There are three conflicting ideas about how the range of motion we use while lifting affects our muscle growth:
- The first idea is that lifting with a larger range of motion means doing more work, which will then stimulate more muscle growth.
- The second idea is that keeping constant tension on our muscles throughout the set gives a better muscle pump and thus stimulates more muscle growth.
- The third idea is that doing heavy partials can strengthen our tendons and bones, allowing us to build more muscle in the longer term.
All three of these ideas seem to be true. For maximal muscle growth, we probably want to use a smart mix of all three.
What is Range of Motion?
When we’re talking about “range of motion” while lifting weights, what we mean is the movement around a joint. So if we take a simple lift like a biceps curl, we get something like this:
So what we’d say here is that we have 100° of range of motion at the elbow joint, which is pretty sweet. The biceps are starting slightly stretched and finishing fully contracted. This qualifies as a large range of motion.
Now, if we take a bigger lift, like the chin-up, then we can blow that range of motion out of the water:
What we’re seeing here is the same 100° range of motion in the elbow joint, but now we’re also extending the shoulder joint through a 180° range of motion, which is a full range of motion for our lats. Again, this is an example of a large “full” range of motion.
Now, where this gets tricky is that lifts tend to be hardest at one part of the range of motion—the sticking point. We’ll write a full article on how that works, but here’s a quick example:
In general, lifts are hardest at the point where the external moment arms are longest. Because the moments are around 40% longer when our forearms are horizontal, that part of the lift is around 40% harder. This means that it’s that middle part of the range of motion where our muscles are working the hardest, which is great for muscle growth.
Another factor to consider is that mechanical tension tends to be highest when our muscles are at least slightly stretched, which is also great for building muscle.
So although the entire range of motion can stimulate muscle growth, most of the muscle growth will be stimulated at the sticking point, where our muscles need to contract the hardest, and at the bottom of the lift, where our muscles are stretched.
Okay, with those basics out of the way, now let’s talk about the advantages and disadvantages of lifting with various ranges of motion.
Advantages of a Large Range of Motion
In most weight training programs, especially those focused on developing general strength, there’s a general idea that using a larger range of motion is better: we need to squat past parallel, bench all the way down to our chests, overhead press from our collarbones, and deadlift and row from the floor. This emphasis on lifting with a full range of motion has its advantages, but in severe cases, it can lead to a psychological condition called rage of motion, where lifters get angry whenever they see someone doing shallow squats, raised deadlifts, or failing to lock out their presses.
Regardless, there are indeed a few good reasons that lifting with a large ranger of motion can help us build more muscle:
- The further we need to lift the weight, the more work our muscles need to do, and that extra work—that extra volume—presumably stimulates extra muscle growth. This can also help us better improve our general fitness while lifting weights.
- Using a larger range of motion will often provoke muscle growth in more regions of our muscles, giving us more balanced muscle growth and more general strength.
- Using a larger range of motion will often force more muscles to contribute to the lift. For example, barbell curls with a full range of motion may stimulate more growth under our biceps (brachialis) and in our forearm muscles (brachioradialis), stimulating more overall muscle growth in our arms. We also see this with squats, where a larger range of motion produces equal growth in our quads, but extra growth in our adductors and glutes (study).
- Descending into a deeper stretch at the bottom of our lifts is a great way of stretching our muscles, which can make us more flexible. More importantly, we then need to lift the weight back up, strengthening our muscles through that entire range of motion, improving our mobility.
There’s some nuance to it, too, though. Sometimes lifting with a larger range of motion stimulate more muscle growth, other times not so much:
- Sometimes training with a larger range of motion can restrict blood flow into the muscles we’re working, boosting muscle growth. Other times, such as with triceps extensions, training with a partial range of motion is better for that (study). It depends on the lift.
- Sometimes a longer range of motion changes the leverage of the lift, making it harder on the muscles we’re trying to work. For example, going all the way to parallel while squatting requires stronger quads, but going even deeper does not.
- Tension on our muscles tends to be highest when they’re stretched, and so the deeper into a lift we go, the more we stretch our muscles under load, and the more muscle growth we stimulate (study). This means that it helps to stretch our muscles at the bottom of the lift, but it may not be as important to lock our lifts out.
So overall, lifting with a large range of motion does tend to stimulate the most muscle growth. But there are some exceptions.
Advantages of Constant Tension
The next idea is the one that’s most popular among bodybuilders, especially those lifting with more of a classic style, with higher rep ranges, shorter rest times between sets, and more of an emphasis on getting a muscle pump. To get a better pump, it helps to keep constant tension on our muscles throughout the range of motion, and that often means avoiding relaxing a the bottom of a lift or fully locking out at the top. Everything becomes a partial.
As mentioned above, there’s some research showing that removing the easiest parts of a lift does a better job of restricting blood flow and thus results in more muscle growth. Therefore, it might sometimes be better to focus less on locking out each rep, more on keeping constant tension on our muscles and feeling a nice stretch at the bottom, especially when lifting in higher rep ranges.
The only time we’ve seen this idea proven is with triceps extensions, where the only thing locking out does is give our triceps a break. That might apply equally to:
- The squat, where fully locking out each rep gives our hips, quads, and upper backs a break.
- The overhead press, where locking out each rep takes the load off of our shoulders and triceps.
- The bench press, where locking out our reps takes the load off of our chests, shoulders, and triceps.
- The Romanian deadlift, where we’d be giving our hamstrings and hips a break (although not our traps or forearms).
Keeping constant tension on our muscles while lifting does seem to improve muscle growth, but we should still make sure to get a deep stretch on our muscles at the bottom of our lifts.
Advantage of Heavy Partials
The amount of muscle we can build seems to be linked to the amount of bone mass we have and how strong our connective tissues are. There isn’t that much research on this yet, so it’s certainly still speculative, but it could be that developing stronger bones could help us build more muscle.
Lifting weights in any rep range can strengthen our bones, at least to a point, but the type of lifting that’s best for improving our bone health is the heavy stuff in the 1–5 repetition range (85% of 1RM or higher). That means that if we have some heavy deadlifting, overhead pressing, and chin-ups in our workout routines, we’re probably covered, but it’s possible that we could take that effect further by doing even heavier partials, such as raised deadlifts or rack pulls. It wouldn’t be better for short-term muscle growth (and would probably be worse) but it might help to strengthen our bones and connective tissues to the point where we can ultimately gain more muscle. As a result, it might be a good strategy for people who fear that they’re approaching their genetic muscular potential.
A more compelling reason to cut our range of motion short is that lifting with an arbitrarily large range of motion can make a lift more dangerous. For example, let’s consider the deadlift, where some people are limited by the range of motion in their hips:
In this case, going deeper isn’t improving the range of motion in our hamstrings or hips, it’s just forcing us to bend our lower backs, making our deadlifts needlessly more dangerous.
The same thing can happen with squats—especially low-bar back squats—where it’s often hard for people to even get down to parallel without needing to bend in their lower backs:
So in these cases, we either want to choose different variations of the lifts that free up more hip space, such as front squats instead of back squats, or trap-bar deadlifts instead of barbell deadlifts, or we want to stop our range of motion at the point where our spines are still in the neutral range, like so:
If that means avoiding wide-grip deadlifts and ass-to-grass squats, so be it. In some of us, that may even mean avoiding deadlifting from the floor or squatting to parallel. That may sound blasphemous, and I’m sure it is, but if the extra range of motion is coming from joints that we aren’t trying to work, then we’re defeating the purpose, and potentially increasing our risk of injury for no reason. We might also be putting ourselves into weaker positions, needlessly limiting the amount of weight we can lift.
When it comes to training our spinal erectors, we usually want to train them isometrically—no range of motion at all. I didn’t really think of that until just now, but I suppose most of us train our spinal erectors exclusively with heavy partials. And that’s great.
Lifting with a larger range of motion does usually stimulate more muscle growth (study), especially if that extra range of motion comes from sinking deeper into our reps and getting a better stretch on the muscles we’re working.
However, there are also some benefits to keeping constant tension on our muscles while lifting, and sometimes that can mean lifting with a shorter range of motion. An obvious example of that is avoiding a full lockout when doing skullcrushers, but it may also help to avoid full lockouts with some compound lifts, such as the bench press, squat, overhead press, and Romanian deadlifts.
Finally, some muscles benefit from being trained with a smaller or even non-existent range of motion. Squats and deadlifts are considered great lifts for our spinal erectors despite them not going through any (intentional) range of motion at all. And because it’s usually best to avoid back rounding, that might mean we need to limit the depth on our squats or deadlifts.
Putting this into practice, if we’re trying to bulk up our biceps, we might start our workouts off with some heavy chin-ups, not really putting that much emphasis on keeping constant tension on our muscles, focusing more on lifting heavy, explosively, and with good technique through a full range of motion. Afterwards, we might do some barbell curls, this time making sure to keep constant tension on our biceps throughout the set, even if that means cutting the range of motion a little bit short. That way we’re getting the best of both worlds.
Or if you want a customizable bulking program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, then check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. If you liked this article, you’ll love the full program.