If you go to the gym regularly, you’ll see people doing exercises through a partial range of motion all the time. Half bench presses, half squats – even quarter squats. And if you are anything like me, you’ll probably shake your head disapprovingly at them. But are they right? Is there any value to using a partial range of motion, or should you always use a full range of motion? Well the answer is, it depends.
First, you have to decide how you actually define a full range of motion. For instance, in the squat, is it parallel or is it well below parallel? In the overhead press, is it bar below the chin or right down to the chest? In pull-ups, is it chin over the bar or chest touching the bar? In parallel bar dips, is it the backs of the arms parallel to the floor or is it well below that? I could go on, but you get the point.
Then, there are also individual structural considerations to take into account. For instance, many people can’t get below parallel (or even to parallel) in the squat, without rounding their back and risking injury. And if you have very long arms, and/or are very thin, taking the bar all the way down to your chest in the bench press might be setting yourself up for a shoulder injury.
However, the research is in fact very clear – a greater range of motion leads to greater muscle hypertrophy, and overall strength gains, than a lesser range of motion (even allowing for the fact that you can use a heavier weight when you use a partial range of motion). So yes, you should always use an appropriately full range of motion in all your exercises. But what is “appropriate”? Well, in this article, I’ll go through some of the main exercises used for training the various body parts, and I’ll describe what an appropriate range of motion should be.
OK, not many people train their neck, but if you do, this is one body part that you definitely want to be careful with. Never over-extend or over-flex your neck, but always stay in a safe range, where all the tension can be felt in the muscles of the neck – not the vertebrae. In fact, when you first start, just go light and use a small range of motion until you get used to it.
An “official” overhead barbell press starts at the chest, but this places a lot of stress on the shoulder joints, so if you are just using the lift to build muscle (as opposed to competing) I wouldn’t advise you to go that low. Start below the chin certainly, but not too much below.
With dumbbell overhead presses, do ensure you lower the weights down almost to shoulder level, as it’s the bottom part of the movement that puts the most direct emphasis on to the side delts. So don’t stop at the point where your upper arms are parallel to the floor, as many people do, as this will not be nearly as effective.
As for the lockout, again, to be official the weight should be locked out. And locking out also trains the triceps very effectively. However, by transferring the tension to your triceps, you are removing it from your delts. So, if you are just using these lifts to build bigger shoulders (and you are doing sufficient direct triceps work), it might be a good idea to stop an inch or two short of lockout. But you can lock out if you want – the choice is yours, based on your own specific goals.
And with lateral raises, you should stop when your upper arms are parallel to the floor, as going higher than that just transfers the tension to the trapezius.
In the bench press, the bar should generally touch the chest at about nipple level, or just below (with the elbows tucked at about 45 degrees). However, as I said in my article on chest training, if you have very long arms, and/or are very thin, you’d probably be better stopping an inch or two before your chest, to reduce the stress on your shoulders.
Incline pressing and dumbbell pressing are less stressful on the shoulders, however, so when using dumbbells, always ensure you lower them to chest level, as, again, it’s the bottom part of the movement that puts the most direct emphasis on to the pecs. You don’t want to overextend though, but you should feel the stretch at the bottom of the movement.
And again, locking out transfers the tension on to the triceps, and removes it from the pecs. So lock out if you wish, or don’t – the choice is yours.
With flyes, you should again lower the weights until you feel the stretch, and then lift them back up. Don’t overextend at the bottom, and don’t bring your arms too close together at the top, as in the top position there is no tension on the pecs at all – unless you are using cables or a machine.
Pull-ups and chin-ups should be started with just a very slight bend in the elbows. You should not do them from a complete dead hang position, as this places far too much stress on the elbows and shoulders. Then pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar. There’s no need to go any further than this, as doing so will only reduce the tension on the lats.
But, if you can’t do pull-ups, you can do partial reps at the top of the movement to start off with. Then, gradually increase the range of motion over time, until you can do full reps.
With rows, you should extend your arms until you feel the stretch in your lats, but without fully locking out at the elbows. Then, pull the weight up to touch your chest/upper abdomen. And ensure you stay tight at all times, as if you allow yourself to get loose in the bottom position, it can be very damaging to the shoulders.
And with deadlifts, you should only pull from the floor if you can maintain a neutral spine while doing so, as if you put too much stress on your lower back while it is in a rounded position, this could cause damage over time, as well as leading to acute injuries. So raise the bar up a little at first, while you work on improving your flexibility.
With parallel bar dips, only go down until the backs of your arms are parallel to the floor, as going much lower than this puts a lot of strain on the shoulders.
Pushdowns, and all types of extensions, put a lot of stress on the elbows, but they can be made safer by doing them only after you’ve already got a triceps pump. So you’d do your dips or close-grip bench first, then you’d do your pushdowns, and finally you’d do an extension of some sort if you wish.
You also want to limit the stretch at the top position on pushdowns, and at the bottom position on extensions, in order to further safeguard your elbows.
And with curls, keep your elbows slightly bent in the bottom position, and don’t go too heavy if you want to protect your shoulders. Curls are for pump work, not one rep maxes.
With squats, you should go down to at least the parallel position (that is the tops of your thighs parallel to the floor – not your hamstrings). However, many people can’t get that low without their lower back rounding. So if that’s you, only go down as far as you can, whilst maintaining a neutral spine. Then over time, as you work on your mobility and flexibility, as well as strengthening your hamstrings, abs and lower back, you’ll gradually be able to get lower, until you are able to get to parallel, or even a little below.
And with single leg movements (especially pistol squats), you should limit your range of motion when you first start doing them, because your joints and connective tissue will need time to get used to them. So, even if you find them easy, only go part of the way down at first, and work up to the full range over a period of a few weeks.
So that’s my guide to the sort of range of motion you should be looking to achieve in the main exercises for each body part. Remember that safety should always be your main concern, but using an appropriately full range of motion in your exercises will give you much better results than doing the partial reps that many people do. Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed this article, do share it so that others can benefit too.
Photo credit: A. Blight, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr