One of the most famous leg workouts for muscle building was the one developed by Nautilus Founder Arthur Jones that used a training method called pre-exhaustion. It’s a brutal workout and remarkably effective, but with a few modern twists, it can be made even better.
As with many popular workout systems, there is often an elite athlete promoting it. This workout was associated with bodybuilder Casey Viator, considered one of the most genetically-gifted physique competitors of his era. Viator shocked the bodybuilding world by winning the 1971 AAU Mr. America contest as a teenager, becoming the youngest person ever to do so.
Viator won the Mr. America title weighing 218 pounds with an upper arm that stretched the tape at 19 15/16 inches. He was also as strong as he looked -- he could squat with over 500 pounds, for reps, and perform standing barbell curls with 225 pounds, for reps. Viator took an extended absence from physique competition after his Mr. America victory but came back in 1982 to place third in the Mr. Olympia competition, defeating Samir Bannout, who would win the title the following year, and the popular Tom Platz.
Jones, who trained Viator for the 1971 competition, often used pre-exhaustion. With this method of training, developed in 1968 by Robert Kennedy, you fatigue a muscle with a single-joint exercise and then work it even harder by immediately performing a multi-joint exercise involving the same muscle group and additional muscle groups. For your arms, you could perform a rope pressdowns followed by dips to trash the triceps, and perform preacher curls followed by a lat pulldown to trash the biceps.
For leg training, Jones took the pre-exhaustion method a step further by having Viator performing a single isolation exercise between two multi-joint exercises. Such methods enabled Viator to gain 20 pounds of solid muscle in 10 months, a remarkable accomplishment for an already heavily-muscled athlete. Such improvement helped spark interest in Jones’s other training methods and his revolutionary exercise machines.
After a warm-up, Jones would have trainees pre-exhaust their quads with a set of leg presses for 20-30 reps and leg extensions for about 20 reps, before performing squats for about 10-15 reps – with no rest between each set! (Casey said in one interview that he would also perform this series by adding a set of leg curls for 14-20 reps after the squat.) The result of such fatigue was that when it came time to squat, often the weight would be half of what that individual could normally use.
One bodybuilder who took on Jones’s challenge was Sergio Oliva, a three-time Mr. Olympia winner who had clean and jerked 360 pounds (and who Jones said had flexed upper arms that exceeded the height of his head!). In his first workout, Oliva did 17 reps with 460 pounds on the leg press, 16 reps with 200 pounds in the leg extension, but couldn’t manage a single rep in the squat with 400 pounds. In his second workout, however, after pre-exhausting his legs in the same manner, he was able to squat 400 pounds for four reps.
According to Jones, in one workout Viator performed 20 reps on the leg press with 750 pounds, followed immediately by 20 reps with 225 pounds in the leg extension, followed immediately by 13 full squats with 502 pounds! Bodybuilding journalist John Balik said he witnessed one of Viator’s workouts where after the heavy leg extensions and leg presses, Viator did 505 pounds in the squat with 20 reps!
Jones believed that using such pre-exhaustion methods enabled the trainee to target the quads harder than they could otherwise. However, research suggests otherwise. In a study published in the May 2003 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers found that when supersetting leg presses with leg extensions, activation of the rectus femoris and vastus lateralis quadriceps muscles (as measured by EMG analysis) was significantly greater when the leg presses were performed first. They also found that less weight was used in the leg press exercise with pre-exhaustion, suggesting that it would be an inferior method to develop strength. “Our findings do not support the popular belief of weight trainers that performing pre-exhaustion exercise is more effective to enhance muscle activity compared with regular weight training,” concluded the researchers.
It’s true that Jones did have Viator perform a compound exercise (leg press) before an isolation exercise (leg extension), but the leg extension was followed by a squat. While Jones’s method certainly will produce results, and Viator’s results were certainly remarkable, a modern twist on this method would be to perform these three exercises using the following sequence: squat, leg press, leg extension. Although Viator claimed to use Jones’s leg workout as often as three times a week, with the heavier weights used in the squat and considering the recovery ability of the average trainee, it would probably be best to limit this type of workout to twice a week, or even once every five days.
Casey Viator died in 2013 at age 62, and Arthur Jones died in 2007 at age 80. But their pioneering efforts to challenge conventional thinking on resistance training have made a lasting impact on millions of people who wanted to transform their physiques. Something to consider on your next leg day!