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Making the Switch from Power Athlete to Bodybuilder: Rethinking the Pre-Exhaust

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  • Making the Switch from Power Athlete to Bodybuilder: Rethinking the Pre-Exhaust

    Interesting article... dont agree with it all but interesting nethertheless.

    Recently, I acquired a client who was a former professional boxer (for the purposes of this article, we’ll call him Mike). Mike asked me if I could transform his physique so that he could obtain a more muscular and rounded look. Basically, he wanted to look more like a bodybuilder.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. This guy had a fantastic physique with very dense muscles. He stands about five feet, ten inches at a body weight of 200 lbs and nine percent body fat. To say the least, he maintains a very athletic build. Nevertheless, his muscles are very blocky and compact, and while he can bench press over 400 lbs and squat over 500 lbs, he doesn’t quite look as if he can. As expected for a boxer of his size, Mike has very large traps, large front shoulders, large rear delts, and a very well developed upper back. On the other hand, his back fades below his rhomboids. His quadriceps are well developed, which is due to lots of bouncing around the ring, but he doesn’t have any hamstrings. His chest is well shaped but smaller than it should be if he wants to look like a bodybuilder, and his arms are large at around eighteen inches but don’t display any peaks in the biceps.

    It didn’t come as any surprise to me that Mike trained very much like a powerlifter since his boxing career ended. His training consisted of max effort days and dynamic effort days with low volume and high intensity. Mike’s inability to achieve optimal muscle hypertrophy doesn’t make this a special case. How many times have we seen a guy who can bench press or squat big numbers but who has a physique that is about as impressive as seeing your aging uncle in a Speedo during his annual 4th of July party? It would be quite simple to describe the problem as simply related to a culture of poor nutrition and conditioning among powerlifters, a problem that Dave Tate talks about in detail in his “Iron Evolution” entries on T-Nation. Yet, as Contreras and Schoenfeld (2011) point out, even the most conditioned powerlifters following strict nutrition plans display less muscle on average than bodybuilders, despite being stronger than them.

    This leaves us with training as the culprit. Though Mike’s powerlifting style training made him pretty strong, it also kept him smaller than he would be if he trained more like a bodybuilder. Yet, the process of transitioning him from powerlifter to bodybuilder wasn’t so simple. There were issues of muscle dominance and muscle coordination that kept Mike from optimally simulating his target muscles. After years of explosive upper body training as a boxer and powerlifter, these weren’t issues that could be overcome with a simple five minutes of foam rolling.

    While most sophisticated readers are well aware of the aesthetic differences between bodybuilders and power athletes, very little light has been shed on transforming a power athlete into a physique athlete. It is a relevant subject, as many gym newbies are given the advice to try powerlifting before venturing toward bodybuilding in order to build a solid muscular base. This article identifies the tendency of these athletes to coordinate their muscle groups for efficient movement as the main inhibitor of muscle hypertrophy and it presents one particular training approach for promoting greater muscular hypertrophy in power athletes (nutrition is equally, if not more important, but beyond the scope of this article.) This method includes an initial phase where the central nervous system is fatigued using compound movements at an explosive tempo. Once the central nervous system is sufficiently taxed, the focus switches to a slow and controlled tempo of partial repetitions to pump up specific muscle groups.

    The problem

    The main problem lies in the fact that power athletes have trained their bodies to achieve gains in strength without requiring corresponding gains in muscle hypertrophy (Contreras and Schoenfeld 2011). One of the main reasons for this is the fact that the most successful power athletes are masters at coordinating their muscle groups to perform a given task. For instance, rather than isolating prime movers like their quadriceps to perform a squat, the most successful powerlifters are conditioned to call upon their back, hamstrings, and glutes to carry a significant load while performing these movements. This allows for more leverage on the bones, which leads to gains in strength without significant gains in muscle mass (Enoka 2008).

    The second issue lies in the types of muscle fibers that are recruited. There are two different types of muscle fibers in the human body—Type I, also known as slow twitch muscle fibers, and Type II, also known as fast twitch muscle fibers. Type I muscle fibers are endurance oriented fibers that fatigue slowly when placed under stress, making them excellent for long lasting activity. However, they have limited ability to produce significant amounts of force at any given time (McCardle et al. 2010). Though their capacity for hypertrophy is about half of that of Type II fibers, they do have the ability to significantly increase in size (Contreras and Schoenfeld 2011; Kosek et al. 2006; Staron et al. 1989), and as Contreras and Schoenfeld point out, research demonstrates that bodybuilders display significantly greater cross-sectional areas in their Type I fibers (Tesch and Larson 1982).

    Type II muscle fibers, on the other hand, are quick to fatigue but are also capable of producing short but powerful bursts of force. They are further categorized as Type IIa and Type IIb. Type IIa muscle fibers resemble Type I muscle fibers in that they can be used for some degree of endurance. Type IIb muscle fibers are more classic fast twitch muscle fibers in that they have the fastest rate of contraction, making them excellent for quick bursts of speed. However, they fatigue the fastest of any fiber type. While both power athletes and bodybuilders undoubtedly use a great deal of Type II fibers and Type II muscle fibers have greater hypertrophic capability than Type I fibers, it seems that power athletes have somewhat limited their hypertrophic capacities by focusing their training almost entirely on their fast twitch muscle fibers.

    In sum, there seems to be two main reasons why power athletes aren’t as muscular as bodybuilders. First, powerlifters and boxers have conditioned themselves with motor learning patterns through years of training that have caused them to rely on muscular coordination rather than isolated muscular strength to perform the tasks demanded by their sports. Second, these athletes have focused almost exclusively on their Type II muscle fibers in their training without relying on Type I muscle fibers to help them “chase the pump” (Contreras and Schoenfeld 2011).

    Potential solutions

    From the view presented by Contreras and Schoenfeld, upping the volume would be the most obvious solution. This would have two primary effects that could positively affect muscle hypertrophy. The first will be increased stimulation of Type I muscle fibers due to increased volume and time under tension, which could lead to greater Type I hypertrophy (Tesch et al. 1984). Additionally, the studies have shown that cellular swelling due to an increased pump could lead to greater protein synthesis, decreased protein breakdown (Grant et al. 2000; Stoll et al. 1992; Millar et al. 1997), and increased growth factor production due to cellular hydration (Vierck et al. 2000).

    Simply upping the training volume seems like it would be a viable solution for increasing hypertrophy…at first. Nevertheless, while this solution addresses the muscle fiber issue, it doesn’t address the larger issue, which is the fact that power athletes have trained themselves over long periods of time to coordinate their muscle groups to produce force without inducing the muscular stress required for muscular hypertrophy. Muscular growth requires body part specific training to stimulate specific muscles. Yet power athletes have trained themselves over years and even decades to distribute the loads of their lifts over several muscle groups that coordinate together to complete the lift in the most efficient way possible. Increasing training volume will likely allow for greater overall muscle stimulation, but this stimulation won’t optimally result in hypertrophy for the targeted muscles unless this tendency is overcome.

    The next viable solution would be to tire out the muscle groups that are coordinating with the targeted muscles at the start of training. This is what bodybuilders refer to as pre-exhausting a body part. It is a step in the right direction, but this approach must be tweaked a bit in order for it to work for power athletes. Most pre-exhaustion protocols call for extremely high rep ranges on an isolation exercise before performing any compound movements. The great Lee Haney was well known for this approach. Nevertheless, this seven time Mr. Olympia was never a powerlifter whose entire muscular system was trained to coordinate to produce great amounts of force. In a powerlifter, normal pre-exhaustion techniques face a great obstacle. After a certain point in the high rep ranges of pre-exhaust sets, Type I muscle fibers will begin taking over. As Type II fibers have the ability to quickly generate ATP and the remaining sets will normally be in the rep ranges of 8–12, these muscles will likely be in a position to coordinate once again at some point in the workout even though pre-exhaustion measures have been taken. This will be particularly true in powerlifters whose Type II muscle fibers have been specifically trained to do this. Hence, pre-exhaustion must be rethought for these athletes.

    The types of adaptations that power athletes have elicited through their training emanate not from one particular muscle group but rather from the entire central nervous system. Hence, pre-fatiguing or relaxing any one muscle to focus stimulation through resistance on another likely won’t work. Consequently, reducing the coordination tendency that inhibits the stimulation that could lead to greater hypertrophy requires that the entire central nervous system be fatigued enough to lessen this tendency.

    The best solution: Central nervous system pre-exhaustion followed by pumping

    Powerlifting doesn’t focus on one muscle group. The way that most successful powerlifters train, more focus is placed on the central nervous system than any particular muscle group. The central nervous system is what induces muscle coordination, and it is the central nervous system that must be taxed before these athletes can properly train any one muscle group using traditional methods.

    Some of you may be reading the words “central nervous system” and thinking that I’m about to drop something on you about attaching electrodes to your nipples while you squat. It’s actually a lot less complicated than it sounds, and it keeps powerlifters right in their comfort zones. It involves combining a central nervous system pre-exhaustion set and a localized pump set into one superset that will stimulate dense muscle growth and leave you howling for more.

    Step 1, the pre-exhaust—central nervous system stimulation: Most pre-exhaustion systems prescribe that the trainee “pre-exhaust” certain body parts using high volume isolation movements. For example, many bodybuilders pre-exhaust their deltoids using high reps of side lateral raises before going into presses during their shoulder routines. On leg days, they may pre-exhaust their quads using high reps of leg extensions before squats.

    The central nervous system pre-exhaust system turns this logic upside down. Pre-exhaustion sets in this program require that the trainee perform moderate repetitions of compound movements at an explosive 1-1-1 tempo.

    The point of these sets isn’t to stimulate muscle for optimal growth or to tire out any single muscle group. Rather, it is to tax the central nervous system in order to lessen the tendency of muscles to coordinate to produce strength and achieve a better localized pump in target muscles during follow up exercises.

    Powerlifters have given us several methods to tax the central nervous system by manipulating the force curve of the repetition through the assistance of bands and chains. For an excellent article on using bands and chains, including instructions for attaching them, please see this recent article.

    Step 2, working exercises—localized stimulation with compound movements: Once the central nervous system is sufficiently fatigued, it’s much harder to coordinate muscles to produce maximal force. This will provide greater opportunity to isolate and pump specific muscles, allowing for greater blood flow into the target muscle groups. This, in turn, will result in bigger, fuller, and better shaped muscles.

    During the working sets, volume should be increased in order to maximize the time under tension. The tempo should also be slowed down quite a bit and special attention should be given to contracting and squeezing the muscle. Another variable that should be manipulated is the range of motion. Repetitions with limited range of motion can help isolate specific muscles. This is especially true for the shoulders, pecs, and quadriceps.

    These exercises should be changed weekly in order to stimulate the muscles from different angles.

    Step 3, assistance exercises: Assistance exercises should be chosen to maximize the pump and drive more blood into the muscle. They should be mainly isolation exercises that focus on the target muscles. Aggressive stretching should be performed between each set while the muscle is full, and the trainee should be directed to flex as much as possible to allow more blood to enter the muscle (Hyght 2012).

    The program

    Sample week

    Day 1: Legs

    From this training day, you’ll notice that the order of the workout after pre-exhaust is hamstrings and then quadriceps. Powerlifters are known for being able to recruit their posterior chains in order to maximize force output while performing deadlifts and squats. Working the hamstrings before the quadriceps will aid in fatiguing the coordination impulse, and it will allow you to optimally work both your quads and your hamstrings.

    CNS pre-exhaust

    Banded box squats(low)

    3 X 8–10 (maximal effort)

    Hamstring working exercise

    Romanian deadlifts

    5 X 12–15 (maximal effort)

    Hamstring assistance exercise

    Glute ham raise

    4 X 10–12

    Quadriceps working exercise

    Half front squats(bottom half)

    5 X 12–15 (maximal effort)

    Quadriceps assistance exercise

    Barbell hack squats with elevated heel

    4 X 10–12


    Forward/backward sled drags


    5 each

    50 meters

    Day 2: Chest and Triceps

    This workout begins with a pre-exhaust that taxes the central nervous system’s ability to coordinate your lats, shoulders, pecs, and triceps. Perform the banded incline press “competition style” with your elbows in and your back arched.

    CNS pre-exhaust

    Banded incline press

    3 X 6–8

    Working exercise

    Partial range of motion flat dumbbell bench press

    4 X 8–12

    Assistance exercise

    Dumbbell flyes

    3 X 8–12


    Weighted dips

    3 X 8–12


    Dumbbell French press

    3 X 8–12


    Sledgehammer tire hits

    5 X 16–20

    Day 3: Rest

    Day 4: Back and biceps

    Here, the central nervous system is taxed through kipping pull-ups, which require the involvement of the hips, traps, rear deltoids, lats, erectors, lower back, core, and legs. Attention in the rest of the workout is focused on squeezing the elbows in to stimulate the middle.

    CNS pre-exhaust

    Wide grip kipping pull-ups

    3 X 15–20

    Working exercise

    Lat pull-down (use narrow grip with elbows tucked in)

    4 X 8–12

    Assistance exercise

    Smith machine bent over row
    3 X 8–12


    Dumbbell preacher curls

    3 X 8–12


    Barbell curl

    3 X 8–2


    Prowler® sprints of 50 m with +90 lbs, 180 lbs 230 lbs

    5 X 50 m

    Day 5: Shoulders

    In the shoulder workout, the ability of the traps to coordinate with the deltoids is taxed with power cleans and presses before going into specific deltoid training. Specific attention is given to performing assistance and working exercises that will help to cap off the deltoids.

    CNS pre-exhaust

    Power clean and press

    3 X 3–5

    Working exercise

    Wide grip upright row

    4 X 8–12

    Assistance exercise

    Dumbbell raise medley (front, side, rear)

    3 X 8–12

    Assistance exercise

    Cuban press
    3 X 8–12


    Tabata squat

    As many reps as possible in 20 seconds followed by 10 seconds rest

    8 X As many reps as possible


    Performance training results in less muscle hypertrophy than bodybuilding and could also prevent optimal muscle hypertrophy in the long run. For these athletes to become bodybuilders, the central nervous system must be sufficiently exhausted before specific muscles can be efficiently stimulated to produce that fuller look.
    Please follow my journal...
    320 kg deadlift/160 kg bench press/280 kg squat
    AINT NUTTIN BUT A PEANUT brrrrrrrrrr

  • #2


    • #3
      James, would you mind citing the author?.......... Unless you are disagreeing with yourself. In that case, carry on.
      2010 NPC North Star


      • #4 should copy/paste the below into your post...

        Making the Switch from Power Athlete to Bodybuilder: Rethinking the Pre-Exhaust

        By Chris Albert
        Published: May 22, 2012
        "When you guys get home and face an anti-war protester, look him in the eyes and shake his hand. Then, wink at his girlfriend, because she knows she's dating a pussy."

        "Carry 24/7 or guess right."

        "There are only two kinds of people that understand Marines: Marines and the enemy. Everyone else has a second-hand opinion."

        "993 yo f9t[n9y[I8itineraryBMiy v][/t u 98 oh 99 u]y8y u[/hy jyip NH j o have I h"


        • #5
          How about stop posting or just post a link with a synopsis, holy hell
          For Training Inquiries go see the HNIC [email protected] anything else is uncivilized


          • #6
            Epic stealing of the term "Pre-exhaust", which has been around for decades, then applying it to something else. (it made more sense in the original definition)
            PM me to discuss website/video/dvd etc. related work.


            • #7
              Lol, I was going to just copy the elitefts website and paste it for him. I thought that it was actually one of their lesser provocative articles.