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Pre-Exhaustion Exercise: Lower Body Activation

Jaime Alnassim

Online Coaching | Strength & Conditioning

April 25, 2020

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You probably have done a superset once or twice while working out in your life. A superset is when you perform an exercise set immediately after a different exercise set. Pre-Exhaustion is a type of superset where you would perform an isolated exercise immediately before a compound exercise for the same muscle group. This would be like doing a chest fly right before a bench press. The idea is that you active the muscle before doing the multi-joint lift. We see bodybuilders doing this all the time for activation reasons and to wear out the muscle before the lift for isolation reasons. However, do this work? And does training this way really lead to more gains in muscle strength and size?

The NSCA published “Effect of Pre-Exhaustion Exercise on Lower-Extremity Muscle Activation During a Leg Press Exercise” which looks at whether pre-exhaustion training is really effusing for muscle growth and strength gains. The study looks at the lower-extremity muscle activation during a pre-exhaustion superset. Using seventeen healthy males performed one set of a leg press with and without a pre-exhaustion of one set of knee extensions. Both sets were done with a ten rep man (10RM) and electromyography (EMG) was used to record the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, and gluteus maximus muscles simultaneously during the leg press. After the ten reps on leg extension, the male would immediately go to the leg press for the next ten reps. There was a 20-minute break between sets, so the tester would be more than fresh for the next round.

The results from this study might contradict what you might have thought they were going to be. During the leg press, the EMG activity showed that the rectus femoris and vastus lateralis has lower muscle activity with pre-exhaustion compared to without pre-exhaustion exercise. The gluteus maximus had no significant difference between with or without pre-exhaustion. Seeing how the gluteus maximus is not agonists or antagonists during the leg extension, this does make sense. When you look at the charts on page 414, you will see the maximal voluntary isometric activation (MVIA) for the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, and gluteus maximus. You can note that all three muscles (yes even the gluteus maximus was a little different) had more muscle activation when the subject did not use the pre-exhaustion superset. This goes against every bro who can ever do a chest fly before a bench set, so basically all of them. The study states:

“An example of this strategy is performing lat pulldowns or military presses prior to performing the bench press exercise. It is theorized that the fatigued smaller muscles will contribute less to the movement of the later exercises, thereby placing greater stress on the large muscle groups. Our data, where the fatigued knee extensor muscles contributed less during the subsequent leg press exercise, support the idea of pre-exhausting small synergistic muscles, rather than prime mover agonistic muscles. Therefore, to meet the goal of increased quadriceps muscle activity during a leg press exercise, we speculate that pre-exhaustion exercise should consist of a hip extension exercise, rather than a knee extension exercise. Theoretically, this would force the quadriceps muscles to increased activity because the synergistic hip extensor muscles would probably contribute less during the leg press exercise. However, the advantages and disadvantages of different pre-exhaustion exercise combinations in optimizing strength and muscle size need further study.” (Page 414/415)

So let’s break this down, you want to do a pre-exhaustion superset and get the most out of it. How would you go around doing this? If you wanted to perform a squat or leg press after the first movement, what would the first movement be? You want to do a movement that would work on the hip extension or even triple extension. Even just doing a bodyweight glute bridge can do the trick. This will help force the quadriceps muscles to increased activity. Plus it never hurts to get a nicer butt in the process. Open your mind when it comes to your supersets and think of how you could incorporate this into your training. Quadriceps activation before your next barbell glute bridge with heavyweight, Romanian deadlift, or any multi-joint movement of the hamstrings or glutes. Remember that this study was talking about a pre-exhaustion superset: an isolated exercise immediately before a compound exercise for the same muscle group. So if you were to do squats to walking lunges superset, this would not be the same because both are multi-joint or compound movements. Do your own tests with this during your workouts and see if you notice any difference. Comment below on how it goes for you!


Augustsson, Jesper, Roland Thomeé, Per Hörnstedt, Jens Lindblom, Jon Karlsson, and Gunnar Grimby. “Effect of Pre-Exhaustion Exercise on Lower-Extremity Muscle Activation During a Leg Press Exercise.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17.2 (2003): 411-16. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Web. 20 Jan. 2016. <link>.

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