The Importance of Partials
First I want to say thanks to Mike for giving me the opportunity to contribute to his blog. I would also like to say I’m so incredibly proud of Mike for making himself into the success he is today and the strongman he has become. I was blessed to have a small hand in Mike’s early beginning in strongman and he has really blossomed and become an amazingly gifted athlete.
When we spoke about this blog and talked about the topic, a controversial matter amongst the fitness world, partial movement training, Mike and I are both heavy believers and credit much of our strength to partial movements. Therefore, I wanted to talk about the importance of this concept and knock down some of the objections to partials, which is what people who are really well intentioned but sometimes uninformed regarding partials say in many segments of the fitness world and not just online but in articles, magazines and other arenas.
The first thing I want to say is that the idea of a partial movement is actually both arbitrary and somewhat of a misnomer. Here’s what this means: Your body either makes a movement or it doesn’t. A movement is full or partial only if you don’t complete the movement, but who’s to say what truly full range movement actually is.
One of the best examples I can give you is the deadlift. Now is there a magical reason that the traditional barbell deadlift is set at the heights that it is? For instance the barbell sits approximately nine inches off the floor using a regulation Olympic plate. Is that the magic range for humans? If you lift starting from nine inches off the floor and stand all the way up is that truly a full range movement? No – I think we define full range in arbitrary ways. We should define it in ways specific to the necessary movement. Now is a full deadlift with the plate on the floor stood all the way up to lock out a full range movement in a powerlifting competition context? Yes. Is it a basic exercise, should you do full range movements? Absolutely. However what you should do is what is full range to you. Not necessarily full range to someone else and a truly fully range movement must be defined by the idea of moving a muscle joint, whatever you happen to be working through the entire possible range.
A truly full range deadlift would only be done by setting the bar on your feet or below your feet if you are flexible enough and while I do believe it’s intelligent to do weighted work or strength based work through the absolute top end ranges that joints can muscle through, it’s not necessarily always the smartest thing to always try to lift blindingly heavy from a supremely stretched position. Some deficit deadlift work or some over-range work in the deadlift, bench press or any other movement as long as it’s not damaging to you is a good idea. As is what we call full range, which is actually better termed, “convenient range” or if you really want to make it smart for you, “realistic full range” or “useable full range” would probably be better terms.
In the basic lifts, these being the press, the bench press, the deadlift and the squat – Should you use the full range movement? Absolutely – this is in no way against full range movements, what it is however is an advocating for a different type of training for a more thorough type of training. What does that mean? In the press you should come down below your shoulders or at least below your chin and all the way up to lock out. In the bench press the bar should come all the way down to your chest unless you have a shoulder problem that precludes that. In the squat you should go down to at least parallel. In the deadlift you should lift off the floor if not lower by adding blocks under your feet or using a lower implement. For instance my favorite for fuller range deadlifts is dumbbell deadlifts which are very low, basically the top of my feet, and creates a very full range movement. However I think you’re missing out if you don’t work out in what we consider a partial range.
Let me also qualify partial range by also saying I mean purposeful, intent partial range, not sloppy partial range. I’m not talking about the bodybuilder idea of taking a set further than normal by simply doing partial ranges after you’ve exhausted your full range movement. That can be useable in certain exercises, for instance dumbbell laterals, if you want to truly exhaust a muscle, but what we’re talking about is strength based and muscle based work that is purposefully done, usually in a power rack, but in a other instances may allow for a few other performance styles.
Full range should be seen as what works best for you, useable range is what works best for you and partial range is less than that done for specific purposes. I believe that if you don’t do some partial range movement you’re missing a segment of strength that is very useable in the real world. Do you need flexible muscles? Absolutely. Do partials mess up your flexibility? Absolutely NOT. I am one of the most flexible strongmen around – not contortionist flexible, but very flexible. I’m able to do bridges, gymnastic bridges, full splits, etc., and have done a ton of partial movements and in no way has this training hindered my flexibility.
The idea of flexibility in relation to muscle strength is a flawed concept when you talk about the use of weight. You’ll only build strength through ranges that you work, but even in partial reps you will build strength in longer ranges than the basic short range movement. This would qualify at things like quarter squats, half squats, ¾ range squats, quarter, half, ¾ range deadlifts, board presses, pin presses or lockouts in the bench press, lockouts, overhead, standing, or seated from the press, single arm lockouts and even single arm or double arm partial rows. There are many that can be applied to other styles of exercise. For instance partial one leg squats and partial handstand press ups are very useful for building to the full range of either of those movements.
Here’s the thing – most of the things you do in life don’t require you to drop to the absolute stretched end range of your muscular movement. Think with me for a moment of any sport with the possible exception of gymnastics, which must be trained on its very specific modalities, of any sport that forces you to drop to your absolute extreme stretched condition. Most of them don’t. In fact most sports require explosive movement from dead stops or very short rebounds, not full rebounds like most lifts allow, but short rebounds and explosive, powerful contractions over short range or from a static range from a dead stop to the top locked out end of a range, but not the full range of motion.
This is exactly what partials train in the real world. For instance in grappling, football, etc. you don’t drop to your absolute lowest position, you come from whatever position you’re at in that moment. Usually this is a half squat, half deadlift type position. You’re going to explode in to grapple with someone, or if you’re going to throw from a standing position, or throw a boxers punch or even if you’re going to do things like swing a baseball bat or a racket sport like tennis – a throwing sport – any kind of Highland games, etc – You are creating massive amounts of pressure from very short hip extension ranges or full on extension. To train that, to get that ability to the absolute, utmost full range movements doesn’t actually do the job. In fact your body has a tremendous amount of potential for both building muscle and strength and by the way tendons and ligaments that can be trained in virtually no other way from those short ranges. Now if you can for instance lift 500lbs for a full range lift you may be able to immediately lift 700lbs from a partial range lift, but you’re not expressing the full true strength that you could have in that range if you’ve never trained in that range. If you want to carry that over to real world you have to train in that range.
The other things people miss is that partials are one of the fastest ways to actually gain strength in a full range lift for multiple purposes if for no other reason than confidence. If you can lift 700 to 1,000lbs in a partial range deadlift – 500 to 600bls doesn’t’ feel heavy. Same can be said for 700-1,000lbs in a partial squat – 500-600lbs doesn’t feel heavy in a full range movement. Gaining the muscular potential, the bone strength, the torso strength, the tendon and ligament strength and the physical and mental confidence to handle much heavier weights allows you incredible power. It potentiates your strength and gives you the ability to gain quicker in strength, because a muscle in some ways learns how strong it is by the amount of resistance it contracts against as much as it is the range of the resistance.
Are they both ties to strength? Absolutely, but without one you’re missing the other. There is literally no other way, I believe, to train your torso to its fullest power especially its utmost functional ability. No other way to build the ability of your abdominals and “core area” to fire with the same amount of strength that your legs and back can produce without partial range movements. Even with heavy abdominal movements there is no way to really get that strength to the absolute, utmost without the load you can place on it by using the prime movers of the body to overload the core movements.
That’s why for instance with not that much training I was able to, and Mike was able to do repetition sit ups with 400 pounds on our chests. When I began to pursue it a little further I was able to go on up to 600lbs and more in the future. Now did I do abdominal work? Absolutely, but the partial range work that I consistently do and have done, massively added to my abdominal ability. One of the big reasons I’ve been able to, even at 300lbs, do a flag, which very few people can do let alone at that bodyweight.
You also take advantage of, and build strength by working in your strongest range. Now people will say, “No you should work in the weakest range,” but I think you need to do both and I believe modern training as well as the training of the old time strongmen supports this. A muscle is not contracted as hard as it possibly can in the top ends of most lifts. It is contracted as hard as possible in the bottom ranges, but not the top. If you don’t do work that is heavier and forces the muscle to contract as hard as it can at each individual place along the strength curve or path of the bar or whatever kind of lift you’re doing, you’re not creating the absolute utmost strength.
Many of the modern styles of training such as Westside and even the more conventional styles use some series of partials or lifts that mimic partials such as band and chain lifts because what they do is add extra resistance at the very top of any particular lift. It’s simply another way of expressing that same need to create deeper muscular tension at the stronger range, at the top ends of both lifts. Many of the old time strongmen did tremendous amounts of partials and got phenomenally strong. Examples of these are Paul Anderson one of the greatest squatters of all time, Bob Peoples one of the greatest deadlifters, and Arthur Saxon was big on supporting movements. Saxon used one arm supporting movements as well as walking supporting movements with weight and supporting weight on the body as total strength builders, which is akin to the same partial movements.
Even many of the Olympic lifters from the past, the York crowds, used forms of both partials and isometrics and in fact the York isometric was actually a heavy weighted isometric essentially a partial rep movement done in a power rack. It built phenomenally strong people. It’s the quickest way to get to real top end strength and you can do amazing things that you may not be able to accomplish in any other way by simply working on those particular movements. They’re simple and they’re safe.
Another thing that they really do is they simplify a lift. A full range lift of any kind, because of its length and because of the full change-over of muscles moving from place to place along with your own imbalances, allows for areas where you can get hurt making stupid technical mistakes. A short range lift is by definition literally short enough that it segments a particular muscle or particular muscle set up and it is simple to do. It is very difficult to waiver in the torso with a four to six or even 10” range of motion, but with a 20” range of motion it’s easy to make technical mistakes.
Partials allow you to quickly train as hard and heavy as you can in a way that no other method mimics. You can get ridiculously, phenomenally strong. Amazing strongmen like Mike, Dennis Rogers and many of the greatest Powerlifters, strongmen and muscle guys of history have used some type of partial rep training in their work. If you really want to get the absolute best out of your body and if you really even want to potentiate your endurance or type three muscle fibers, which partials are one of the best ways to train those fibers, you can do it by mixing partials with endurance work. It’s one of the smartest ways to begin that type of work, but that’s a secret I have to tell you at another time.
If you really want to get as strong as you possibly can, then some type of partials have to circle through your routine at some point. If you don’t want that, that’s fine – Be satisfied with average. However if you truly want to get as strong as is humanly possible for you, then do some partial training. Learn from me or Mike about how to do them, because few others have as much working knowledge of training with this incredible and poignant method.
Take care, God bless you and thank you so much. I look forward to writing for you all again soon.
Bud Jeffries is the owner of Strongerman.com where you can read much more about combining super strength and super endurance together with partial training, kettlebell swings, odd objects training and much more.