in your training;

Isolation exercise: Straight arm pull downs
Compound exercise: Pull downs

Isolation exercise: Lateral raise
Compound exercise: Shoulder press

Anterior arms:
Isolation exercise: Preacher curls
Compound exercise: Standing dumbbell curls

Posterior arms:
Isolation exercise: Triceps pushdown
Compound exercise: Narrow bench press

Anterior legs:
Isolation exercise: Leg extensions
Compound exercise: Squats

Posterior legs:
Isolation exercise: Leg curls
Compound exercise: Dead lifts


It is important to note that the above exercise combinations are not a definitive list and there are other isolation and compound exercises for each target muscle group. These have simply been given as examples to highlight the use of pre-exhaustion techniques within your training.

Now that you know the basics behind pre-exhaustion techniques why not try incorporating these exercise combinations into your workouts? It’s one sure fire way to guarantee that the primary target muscle is worked to its fullest.