Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Utilization of Partial-Range of Motion Lifts

Despite the fact that most articles out there would have you thinking that you would be forced to commit seppuku with a frisbee if you don't squat ass-to-ankles, there is indeed a time and a place for partial range of motion lifts.

First, there is a distinction that I need to make. When I use the phrase "partial range of motion lift" I mean that the lifter/coach system is intentionally changing the range of motion for a particular exercise for a specific reason. The guys at the gym doing quarter squats and half-bench presses because they don't know any better still need to find a qualified trainer or coach so that they can learn to perform the lifts without looking like a doucheturd. 

The partial ROM lifts that I'm referring to should be utilized by coaches and lifters to 1) work around a contraindication 2) ingrain correct and healthy movement patterns 3) strengthen the lifter through a particular range of motion or position. Let's go ahead and break down these down a little bit.

Introducing / Correcting Movement Patterns

The first reason you're going to be utilizing partial ranges of motions for most people is to ensure that they are performing an exercise with the proper technique. If you're a S&C coach who is presented with a 6'10" power forward who can't do a deadlift off of the floor because of his anthropometrics, there's no reason you can't just elevate the bar to the appropriate height and have him go from there. If you are training a desk jockey who has miserable mobility and can't get a bar off the floor without looking like a human question mark, then why not just elevate the barbell to the correct height and have him go from there. With the desk jockey you're going to want to work on mobility and stability at the same time, but there's no reason you can't get them to do a heavy hinge pattern while you're working on it.

If your athletes have unfortunate limb lengths for lifting, poor mobility or they are just new lifters then utilizing partial-ROM lift's is going to be one of the best ways to teach them the right movement while getting them stronger concurrently.

Pulls from the knees. Squats to a high box. Touching your chest to a block during pushups. Split squats to a pad. These are all acceptable ways to teach someone a proper movement pattern without entirely sacrificing the load they are able to use. You can progressively remove or change the height of the assistance being given to the athlete as their mobility and/or strength improves. For instance, many young female athletes struggle to do a pushup where their chest touches the floor; this isn't a mobility issue but a strength issue. If you give them an 8" block to touch for 4 weeks and then drop it by 2" each phase then it's only a matter of time before they are comfortably doing pushups to the floor with a tight core and neutral lumbar spine.

Working Around a Contraindication

The more time you spend in this industry, the more you're going to have to deal with clients and pain. Wether you're working with a D1 athlete or a radio-oncologist from a world class hospital, everyone is in some sort of pain. It could be a bum knee from the game last Sunday or chronic shoulder pain, but you're going to have to learn how to deal with it.

The obvious and appropriate first answer is to refer the client to the right person to ascertain what the source of pain is and develop a course of treatment to correct it. This is the correct decision and will yield great results in terms of pain management, but not everyone is going to be happy with that course of action. People are coming to you to get stronger or fitter somehow and one of your jobs is to get them a training effect. Utilizing the appropriate partial-ROM lifts can possibly allow you to do just that.

An appropriate partial-range movement for someone in this category is something like a squat-to-box, a pin/board/floor press, elevated- or trap bar deadlift, or even a low-box step-up. These are exercises that will allow the client to move through a specific pain-free ROM that is specific, purposeful and re-produceable.

An inappropriate choice for someone dealing with pain is letting your client bench press with a random range of motion (i.e. not touching their chest or another implement) that will change from rep to rep and set to set. Doing squats that don't have a set depth (hip crease below knees, touch the box, ass to ankles) will create poor habits and a faulty movement pattern that leads to more pain. Just saying "squat until you feel the pain, and stop just before then" is going to result in the client squatting higher and higher and higher.

Maintain a consistent range of motion and work on strengthening that while doing the proper therapy work to fix up whatever the underlying issue is.

Strengthen a Particular Movement or Position

While the other two reasons may seem similar (while being entirely different), this reason is where you get to start playing Strength Coach. Changing the range of motion for an advanced lifter is a good way to achieve several different outcomes. The most common reason to change the ROM for an advanced lifter is to help develop strength in a disadvantageous position. Powerlifters have long used block/rack pulls to help strengthen their lockout or to get used to handling a heavier load than they were used to.

This specific exercise can be easily butchered, as can any partial ROM lift. It's very easy to put yourself in the most advantageous position to lift the weight rather than forcing yourself into the position you would be during the full lift. You'll often see meatheads doing rack pulls with obscene amounts of weight that will never transfer to their full lift because the positions just aren't the same; they lean way back on the bar with a vertical torso and just leg press the weight off of the pins. If you're not careful, partial ROM exercises for advanced lifters can simply turn into ego lifts.

Weightlifters will use blocks of various heights to put the barbell in several different positions for a lift. For a weightlifter, using higher blocks will often result in lifting at lower percentages of your max, so a crafty coach is able to use these lifts as part of a down week or a lighter weight day to give the athlete a little bit of a break. 

A special note here is that I believe that advanced athletes are able to perform reduced ROM overhead pressing. If you're a strength athlete who has a sticking point in their overhead press, it will be beneficial for you to do some pin presses from various positions. I don't reccommed doing partial overhead presses to either teach the motion or to avoid pain; those situations call for either light weight (to strengthen/teach the movement) or not even performing the exercise in the case of pain.

The important thing to remember is that most advanced athletes will use these lifts simply as a part of training for a full lift rather than in place of it. Board presses or block pulls after they finished their traditional lift; weightlifters will use high block snatches and then work their way down to the knees or lifts from the floor later in the workout or on another day. 

As stated before, a good coach can utilize these types of lifts for a fatigued athlete who needs to get a training effect but is just too smoked to do their full competition lift. A 3 board bench press is much less taxing to your CNS than a full bench (unless you overload it a ton).


There are some exercises that I truly don't think should ever be performed with a limited range of motion. Row variations and pull-ups/chin-ups should always be done for a full range to achieve appropriate stimulation, if pain is an issue then you should be fixing the pain, avoiding the exercise or de-loading it with bands or something. A limited ROM row, in my opinion, just sucks.

I would like to reiterate the importance of finding out the cause of the contraindication in any situation where pain is limiting the range of motion. Being able to achieve a training effect is important, but returning to a full, healthy movement pattern is more important.

Thanks for taking the time to read this wordy post, if you have any questions just give me a shout! Have a great day and go lift some heavy shit!

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