Are Partial Lifts Only For Partial Results?

Christian Thibaudeau

Co-founder of Thibarmy, Trainer

Articles, Muscle gain, Strength and performance

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Are Partial Lifts Only For Partial Results?

There is a greater and greater push among popular hypertrophy experts to promote the importance of using full range of motion when training to maximize muscle growth.

For the most part, I applaud the movement if only for the fact that it might counterbalance the influence of “inch reppers” on young, impressionable, and clueless beginners to the iron game.

However, like with many things related to health and fitness, these experts often go to extremes to promote their belief and often end up throwing the baby with the bath water.

If we were to believe them, anything short of the fullest range of motion possible is worthless when it comes to building size and strength.

This clashes with the fact that partial movements have been used as an important weapon in the arsenal of successful lifters since (at least) the 1930s. Not the least of them being the Westside barbell guys.

Who is right? The scientific hypertrophy experts who demonize partial range training or at least see it as always inferior to its full-range counterpart; or very strong lifters from more than 4 generations?

What do I think about partials? Are they worthless, an inferior training tool or the holy grail of strength and size that everybody is missing out on?

As I always say, like everything in the strength training world, the answer is an underwhelming “It depends”.

Partial Repetitions And Hypertrophy

The strongest hypertrophy stimulus is having the muscle fibers produce tension while they are being lengthened or stretched. To be optimal we need three things:

1. A high level of tension. You produce it during the concentric (lifting) part of the movement then you have to maintain it during the eccentric phase (when the fibers are being lengthened).

2. Lengthening the muscle fibers. The more you lengthen/stretch them, the more potential growth there is, if condition #1 is also met (so lengthening the fibers while they are producing a lot of tension).

3. Having the movement performed in the same direction as the muscle fibers (resistance vector is parallel to the muscle fibers).

Are these being optimized when you do partial movements? Upon first glance, the immediate answer would be an obvious ‘NO”. By using a partial lift, by definition, you shorten the lengthening phase of the movement. This decreases the amount of stretch that you place the muscle fibers under.

However, it’s not as simple as that because even though condition #2 is not being optimized, condition #1 can be pushed to a much higher level than with full range movements because you can use significantly more weight on partial movements, which leads to a higher level of intramuscular tension. While you are not lengthening the fibers as much during the eccentric, the lengthening that occurs can be done under a lot more tension.

Is the added tension enough to compensate for smaller amount of fiber stretching? Maybe, maybe not.

There is also a point brought up in a review of literature on partial versus full range movement: in multi-joint exercises, partial movements could emphasize one muscle efficiently. For example, partial squats could preferentially target the quadriceps even though some other muscles will not be as well stimulated as in a full squat. The same could be said with a partial bench press and the triceps. (Newmire, Daniel E; Willoughby, Darryn S. Partial Compared with Full Range of Motion Resistance Training for Muscle Hypertrophy: A Brief Review and an Identification of Potential Mechanisms, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: September 2018 – Volume 32 – Issue 9 – p 2652-2664).

Generally speaking, full range movements provide slightly more hypertrophy than partial versions of the same exercises. However, that difference is not always significant and partial range movements still leads to hypertrophy.

One possible explanation is simply that by lengthening the muscle fibers less during your reps, you have a smaller hypertrophy stimulus which cannot be compensated by the higher load.

However, another possible explanation is that in partial movements, the amount of mechanical work is lower which leads to less time under load, muscle fatigue and ATP-CP usage. All of which have been theorized to play a role in stimulating growth.

Since studies looking at partial vs. full range exercises use equated repetitions/sets (e.g. both protocol would use the same number of reps and sets), and because in partial movements the reps are shorter which, it means less mechanical work for the partial movement.

It would be interesting to see a protocol using higher repetitions per set for the partial movements protocol to compensate for the lower mechanical work per rep.

I personally recommend using slightly higher reps when doing partial movements. And the shorter the range is, the higher the reps should be.

Here is an excerpt from my upcoming book “Modern Applications of Old-School Training”:

“I find that to get the most out of partial repetitions, you need to use slightly higher reps than you would with full range strength work, yet use a rep range that will still allow you to use significantly more weight than your maximum on the full range lift.

I do believe that accumulating a sufficient amount of mechanical work in a set is necessary to maximize both size and strength and I also believe that the nervous system needs to be able to produce force for the duration of a true maximal effort for the training set to be transferable. For example, a true maximal effort on the bench press might last 3-4 seconds (including the eccentric, transition and concentric phases) and the squat up to 5 seconds. If you do 1, 2 or even 3 partial repetitions you might not put the muscles under tension for the 4-5 seconds minimum you need to make sure that you can keep producing high tension for low enough to complete a full maximal effort. And it’s always best to have some reserve. And it’s not a muscle or energy thing, it’s mostly about be able to maintain a strong neural drive for the duration of the max effort. “

I find that doing 2-4 more partial reps/set than you would do on a full range movement leads to similar, if not greater size gains than with full range movement in the emphasized muscle(s). By emphasized muscle(s) I mean the muscle that is doing most of the work at the angle being trained. For example, a top half bench press will focus mostly on the triceps while the chest is not going to be stimulated as much as on a full range press.

In fact, through experience, I found that the top half bench press (or top-half close-grip bench) is vastly superior to a regular bench press or close-grip bench to stimulate the triceps, especially the long head of the triceps.

Practically, it means that for strength development you would shoot for 4-8 partial reps instead of 1-5 full reps and for hypertrophy where you would use 8-12 on full-range movement, you would do 12-15 on partial exercises.

You could argue than having to do more reps to get similar (or better) results makes partial range exercises less efficient. That’s one way of seeing it and it might be a mild disadvantage. However, it also has the benefit of better targeting the stimulus, which is an interesting characteristic that you can use to enhance your training.

There is another point to consider in the debate regarding full vs. partial range of motion for hypertrophy development:

Is adding range where there is little tension on the target muscle useful to stimulate growth or just a waste of effort and energy?

I’ll give you an example: at the bottom part of a full range standing biceps curl (arms fully extended) there is very little, if any tension on the biceps. And this is maintained for about 10 degrees at the start of the movement before you need to produce a lot of force/tension to lift the weight. And we could even argue that the same is true for the very end of the concentric movement.

Is it really more effective to go all the way down to full elbow extension even though you are losing the tension in those last 10 degrees or so?

Don’t forget that hypertrophy is triggered by placing tension on the muscle fibers while they are lengthening. If you remove most of that tension, you don’t get much (if any) added growth stimulation.

In most movements, going to the full range can provide a slight hypertrophy advantage. But if you lose tension at the end range(s) of the movement, I contend that it doesn’t provide any added hypertrophy benefits.

Strength And Performance

When it comes to strength, the scientific findings normally find greater strength gains in the range being trained. When they compare full range vs. partial range exercises, the full range group gains more strength in the full range movement but less when tested in the partial range and vice versa.

On multi-joint movements this could be explained by the fact that partial movements will emphasize certain muscles involved in the movement but de-emphasize others. The de-emphasized muscles will not get as strong and could represent a weak link when doing the full range lift.

There is also the possibility that partial movements have a different inter-muscular coordination (different coordination pattern between the muscles involved in the lift) and that training the partial range only could lead to an inefficient coordination pattern in the full range lift, making it harder to display the strength gained while doing partial lifts.

My counterargument to that would be:

1. Since inter-muscular coordination is neurological and can be rapidly improved, it is very likely that after 2-3 weeks of training the full range lifts (after having focused on partial lifts), you would be able to fully apply the strength gained while doing partial lifts as intermuscular coordination improved. The problem with studies comparing strength gains from partial and full movements is that they only conduct one strength test, immediately at the conclusion of the intervention. This might be hiding the true effect of partial lifts on full range strength.

2. Doing a combination of partial and full range movements for the same muscle (or even the same movement) would likely be completely different in that you keep training the proper intermuscular coordination pattern on the full range lift while overloading with partials.

Let’s be honest: most strength athletes (or athletes) who use partial movement techniques on multi-joint exercises do so in combination with full range lifts.

For example, powerlifters will do partial movement on the bench (board presses or box squats from various heights, pin presses, squats or pull from different positions) but they keep training the full range movement too.

It has been my experience that this combination of full range lifting with partial overloads leads to much greater strength gains over the full range of motion than doing only full range lifts.

This is supported by research showing that a combination of partial and full range squats leads to greater overall strength gains than full range squats only (Bazyler, Caleb D; Sato, Kimitak1; Wassinger, Craig A; Lamont, Hugh S; Stone, Michael H The Efficacy of Incorporating Partial Squats in Maximal Strength Training, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: November 2014 – Volume 28 – Issue 11 – p 3024-303)

And since partial strength lifts have stood the test of time among strength athletes and other such athletes like throwers and sprinters, it is a clear indication that it works.

In fact, for sport performance, an argument could be made for the superiority of partial range of motion exercises due to something Zatsiorsky calls “accentuation training”.

Accentuation training refers to using partial movements targeting the range of motion used in motor patterns involved in sports (for example jumping and sprinting). The logic is that the partial movements allow you to use a significant overload compared to full range movements, which will strengthen the range of motion trained to a greater extent. This greater strength development (over a limited range, I concede) can potentially lead to a higher power production potential when that range is used.

And even if you don’t strengthen the full range, it doesn’t matter because in most sports you don’t actually use the full range of some joints. For example, in sprinting the legs do not apply force to the ground when the knee angle is smaller than 90-100 degrees. Going down to a 30-50 degrees knee angle (full squat) might not be necessary to maximize performance.

In fact, a study by Rhea et al. (2016) found that partial squats (quarter and half squats) improved jumping and sprinting to a greater extent than full squats in advanced athletes.

The average improvements after 16 weeks of training were:

Vertical jump (increase in height) 40 yards sprint (decrease in time)
Quarter squat 15% -2.0% (2% faster)
Half squat 7% -1.0% (1% faster)
Full squat 1% -0.5% (0.5% faster)

From: Rhea M, Kenn J, Peterson M, et al. Joint-angle specific strength adaptations influence improvemens in power in highly training athletes. Human Movement. 2016; 17(43-49)

Now, I will mention that it is likely that the athletes, being advanced, already had a lot of training experience on the full squat and probably not as much on partial squat. It’s possible that some of the gains came from the novelty of the stimulus requiring greater adaptations. But I still believe that it clearly shows the usefulness of partial squatting for improving performance, especially after building a foundation on full range squats.

Not surprisingly, most elite sprinters rely on partial squats (anywhere between half and quarter) in their training (you can easily find squatting videos of guys like Johan Blake, Usain Bolt, Ben Johnson, etc.). Throwers also use a lot of partial squatting as it’s more specific to their sport.

That having been said, do not forget that full range squats are superior to develop overall muscle mass in the lower body and as such are a better foundational exercise, especially earlier in an athlete’s career or during training cycles aimed at increasing muscle mass.

Other Benefits Or Partials Lifts

Partials lifts have other, more targeted benefits if used properly:

1. Strengthening weak points: you gain strength mostly at the angle being trained. And if you can use more weight (due to a shortened range of motion) you can increase strength in a specific range faster. This is very interesting as it can make it fairly easy to target and improve the weakest portion of a big lift.

2. It CAN be safer: when people think of partial lifts, they think of not going all the way down on squats and benches with way too much weight. How can that be safer than full range movements with lighter weights? Partial lifts from pins, using a proper weight (still an overload, but one that you lift under control) can reduce the risk of injuries. Most injuries in big lifts occur when the muscle is in a stretched position. The more stretched (under load) it is, the higher is the risk of injury. In partial movements you do not reach the position of maximal stretch.

The second most problematic area is the sticking point angle. Again, when lifting from pins you can prevent yourself from reaching that position. Even if you want to target that weak point you can stop something like an inch short because strength transfers for around 15 degrees past the trained angle(s). When you lift from pins you also have the possibility of properly resetting, initiating each concentric rep from a solid position.

3. It can increase overall strength: even if strength is gained mostly at the angles being trained, by using an overload you can gradually desensitize the protective mechanisms triggered by the Golgi Tendon Organs and muscle spindles. These mechanisms are designed to shut down your muscles if your body senses that you are producing too much force for your own good (i.e. producing an amount of force that could lead to a tear). But they are normally exceedingly conservative. By using overload methods, you can desensitize the protective mechanisms and your body will gradually allow you to use more of your strength potential, even on full range movements.

4. It can give you a psychological boost: by using overload partial movements you are trained under heavier loads than you normally would on full range lifts. As a result, when you get under the bar to perform your full range lifts, even a near maxima effort will feel lighter when you unrack the bar. This can increase your confidence before the lift, improving your chances of making that lift.

Different Types Of Partial Overloads

There are several ways of using this partial overloads.

Chuck Sipes who bench pressed over 560lbs at 220lbs in the 1960s used “free partials” on his bench press. This meant doing a regular bench press but only lowering the bar 1/3rd of the way down before reversing and pressing it back up.

Anthony Ditillo started his partials from pins.

And more recently you have people using the Westside Barbell conjugate training system using boards placed on the chest for the bench press and a box to sit on for squat (they start from pins for the deadlift).

All three approaches work and have their pros and cons.

The Sipes free partial method is likely going to transfer better to regular lifting because you are training the eccentric to concentric reversal, which you don’t do in the two other methods (or not as well or as much). However, it is much harder to be constant with the range of motion you use because you don’t have a reference point where you need to stop the bar. A lot of people will subconsciously start reducing the range of motion so that they can use more weight. A weight to counter that is to use safety pins as “markers”, lower the bar until it almost touches the pins and the lift up. This solves the issue, but it can be hurtful to your focus and affect performance for a while.

The Ditillo pin press/pull partials method is the one I personally use the most because you can reset properly on every repetition and because it is the only pure concentric method (where the concentric is not preceded by loading of the muscles and eccentric action or the activation of the stretch reflex). As such it is a superior method to improve voluntary contraction of the muscles. It’s also easy to keep using the same range of motion or to adjust it upward/downward precisely to get the desired training effect. The main drawback is that people subconsciously fail to control the bar properly when they are lowering it back down to the pins. A special attention should be placed on returning the bar slowly and under control to the pins. The complete lack of eccentric/concentric transition (you pause and release tension when the bar is on the pins) also make it harder to transfer the gains to a “regular” lift.

The Westside board press and box squats are a middle of the road solution. When the bar is on the boards or when you are seated on the box, your body is still under load. Whereas when you use pins, it becomes unloaded. If the pause on the boards or boxe is less than 2 seconds, you still get a stretch reflex (albeit much smaller) and train the eccentric to concentric transition (less than with the Sipes method, but more than with the Ditillo one). And because you are lowering the bar to a board or sitting down on a box, you can easily regulate the range of motion. I actually like the board press, but I find the box squat potentially hazardous if someone is not technically efficient and doesn’t control the bar properly.

Although there will be individual differences, I find that you can use the most weight (for the same range) with the partial from pins, followed by the Westside board/box approach and finally, the free partials.

More About Specific Partial Range Methods

To learn more about partial range methods like:

* Partial overloads
* Neurological carryover training
* Functional isometrics
* Isometronics

Follow us on Instagram at Christian.thibaudeau.thibarmy

I will be posting videos and explanations of some of these methods. They will also be used in my upcoming training program series available soon (The Legend Series) and covered in my upcoming book “Modern Applications of Old School Training”.