Nothing is more frustrating than busting your butt in the gym day in and day out and, no matter what you do, having the weight on the bar stay the same. It’s enough to make you question your dedication to the sport of weightlifting.
The only comfort you can find is in knowing that you’re not the first person to encounter plateaus. Strongmen from as early as the 1800s spent considerable time and effort on developing techniques to overcome strength plateaus. Their techniques ranged from performing every variation of the lift in question during the same workout, to performing the troublesome lift multiple times in the same day. Think twice-daily workouts are a recent innovation? Sorry, those were being done over 200 years ago.
The problem with the majority of the techniques employed for overcoming plateaus is that they usually rely on performing more of what you’re currently doing. For instance, one of my current clients hired me to improve his bench press, as his numbers in that lift hadn’t improved in over three months. To achieve any measure of success in his chosen sport, he needs to bench press at least 1.75 times bodyweight. When he hired me, he was approximately 75 pounds short.
His previous strength coach placed him on a three-month “bench press specialization” program, which required him to bench press three times weekly. After three months, his bench press only improved by 25 pounds. How’s that for specialization? I call this type of programming the “If some is good, then more is better” approach. Although this approach does have some value, it was an answer to the wrong question. The issue was not his work capacity or his volume of work, but rather the intensity, or the weight being used. For this issue, one of the best tools at your disposal is to use partial-range-of-motion repetitions.
Partial Range of Motion
When it comes to lifting more weight, whether the goal is strength or hypertrophy, the best approach is to break down a repetition into its individual parts and use a weight appropriate for that specific portion of the repetition. For example, due to improved leverage, you can use a higher intensity of resistance by performing a 1/4 deadlift rather than a full-repetition deadlift. If you only perform full repetitions, the amount of weight you use will be limited by what you can lift past your sticking point.
The key to eliminating sticking points, which, if neglected long term, lead to strength plateaus, is to use a higher intensity of weight when you possess the mechanical advantage. Accommodating resistance, the use of chains, bands, or eccentric hooks for overload, also accomplishes this, but not with the precision that partial-range-of-motion repetitions offer.
Depending on the rules and regulations of your training facility, you might not be allowed to use such devices anyway. However, by using a power rack with a set of safety bars, you can choose to intentionally overload a few specific degrees of the range of motion, such as your sticking points, while avoiding the wrath of your local gym management.
Here is one of the phases I designed to improve a client’s deadlift goal:
A1) Top 1/4 deadlifts in rack, 4 x 4-6 reps, 2210, rest 100 seconds
A2) Lying leg curls, feet neutral, 4 x 4-6 reps, 4010, rest 100 seconds
B1) Top half deadlifts in rack, 4 x 4-6 reps, 2210 tempo, rest 100 seconds
B2) Lying leg curls, feet outward, 4 x 4-6 reps, 4010 tempo, rest 100 seconds
C1) Full-range deadlift, 3 x 6-8 reps, 4010 tempo, rest 90 seconds
C2) Lying leg curl, 3 x 6-8 reps, 4010 tempo, rest 90 seconds
Top 1/4 deadlifts. The upper range of motion of the deadlift offers the most advantageous leverage, allowing the use of weights considerably heavier than you’re accustomed to when performing full-range-of-motion reps. Not only does this heavier weight provide a greater stimulus for strength and hypertrophy gains, but it also gets rid of the “Oh, wow!” factor – as in when you unrack the barbell from the supports and “Oh, wow, this is heavy!” runs through your mind. This exercise provides not only a huge psychological boost but also the added benefits of desensitizing the Golgi tendon organ and recruiting a greater number of motor units. Performing this exercise first is vital, as the heavy loads will prime your nervous system for the work that follows: blasting through your sticking points.
Top half deadlifts. This is a common sticking point; performing a partial repetition at this position allows you to overload this position specifically, generating the strength required to drive the bar past this point. The heavier weights used in the top 1/4 bench will allow a heavier weight to be used in this exercise, usually allowing you to use an additional 10-15 percent. Can you say “facilitation”?
Full-range deadlifts. Performing the full range of motion here allows you to specifically overload the most common sticking point: pulling the barbell off the ground. This exercise provides the added benefit of minimizing any altered length-tension relationships between muscle groups, which may occur from exclusively performing partial-range-of-motion exercises. This is vital, as altered length-tensions will affect both the normal movements of joints and proprioceptive input to the CNS.
While you might be tempted to change the order of the exercises, don’t. Perform the exercises in this specific order so you begin with the variations allowing for the greatest loading. One of the tenets of weight training, whether for strength or hypertrophy, is to always perform the exercises that allow for the greatest loads first in your workout. Depending on your conditioning, the difference between performing the top 1/4 deadlifts first or last in your workout can mean a 25-35 percent reduction in the weight used. Why? The explanation is simple: You’ll expend so much energy overloading your sticking points that you’ll have nothing left when it comes to handling the heaviest loads.
• Sticking points limit how much weight you can lift in any given exercise.
• Partial-range-of-motion exercises allow you to use heavier loads, thereby placing a great load on muscle fibers and improving neurological efficiency.
• To reduce the risk of injury, observe the prescribed exercise tempo and maintain proper form.
• Partial-range-of-motion training can be applied to the majority of exercises but is best reserved for multijoint exercises.
• When performing partial-range-of-motion training, always incorporate full-range-of-motion sets within the workout.
• Ensure you use the same grip or stance for every exercise.
• Partial-range-of-motion training is the best method for overcoming strength plateaus and only requires a squat rack.
“No pain, no gain” was the mantra of the ’80s. In the ’90s it became “Work smarter, not harder.” For 2013 I offer instead “Work smarter and harder.” To ensure constant improvement in the weightroom, it’s important to realize that variety is more than the spice of life – it’s also a necessity. You already know that the workout that took your bench press to 225 pounds will not get you to 315 pounds. If you’re stymied by plateaus, try introducing partial-range-of-motion reps into your current training. They’re easy to implement, and you’ll get a fast return on your investment of time and effort.