Training with a full range of motion is a method widely accepted these days. But, what does it mean to truly train with a full range of motion? Can a true full range of motion for a muscle be achieved on all exercises?
Questions like these are something I look at all the time with training.
Do we need a full range of motion on every exercise? And what is a full range of motion?
Moving a weight from point a to b? Or ensuring tension stays in a muscle during the movement and is not lost through the pure focus of just moving a weight as far as possible for the sake of it.
Can a full range of motion for a muscle be trained solely from 1 exercise? Or, can multiple exercises contribute to successfully challenging a muscle through a full range of motion over the course of a workout?
These are questions I always like to ask and I find are often not well represented when seeking answers.
In general, it often feels like the views are “full range of motion is best and that is it. Do not ask any more questions.”
This is where I want to use a few examples. Showing the difference between moving through a full range of motion specific to a specific exercise. Verses training a joint through a full range using a similar movement pattern.
The low bar squat versus the high bar heels elevated squat is a great way to represent this.
Both train the quads and glutes.
Both are a knee extension and hip extension movement.
Both train the squat pattern, obviously.
However, a full range of motion for both lifts will most likely not be the same as a full range of motion for a muscle.
A low bar squat will be a more hip dominant squat due to bar position leading to a forward torso position. It will not be possible to push the knees as far forward, therefore it will be less quads.
It is still quads. But, despite squatting as low as you can in the low bar squat. The range of motion potential for the quads is low compared to the high bar squat with a heel elevation.
The heels elevated high bar squat will mean a more upright torso and far greater ability to push the knees forward over the toes. Which will lead to far greater squat depth potential.
The deeper you squat and the greater your knee flexion, the more the quads are challenged.
Now, what is the point?
Well, let’s say I tell you to low bar squat as low as you can, while also telling you to high bar squat with the heel elevation as deep as you can. Both are utilising your full range of motion potential…for those lifts. Range of motion being relative to how far you can move the bar from point a to b. But, one squat variation will actually be using less range of motion for the knee joint and quads. While the other will be able to utilise a far greater range of motion for the knee joint: the high bar squat.
This is why range of motion is often subjective. Is it relative to the movement? Or, is it relative to a muscle’s true ability to be used through its full range potential?
The low bar squat you can squat deep. But, due to the mechanics of the lift, you will not be able to utilise as large a range of motion. Especially for the quads.
The high bar squat, again, you can squat as deep as I tell you. Due to the mechanics of the squat with a heel elevation, the knee joint can travel far further.
Both squats are using a full range of motion. However, one is actually taking you through a much larger range specific to the knee joint. Despite both squats utilising the full range of motion available to each individual squat, respectively.
This is why it is important to understand the intended goal of an exercise.
If it is more optimal to train the quads through a larger range of motion for the knee joint to travel. The high bar squat with a heel elevation will be superior for hypertrophy of the quads most likely
If the goal is to move as much weight as possible on a bar, the smaller range of motion of the low bar squat will most likely be superior.
Despite both squats using their available range of motion, the mechanics of each squat alter the true range of motion that the knee joint can be trained through.
The same comparison concept can be looked at when training the chest fibres. A barbell bench press verses that of a dumbbell bench press. A barbell bench press will be most challenging at the bottom of the press. This is where resistance is greatest. Same as the dumbbell chest press. However, the barbell can only travel as low as your chest allows. Once the barbell touches the chest, that’s the available range of motion.
Obviously, you can not press any lower than the barbell on the chest. This however, despite using a full range of motion available through a barbell, is not actually a full range of motion for the pecs. The reason the range of motion is limited, is not due to the pecs no longer having any more available range. Rather, the barbell hits the chest.
Whereas with a dumbbell press, the chest being met by the bar is no longer the limiting factor. A dumbbell chest press allows for superior range of motion as the dumbbells are not restricted by the torso getting in the way.
This means, the chest muscles can be taken through a larger range of motion through the use of dumbbells compared to that of a barbell bench press.
Again, this is where using a full range of motion available through a specific exercise, can differ to the full range of motion a muscle can actually travel if using a different loading option.
Yet another way using range of motion can be subjective is through understanding resistance profiles.
Where is an exercise most challenging? A muscle moving through a range of motion will not always have the same level of tension throughout the exercise.
The squat will have high tension on the quads and glutes towards the bottom of the squat. While next to no tension at the top.
An RDL will have high tension on glutes and hamstrings at the bottom of the rep. Then next to zero tension at the top for hypertrophy adaptation purposes.
This is where hypertrophy needs to not be looked at exclusively through the use of one exercise only for optimal muscle gains. But, through the use of exercises as a collective for hypertrophy potential.
The glutes will have high tension placed at the top of a thrust. But low tension on the glutes in the stretch. The glutes will have tension applied at the bottom of the rep with an RDL. This is why, from a hypertrophy perspective, using both an RDL and thrust makes so much sense.
This is where we can train the glute max muscle hard through a full range of motion. It is just that neither exercise in isolation is all that valuable for training both ends of the resistance profile. Utilising both exercises will be a far greater choice to truly challenge the muscle through a full resistance profile.
The big takeaways are:
- Range of motion can mean quite different things depending on one’s interpretation.
- A full range of motion for a muscle is often not achieved on one exercise alone.
- Using a full range of motion on an exercise does not always mean that muscle has been challenged in its true full range.
- Some exercises will be far more mechanically optimal to do this than others.
Yet you can still use a full range of motion for the movement available, e.g. a low bar squat. However, this does not guarantee that the muscles trained are truly being challenged in their full range, just a range which is available in that specific exercise.
A full range also does not mean the muscle is under significant tension relative to hypertrophy the entire movement. In fact, a lot of the tension of exercises is generally in one end of the resistance profile.
Training a muscle through a full range of motion is a good thing. But moving a bar from point a to b does not always mean the intended muscle is doing the work the entire range.
This is why from a hypertrophy perspective, it is important to use multiple movements to ensure all ranges are covered well.
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