Why athletes need to pre-exhaust

Before you bench, squat, or deadlift, try this training strategy.

Most properly-aligned people naturally recruit the correct muscles to perform compound movements (glutes for a squat, hamstrings for a deadlift), explains Leah Dugas, a Tier X coach at Equinox Beverly Hills. But sometimes, because you favor a dominant side or have certain muscular imbalances, you compensate.

“The issue with asymmetries is the tendency for the stronger or weaker muscle to be overactive or not active at all during a movement,” says Bryant Thomas, a Tier 3+ trainer at Equinox 50th Street in New York City. For example, if you’re a quad-dominant athlete, your quads might be more utilized than your posterior chain (your glutes) when you squat. This can further imbalances and lead to injury, he notes.

The good news is that it’s possible to curtail such imbalances and improve symmetry. Thomas encourages trainees to try a strategy called pre-exhaust, pre-fatiguing a certain muscle or body part (chest, glutes, or lats, for example) using an isolation or single-joint exercise before a compound movement.

Pre-exhausting a target muscle helps ensure you're working the right muscles during a compound movement to follow, explains Thomas. It can also improve form and alignment and, because the technique can tire a muscle out, is beneficial for those who have hypertrophic goals versus performance goals.

To work this strategy into your routine, do three sets of 10 to 15 reps of the below exercises with light to moderate weight before three sets of six to eight reps of one of the matching compound exercises.

Compound Movement: Bench Press, Incline Press, Push-Ups

Muscle Activation:Chest

Pre-Exhaustion Exercise: Dumbbell Flys
Keep elbows slightly bent and focus on squeezing chest as hard as possible at the top and stretching chest as much as possible (as if you’re opening French doors).

Compound Movement:Hip Thrusts, Squats, Deadlifts

Muscle Activation:Glutes

Pre-Exhaustion Exercise:Lateral Band Walks
Place a resistance band just above your ankles, assume a squat stance, and take 15 steps to the right while keeping the band stretched at all times. Repeat this in the other direction.

Compound Movement: Romanian Deadlifts, Good Mornings

Muscle Activation:Hamstrings

Pre-Exhaustion Exercise:Leg Curls
On the lying curl machine use a tempo of 1 second up and 3 seconds to return to the starting position for each rep.

Compound Movement:Pull-Ups, Bent-Over Rows

Muscle Activation: Lats

Pre-Exhaustion Exercise:Straight Arm Pull-Downs
Stand tall with a slight bend in your knees at the lat pull-down machine or a high cable pulley. Grab the bar with hands shoulder-width apart with straight arms and pull the bar down either to hips or knees depending on your height. Your tempo should be 2 to 3 seconds down and 2 to 3 seconds up, slowing the upward motion as much as possible.