Training with partial range exercises is a method used to help Iron Game athletes get stronger, bodybuilders get bigger, and other athletes get better. That’s the good news. The bad news is that used improperly or excessively, partial range training may do more harm than good. Let’s take a closer look.
Bodybuilders know that focusing on partial-range exercises leads to partial results. Take the barbell bench press, an exercise you would think that all bodybuilders would embrace as a core muscle builder for the upper body. The problem is, the barbell bench press doesn’t work the pectorals through a full range of motion.
With a barbell bench press, to work the peak-contracted position of the pecs, the hands would need to come together at the finish. Also, to work the pecs in the fully stretched position would require the bar to move lower than the top of the chest. These limitations are why a bodybuilder looking for complete development of the pecs would focus on full range exercises such as the dumbbell bench press and the cable crossover.
Science often takes a long time to verify what athletes have found works in the gym, and this applies to partial range of motion training. A 10-week study on the effects of full and partial-range elbow flexion exercises was published in 2012 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The study included 15 subjects performing partial curls and 15 subjects performing full-range curls. Strength was measured by a 1-rep maximum effort and muscle thickness was measured by ultrasound. The researchers saw improvements in both areas by all subjects, but the full range of motion subjects achieved superior results in both strength and muscle thickness.
Beyond absolute gains, consider that partial range of motion training can be used in the initial stages of rehab. Carl Miller is a respected weightlifting coach who now primarily works with older fitness clients in his gym in New Mexico. Rather than avoiding strength training exercises with an injured client, he will find a range of motion the client can perform without pain, and gradually increase the range as the injury heals. For example, if a full-range bench press caused pain, Miller might limit the motion to the top portion of the exercise until the injury healed. This type of training has a positive psychological effect too, as the injured athlete can use heavier weights so they don’t feel they are getting weaker. But it must be stressed this is a temporary fix, because it’s possible that such training can increase the risk of tendon injuries if performed exclusively. Take the example of Achilles injuries.
Achilles injuries are devastating to athletes in the NFL, and appear to be on the rise. Consider, for example, that 13 NFL players suffered Achilles ruptures by the first week of the 2011 season, a time when these athletes should be in peak physical condition and less likely to get injured. Now consider that a study published this year in Foot and Ankle International that looked at 95 NFL players who had surgery to repair an Achilles. Researchers found that the recovery period was about a year (mean of 339.8 days), and 28 percent of those players followed were not able to return to the gridiron. What’s this have to do with partial range of motion training?
According to sports scientist Bud Charniga, tendons are viscoelastic, acting as biological springs that absorb, store, and release energy. Charniga contends that performing partial range of motion exercises, such as parallel squats and lunges where the tendons are not stretched fully, can cause tendons to lose their elasticity and thus be more susceptible to injury.
Another issue to consider is that partial range of motion training may cause injuries because considerably more weight is used. For example, someone who can full squat 200 pounds may be able to parallel squat 250-275 pounds and quarter squat 350-400 pounds. If the muscles of the lower back and abdominals are relatively weak, using these heavier weights may cause injury to the spine. In fact, Russian track coach and sports scientist Yuri Verkhoshanky was inspired to develop plyometrics for his jumpers because he found that trying to be sports specific with heavy quarter squats was causing many of his athletes to experience lower back pain.
If the core is strong and an athlete can handle partial squats, Russian sports scientist Vladimir M. Zatsiorsky says that these movements can be incorporated into an athlete’s training. The precautions are that they must be done so gradually, and that it’s important to look at the requirements of the sport to determine how much partial range of motion training is optimal. Thus, Zatsiorsky doesn’t recommend partial squats for beginning volleyball players or ski jumpers; but at the elite level, he says volleyball players could perform up to 60 percent of their squatting through a partial range and ski jumpers 20 percent.
Another benefit of partial range training is that it can help you lift heavier weights by making weights seem lighter. In the bench press and squat, extremely heavy partials at the top of the range, also known as lockouts, increase confidence because submaximal weights will feel lighter when they are removed from supports.
Additionally, lockouts can disinhibit the nervous system to enable an athlete to lift more weight. The theory here is to heighten the shutdown threshold of the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO), which is a tension/stretch receptor located in the tendon of a muscle. Here is an example of such a workout:
Set 1: Bench Press* 5 Repetition Maximum (RM) @ 85 percent of max
Set 2: Heavy Supports of 8 seconds @ 120 percent of max
Set 3: Bench Press 5 RM @ 85 percent of max
Set 4: Heavy Supports 8 seconds @ 125 percent of max
Set 5: Bench Press 5 RM @ 85 percent of max
Set 6: Heavy Supports 8 seconds @ 130 percent of max
*Performed in a power rack with the safety support bars set 2-3 inches below lockout
Powerlifters also use partial range training to help overcome sticking points such as with the bottom position of a squat or the lockout of a deadlift. Because the amount of weight you can lift is often limited by how much can be used through the sticking point, partial-range-of-motion training is one of the best approaches to emphasize this weakness. For example, if you are relatively weak in the top of the deadlift, you can do lockouts in a power rack.
There’s no question that full-range of motion exercises is the standard for resistance training workouts. However, used properly and sparingly, partial range exercises can be a valuable adjunct to your regular training to increase strength and muscle mass, improve athletic performance, and even help you overcome injuries.