Reverse Pre-Exhaustion for Bodybuilding & Joint Health

Pre-exhaustion likely originated with High Intensity Training (HIT), promoted by early pioneers like Arthur Jones & Mike Mentzer.

Dorian Yates Bodybuilder Leg Press Pre Exhaustion Principle

Arthur even designed some machines (meant as pairs or all-in-one compounds) to support this concept. Mike in turn popularized early routines with the principle in mind.

The idea as described then was that on compound movements, the small limb muscles limit performance of the large medial ones. For example, your triceps would reduce the chest stimulus on bench presses since they are weaker, failing first.

Therefore, pre-exhaustion had an isolation exercise, like dumbbell flyes for the pecs, quickly followed by a compound one like bench presses. The triceps would no longer be the weakest link in the chain, assisting the chest to work even harder.

A full pre-exhaust workout would have sequences to develop the back (pullovers > pulldowns), quads (leg extensions > leg presses), hamstrings (leg curls > stiff-legged deadlifts/RDLs) perhaps shoulders (lateral raises > overhead presses) and more.

However, pre-exhaustion doesn’t work as described back then because the large muscles are prime movers on compound exercises regardless, barring extreme positions like a close grip or stance.

It’s not surprising then to find studies indicating that pre-exhaustion is no better than conventional training.

Of course, synergists on the 2nd compound exercise will be stimulated less as well. This may not seem to matter until you realize that multi-joint exercises may work best for single-joint muscles.

Yet bodybuilding champion Dorian Yates, as mentioned in his book A Warrior’s Story, did leg extensions before leg presses to prepare his knees and require less weight on the latter.

For him, this made leg pressing a less risky, still effective choice with lower stress on his hips & lower back too.

Other potential benefits include:

  • Pack more volume into less time.
  • Incorporate more angles for the target muscles to emphasize different fibers.
  • Improve focus, or develop a better mind-muscle connection, for the target muscle.
  • Enjoy the pump-inducing challenge, adding excitement & variety.

However, I’m skeptical of advanced training methods that have you fatigued with resistance much below your maximum capability, like for descending or strip sets. I doubt these target the fast-twitch fibers as well.

I find techniques like negatives & forced reps, having you work harder closer to your best performance, to work best if even needed at all.

Ultimately, with slightly more volume but far less complication, you could just do regular straight working sets, with more rest between them, for the same or better results.

Reverse Pre-Exhaustion?

In my opinion, reverse pre-exhaustion or doing the usually multi-joint, more complex exercise before the single-joint, simpler follow-up can have more widespread value.

Isolation exercises tend to place shear forces on the joints. Most of us will feel less elbow stress when pressing compared to pure arm extension, despite using more weight on the former.

But you still need single-joint exercises to work multi-joint muscles (like the long head of the triceps) best.

Since our joints handle compression well, this order provides a better warm-up for both the active joints & some involved muscles.

You may even be stronger on the next exercise! I felt this when doing back squats followed by sissy squats in the past, and this can be especially noticeable for joint extension.

This warm-up has the isolation feel more comfortable, and you’ll need less weight due to some single-joint muscle exhaustion, further reducing stress.

I also believe good aesthetics has single-joint muscle development over multi. Overdeveloped multi-jointers like the biceps, without the framing that “fills the gaps” provided by the brachialis in this case, may look unusual.

Being slightly weaker on the isolation movement is therefore no big deal, and it probably doesn’t matter much in the long run so long as working near full capacity without too much overall work beforehand.

Like pre-exhaustion, these can be compound sets, which are different from supersets as they address the same muscles instead of antagonists.

You don’t need to pair them in sequence though. You can just include them both in the same routine, so long as you maintain the positive effect from the first exercise without too much rest until the next.

Reverse Pre-Exhaustion Examples

The logic behind most pairings listed here are clear, but some need explanation:

1. Pushing with arm extensions

2. Squatting/leg pressing with leg extensions/sissy squats

3. Pulling (pull-up, pull-down, row…) with arm flexion/curling

Flexion seems to benefit less than extension, but it could still help.

Pull-ups & curls together, where a lot of contraction takes place in the shortened state, may cramp the brachialis. This can disrupt performance on the curls, but it may improve your elbows once you adapt.

4. Stiff-legged dead-lift, hyperextension, good morning or another pure hip extension movement with leg curls (knee flexion)

While pure hip extension is single-joint (though not really due to lumbar extension), the hamstrings act more strongly at the hip and therefore seem to undergo less stress than at the knee.

Reverse Pre-Exhaustion & Pre-Exhaustion as Tools

Though I feel reverse pre-exhaustion is more universally applicable than pre-exhaustion, hopefully it’s clear that adding both “tools to the toolbox” are worthwhile, selecting them for your specific, dynamic needs.

I like reverse pre-exhaustion because it allows heavy lifting to feel better on your joints. By keeping your joints healthy, you can work harder, more consistently, and with fewer injuries to get better results.

If your joints are fine otherwise, I’d suggest organizing exercises however you see fit. I’m sure many trainees organize their routines in a reverse pre-exhaustion setup anyway. Perfection isn’t possible here.

As you mature throughout life, in your fitness perspective and beyond, you realize that people around you aren’t so willingly making poor decisions… they often make the best of their own circumstances.

Nearly all of us could not approach the great Dorian Yates in strength. Old-school pre-exhaustion clearly made sense for him. He gave different reasons than why Arthur first applied it, but it still worked!

Good ideas aren’t invalidated just because they don’t apply to most of us.

In short, consider reverse pre-exhaustion, even pre-exhaustion, if it safeguards your joints or leads to greater bodybuilding success… value for you alone is enough!

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