Personally, I tend to overthink just about everything; I like things to be meticulously planned and thoroughly organized. And, in the fitness world, I’m not alone in this. Athletes and exercise enthusiasts, regardless of their level of fitness, routinely spend hours researching, questioning and planning their workouts. This is especially true of strength training, where new techniques are always popping up and, frankly, complicating things. You would think that a pastime that famously involves picking things up and putting them down would have a limited potential for getting complex, but the approaches seem to be ever-increasing. Could it be, though, that we’re going overboard? Is it possible that, in our effort to constantly improve our workouts, we’ve missed the mark?
Experts Weigh In
For years now, compound exercises have been lauded as the simply solution to strength training. These large, multi-joint lifts (think squats and bench press) work several muscle groups at once and essentially make the best use of your time at the gym. Focusing on large muscle groups, like your legs and chest, has also been shown to improve your metabolism in the long-run by activating huge amounts of muscle fibers and making favorable changes to your hormone levels.
But that’s not good enough, apparently.
The major complaint that many people voiced regarding compound-based training was the lack of isolation lifts. Perhaps out of years of habit, many gym-goers felt guilty skipping the classic singe-muscle exercise like bicep curls. And so the idea of Pre-Exhaustion Training started gaining popularity. This theory states you should use an isolation exercise to “pre-exhaust” a stronger muscle group before involving it in a compound lift. Logically, this makes sense since every muscle used in a compound lift doesn’t share an equal amount of the load.
Does this technique hold up under scientific scrutiny, though? Nope. In a recent study, published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, researchers tested this approach in untrained individuals. At the end of the 12-week program, no extra benefits in strength or body composition resulted from pre-exhaustion training.
So what, though? What does pre-exhaustion training have to do with overall workout complexity? Well, buried in their findings, the researchers also reported one interesting little fact. According to lead author James Fisher, “Our results suggest that exercise order and rest interval make no difference to chronic strength increases following 12 weeks of training, but rather should be chosen based on personal preference.”
That is the key: Personal Preference. Since no extra strength benefits were linked with specific exercise order or rest interval, you should design your workouts based on what you can and will actually do. Fisher went on to explain that significant gains in strength can be made from as little as two, 23-minute workouts per week with sufficient effort.
Again, it comes back to this simple fact: The most effective workout is the one that do. Ultimately, if you do them regularly, it doesn’t matter if you favor simple workouts over more complex options.