Human leukocyte antigen class I (HLA)-restricted CD8(+) T lymphocyte (CTL) responses are crucial to HIV-1 control. Although HIV can evade these responses, the longer-term impact of viral escape mutants remains unclear, as these variants can also reduce intrinsic viral fitness. To address this, we here developed a metric to determine the degree of HIV adaptation to an HLA profile. We demonstrate that transmission of viruses that are pre-adapted to the HLA molecules expressed in the recipient is associated with impaired immunogenicity, elevated viral load and accelerated CD4(+) T cell decline. Furthermore, the extent of pre-adaptation among circulating viruses explains much of the variation in outcomes attributed to the expression of certain HLA alleles. Thus, viral pre-adaptation exploits 'holes' in the immune response. Accounting for these holes may be key for vaccine strategies seeking to elicit functional responses from viral variants, and to HIV cure strategies that require broad CTL responses to achieve successful eradication of HIV reservoirs.