Hit a strength training plateau? Try pre-exhaust supersets

The other day I wrote about the pitfalls of high repetition strength training.

One of my commenters pointed out that done on an occasional basis, a day or two of high repetition workouts can sometimes help you push past a stubborn strength training plateau. (You know, that exercise that you just can’t increase your weights on no matter how hard you try).

While I agree that this is a reasonable use for high rep training, my go-to ‘strength training plateau buster’ workout  is a pre-exhaust superset.

Let me explain. Compound exercises (which we should all be doing….) require the use of more than one group of muscles. However, not all muscles are created equal. Some are larger, and hence, potentially stronger than others. Often times, it’s the smaller, weaker muscle required for a particular exercise that ‘exhausts’  before the larger, stronger muscle, preventing us from progressing on the lift.

strength training plateau

Take chest presses as an example. Although chest presses target the pectoral muscles, the triceps are needed to extend the arms fully and complete the lift. The smaller, weaker triceps are fatigued at a much lighter load (or volume of repetitions) than required to fatigue the pecs. Unless you work to increase the strength of your triceps, you’ll hit a strength training plateau on this exercise.

Pre-exhaust training offers a solution. Perform two exercises for the target muscle group, super-set style, in the 8 to 12 rep range. (Hint: choose a weight heavy enough to exhaust the target muscle by the end of the set, otherwise you’ll never get over your plateau).

The first exercise of the pair will be an isolation exercise; one that doesn’t require the assistance of the smaller, weaker muscle that’s inhibiting progress. Work to failure and then immediately follow with a compound exercise targeting the same muscle group. The larger muscle, although temporarily fatigued, will be assisted by the smaller muscle, allowing you to continue stressing it and ultimately, increasing its strength.

I use pre-exhaust training in my own workouts every few months, for a week or two at a time (caution, if you overuse the technique, like any other form of training, your body will adapt to it and it won’t have the same benefits). I’ve found it a particularly useful technique for overcoming strength training plateaus of the chest, back and biceps.

Try the following exercise combinations and see if the pre-exhaust method doesn’t make a difference in your training.

Chest: Incline dumbbell flys (isolation) followed by chest (or incline) chest presses (compound)

Back: Seated row (isolation) followed by barbell bent over row (compound)

Biceps: Preacher curl (isolation) followed by under hand grip chin ups (compound)

strength training plateau

Have you ever tried pre-exhaust training?

What’s your go-to strength training plateau busting technique? 





  1. OK..Don’t you just LOVE that last picture of your self??? All fit and muscular ….. dang impressive!!
    Kathy recently posted…Whatcha Doin?My Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Thanks so much Kathy! I do love that picture, perhaps because it’s sooo not how I see myself in my own mind!

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever (purposely anyway) tried pre-exhaust supersets. As soon as I’m back to normal lifting I’m going to – thanks for sharing!
    And…You look awesome, incredible, powerful and strong in that picture where you are doing the chin-ups!!!
    Kim recently posted…Real Life Feelings and EmotionsMy Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Kim, you would love it! Your muscles will feel all done and then you push them just a bit more! Thanks for the lovely comment!

  3. As an aesthetic application, one of my favorite combos is to to bent over lateral raises for the posterior deltoids, followed immediately by wide-grip lat pulldowns. Tis combo rocks the posterior delts as well as the upper/outer corners of the back.
    Contemplative Fitness recently posted…Aggressivley Humble…My Profile

    • Tamara says:

      I will definitely give that a try; two muscle groups that I’ve been trying to improve on Roy! Thanks!

  4. I have not tried this . . . but it totally makes sense! I will definitely keep this in mind, as I’d like to break through a bit of a plateau I’m experiencing. Thanks!!

    And I have that same skirtsports skirt/pant!! I love it. 🙂
    Michelle @ Eat Move Balance recently posted…Kelp Noodle(!) and Veggie Stir FryMy Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Let me know how it goes for you Michelle! I need a lighter weight skirtsport combo now that the warm weather has arrived. This one is too hot in the gym!

  5. YOU LOOK AMAZING! Agree – love that last pic!!!!

    A great post Tamara!!! I am kinda where I want to be & just trying to fight off aging so.. I just sort of do whatever feels right that day. I plan ahead but sometimes I change things based on how I feel once I get started.. 🙂

    Saying that, I do mix it up with what I start & end with…. 🙂
    Jody – Fit at 55 recently posted…Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough QUEST – Quest BarsMy Profile

  6. I’m with the others- LOVE that pull up photo! Thanks for this helpful info- I’m pretty clueless when it comes to strength training- I do some dvds and my own routine in the gym, but I can’t say it has a lot of thought/planning behind it (other than fitting it strategically around my running).
    Laura @ Mommy Run Fast recently posted…A day of eats on the sugar detoxMy Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Thanks Laura! There are so many great training protocols out there, depending on your goals. Why not choose something and stick with it for awhile and see the wonder?

  7. Clear, well-explained, and motivating! Loved that you gave examples. too. Now I am going to do a post-exhaustion set of relaxing.

    • Tamara says:

      Thanks Kymberly! I am on to post-exhausting relaxing too. Hubby was up at 4:30 for a plane trip and was nice enough to wake me as well (at least he brought me coffee…)

  8. That picture is awesome – look at your biceps!! I don’t think I’ve tried this particular technique, so it’s GREAT information as I’m stepping up my strength training game. Thanks! 🙂
    Heather @ Better With Veggies recently posted…One Word Wednesday: MayMy Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Heather, just make sure to use it sparingly. Like any strength training technique, it stops working if you use it too often. Let me know which combo you try.

  9. +1 for that awesome shot of you, Tamara – awesome. And funny, I’m doing this type of training RIGHT NOW, thanks to a certain abso-fabu trainer from Vancouver w/the initials TG.
    Sarah @ Semi-Sweet recently posted…Lebanese Seven Spices SeasoningMy Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Sarah, such lovely words! And yes, I’ve been doing a bit of this training myself lately and it’s clearly on my mind! How is yours going? (I did see your FB message and just remembered now that I haven’t responded. Sorry…)

  10. Love that last picture! Looking awesome and STRONG!
    Kierston @candyfit recently posted…A Race Recap: Going Bananas!My Profile

  11. What a great and informative post! Love the examples and photos.
    Chivon recently posted…Is social media bad for our health? Here’s how to find outMy Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Thanks Chivon! I loved your post today. I wrote one awhile back about a similar topic. It was called ‘is blogging making you fat’, or something like that. I try and move frequently on days when I’m at my desk for long stretches, but I fear that it’s not enough…

  12. Work it MAMA!!!!! 🙂 Your guns are SMOKING!
    GiGi Eats Celebrities recently posted…On The RocksMy Profile

  13. ahhhh I had totally forgotten about these, too.
    and yes.
    Miz recently posted…Miz meets NAYAD SwimGym.My Profile

  14. Great explanation of the benefits of pre-exhaust training. It’s not something I need at the moment (not stuck at any plateaus because I’m not training hard enough :-).
    Debbie @ Live from La Quinta recently posted…What’s Beautiful: Running Faster and How To Get ThereMy Profile

  15. I had never thought about doing a super set to exhaustion as a way to push past a strength training barrier. Thanks for sharing your expertise. I’m going to try this for my next workout.

  16. You lookin mighty buff there lady! Am I going to recognize you at Fitbloggin?!?
    And excellent article with a great explanation. I personally don’t use pre-exhaust sets but who knows, maybe I will now!
    Suzanne @WorkoutNirvana recently posted…Just Do It: How to Protect Your ShouldersMy Profile


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