May 11, 2014

Partials - That Horrible Form You See In The Gym Can Actually Be Beneficial... If You Use It Right

A primer on strength curves

Every exercise has a specific strength curve, which basically means that they either get harder (descending), easier (ascending), or harder and then easier (concave), throughout the range of motion because of the biomechanics of the body.

Not a single exercise requires an identical amount of force to be produced throughout a full range of motion. Some machines have been developed with the hopes of creating a delicate balance in which the amount of force required matches the amount of resistance provided, but even the most technologically advanced machines still have their flaws.

Because of this, muscles are not thoroughly stimulated through a full range of motion with a given amount of weight, because the amount of weight that can be lifted through a full range of motion is limited only by how strong weight can be lifted through the weakest range of the movement. Therefore, to fully stimulate a muscle throughout its entire range, a different approach is going to need to be taken than the traditional method in which you select a weight and perform a full range of motion till failure, as this will only ensure that the muscles are fully fatigued through the range in which they’re weakest.

Some examples that nearly anyone can relate to, to help drive the point home, are the squat, bench press, pull up, and barbell curl. The first two movements have an ascending strength curve, meaning that biomechanically we are much stronger as we move from the lowest bar position in relation to the floor, to the highest bar position in relation to the floor. In these examples it is the top of the movement that is undertrained through traditional full range reps.

The pull up has an opposite effect because it has a descending strength curve, meaning that biomechanically we are much weaker the higher up we try to pull our body. In this example it is the bottom of the movement that is undertrained through traditional full range reps (although most people generally fail to pull themselves through a full range of motion as is, and in those cases it’s only the bottom of the range that is really trained at all).

The barbell curl, because of the mechanics of the body, as well as lever lengths, has a concave strength curve, meaning that the weight becomes harder to lift until the arm is parallel to the floor, but then becomes easier after the halfway point as the lever is shortened in relation to the center of gravity/base of support. In this example it is both the beginning and end range of motion that is undertrained with traditional full range reps.

I’ve got some bad news, and I’ve got some good news

People generally want to hear the bad news first because by contrast the good news is much better, as well as the fact that they want to know what they’re dealing with so they can mentally prepare. Often the bad news isn’t that bad, and there’s an immediate sense of relief, and I expect the same to happen here.

The bad news is that, doing what you’re already doing will not produce a greater result, and if you want to see positive change, and make more progress than you’re currently making, you’re going to have to adopt a mentality that is open to change and doing things differently. In this case it means you’re going to have to accept the idea that there is room for improvement to the strategy you’re currently using.

The good news is that there’s a simple answer, and it has to do with performing exercises with what you probably would consider ‘bad form’, or ‘ego lifting’. You know those guys in the gym who put on more weight than they could ever hope to lift through a full range of motion, but they want to look strong so they perform only a partial range of motion? Yeah, those guys! Well, there actually are benefits to lifting like that and benching only through the top half of the movement or performing quarter squats. The only problem with the guys who are generally seen doing this is that this is the only type of lifting they do.

Because strength is gained in the range it is trained (actually there is about a 15-20 degree carryover), the full benefits of actually going to the gym and doing something won’t be reached if all you ever did was perform the easiest part of a movement (irrespective of how much more weight you’re lifting). While partial reps have a place in building strength and muscle, without concurrently implementing full range movements, your efforts won’t take you very far, and you easily could end up with an unnecessary injury.

If you’re going to do it, do it right!

Partials should never be the backbone, or cornerstone of any routine. They should not be the ‘go to’, but rather the secret weapon to catalyze newfound development (whether that be strength or size) and break through a plateau. The ultimate goal should determine how exactly you implement them in what would be considered the ‘right’ way.

Partials for strength

Depending on the movement, as well as the range of motion in terms of distance the weight will be travelling, most people can handle anywhere between 120-150% of full range max, give or take, through a partial range. If you flip it around, it means that certain muscles involved in a given movement are essentially 20-50% under stimulated when performing that movement with a weight that you can handle through a full range of motion, and that’s if you were lifting a 1 rep max. Therefore, if you want to fully stimulate the muscles involved, you’re going to need to use a heavier weight, albeit through a limited range (working your way from the top down), or perform additional work through a partial range (working your way from the bottom up).

One caveat for using partials to increase strength is that, even though you may be able to handle loads in excess of 120% of full range max through a partial range of motion, it is in your best interest to limit the volume of work performed with more than 120% of full range max, as loads above 120% do not involve the same motor patterns as those for a max effort (100%), therefore having less than optimal carryover to increasing your current full range maximum (although the confidence that is built by lifting weights that far exceed your full range max will have positive carryover).

On the flip side, loads under 90% also do not involve the same motor pattern as a full range max (100%), so it’s best to adjust your workouts so that the majority of work that is performed is with loads that represent between 90-120% of full range max. Even if you could lift in excess of 120% of full range max, your efforts may be better suited to using under 120% but making up for it with an increase in volume (just do more sets and reps).

Top down, chrome spinnin’

When working from the top down, you’re deliberately choosing to devote time and energy to developing the top of the movement because you can handle the greatest amounts of weight in comparison to what you can handle through a full range. By prioritizing this part of the movement you expose your neuromuscular system to greater loads than would otherwise be possible. At the completion of the desired amount sets and reps, you then switch gears and focus on performing the movement with a greater and greater range until reaching full range. Obviously you will need to adjust the weight accordingly as you will be battling both fatigue, and increased range of motion, however, performing heavy partials first can have a potentiating effect which will make the lighter weights feel lighter by contrast, and you may be able to perform either more reps, or use slightly more weight.

Here’s an example of a ‘top down’ workout used to improve performance in the deadlift:

A: Top ¼ deadlift (above knees), 4 X 4-6, 2 min rest (perform as much work with 120% of full range max as possible, while limiting the amount of work you perform over 120%)
B: Top ½ deadlift (below knees), 4 X 4-6, 2 min rest (perform as much work with over 100% of full range max as possible)
C: Deadlift (from floor), 3 X 6-8, 2 min rest (perform as much work with no less than 90% of max as possible)

Bottoms up, cheers

As you may have predicted, the bottoms up variation takes a reverse approach to overloading the range of motion in which you are strongest. With the top down approach the goal is to overload the range in which you are strongest by simply lifting more weight, but with the bottoms up approach the goal is to continue performing reps through the range in which you are strongest after completing the desired amount of sets and reps through a full range. This way you’re able to attack the movement through its full range while you are fresh, so there’s no guessing as to whether or not you’ve made progress since the last training session, as fatigue can’t be a limiting factor. The best thing about this method is it removes the need to perform warm up sets as you move through each variation of the movement, and you should be able to at least use the same amount of weight, if not more (as high as 20-30% more), because the full range is used to warm up for heavy partials. This is also referred to as ‘stacking’ because you’re stacking similar exercises together to improve the efficiency of the workout by reducing the amount of time wasted warming up.

Here’s an example of a ‘bottoms up’, or ‘stacking’, workout used to improve performance in the deadlift:

A: Deadlift (from floor), 4 X 3-5, 2 min rest (perform as much work as possible with over 90% of max)
B: Top ½ deadlift (below knees), 3 X 5-7, 2 min rest (perform as much work as possible with over 90% of full range max, and increase weight as much as you can)
C: Top ¼ deadlift (above knees), 3 X 5-7, 2 min rest (perform as much work as possible with over 90% of full range max, and increase weight as much as you can)

Partials for size

More often than not, the purpose of a training technique geared around using more weight is usually to build upon your strength levels. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t use the same technique to build muscle. All that really needs to be done is a few minor adjustments to some of the parameters to increase the overall time under tension. Yes, this means that by simply using slightly less weight and combining that with reduced rest periods, you can use the exact same examples above to put muscle on.

If you wanted to really crank up the volume and density to really maximize the hypertrophic response, you could perform the workouts in superset fashion. With the top down model you would need to rest long enough to adjust the weight, as well as adjust the bars in the power rack to allow for more range (or you could have a separate barbell ready to go from the floor if that’s an option). With the bottoms up model you simply rep out, and as fatigue begins to limit performance, simply reduce the range of motion to the part where you are strongest only (these are often referred to as ‘burns’, and generally work very well with isolation movements – preacher curls, leg curls, triceps pressdowns, etc – in which you continue to perform very small partial reps upon reaching full range failure. You’ll know right away why they call them burns).

Here are examples of a ‘top down’ and ‘bottoms up’ workout used to build muscle using the deadlift:

A1: Top range deadlift, 4 X 8-10, 10 seconds rest
A2: Full range *deadlift, 4 X 10-12, 2 min rest

*This is where having a separate barbell with the right amount of weight ready to go would increase the efficiency of the set/workout.

A1: Deadlift (from floor), 4 X 12-15, *NO REST
A2: Top ½ deadlift (below knees), 4 X 8-10, *NO REST
A3: Top ¼ deadlift (above knees), 4 X 6-8, 3 min rest

*No rest is needed because you simply just keep going and reducing the range on the fly as fatigue sets in. The rep recommendations listed are just that, recommendations, as fatigue is likely going to make it hard to plan, or predict, just how many reps you’ll be able to get as the set/workout progresses.

For variety, here’s an example of a ‘burn’ using triceps pressdowns:

A1: Full range pressdowns, 20 reps, NO REST
A2: Lockout pressdowns (performing only the bottom of the range of motion), 20 reps, 2 min rest

The goal with burns would be to match your partial range rep total with your full range rep total. If you complete 20 reps with a full range, then the goal is to get 20 partials. These can be done with nearly every exercise.

Depending on the movement, you may even be able to use more weight as you fatigue, and after reaching full range failure! Yes, you did read that correctly, and yes, you could essentially perform an ascending superset in which you increase the weight for your partials after reaching full range failure.

Impossible? No, but easier said than done...

Given that time under tension is of paramount importance when training to build muscle, one way to implement partials to really take your training to the next level would be to perform a drop set with a full range of motion to ensure as many motor units are recruited and fatigued as possible throughout a muscle’s entirety, before performing partials through a very limited range with a heavier weight.

For example, the straight-arm raise (either laterally, laterally while bent over, or to the front while upright) is an exercise in which the length of the lever arm becomes increasingly longer with every degree in which the arm is raised away from the center of the body. This means we become significantly weaker as the arms are raised away from the body (descending strength curve). On the flip side, this suggests that we are significantly stronger through the first few degrees of range. Therefore, because of the strength discrepancy between the first few degrees of range, and the last few degrees of range, it is not unreasonable to think that you couldn’t perform a drop set, or two, to failure through a full range before picking up a heavier weight than you started the set with, and banging out a few partials.

Here is an example of a full range drop set with an ascending partial using a straight-arm raise (lateral raise, bent over lateral raise, front raise, doesn’t matter):

A1: Straight-arm raise, 4 x 6-8 reps, rest 10 seconds
*A2: Same straight-arm raise with 20-25% less weight, 4 x 6-8 reps, rest 10 seconds
*A3: Same straight-arm raise with 20-25% less weight again, 4 x 6-8 reps, rest 10 seconds
A4: Partial straight-arm raise with 20-25% more weight than you started with, 4 x 4-6 reps with a 2 second pause at the peak contraction, 2 min rest

*These sets are not completely necessary, so if performing a triple drop set is something that doesn’t appeal to you, you could easily go from one full range of motion set right into the partials. Also, if you wanted to go down the rack and perform several drops in one shot before attempting partials, then that’s your prerogative.

Partial the range, double the results, can’t beat that!

By now it’s got to be pretty clear that partials can be used in many different ways to kick your training into overdrive. The only limitation really is your imagination, as pretty much any exercise can be modified in such a way that you can overload a muscle more through a partial range of motion, than would happen naturally through full range of motion training. They can be used to increase strength because of the potentiating effect that lifting heavier weights has. They can be used to build muscle because they allow you to increase the time under tension upon reaching full range failure by modifying the range of motion. In some situations there’s a great enough discrepancy between full range and partial range strength that you can even use more weight upon reaching full range failure to push your body beyond its limits. Or, they can even be used to both pre-exhaust, and post-exhaust a muscle, sometimes within the set! On that note, here is one final blueprint.

Here is an example of how to use partials to both pre-exhaust (which will make the full range weight feel lighter by contrast), and post-exhaust (which enables you to prolong the time under tension, and do so by using a greater load) a muscle, using the standing calf raise:

A1: 12 half reps, 2-3 second pause in stretched position
A2: 12 full reps w/20-25% less weight
A3: 12 half reps again w/10-15% more weight than was used for full range, 4-6 second pause in stretched position

If you have any questions about partials, or how to apply them to your training to build muscle or increase strength, feel free to contact me at I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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