Why Range of Motion Matters for Your Strength Training Goals

Why Range of Motion Matters for Your Strength Training Goals

Photo: Pond5

You hold plank pose in yoga and Pilates, pulse halfway through squats in barre and the instructor in your favorite strength training class tells you to hit the full range of motion during every move. What’s up with all the different muscle movements? And is it a good thing to mix it up? The short answer: yes.

Every movement pattern — from full range to straight-up stationary — has its benefits and place in your workout routine. Here, we break down the four most important movement types and how to use them to crush your fitness goals.

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4 Strength Training Movement Types, Explained

1. Full Range of Motion

What it is: The act of moving as far as anatomically possible during a given exercise. For example, when squatting, you lower down until your butt is just a few inches from the floor — or until your heels pop up — whichever comes first. 

“If you want to makeover an entire muscle, you have to work all of it. That’s exactly what full range of motion exercises do.”

Best for: If you want to makeover an entire muscle, you have to work all of it. That’s exactly what full range of motion exercises do. “Going through a full range of motion will result in better muscle balance, joint stability, proper activation of the working muscles and overall better movement quality,” explains Sam Simpson, CSCS, CPT, co-owner and vice president of B-Fit Training Studio in Miami.

That’s especially important if you don’t find yourself moving through a full range of motion outside the gym. “People who sit at desks all day don’t regularly go through full ranges of motion at the hips, shoulders and thoracic spine. Eventually, you’ll notice stiffness and plenty of pain due to limitation. Through full range of motion movements, you are typically activating more muscle groups to improve exercise effectiveness and efficiency,” says Equinox T1 trainer Howard Bowens, CSCS.

How to do it: When strength training, focus on moving as far as your joints comfortably allow. When performing bicep curls, for instance, begin and end each rep with your arms straight. At the top of the movement, your forearm should be flat against your bicep. If you don’t usually perform full range of motion when strength training, you may need to go down in weight in order to do an exercise with a complete range of motion, Simpson says.

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2. Partial Range of Motion

What it is: When you stop short of a full range of motion during an exercise. You can cut moves short from either or both ends. For instance, you can perform shallow lunges or you can pulse in the middle of the move.

“This engorges the muscle fibers with more blood for a better ‘pump,’ which has been linked to increased strength and muscle growth gains.”

The benefits: “Shortening the range of motion in a movement can be used many different ways,” Simpson says. He notes that bodybuilders often perform partial ROM exercises after doing the full version. This engorges the muscle fibers with more blood for a better ‘pump,’ which has been linked to increased strength and muscle growth gains. After all, in one 2014 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, when men performed full squats half of the time and partial squats half of the time, they upped their strength and power more than those who only squatted as low as they could go.

Meanwhile, in classes like Pilates and barre, instructors use pulsing to challenge the endurance of the muscles in a specific joint angle. The more you pulse in a small range of motion, the more you fatigue those muscle fibers and gain strength in that particular range of motion, explains strength coach and Pilates instructor Jacquelyn Brennan, CSCS, co-founder of Mindfuel Wellness in Chicago.

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Lastly, when you want to move explosively, partial ranges of motion are generally the way to go. “When range of motion is shorter, muscles are allowed to stretch and shorten more quickly. This allows them to take advantage of your muscles’ elastic properties,” Bowens says. Examples of explosive exercises that take you through a partial ROM include box jumps and sprinting. (Think about it, your heel doesn’t kick your butt with every stride.)

How to do it: If you want to integrate partial ROM exercises into your routine, make sure to do it in conjunction with full ones, Brennan suggests. You can either devote entire workouts to performing your regular strength training moves in partial ROM or switch back and forth between full and partial within one gym sesh. If you haven’t tried plyometrics or other explosive exercises like the power clean, now’s the time.

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3. Eccentric Movements

What it is: The downward or “easy” half of an exercise in which your muscles are lengthening, rather than contracting. You can perform eccentric work during both full and partial range of motion exercises by slowing down this half of the move.

“[Eccentric] training helps utilize time under tension for superior muscle gains.”

The benefits: “This type of training helps utilize time under tension for superior muscle gains,” Simpson says. “Let’s use the pull-up as an example. Rather than dropping to the bottom during each rep, you focus on controlling your body all the way back down. This puts the fibers under stress for a longer period of time, resulting in greater muscular gain,” he says. “I have used eccentric tempos with many clients and it’s one of the greatest tools in my kit to build strength.”

That’s especially true since all muscle fibers are their strongest when they move eccentrically, Brennan explains. After all, you’re stronger lowering a couch from a moving truck than you are at lifting it up into the truck.

What’s more, if you’re into sports like tennis, basketball or soccer, you need to hone your eccentric strength. It’s critical for quickly and safely decelerating and changing directions on the court or field, Bowens says.

How to do it: Prioritize slowing down the eccentric half of your strength training exercises. You can teach yourself to do so by counting to three during each exercise’s downward or “easy” section. For instance, if you are performing shoulder presses, push the dumbbells up like normal, then count to three while lowering them back down to your shoulders for the next rep, Simpson says.

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4. Isometric Holds

What it is: Staying perfectly still in the middle of an exercise. Examples include wall sits, planks, and stationary yoga poses like warrior II.

“Isometric holds can be friendly to beginners who are still working on mastering proper form through a full range of motion.”

The benefits: Isometric holds can be friendly to beginners who are still working on mastering proper form through a full range of motion. “By holding a position you are increasing strength at that specific joint angle and within approximately 20 degrees of that position,” Brennan says. “You can then complete isometric holds along different points to strengthen along the entire ROM.” However, she notes that since isometrics strengthen such a small area of muscle at a time, they are best as a compliment (rather than a substitute) to full ROM exercises.

The only time that you might work a given body part with only isometric exercises is if you are recovering from an injury and full movement isn’t possible. In fact, it can actually help with recovery. A 2014 Journal of Physical Therapy Science study focusing on men and women with knee osteoarthritis found that those who performed a five-week isometric quadriceps strength training routine experienced improved knee function and significant pain reduction.

How to do it: “Isometric holds can be used a number of ways, but it’s important to choose the right exercises. Try V-up holds or planks to strengthen your core,” Simpson says. Isometric squat holds and other lower body holds are also great, but skip the barbell on your back. As a general rule of thumb, the best iso holds are bodyweight exercises.