Have you ever seen those guys or gals at the gym doing an exercise with a partial range of motion? Maybe they were doing 1/4 squats or even the dreaded half pullups (I call them “sissy pullups”). If you’re like me, then this probably drives you crazy. There have been times when I just wanted to grab someone by the scruff of their sweaty tank top and yell, “you’re doing it wrong!” But are they really? Do they know something that we don’t, and is there something to partial rep training that we could all do well to draw on? Well, a new study shines some light on this issue, and we’re going to take a quick peek in a minute.
But first, let me be clear that there are two kinds of people who use partial reps in their programs. First, you have the advanced weightlifters – the guys who may or may not be competitive strength athletes, but at the very least, have been at the iron game for years. These are the guys who will plug some partial rep training into their routines – usually to help improve a weak portion of a lift (like the rock bottom position of the squat, or the lockout portion of the deadlift). For example, you might see one of these guys doing deadlifts with an barbell that is elevated on pins in the power rack so that he’s only doing the top half of the range of motion, or he may be using resistance bands to make the very last portion of the ROM the toughest. So, that’s your first category of partial rep trainees. These guys are the elites and they know what they’re doing.
Then you have the next category, which is just some person who knows hardly anything about training and generally uses sloppy technique in all of their lifting exercises, usually because they are trying to lift with way too much weight. You thought 1/4 squats were bad? Try watching someone do 1/8 squats with twice their bodyweight on the bar! Needless to say, it doesn’t take a strength and conditioning coach to tell the two categories of trainees apart.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s see what this new study (abstract here) has to say about training with partial repetitions versus full range of motion repetitions.
Partial Reps VS Full ROM Reps – The Study
Basically, the study tested three groups of lifters:
1) full range of motion lifters (did full ROM barbell preacher curls from 0 to 130 degrees of elbow flexion… I know, I know, they could have picked a better exercise, but hey, these are researchers, not strength coaches.)
2) partial range of motion lifters (same as above only using 50-100 degrees of elbow flexion – note: special testing equipment was used to ensure that only this ROM was used)
3) lifters who did nothing for the entire study – effectively making them “non-lifters.”
They trained twice a week for 10 weeks, and increased both training volume and load over the course of the program. Now, here’s the interesting part, both groups of lifters were required to use the same number of repetitions per set every session. So, obviously, the lifters who used partial reps were lifting heavier weights to meet the target reps and account for the “easier” range of motion. They lifted 36% heavier weights, on average, than the full ROM group – remember that for later.
Before and after the 10 week period, the researches tested both the lifters 1 rep maximum and also the muscle thickness of their upper arms to see if there were any appreciable changes, and there were significant changes in both groups. Those trainees who used full ROM increased their 1RM strength by 25.7% (on average), and the trainees in the partial rep group saw a 16% increase. In the same vein, both groups saw increases in muscular thickness: the full ROM group increased by 9.5% and partial rep group increased by 7.4%. That’s nothing to sneeze at!
So, I find two things interesting with this study’s results. First, it is clear that full ROM is a superior training modality overall because the lifters saw higher strength and hypertrophy increases. That much is obvious, and that’s exactly what the researches concluded. But secondly is the fact that even with significantly lighter weights (approximately 36% lighter), full ROM training STILL outperformed the partial rep group. Or said another way, using partial reps with significantly heavier weights is still generally less effective for strength and hypertrophy development.
The Lesson For Those Who Lift Heavy Stuff
So, I think the lesson here is that overall, full range of motion training is superior to training with partial reps, and I always have and will continue to recommend that the vast majority of trainees use full ROM as their default training protocol. That said, I wouldn’t say that partial rep training is completely useless either. There is far too much anecdotal evidence to suggest otherwise. Strength athletes have been using partial reps to help them get through sticking points where a certain portion of a lift is weaker than the rest, and I think that’s a good use for partial reps, especially if you’re a strength athlete. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. If it’s been working for them, then it can work for you – just understand the context in which this technique should be used before diving right in, and DON’T use this as an excuse to skimp on your technique.
Overall, this study serves as a reminder to us all that it’s important to actually use full range of motion when training, and that we should make it a habit to prioritize full ROM exercises whenever possible. That’s why I’m fond of saying things like “lock the elbows at the bottom of your pullups,” and “drive your hips forward at the top of the squat.” It’s tempting to use less than full ROM because it feels easier (it is easier!). But you’ll be short-changing yourself and putting an artificial cap on your results every single repetition. Not only that, but I see other important reasons for using full ROM training, too. Namely, to increase your strength in deep ranges of motion and prevent muscle imbalances from developing. What’s the point of being able to do 15 or 20 pullups if you can’t do a single one from the rock-bottom position with your elbows locked?
What the Researchers Did NOT Tell Us – the Wild Card Tip From a Health-First Fitness Coach Who Reads Between The Lines of Studies Like This
Now, there’s one more thing that I find particularly interesting about this study’s results. Not only is full range of motion training superior than partial rep training, but even using full ROM with lighter weights is far superior, too. This got me thinking about some of the strength training tools that I use and recommend regularly. It only makes sense to not only use full ROM during any exercise we choose to do, but also to prioritize training tools that maximize the range of motion you can train with. You see, certain strength training tools are better than others when it comes to full ROM training.
Some tools are simply much more versatile than others in allowing you to train your body through full ranges of motion in every major joint complex. Take the clubbell or kettlebell for example (please note that the author is biased – VERY biased!). Clubbells and kettlebells can not only be lifted (like a dumbbell or barbell), but they can also be swung through the six degrees of movement freedom (moving up/down, right/left, forward/backward, and rotating around those three axes, too).
Essentially, I consider the barbell and dumbbell excellent tools for linear training exercises (e.g. moving a barbell up and down, such as in the squat, deadlift, bench press, etc.). On the flip side, I consider the clubbell and kettlebell (among other things like sandbags, stones, bands, etc.) as excellent three-dimensional strength training tools because they can be maneuvered all around the body – again, in three dimensions and through six degrees of freedom. That’s not to say this cannot be done to some extent with dumbbells, and to a much lesser extent with barbells, but the clubbell and kettlebell are far superior in this area.
Maybe the results of this study also shed some light on how people who train with kettlebells and clubbells seem to get remarkable results – even from using much lighter weights. Heck, men usually start with a 16 kg kettlebell (35 lbs), and a pair of 15 lb clubbells. Women often start with a 12 kg kettlebell and a pair of 5 or 10 lb clubbells. And yet, they still manage to burn fat, build muscle, improve their conditioning, and ultimately build that hard body physique that so many people are after. Not only that, but people who train with these tools tend to suffer less injuries from training, and this makes sense because they’re using much lighter tools that place much less damaging stress on the body while still producing high amounts of force to stimulate training adaptations.
I could go on and on, but I’ll step off my soapbox now. Suffice to say that full ROM training is superior to partial rep training – even with significantly lighter weights. So, I think the lesson here is to use full ROM training as a standby regardless of how you train. And if you’re not doing so already, consider picking up a set of clubbells or a kettlebell and start to experience these benefits immediately. These are inherently full ROM training tools, and studies like this one only reinforce what I and others have been saying for years, long before research had been done to quantify the experience of so many strength athletes. It’s ok, the researchers are doing the best they can with their limited budgets, resources, and time, but those of us in the trenches will continue to move forward with what we’ve known all along. No time to doddle!
Now, if you want to get up close and personal, I’m a little more fond of clubbells because I think they’re significantly more versatile than kettlebells, but that’s just me. Don’t believe me? Check out the teaser clip in the video on this page. You’ll see what I mean when I say “three-dimensional strength training.”
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CST Coach, CST-KS
Health-First Fitness Coach