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Partial Reps are the Cheat Meals of Your Training Program

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The crossover between training and actual life beyond a gym’s mirrored walls and sweat drenched floors is undeniable. The lessons learned from glorious battles with the iron – some ending in victory, others in defeat – carry quite well into your overall mental fortitude, approach to challenges, and business mindset.

Hell, looking better naked will improve every facet of your life. Fact.

But with all the positives bestowed upon those who get their fitness on, a few negatives come with the territory. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. Just like in life, we will undoubtedly come across the individuals who preach with “have tos” and “supposed tos”.

You know these people.

They are the ones giving you the Kevin Hart stare when you do something unorthodox from their stale 3 sets of 10 program.

And if they are not physically present as you bust your ass, you can find them on your Facebook feed, in the latest issue of a major fitness publication, or taking another selfie for their Insta with an insanely detailed caption.

This idea of “supposed tos” was first brought to my attention from Nate Green. In his Hero Handbook, he says, “many of us succumb to social pressure and swallow supposed tos…You’re supposed to go to college; you’re supposed to get a good job. Guess what? You aren’t supposed to do shit.”

Fuck the supposed tos. Especially, the ones that have been glorified and seemingly written in the iron rust of every gym created.

You’ve heard them before…

  • Your program has to include deadlifts.
  • You’re supposed to squat ass to grass.
  • You have to bench press on Monday, bro.
  • You’re supposed to train through a full range of motion.

More specifically, let’s focus on that last point for the sake of this damn article: PARTIAL REPETITIONS.

Get ready to break some rules, turn some heads, and get some damn results.

Now before we get in too deep and some of you get all butt hurt, NOT all supposed tos are necessarily bad.

Some of them have good merit. Although we may not feel like we want to do them, we probably should (like paying your bills or eating your veggies). More importantly, we should put some thought into why we do them before deciding to just revolt.

With a little knowledge, your HAVE TOs turn into WANT TOs.

When it comes to the statement that you must perform the entire (safe) range of motion of an exercise, this is the golden rule…the majority of the time.

Why?

It’s Science, Bitch.

Seriously. When researchers compared full range of motion versus partial range of motion in subjects, they found muscle strength and thickness was improved in BOTH. However, FULL range of motion elicited greater responses. Particularly in strength gains.

Of course, they knew what they were doing since they tested these subjects in elbow flexion exercises (AKA all bicepz gainz1). 

In addition to getting stronger and increasing muscle hypertrophy, the other benefits of a full range of motion include:

  1. Safety, first. Taking your repetitions through the entire range of motion allows you to get stronger at the extreme ranges of motion. Whether in sport or daily life, by becoming stronger in a larger range you will increase motor control and tension at these terminal positions. That’s given you have the mobility to do so without putting your joints in a compromising position. More on this later.
  2. Power production. Performing the entire eccentric range of motion will allow more time for energy to be stored and then released into the concentric action.
  3. Joint health. Synovial fluid (AKA the body’s motor oil) is able to enter and lubricate the joint surfaces through a bigger range of motion. This will counteract some degeneration to those joints.
  4. Tracking progress. When you do not train through an entire range of motion, it is more difficult to evaluate your progress. For instance, if you do half reps of pull-ups. What actually constitutes a half rep? Is it 5 inches down from the bar or a certain degree of elbow extension? See, there is a lack of consistency in repetition execution. Progress then is very subjective.
  5. Maintenance of mobility. Given that you are competent to get in the positions you demand on your body, there is no better way to keep the mobility you have than physically going through the entire range of motion. Want to maintain that ankle mobility? Squat deep.

Now that we understand the benefits of using full ranges, let’s discuss when it’s ok and even beneficial to verge from that norm. Just like following your macros 90 percent of the time, the same goes for training in a full range of motion. 

So what do we do with the remaining 10 percent?

You could consider partial repetitions, the cheat meals of your training program.

Roman has explained the benefits of those celebrated cheat day escapades to your physique and hormones. Now, let us break down how limited range of motion strategies can push your progress forward in a similar manner.

Here are four scenarios where you should opt for or include partial repetitions in your training program:

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Mobility Restriction 

This is not a pass to improve your mobility restrictions or totally skip out on your dynamic warm up. That is a concern to be addressed at the beginning of your sessions or with the help of a professional.

But your progress should not be put on hold due to your limitations. Instead, you can be smart about your training to prevent any injuries down the road.

In the meantime while you improve your mobility and movement patterns, you can get strong in a SAFE range of motion. This will ingrain good movement quality into the neuromuscular pathways. Instead of adding strength to your dysfunction, which makes it more difficult to unwind down the road.

In addition to getting stronger, you will actually be facilitating your mobility range of motion.

Say you are unable to touch your toes and deadlifting off the floor just puts your lumbar spine into a compromising position of flexion. While you work to improve your toe touch, you can be improving your hip hinge, pick up heavy shit, and get all the posterior gains from an exercise like RACK PULLS.

Here you would set the bar on an elevated platform or in a rack. Start at a height where you can maintain a neutral spine throughout the entire range. You can progress by lowering that bar an inch at a time.

Another favorite of ours is the FLOOR PRESS. If your shoulders get buggy at the bottom position of a bench press or you are recovering from an injury or surgery, opt for this exercise. Plus you get the added benefit of upper pec development.

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Form is Compromised

There are times when flawless technique goes out the window. Mainly in the name of competition or going for a PR.

Rightfully so, those are the few exceptions. The remaining 99.9 percent of the time, your exercise execution should be on point. Anything besides perfection is just being lazy.

This method calls for some awareness on your end.

There are few stand out technique offenders that occur as we reach fatigue in our sets. The two biggest ones are:

  • Lumbar flexion (rounding of the spine)
  • Rib cage flare (lumbar over-extension)

Instead of pushing through and letting our form go to the wayside, partial repetitions are a perfect way to keep the set going to keep you out of harms way and still increase hypertrophy.

For example, when pressing overhead, through the first 5 repetitions of the Military Press, your ribs are down and your abdominals are engaged. On the sixth rep, you start to arch your back and let your rib cage flare upwards. Now, you have reached that compromised position.

You have two choices:

  1. Stop the set.
  2. Add partial repetitions in the bottom or out of the stretch position of the repetition.

You could do the same for most isolation work such as triceps extension (using your shoulders) or bicep curls and lateral raises (both using your back to complete reps).

We dare you to add some partial repetitions on your next set of prone hamstring curls.

And to make this clear, what I am not talking about is loading the barbell with every single plate possible, only to get an inch or two worth of depth for a squat.

Do NOT be this guy. At least he got some work loading up all those plates.

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Increase Time Under Tension

A critical factor in developing hypertrophy is time under tension. Basically, a technical term for the duration of a set. According to Brad Schoenfeld’s research2, increasing the time a muscle is under tension enhances the potential for microtrauma and fatiguability across the full spectrum of muscle fibers.

His findings suggest a moderate repetition scheme (of 6 to 12) would produce a great hypertrophy response in slow-twitch muscle fibers due to their greater endurance capacity. The majority of whole muscles in the body actually consist of slow twitch fibers in significant amounts. With an overloaded stimulus via time, the girth of those muscles can be maximized.

In Schoenfeld’s research, repetition ranges are the biggest contributor to time under tension. However, there are a variety of ways to alter time under tension such tempo or the cadence of each individual repetition and these two partial repetition methods:

1 & 1/4 Repetitions

In using our first repetition method to increase time under tension, these reps are programmed beforehand. Unlike in our previous method of extending the set when form is compromised, these reps are prescribed with a partial repetition included from the get-go.

To perform 1 and 1/4 repetitions, you will add a quarter of the entire range of motion to either the BOTTOM (following the eccentric) or TOP (following the concentric) of the movement. If you’re feeling really sick in the head, we dare you to try both.

If you were to perform these types of repetitions out of the BOTTOM in say, a squat, you would:

  • Descend into the bottom of squat following your specific tempo.
  • Pause in the bottom (DO NOT BOUNCE).
  • Transition to the concentric BUT only come up 1/4 of the way.
  • Descend back into the bottom position.
  • Complete the full concentric to the lockout, where you started the repetition.
  • That’s ONE REP. [Warning: You may want to lighten up your loads considerably.]

As you can tell by just reading this, your sets will be considerably longer with the same repetition schemes.

Constant Tension Method

If you thought one and a quarter repetitions were tough, these are brutal. When using the constant tension method, you will eliminate the isometric ends of the concentric and eccentric of the movement.

These are as close to occlusion training without actually tying a band around a specific body part to reduce blood flow. Without a pause between repetitions (at the top or bottom of the movement), oxygen is not allowed to enter the muscle.

In this state, lactate production will go through the roof and hGH and IG-F levels will rise as well.

To stick with the squat as our exercise of choice, here is how you perform the constant tension method:

  • Descend into the bottom of your squat over a 2 second period
  • NO PAUSE at the bottom
  • Ascend to the top of the squat over another 2 second period
  • NO LOCKOUT (do not completely lock out knees or allow hips to fully extend)
  • RINSE and REPEAT.

If it’s the glutes you are after, this may not be the best method. But to create a monster and obtain the title of QUADZILLA, this can be your jam. It works particularly well at a lower intensity and even with the use of machines (i.e., hack squats, leg press).

Another great way to employ this method would be in your WALKING LUNGES. Instead of taking a pause between the transition from RIGHT to LEFT lunges, go directly into the next repetition.

Want to punish those wheels even more, try this to finish up your next leg day:

  • Walking Lunges w/ 1&1/4 reps (at bottom)
  • x20 each leg
  • x30 each leg
  • x50 each leg

Weak or Sticking Point

This limited range of motion technique is frequently employed by powerlifters. So, these exercises are more specific for the BIG THREE – the bench press, squat, and deadlift.

In this method, you must first identify WHERE you are weak in the lift or the STICKING POINT where you fail to complete the repetition.

Is it out of the hole? Is it at the lockout? Is it 2-3 inches off your chest or off the floor?

Determining where you need to improve strength is half the battle. Then you can implement any exercise to break through that sticking point.

That’s where partial repetitions come into play.

A powerlifter or strength athlete that wants to get stronger at the end range of a squat can focus on the bottom of that lift. This is where DEAD-STOP variations come into play such as BOX SQUATS.

Westside Barbell legend, Louie Simmons drops some knowledge here.

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On the other end, you may need to improve your lockout of the bench press. In addition to getting your triceps stronger, here’s a perfect way to use a limited range of motion to get the job done.

To do so, you would load the last few inches of that press from the pins in a rack or with boards on your chest. Since you are in a position of mechanical advantage, your goal will be to eventually overload the position beyond your one repetition maximum for the entire ROM.

For those of you that have more interest in physique gains, you could use this method to overload the triceps after you have already fatigued your chest.

Now that you know the rules, time to break them. Screw the supposed tos and get results with these 4 partial repetition methods. Just like your cheat meals, these can push your progress forward while testing your grit and adding some flash to your training’s fire.

Resources

  1. Pinto, Ronei S. “Effect of Range of Motion on Muscle Strength and Thickness.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 26.8 (2012): 2140-2145.
  2. Schoenfeld, Brad. “The Mechanisms of Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24.10 (2010): 2863.

About the Author

Sons of Strength is the alias of Eric and Ryan Johnson. When these two bros aren’t competing in the gym, ring, or at the dinner table, they're making pop culture references on their blog, creating super villains in the movies, and kissing babies. Oh yeah, and they believe in fitness.

  • Sons of Strength

    You got it. Definitely drop your intensity as they are sneaky. Let us know how it goes!