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Break Through Your Strength Training Plateaus

If you’ve been strength training for any length of time, you’ll most certainly have experienced a plateau or two. An exercise that you just couldn’t seem to progress beyond a certain weight, even though you gave yourself plenty of rest between attempts and other aspects of your program were moving right along.

There are a number of known techniques for breaking through strength plateaus, my favourite being pre-exhaust super-sets; performing two different exercises (one isolation, one compound) for the same muscle group, back to back.

Let me explain.

Compound exercises require the use of more than one group of muscles (for example, squats, pushups and shoulder presses). 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.

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 nearly 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 near failure (leave enough gas in the tank to complete 1 or 2 more good form reps).
  • 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 or assisted chin ups (compound)

Have you ever tried pre-exhaust training?

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