The Surprising Benefits of Using Partials (Range of Motion)

By on June 16, 2021

YouTube is full of advice telling you that you’re doing basic exercises wrong. In some cases this is true and the advice can be helpful. In others I believe it can be counter-productive.

One issue, as I see it, is this it encourages a homogenized form of training. Once a few big names declare there is a superior way to perform an exercise, all other methods fall out of favour.

See also: The Shocking Benefits of 100 Push Ups a Day

I recently uploaded a video discussing the merits of performing push-ups with a “bounce.” Where the chest doesn’t touch the floor. Whereas most influencers say we should be performing push ups in a slow and controlled manner with a full range of motion, I believe that there is a time and place for cutting that ROM short and blasting out a less-strict variant.

push ups

Here I’m going to dive into that argument in a little more depth. I’m also going to explain why the usefulness of partials extends beyond an intensity technique used by bodybuilders to go “past failure.”

Why Partial ROM Can Be Effective

There are several potential benefits to training this way.

Pronated Barbell Curl to Strengthen Wrists

Using the push-up as a specific example, these rapid “pumping push-ups” will allow you to churn out more repetitions, more quickly, for longer. This turns the exercise into a kind of strength-endurance training that can burn calories, raise the heartrate, and increase work capacity. It becomes more akin to something like training with battle ropes. As I’ve discussed in the past, strength endurance is often more useful than max strength; in sports and in the real world.

Strength endurance is often more useful than max strength in sports and in the real world.

What’s more, is that this trains your explosiveness and your rate of force production. Just as powerlifters are encouraged to focus on bar speed from time to time, I also think calisthenics athletes can benefit from varying their tempo. If you only ever train in a slow and controlled manner, at mechanically disadvantaged positions, you will only build that type of strength. Sometimes, being able to explode across a short distance can be very useful.

See also: Muscle Plasticity: What Makes a Hard Gainer?

It’s also unclear just how important full-range of motion is when it comes to strength training and hypertrophy. While it’s generally the consensus that a fuller ROM will result in greater strength gains, the research is not unanimous. In fact, some researchers even conclude the benefits may be specific to particular muscle groups (study)!

Clapping push up

When training with overcoming isometrics, we know that there is a transfer of roughly 30%. That is to say that if you train at just one angle, you will gain strength 15% each side of the joint. There’s no reason to think this wouldn’t also be true for faster movements. And anyway, when was the last time you pushed anything with your hands starting from behind your chest?

Pump Training

What’s more, is that this may lead to superior hypertrophy, long-term muscle development, and protein synthesis.

That’s because training with a shorter range of motion is more likely to induce metabolic stress and even hypoxia. Because the muscle never fully lengthens or shortens, it maintains a constant contraction. This is continuous time-under-tension, and it’s the reason some gym-goers avoid fully locking out their arms during many movements.

Partials

This constant tension essentially prevents normal venous return, leading to a depletion of oxygen in the muscle and potentially resulting in adaptations such as capillarization (the formation of new blood vessels). In effect, this is similar to the way blood flow restriction (BFR) training works. Except you don’t need the tourniquet.

One study found that this type of training could lead to superior muscle hypertrophy and “function” in young, trained participants (study).

One of the main reasons BFR is useful for hypertrophy is that it encourages metabolic stress (study). The vascular system can’t remove waste products as easily and this means that lactate and growth hormone increase locally (study). Metabolic stress is one of the main triggers leading to hypertrophy. You do the maths!

Capillarization and Myonuclei

Using BFR and, by extension partials, might also have other beneficial effects. In particular, this may lead to an increase in vascularization (study). This is simply the body responding to demand: not enough blood is getting to the muscles during training, so it adapts to supply more. This can aid the removal of waste products, thereby preventing the build up of hydrogen that could otherwise lead to fatigue and failure. More blood flow = greater performance in the short term and better growth and recovery in the long term.

One arm push up

Note, however, that these benefits require high repetitions of those partial ROMS! The aim here is to train near or past failure.

It’s also thought that increased capilarization may support hypertrophy and recovery, by supplying the muscle with blood and nutrients. More excitingly, this could lead to an increase in myonuclei activation: leading to increased protein synthesis. This would not only lead to increases in muscle size over the short term, but also promote a rapid return to form after a hiatus from training. A few studies now show a clear relationship between increased capilarization and expansion of the satellite cell pool (study).

Blood flow restriction
Blood flow restriction training (BFR)

For these reasons, perhaps, it’s also true that simply training in a mildly hypoxic environment can promote muscle cell growth (study)!

Fast and Slow

Continuous time under tension may also help better aid maximum muscle fiber recruitment. Because the muscle doesn’t get any time to rest, it has no option but to cycle through the available motor units until each is depleted. Not only can this help to engage larger, faster motor units that would normally be reserved for heavier lifts (as a kind of “last resort”) but it also means you can train slower-twitch muscle fiber that would otherwise avoid being fully depleted. This is a protocol recommended by Pavel Tsatsouline in fact: using slow, controlled movement but WITH a partial range of motion.

Slow movement can also increase the total amount of time under contraction. The “constant tension method” involves slow eccentrics that last three seconds or more, and this can have a similarly hypoxic effect on the muscle (study). Conversely, using a rapid cadence can increase the role of the fast twitch muscle fibers by forcing the slow-twitch fibers to drop out more quickly due to the hypoxic environment. Fast twitch fibers need less oxygen!

(Pavel also explains the compelling reasons that even strength athletes should train their slow twitch fibers. They do, after all, contribute to both size and power-output. Recommended reading!)

My Personal Experiences

If I seem keen to promote these ideas, it’s because they explain a LOT about my own experiences when training. I have always gained muscle easily, especially in the pecs. I can perform nearly double bodyweight bench press despite only having touched it once in over a year. When I do lose muscle, it comes back in no time at all. I’m talking in the region of days or weeks, not months.

Push ups

I believe this is due to the fact that, as a kid, I performed hundreds of push ups every single day. For years. And I performed them with a “poor” technique: using partial range of motion and a rapid cadence. I used mechanical drop sets to go past failure and I didn’t consider a set complete until my chest felt like a balloon. I’d also throw in the occasional slow, quasi-isometric set. I still regularly use these techniques.

While I think there are probably individual differences in terms of how well this would work for any given person, I’ve also seen many others enjoy significant success with the method. And anecdotally, it makes sense. We see many gym-goers using partial reps (intentionally and otherwise) and still seeing impressive growth. Likewise, CrossFitters appear to have some of the best physiques, despite sometimes focusing on high-rep movements with poor ROM, like the kipping pull up.

Closing Comments

Push ups partials

I’m not telling you to never perform a rep with control and good form. I’m just saying every type of training has its merits: even performing a partial range of motion. We have been taught that push ups “don’t count” unless the chest touches the floor. But, just maybe, they count WAY more than you previously thought.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

6 Comments

  1. Martin Lazarini says:

    Interesting, so in what would the full ROM apportion, especially in push ups, since personally I am a super strict push up guy in which I literally do them chest to grass, squeeze my chest until they blow at the top, focus in a hollow body position and rocking motion to put more of my weight into it. What does this type of training do? It seems it does not focus in Angiogenesis or in explosiveness, so does it contribute to glycogen stores or what other attribute?

    • Using full ROM is particularly useful for minimizing the strength curve. As you slow things down and move all the way through the ROM, you don’t allow momentum to “help” at any point. This gives you finer control over the movement, which can be very helpful for things like calisthenics skills. It’s also great for developing end-range strength. If you want to be stronger with arms locked out straight, for example, then you need to make sure you actually get into that position and ideally protract the scapulae at the top of the rep. If you slow the movement right down (which doing full ROM often encourages) you may also benefit from additional muscle damage during the eccentric portion of the movement, specifically. This could translate to some decent hypertrophy, too.

      So yeah, they each have their benefits!

      • Martin Lazarini Frias says:

        Yes, but even further, because I also figured that the adaptations would be slightly different, with slow and controlled(constant tension) you transform this into a quasi isometric, the main adaptation is increasing the tolerance of the muscle to the Hydrogen ions(basically occluding the muscle due to it being so tense that it crushes the blood vessels and doesn’t let blood flow properly), while this Pump push up style is basically training the muscles ability to act as a pump, to effectively flush away the hydrogen ions and lactic acid with those quick contractions, just like a water pump, and you fail when the muscle can no longer sustain this and is overrun by the ion accumulation

        • Martin Lazarini Frias says:

          Of course that’s my theory, I just thought that this could be explored deeper or beyond the neuromuscular components you just mentioned(which could also be explored even further). Thank you so much for answering and hope I may hear from you again.

  2. Martin Lazarini says:

    Sorry for the long comment, hope you can reply, thanks for your time.

  3. Max says:

    Hey Adam!

    I would love too hear your thoughts about the breathing technique used in the anime “Demon Slayer”. The breathing technique is called “Total Concentration Breathing”. This technique increases the users lung capacity and the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream. This enhances their physical abilities and mental concentration, so that they can fight on par with demons.

    I think this is a very interesting subject, and could be a great article idea.

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