Should You Always Use a Full Range of Motion?

Posted by Jason Ferruggia

You want the simple answer?


Even though you hear a ton of people saying it the fact of the matter is you don’t have to and, in fact, shouldn’t always use a full range of motion on every exercise you do.

People who recommend this are well intentioned. I’ve recommended it myself and still do to beginners. In a general sense it’s very good advice. But when we get more advanced and examine things more closely we get a different story.

Sometimes a full range of motion can be dangerous. Other times it can simply be less productive for building muscle, just because the bottom position might put more stress on the connective tissues than the muscles and the top position might have the joints supporting the weight instead of the muscles. Not that that’s a bad thing for strength gains. Joints are meant to lock out and support weight. So if someone on The Biggest Loser or something tells you not to lock out for that reason they are ill informed.

So let’s start from the neck and we’ll work our way down through exercises and body parts that I think you should limit the range of motion on.

Neck Work
This is one body part you definitely want to be careful training. Never do a full complete range of motion on any type of neck work. You want to stay in a safe range where all the tension can be felt in the muscles of the neck; not the top few vertebrae. It’s very easy to overdo the range on this so always play it safe, go too light and use a small range of motion until you get used to it. Let the movement occur just by cranking your head back and forth and not over extending or overflexing your spine.

I recommend both types of shrugs. Lighter ones where you try to touch your traps to your ears and heavier sets where you’re just moving big weights. Deadlifts build traps better than almost anything else and there’s no range of motion there. So that proves you don’t need full range stretch and contraction all the time.

Shoulder/ Vertical Pressing
If you are only using the military press to build muscle you’d be much better served to start with the bar at about chin height instead of on your chest. Yes, starting on your chest makes it “official,” but it also places a lot more stress on the shoulders. I’d start at chin height and even use a little leg drive, on at least the first rep of the set, to get the bar moving out of the most stressful position at the bottom.

As far as lockout goes there are a few ways of looking at it. Again, to be an official press it should be locked out. Locking out also trains the triceps effectively. However, by transferring the stress to the triceps you are removing it from the delts. So if you’re just using the military press primarily to build bigger shoulders it would be a good idea to stop a couple inches short of lockout.

The decision is up to you based on your goals.

Not that I use or program lateral raises that much but they can be more effective when done with a smaller range of motion and heavier weight in a lot of cases. Just something to think about.

Chest/ Horizontal Pressing
Full range benching is stressful to the shoulders. No matter what anyone says I will never be convinced otherwise. I’ve discussed this with the top shoulder surgeons in New York City and have the shoulder surgery scars from too much heavy benching as a reminder. I always recommend pressing on a 15-30 incline to lessen the stress on the shoulders. If you do that the low incline press can be a great chest exercise provided you limit the range of motion. You should stop the bar 2-3 inches off the chest in order to keep the tension on the pecs and off the connective tissue. You should do the same at the top and stop shy of lockout to also maintain that tension on your chest on not transfer it to your triceps.

Yes, some people can bench for years with no shoulder problems. I’m just sharing what I’ve learned over more than two decades of training.  What you choose to do is up to you.

This advice of shortened range of motion really applies to any type of barbell or dumbbell pressing you do for the chest.

With pushup variations you can also stop shy of lockout to keep tension on the pecs and off the triceps. Getting into a full stretch at the bottom position of a suspended pushup is safer than doing so with a bar or dumbbells so if you’re looking to train that very bottom position pushups are the exercise to do it on.

Fly exercises should always have a limited range of motion as the very bottom position is too dangerous for both the pecs and the shoulders and the top 1/3 of the movement places no tension on the target muscles at all, unless you’re using cables.

Note: If you are stopping all of your pushing exercises 2-3 inches shy of lockout you are getting less triceps work in and may have to make up for that with more direct work for this muscle. So, on one hand you’re making the exercises more efficient, but from a time perspective you’re adding more stuff to your workout that you need to do. If you intended to do direct triceps work anyway it’s not a big deal. If you didn’t and rely on pressing to get your triceps training in this may not be the ideal plan for you. You gotta decide that on your own.

Dips and Direct Triceps Stuff
You absolutely have to limit the bottom range on dips otherwise you’re begging for a shoulder injury. Go no lower than the point where upper arm is parallel to the floor. For some, even this might be too deep. If you’re feeling more stress in your shoulder joint than your triceps you’re going too low.

Pushdowns and extensions are stressful to the elbows no matter what. But they can me made safer by only doing them after you have gotten a triceps pump and by limiting the range. If you wanted to do some pushdowns after dips that would be the perfect time for them. Start with a limited stretch at the top and work up to it as you warm up. Pushdowns with bands are a great option because they lessen the tension at the top stretched position where there is usually the most stress on the elbows. I’d usually recommend them over regular pushdowns in most cases.

(Dont’ have bands? You can order them HERE.)

After pushdowns,  if you hit an overhead cable or band extension or even some type of lying extension next you’d want to limit the full range stretch position on that if you have elbow issues. But doing it after dips and pushdowns is a lot safer.

Another way to make direct triceps exercises safer is doing them with a full biceps pump. That reduces the range of motion and automatically keeps you in a safer position.

Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow.

In the meantime, if you liked this post do me a favor and hit the Facebook “Like” button and fire away with any questions you have in the comments section below.