In all varieties of weight training, be they weightlifting, powerlifting, general strength training, or bodybuilding, we are all told that we should train all exercises through a full range of motion (ROM). In general, that is good advice. But are there any times when it may be desirable to use only a partial range of motion for a certain exercise? Should we learn how to do partials?
Note: In this discussion I will concern myself mostly with presses, squats, and deadlifts as used by general strength trainees and powerlifters. Weightlifters are excluded here. They indeed use partials but they do so in a somewhat different manner so I will not direct this discussion to them at this time.
How NOT to Do Partials
Let’s talk about why we are told by well-meaning coaches that we should not do partial lifts. We have all seen the globo-gym trainee (using the term “trainee” quite loosely) doing partial movements, all the while self-satisfied that he is really working out. He takes a weight off the bench rack and then lowers it, just like the book says. But instead of making a beeline from lockout down to his chest, he only lowers the bar a few inches – say, eight inches. Then he presses back to lockout, and repeats this for the required number of reps. Again, he is very satisfied. Then he decides he needs a more weight so he throws on another ten to twenty pounds. He un-racks the bar, lowers it, and then realizes, “Omigawd, this is getting heavy!” So this time the bar is only lowered about six inches and then returned to lockout. I have even seen some lifts made in such a manner counted as personal records by their exponents. Who’s kidding whom?
Pressing off the chest or squatting out of the hole is why you work out. That is where the progress happens, whether you’re working for strength, power, or size. You cannot develop pecs with bench press lockouts. You don’t build massive strong thighs with quarter squats alone. You are only fooling yourselves if you think that’s possible. It certainly makes for an easier workout and it might even be great for the ego, but you are only taking up valuable space in the gym. Are there any legitimate reasons to do partial movements?
How and Why You Should Do Partials
Despite the advice serious and experienced trainees learn in their salad days, they eventually learn that partials can be effective in certain circumstances. The most obvious reason is that partial movement can be used to increase strength within a specific phase of a movement. As we all know, we are not equally strong throughout our full range of motion. Our strength curve when graphed is somewhat U-shaped. This is normal. You’ll never see a straight horizontal strength curve. However, you want to make sure that your “U” is not too deep in the bottom portion. Partials can be done to work on the sticking points of a lift so that the bottom of the “U” does not go so deep. In short, creating a more balanced strength curve.
Another benefit of partials is to strengthen the joint infrastructure, namely the tendons and ligaments around those joints. It is easy to get muscles stronger, but it takes longer to get the related infrastructure stronger. You have to be careful to not get these related parts out of harmony. If some portions of your lifts feel a little shakier than they should, then you probably need work on those shaky parts only for a bit.
Finally heavy partials, if they do nothing else, are good for your volitional strength. If you lock out weights that are much heavier than your full range personal records, then you will find your full range lifts feel a lot lighter and that your fear of the heavier weight is alleviated. Partials help you psychologically break through sticking points and plateaus, but they are all about overload. You have to do partials with weights that are heavier than your normal. Do not bother doing partial with light weights or you’re only wasting your time.
How to Do Partials Properly
There are two ways to do partials. If you’re training the start and middle portions of the lift, you can use a power rack with the bar positioned between two pins set at the appropriate heights. Then simply move the bar from the lower pin to the higher one. Make sure to touch the underside of the higher pin to ensure the full range of the partial movement is exercised. (Got that? The full range of partial? It’s a bit contradictory, I know) If you want to make the lift a bit more difficult, then hold the bar against the pin for an eight-second count. This will add some isometric work to the mix, which is always good for your infrastructure and volitional strength.
If you are training the top portion of the lift, you only need to set up one set of pins, or even blocks, since you will always lift to lockout. Watch this video of champion deadlifter Andy Bolton for an example:
A few caveats are in order. With increased intensity it is good to keep the number of reps and sets down to avoid overtraining. Heavy partials can be hard on the nerves and the infrastructure, especially if combined with full range of motion movements in the same session. So, be sure not to overwork yourself. It will take too much out of you and be counterproductive. That said, it is good to remember that full ROM versions of the exercise are not neglected. It will do you little good to gain strength in one of the partial ranges only to have it detrained in the others.
All in all, it is one thing to intentionally restrict the range of motion of an exercise for a specific purpose. It is quite another to add too much weight to handle properly and then to restrict your range of motion because of your mistake. That is a very disingenuous way to inflate the ego and surreptitiously decrease your workload. It will only get guffaws from the more committed serious trainees. But that is not the worst that can happen. If you don’t have a great backlog of full-range training you will also stress the spine and shoulder girdle if the weights are too heavy. And if they aren’t too heavy, why were you training so lazily in the first place?
Photo 1 courtesy of Shutterstock.
Photo 2 by Kilho Park [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.