Why You Should Add Partial Reps to Your Training and How to Do It
Some rules are made to be broken, such as "don't wear white after Labor Day" or "only eat tacos on Tuesdays." One more you can officially add to the list: "Move through the full range of motion in every rep."
Partial reps, or half reps, are just that-an exercise rep that is completed using a shortened range of motion (ROM), explains Brandon Beatty, C.S.C.S., F.M.S. That means instead of going through the full range of motion of an exercise (or fully extended and flexing to the joint's potential), you stop at say, a quarter, half, or three-quarters of the full rep. That includes squats that only go down a few inches, the top half of a bench press, the bottom portion of a biceps curl, or the first 2 feet of a deadlift.
Research has shown that while both partial and full ROM can lead to strength gains, full ROM ultimately leads to greater strength because this method causes muscle hypertrophy (simply put, muscle growth) more effectively. "If the choice is partial or full range of motion, the full range of motion wins, but there are some undeniable benefits of half reps," says Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., founder of Training2XL. Combining both ranges of motion can lead to bigger, stronger muscles, and increased calorie burn, adds Luciani.
So while full ROM is still the default, partial reps could be helpful if you're trying to take your fitness and muscle gains to the next level. Here are just a few of the reasons you should consider adding them to your workouts, plus some exercise examples on how to get started.
1. Break through a plateau.
Partial reps allow you to train through a sticking point, the part of the movement where the weight feels its heaviest, by focusing on those areas where your muscles have not been exhausted yet, says Beatty. For example, if you have reached failure doing full ROM of an exercise, meaning you are not able to complete one more rep without compromising ROM or form, partial reps can be used to target specific areas of the muscle that still have something left to give. You can continue to crank out reps over a smaller range of motion, and eventually, you'll increase overall muscle strength and push through that sticking point, says Luciani. (Something else that can help you get over a fitness hump? This workout with complex exercises that will give you better results in half the time.)
Another way to use partial reps to get past a plateau is to start off doing partial reps with heavier weight from the beginning of the set, Luciani says. That might mean loading a barbell with something that's heavier than your one-rep max, and lifting it as far as you can for, say, one to three partial biceps curls, or working within the first foot of a deadlift, says Beatty. This strategy primes your central nervous system, which is responsible for sending signals to your muscles to move, for that level of weight, so that full ROM reps end up becoming easier.
2. Improve your form and technique.
Partial reps can help build the neuromuscular pathways (like building a road from your brain to your body) for the portion of an exercise that is hardest for you. Then the movement eventually begins to become automatic (easier!), says Beatty. For example, if you can't seem to nail a kettlebell snatch for the life of you, just focus on the part that asks you to pull the weight from the floor and extend the hips, he says. Importantly, however, if you're using partial reps as a way to improve your form and technique, you'll need to make the weight lighter so you can better focus on the muscle moves, rather than the load.
Here's the catch: Partial reps can't be used in place of good-form full-reps, says Beatty. So if you're doing half reps simply so that you can do more reps or add more weight, stop. Focus on a weight that allows you to perform the movement with proper technique in both ranges of motion, he says. Ultimately, you'll feel more stable in your movements and more comfortable with proper form.
3. Heal from an injury.
Injured: First, go see a doctor, who will likely send you to a physical therapist. If your PT suggests or allows it, building partial reps into your training while you rehab can help you recover, says physical therapist Michael Silverman, director of rehabilitation and wellness at Northern Westchester Hospital. When someone is coming off an ankle or knee injury, for example, PTs will often have them start squatting with half reps, because going through the full ROM will put a lot of pressure on those joints, says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault. "That's because many people will have pain-free movement for the first half of the range of motion, but then feel pain," says Wickham. "Partial ROM allows people to continue training while still rehabbing the body without pain." Similarly, squatting part of the way down can help an athlete strengthen the specific muscle or muscle group that needs strengthening to balance out the body after being dormant from injury, says Silverman. (P.S. Did you know you also need to change your diet when you're injured?) How partial reps are used will depend on the exact injury, and athletes should consult with a specialist before trying this on their own.
4. Compensate for poor mobility.
Poor mobility and poor range of motion go hand in hand. Things like tight hips, rigid ankles, or knee pain limit flexibility and ROM, making partial reps perhaps the only option, at least temporarily, when strength training, explains Wickham. "It is much safer and better for the body to sit part of the way down into a squat than to go to full depth if you don't have the mobility," he says, so you don't put too much pressure on weak joints. That said, strength work needs to be combined with mobility exercises and stretches in your training to avoid injury and gradually increase the ROM over time. (This mobility workout to keep you injury-free for life is a great place to start.)
Exercises to Do with Partial Reps
Almost every exercise can be turned into a half-rep movement (with the exception of something that puts too much pressure on the shoulder joint), but some lifts and movements are going to be more beneficial as partial reps, so those are a good place to start, says Beatty. The weight and rep scheme that you use will depend on your current training and fitness level. Incorporating partial reps of each of the following movements one time a week in addition to your regular full ROM work can help you reach your muscle-building, fat-blasting, and even weight-loss potential, he says.
Using a weight that is about 40 to 50 percent of your one-rep max (or a weight you can lift for seven reps with proper full ROM form), perform the following rep scheme without stopping. You can increase the number of reps or the weight, if necessary.
- 7 bottom-half curls (from straight arms to 90-degree angle)
- 7 top-half curls (from 90-degree angle to chest)
- 7 full ROM reps
Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) are technically already half-rep deadlifts because you're doing about half of the full range of motion of a regular deadlift, says Beatty. Plus, they are a great exercise to see those booty gains, he adds. To shorten the movement, start by moving the bar from hip-height down to your knees, then standing back up. You'll want to pick a starting weight that's about 50 percent of your one-rep max for a RDL. You can make the movement even more isolated by stopping four inches above the knee, and focus on really contracting and squeezing the glutes every time you come up, he says. Aim to complete 3 sets of 6 to 8 partial reps. (Need some more booty-building inspiration? These four deadlift variations are exercises everyone can add to their workout.)
The bench press is a foundational strength movement that not many do, but should, says Luciani. "My recommendation is that you first begin incorporating bench pressing into your training with the full range of motion, but work in half or quarter reps, when you're comfortable," she says. Half rep bench press movements are a great way to target the chest and triceps muscles, explains Beatty, which are often underworked muscles for women. (Here, more important muscles women ignore.)
"To complete a half-rep squat, you would not break parallel, which-while you don't want to get in the habit of stopping above the breaking point-can be an effective way to increase strength," says Luciani. This means, your butt never drops below your knees. Try doing 1 rep with full ROM followed by a half rep, she says. "Using a full rep and a half rep within the same sequence increases a muscle's time under tension. More time under tension means more muscle breakdown, which with proper recovery, means that the muscle will grow back stronger."
Here's how to do it: If you know your one-rep max for the back squat, put 50 percent of that weight on the bar and do 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps, resting 1 minute between sets. If you don't know your 1 rep max, start with an empty barbell and slowly add weight until you find a load you can do comfortably for 6 to 8 reps, suggests Luciani.
"Bulgarian split squats are a great way to strengthen the glutes and the quads," says Beatty. "Doing half reps can help build muscle, protect from any hamstring tension or tendonitis, and keep from aggravating old injuries." Follow the same rep scheme as you did with the biceps curl, switching legs after completing all 21 reps.
- 7 bottom-half reps (from 90-degrees to bottom of squat)
- 7 top-half reps (from 90-degrees to standing)
- 7 full ROM reps