How To Strategically Use Partial Reps Without “Cheating”
We have this notion that everyone should be able to squat past parallel, deadlift from the floor, and/or bench to their chest. Let’s throw in overhead press for good measure too. But unfortunately we live in the real world, where people have structural limitations in their hips and shoulders, soft tissue restrictions that reduce mobility, and a history of injuries that can prevent certain movements from happening without pain or adding more systemic stress. We are also in an industry that believes that every movement incorporating partial reps is considered cheating.
It is this last category where most people struggle to reintroduce the compound lifts that we’ve all come to grow and love. There is a certain mindset that if you can’t use your body’s full range of motion for a certain exercise, then it’s not worth doing it at all. Typically, using a muscle’s full accessible range of motion is the better idea. However, this isn’t always true, especially in instances where we’re recovering from an injury. In those cases, it may not be optimal for your body.
That doesn’t mean we avoid training. It means that we have to program exercises within the limitations the body has. One way to do that is to incorporate partial reps or partial ranges of motion.
The number one complaint that most people have with the squat, is that it bothers their knees. One way to reintroduce the squat pattern is to work within the ranges of motion that do not cause pain using partial reps. Of course this would be after trying to improve the technical aspects of the squat first.
One of the simplest ways to alter the range of motion is to use a box squat as a guide for depth. In my experience, client height depending, using a 12-inch box with an Airex pad is a good place to start. From that point, make adjustments in the height to find a range of motion that works for you.
It may be higher, it may be lower, and you may even enter the zone where the angry mob comes at you with pitchforks for “quarter squatting”. But once you start working through a pain free range of motion, your body will get stronger and slowly it will stop perceiving squatting as a threat.
Every few weeks take the time to retest your available range of motion until you reach a point where you no longer need the box. Unless of course you’re training on Dr. John’s FHT Program, in which case you’ll love box squatting forever.
You can program these much like you would your regular squat workouts, provided they are free of restrictions. As you get stronger, test other ranges of motion with assistance if necessary. Our goal here is to get full range of motion at one point.
If you’ve ever hurt your lower back before, you’re immediately ingrained with this fear of picking anything up off the floor (doesn’t matter if it’s a sock or a barbell). Just the thought of deadlifting sends you into a panic.
Good news though, you don’t have to deadlift from the floor. In fact, when rehabbing from a low back injury, rack pulls or block pulls are your best bet as far as progressions are concerned. There are other steps and progressions to work through, but in terms of working our way back to the barbell, these two variations can help you crush the hinge.
Rack or Block Pulls
Both lifts will elevate the bar, thus decreasing the range of motion necessary to perform them, which will reduce the stress to your body, especially the lower back. Rack pulls can range from mid-shin to just under the knees, but much like the box squat, you’ll need to play with partial reps and ranges of motion that will allow you to perform reps safely and effectively.
Rack pulls and block pulls can both be programmed similarly to deadlifts from the floor. However, coming off of an injury, keep the loads relatively light and the reps high so that we can groove the pattern and become hinging masters.
The shoulder is a sensitive joint that can get overworked in a hurry when it comes to performing the bench press. Pain can present for any reason, including a poor set up, poor shoulder stability, or just technical flaws. But while we figure out the root of our pain, we can also work within a pain free range of motion using a board press.
Typically, when there is pain with the bench press, it’s at the bottom of the movement. This is where our shoulder joint can be the most exposed, especially if our set-up and technique is off. Enter the 2-board press, which cuts down on the range of motion, decreasing the risk of injury to the shoulder.
In the case of transitioning to a strength-based program after rehab, the 2-board press allows us to load the movement, but not in a full range of motion, but rather partial reps. This reduced range of motion will still allow us to still get a training effect, whether it’s for hypertrophy, strength, or just making the joint and soft tissues more resilient to load.
As the shoulder starts to get stronger and more resilient, we can lower down to a single board, and then finally back to the full bench press. With each progression, we want to do enough work to earn that next, bigger range of motion.
The first step is to relearn the pressing pattern, so start there with lighter weights and higher reps with the board. Once you’ve regained the confidence to press, you can start incorporating heavier loads into your program.
As mentioned above in the press, the shoulder is a joint where movements can get a little “off”. If this happens, we’re often left with issues in the anterior part of the joint. When it comes to pulling movements like the row or pull-up, the common tendency is to “over pull” and end up with the humerus drifting forward into an anterior glide. This often happens because we lack normal scapular rhythm and access to the full range of motion of the shoulder blade.
TRX Pull-Up or Iso-Plate Row
Two ways we can regain that scapular movement is by inserting some modifications to our pulling movements. For vertical pulls, we can break out the TRX and shorten it all the way up till the handles are about chest height. This allows us to get into a squat position under the straps, allowing the lower body to provide a bit of assistance, and taking some of the load off of the upper body.
Since the upper body doesn’t have to provide as much force, we are able to concentrate more on the movement of the shoulder blades and practicing the technique of the pull-up. If you don’t have a TRX or a similar strap system, you could also use a barbell in a rack, but make sure you set it up so you pull into the rack, not away. The TRX is preferred only because you have some degrees of freedom with how the hands are positioned, which can make it more shoulder friendly.
For the horizontal pull, there is more of a chance of that “over pulling” movement, mostly because we want our hands to get to our chest. To find that ideal position, you’re going to lay flat on a bench, much like you would for a Seal Row. However, instead of using a barbell or dumbbells, we’re going to use a 45lb plate, or a 25lb bumper plate. Pull the plate to the bottom of the bench, squeeze the shoulder blades back, and try to break the plate in half by pulling against the bench. This pull variation prevents you from over pulling into extension, leaving you in a solid row position.
If you have a shoulder injury, or are having a difficult time getting pull-ups or chin-ups, add the modified pull-ups to your program when you want to do vertical pulls. To get an even better idea of how your shoulder blades are moving, try getting a video of your back as you do them. From there, you can tweak your movement. To start out, keep the reps low as you should be working on technique.
As for the horizontal pull, use the plate iso -row to provide context for performing a bodyweight inverted row or a dumbbell row. The plate row will give you feedback for what a row should feel like as you progress to other rows. The sweet spot for these tends to be 10-15 seconds long.
Single Leg aka The Lunge
When performing split squats or lunges, there are typically issues with depth, alignment, and where to keep tension, especially when you’re coming off an injury. However, if we build the split squat from the ground up, we can get past those issues. The way we do this is by grabbing a pad and getting into a half kneeling position for split squats.
Ground Up Split Squat with Airex Pad
Once we’re in that position, we want to create tension in both the front and back legs, while making sure that we’re in good alignment with a slight lean forward. From there, drive yourself up into the standing position, then slowly back down till you tap the pad with your knee, and then drive back up again. Learning to create that tension throughout the lower body, as well as keeping yourself stabilized, goes a long way in creating a solid split squat and lunge.
Keep these to a bodyweight exercise to start, or if necessary, use assistance in the form of a pole or TRX with higher amounts of reps. This will solidify the motor plan in your brain. Then, as you master the movement, you can progress to adding resistance.
The point of the carry is to be able to walk with a load, and sometimes that can be limited by what we’re able to pick up off the floor. If we can elevate the implement we’re carrying, like we did for the rack pulls, it’ll make getting into the carry position that much easier. Then we can start to concentrate on the actual exercise itself.
Elevated Surface Carries & Iso-Holds
Similarly, we can hold the load in place, thus creating an environment to learn how to keep tension, before we start walking with the load. Once you get used to the positioning necessary for loaded carries, then you can start taking those small steps.
This concept can be applied to any variation of a loaded carry. Scoop the weight up from wherever you elevate it from, and hold that position for 20-30 seconds to start. Once you feel comfortable maintaining tension throughout these holds, progress to moving with the weight.
A Smarter Way To Program Partial Reps
Having to rehab an injury isn’t necessarily a life sentence to remedial exercises. We can still perform some of our favorite movements, but we need to find the ranges of motion that will best suit our needs and capabilities by utilizing partial reps. By doing so, we’ll eventually build up enough resilience and strength to progress to the next movement. However, it is vital that we remain patient with these exercises and earn the right to progress.
About The Author
Chris Cooper, NSCA-CPT, LMT is a personal trainer with 10 years of experience in the fitness profession. He is co-owner of Active Movement & Performance, a training facility on Long Island. In addition to being a trainer, he is also a New York State Licensed Massage Therapist, which has allowed him to blend the two worlds to not only get his clients stronger and in better shape, but to also fix dysfunctions to make them better movers overall.