Strength training programs come in many possible combinations and permutations considering the variables involved – sets, repetitions, weight, technique, speed of movement, weekly schedule and periodization to name a few.
One of the ways to potentially alter your routine is to alter the sequence that the exercises progress in the session. This had led to various routines being developed over time to try and maximize the training effect, such as circuit, super-setting, pre-exhaustion.
All these methods are basically varying the exercise order from largest muscle groups first, progressing to smallest last, or, in turn, from smallest to largest, or something in between.
In pre-exhaustion programs, the idea is to take a multi-joint, multi-muscle exercise and before performing that exercise, isolate the largest muscle involved and exercise it first (thereby pre-exhausting it) in order to make the multi-muscle exercise more effective.
Since the 1990s, there has been a presumption that the most beneficial method is to exercise the larger muscles first. Is that true? Does the exact order matter that much to the overall effectiveness of the program?
Unfortunately, to date, there have only been a small number of studies done on this question. There were two done in 2003 and 2007 that looked at the acute responses of the pre-exhaustion method, the first using 17 male subjects and the second with 13 male subjects.
One experimental group performed a pre-exhaust format of an isolation exercise followed by the multi-joint companion, while the other group performed the multi-joint exercise alone, both using a 10 repetition maximum load.
In the 2003 study researchers found that the pre-exhaust group performed fewer repetitions than the standard leg press group with lower muscle activation. The 2007 study found an equal number of reps performed, but a lower load lifted in the pre-exhaust group compared with the bench press only group.
In order to address this question of longer term muscle growth and test the chronic adaptations of varying exercise order, two studies were done in 2010 which had one group perform exercises from larger, multi-muscle groups down to small, single muscles at the end.
In both studies, strength gains were significant for all muscles, but there was an interesting result: in both studies, the exercises that were performed first in the sequence had greater gains than the ones done at the end, regardless if they were large or small muscles.
The results show that the evidence for pre-exhaustion routines is lacking and that to make the most out of your strength workouts, you should put the most important muscles you want to train near the beginning of your session.
– By Kerry Senchyna, who holds a bachelor of science degree in kinesiology and is owner of West Coast Kinesiology in Maple Ridge (westcoastkinesiology.com).