Full Range of Motion is Optimal

For those interested, we have already written at length as to why 90 degree squats are inferior to full range of motion squats.

But what about other exercises?

By Coach Hunter Bennett

Over the last few years, we have seen 90 degree joint angles frequently described on social media as the “best” way to train.

People state that they are the optimal way to increase strength, size, and athleticism.

Hell, some people even suggest that 90 degree exercises are therapeutic and can reduce joint pain.

However, I would argue when it comes to exercise, full range of motion is optimal.

Full Range of Motion for Muscle Growth

When looking at range of motion and muscle growth, there is research indicating that loading muscle in longer (i.e., stretched) positions is more effective than loading them short positions.

This is important, because when you look at where muscles are longest, it tends to coincide with the largest range of motion.

For example:

  • Romanian deadlifts increase hamstring and glute length the deeper you go.
  • Squats increase quad length the deeper you go.
  • Dumbbell bench increases pec length the deeper you go.
  • Overhead tricep extensions increase tricep length the further behind your head (i.e., the deeper) you go.
  • Chin ups increase lat length the deeper you go (i.e., the full hang position).

You can see why a recent meta-analysis indicated full range of motion exercises are better for growth than partial range of motion exercises.

Because they ensure they are loaded in a stretched position.

Full Range of Motion for Strength

As a quick summary, the same meta-analysis above also indicated that full range of motion (ROM) exercises increase muscle strength to greater degree than partial ROM exercises.

And the reason why is an intuitive one.

Adaptations from training are specific to how training is conducted.

For example, if you only perform 90 degree joint angle exercises, you will get stronger at 90 degree joint angle exercises.

Similarly, if you use a full ROM, you will get stronger across a full range of motion.

Makes sense, right?

Importantly, when you use a full range of motion, you move through a partial range of motion. As such, you still improve strength in those positions.

To highlight, a recent study examined the effects of training using a full range of motion bench press compared to a partial range of motion bench press. Importantly, they tested bench press 1RM using both a full ROM (bench touches chest) and a partial ROM (bench stops 1/3 of the way from the chest) in both groups.

And guess what?

They found that the full ROM bench press improved 1RM in both ranges of motion. Conversely, the partial ROM bench press only improved 1RM in the partial bench press, and not the full ROM bench press.

So, when it comes to strength, full range of motion is a must.

Full Range of Motion for Joint Health

Full disclaimer: to my knowledge, there is no research comparing full vs partial range of motion on joint health.

But we can draw conclusions from other areas.

We know that the cartilage in weightlifters knees is thicker than that found in the general population. We also know that weightlifters often perform deep squats that got well beyond a 90 degree joint range of motion.

This suggests full range of motion training may increase in joint health.

Importantly, there is also a plethora of research demonstrating that strength training can improve joint pain in people with arthritis.

These training programs often include a variety of upper and lower body exercises. Some are performed on machines, others with bodyweight, some with resistance bands, and some with free weights.

And a large majority of them use larger ranges of motion.

While we can’t say that they are better than partial range of motion exercises, we can state that training with a full ROM will have a positive impact on joint health.

Full Range of Motion and Athleticism

This is something that I actually wrote about in the 90 degree squat article, so I won’t go into much detail here.

In short, two studies (one, two) have shown that full ROM squats will lead to greater increases in speed and jump height than 90 degree squats.

I am confident that under most circumstances, if your goal is to get as athletic as possible, then most of your training should be using full range of motion.

Full Range of Motion and Injury Risk

Lastly, I wanted to touch discuss whether training using a full range of motion increases injury risk.

Some people suggest that exceeding 90 degree joint angles during exercise will increase your risk of injury occurring.

However, this does not seem to be the case.

Strength training has been shone to be one of best methods of preventing injuries, period.

This includes training programs that use both full and partial ROM exercises.

However, when we think about it logically, we can make a case for full ROM being superior for injury prevention.

When you train through a full range of motion, you increase strength in a broad array of positions. This is likely to improve your capacity to tolerate force in those positions, which could reduce injury risk.

But if you only train in a limited range of motion, your strength only extends to those positions. This could conceivably increase your risk of injury if you are forced into those positions, whether this be in athletic contexts or daily life.

How to train using a full range of motion?

What does training with a full range of motion may mean to you.

When we talk about training using a full ROM, we mean using all your available range of motion.

For example, some people will be able to squat ass-to-grass without a second thought. However, some people may have a bony anatomy that only allows them to just break parallel.

Both are fine.

The key is maximising your available joint range of motion, and then training through it wherever possible.

Additionally, if you compete in a sport like powerlifting where using a slightly smaller ROM may be of benefit (i.e., a squat that just breaks parallel) then your primary strength movements should replicate that.

However, your accessory exercises should maximise range of motion to provide all the benefits mentioned above.

After all, full ROM is optimal (in most circumstances).

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