Did you know that every time you're in the gym you use pre-exhaustion?
Whether you intend to or not, this technique is as intrinsic to your programming as is pre-workout stretching or appropriating time for rest between sets.
But how can this be? Most people wouldn't even be able to give a good definition of pre-exhausting (henceforth, referred to as "PE") much less understand how it affects their workouts.
Rather than attempting to define it, highlighting the cloaked iterations of PE do much more to hammer home its omnipresence...
If you've ever performed a like-muscle superset of isolation movement->compound movement, you've used PE.
If you've ever placed metabolic work before overloading, you've used PE.
If you've ever structured your session in ANY way other than strict descent from heaviest->lightest exercises, you've used PE.
If you've ever so much as warmed up before starting your workout, you've used PE.
What do all of these examples have in common?
They all introduce some degree of fatigue (granted, vastly varying levels) at the expense of maximal mechanical tension and force generation.
And at its base, that's all PE really is!
So how do we harness this for use as an active technique rather than it just existing in the background undetected?
The beauty of PE lies within its scope of applicability from the most generalize use cases to hyper-specific. Pretty much any and every goal can make use of it—the intent just has to be defined.
So let's run through some wide-ranging case studies and see how we can leverage PE to enhance program design:
Case-Study #1- Increase strength
Granted, this clearly runs counter to the mechanisms of getting stronger. We know that, outside of early neural adaptations, strength comes from the conscious increase in load over time. And this comes about purely through adding mechanical tension (i.e. progressive overload). But what is not accounted for in that overly-simplified definition is all of the other contributory activities that are immediately forgotten when under the bar. Stuff in this category is broad: things like eating enough calories and protein, getting sufficient sleep, and making sure recovery between sets/sessions is optimized.
Though a bit more abstract, efficacious warm-ups also contribute massively to any pursuit of strength. I'm not talking about passive strategies like static stretching or flopping around on a foam-roller. Rather, the tangible benefits here come from a method known as motor unit potentiation. In an effort to keep this concise, MUP can be best thought of as getting the muscle groups/patterns we're about to train as neuromuscularly primed as possible to produce force and power. There are numerous ways to do this but by far the most common is to implement conscious warm-ups and feeder sets leading up to a maximal weight—a form of PE.
Case-Study #2- Increase hypertrophy
Thankfully for our sake, PE aligns much more acutely with hypertrophy than it does strength. If you want to improve a specific muscle, logically it would make sense to prioritize it in your training. This means moving that volume towards the beginning of the session when output and focus are the highest. Shifting the program away from generalized, maximization of total mechanical tension towards specific, optimization of targeted muscles creates a deliberate give-and-take. This trade-off sacrifices weight used for muscle growth by generating productive fatigue—also a form of PE.
Case-Study #3- Increase fat loss
Even more obvious than with hypertrophy, disorderly fatigue generation has clear benefits towards fat oxidation. Those who are trying to get leaner aren't nearly as concerned with ensuring conditions are perfect for using the most load. The end game is to reduce bf%, and strength degeneration is typically a byproduct of this (for multiple reasons).
Looking beyond the more specific instances of restructuring exercise selection to more safely train in higher rep ranges with less rest, the more in-your-face example of PE being used to facilitate fat loss is that of pre-workout cardio. *lightbulb moment*
Case-Study #4- Work around injury
In my opinion, the best use case for PE comes from being able to continue to train hard even while coming back from or nursing an injury. Unlike some of the previous examples, this one is rather intuitive for anyone who has dealt with nagging ailments. Musculotendinous issues are typically correlated with mechanical tension (i.e. more load on the bar means more stress on the tissues). This would prove to be extremely problematic if our only route towards muscle growth or even maintenance was to persist down this destructive path.
But luckily for us and our joints, the intracellular regulators of hypertrophy have no way of telling how much load we're squatting. The only thing these microscopic gate-keepers understand is tension. And we can trick our own bodies into believing that our muscles are handling more external load than is reality by strategically performing joint-friendly alternatives to exhaustion before the heavier, more stressful work. In this way, PE is acting as a suppressor of load in order to maintain relative intensity and hypertrophic stimuli.
Case-Study #5- Increase intensity
We've alluded to it above, but absolute intensity is not and should not always be the end-game. Absolute intensity in this case would be referring to the load on the bar whereas relative intensity would be the proximity to failure independent of load and/or rep range. We can have uber intense training sessions that never drop below 20 rep/set and vice-versa incredibly easy workouts that are exclusively sub-5 reps/set. Intensity and rep ranges are independent variables.
A common misunderstanding that I see perpetuated is the paradigm stating heavy, compound movements=intense and lighter, isolation exercises=volume accumulation. But if we squint a little bit, there is a clear way to reverse this ideology and still make it not only work but improve the program design.
In phases such as metabolite training or GPP (general physical preparedness), the goal isn't about load on the bar or even using free weights in general. Instead, we're trying to drive specific adaptations that will (in theory) propagate more muscle growth or more strength in the future. These phases are generally marked by their use of shorter rest periods, higher reps and non-specific exercise selection that allows for pushing safely and intensely within the aforementioned parameters. Structuring the training to prioritize qualities other that of volume load falls right into the bucket of PE.
Case-Study #6- Improve mobility
Ok so this one is going to be a bit out there at first but stick with me and I promise to bring it home...
For most individuals, poor mobility is a symptom of compensations leading to restrictions. Our bodies don't want to be all bound up and immobile, but poor habits compounding over time have led to a devolution of our Gumby-like adolescence. Most will notice that this reduced range-of-motion isn't permanent; it can be improved by many things such as stretching, massage and even losing weight.
A more obscure route exists; one that is transient at first but can gradually improve our mobility with focus and repetition. This involves something called loaded stretching. The easiest way to understand what loaded stretching accomplishes is to think in real-life examples...Like how we're somehow able to get a little deeper into our leg presses as the set goes on. Or like how our squats feel SOO much more comfortable after doing some machine adductions beforehand. Or like how we can get much more free scapular retraction after doing deficit pushups. All of these make use of physiological mechanisms that reduce inhibition as our tissue get signals from the brain letting it know it's safe to go into those previously restricted positions. Though it may not be as obvious at first glance, PE is what makes this effect possible by initiating that signaling process.
Case-Study #7- Reduce fatigue
I'm going to make this one easy to understand—PE increases acute fatigue to reduce the need for more load to achieve the same or similar effects. Less load by way of PE allows for secondary effects like lessened axial loading, muscle damage, joint stress and even less need for warm-up/feeder sets. These reductions lead to decreased systemic fatigue. So vis-a-vis, we use PE to elevate short-term fatigue in order to dampen long-term fatigue.
After all of that, PE must seem like the greatest thing since sliced deli meat right? Why wouldn't we try to implement it as often as possible if the use cases are basically universal?
Well, there are obviously times when we want to limit fatigue in order to maximize the absolute intensity of our session.
There are times when fatiguing a target muscle via isolation work before compounds will actually have the opposite effect and force the ancillary muscles to contribute more to the set.
There are times when carrying fatigue into heavier work may actually increase risk of injury.
There are times when sustaining relative intensity in higher rep ranges will contribute more towards systemic and CNS fatigue.
PE is no one-stop-shop for every need, desire and goal.
Utilize it appropriately.
And outsmart your physiology.