Abstract Background Hemicellulose is often credited with being one of the important physical barriers to enzymatic hydrolysis of cellulose, and acts by blocking enzyme access to the cellulose surface. In addition, our recent research has suggested that hemicelluloses, particularly in the form of xylan and its oligomers, can more strongly inhibit cellulase activity than do glucose and cellobiose. Removal of hemicelluloses or elimination of their negative effects can therefore become especially pivotal to achieving higher cellulose conversion with lower enzyme doses. Results In this study, cellulase was supplemented with xylanase and β-xylosidase to boost conversion of both cellulose and hemicellulose in pretreated biomass through conversion of xylan and xylo-oligomers to the less inhibitory xylose. Although addition of xylanase and β-xylosidase did not necessarily enhance Avicel hydrolysis, glucan conversions increased by 27% and 8% for corn stover pretreated with ammonia fiber expansion (AFEX) and dilute acid, respectively. In addition, adding hemicellulase several hours before adding cellulase was more beneficial than later addition, possibly as a result of a higher adsorption affinity of cellulase and xylanase to xylan than glucan. Conclusions This key finding elucidates a possible mechanism for cellulase inhibition by xylan and xylo-oligomers and emphasizes the need to optimize the enzyme formulation for each pretreated substrate. More research is needed to identify advanced enzyme systems designed to hydrolyze different substrates with maximum overall enzyme efficacy.