What if you could add muscle and power to your legs without struggling through those painful (and often risky) “ass-to-grass” full squats pushed by many trainers?
Well, a recent Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study has an idea how to do just that. Study participants did full squats at first, and then one group did partial squats as a second exercise while another kept doing full squats, going as low as possible. Which group added more lower-body power and strength? The partial squatters.
This range-of-motion revolution promises to help you build cannonball arms, sturdy legs, and a strong back. For years, science (both bro and real) endorsed working through a full range of motion (ROM) on every exercise. That meant lowering your butt as close to the floor as possible on squats, and fully straightening your elbows after every bicep curl. It’s how most guys train in the gym – and yes, you should still be doing full-range exercises in every workout.
But learning how to properly use a limited range of motion can take your strength to the next level. Think about that bicep curl: when your arm is fully straightened, your bicep isn’t being challenged by the dumbbell, and it’s not really being challenged at the top of the movement either, when it’s near your shoulder.
“You’re not overloading the muscle through much of the exercise,” says veteran trainer Nick Tumminello, C.P.T. But when your elbow is bent 90 degrees, the weight typically feels heaviest because your bicep is at a mechanical disadvantage. And that’s when your muscles are working the hardest. “Overcoming this will increase performance and strength through the full range of motion,” Tumminello says.
Reps using a more limited range of motion are called partials. With these, you skip the easy parts of an exercise and focus on the most challenging portions, eventually making it easier to get through the sticking point. And you can use a heavier dumbbell than you normally would on a bicep curl, which can trigger arm growth. “Adding more volume results in greater hypertrophy,” says Caleb Bayzler, Ph.D, C.S.C.S., of East Tennessee State University.
In plain English, that means a stronger you.
Partials also help armour-plate your body. Training in your weakest range of motion even with light weights (think of lifting a barbell inches off your torso while benching) strengthens that weak area, which is often where injuries occur.
If lunging makes your knee hurt, try an isometric Bulgarian split squat: With your back foot on a bench, lower your torso until your front thigh is parallel to the floor, and hold for a few seconds.
You’re not moving, but you are strengthening your knee. “There’s a 15- to 20-degree carryover above and below the range of motion you’re staying in,” says Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., of Core Fitness outside Boston. It’s all worth carrying into your next workout.
Follow these rules to get the most out of limited-ROM exercises:
Don’t Overdo It
Overloaded partials place major strain on your body, so use them sparingly. Limit them to no more than 10 percent of your total training.
Do Be Sure To Stretch
Reminder: If your hamstrings are too tight for full deadlifts, that’s not an excuse to do partials. Correct any muscle imbalance that could lead to injury.
Don’t Get Olympic
You can’t change the range of motion on explosive exercises like the clean-and-jerk and snatch. To stay healthy, avoid altering these moves.
Do Train Through Sticking Points
By skipping the full ROM, you may not strengthen your weak points. Make sure to occasionally use light weights in weak ranges of motion
4 Must-Try Musclemakers
Now that you understand the principles and know the basic rules of limited-ROM exercises, Mix these partials into your workouts to build strength and bulletproof your body.
The move: first pull
Load a barbell on the floor with 20 percent less weight than you usually deadlift, and stand with your feet hip-width apart. Push your hips back, grab the bar, and squeeze your core and lats. Pull the barbell 4 inches off the floor, hold for 3 seconds, and then stand upright. Pause and return to the start. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 4 to 6.
The move: board press
Make sure you have a spotter; then lie flat on a bench with several 2×4 boards on your chest, holding a barbell that’s loaded with 10 percent more than your typical bench press weight. Squeeze your shoulder blades, bend your elbows, tighten your core, and lower the bar until it touches the top board. Pause and press back up. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 4 to 6.
Protect your shoulders
The move: end-range external rotation
Lie facedown on the floor, arms spread so your upper arms form a T with your torso. Now bend your elbows so your forearms are parallel to your torso. Tighten your middle back, lifting your arms off the floor. This is the start. Rotate your wrists toward the ceiling as high as you can (it won’t be very high), hold, and return to the start. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 10 to 12.
The move: flexed-arm hang
Stand on a box and grab a pullup bar using an overhand grip just beyond shoulder width. Your elbows should be bent 90 degrees. Brace your core and pull your shoulder blades together. Raise your feet off the box and hang, maintaining your 90-degree elbow bend. Hold, and return to the starting position. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 8.
A version of this article originally appeared at menshealth.com