Full range of motion for full development,” is a common mantra amongst many bodybuilders and powerlifters, and for good reason. Studies show that performing full range of motion exercises leads to better strength gains and more effectively catalyzes muscle hypertrophy.

If the choice is partials or full range of motion, then full range of motion wins hands down. But what if we looked beyond a choice between the two and combined full range of motion exercises with partials? Elite strength athletes have done this for decades with favorable results. Recently, this was examined under scientific scrutiny and the results indicate that a judicious combination of both may be the best way to build bigger, stronger muscles.

The study

The study titled “The efficacy of incorporating partial squats in maximal strength training” examined combining partial and full reps in a strength training regimen.  Eighteen resistance-trained males were assigned to a group that trained with only full range of motion squats for six sets or a combined group that trained with full range of motion squats for three sets and partial squats for three sets. Both groups trained twice weekly.

At the end of seven weeks, the group that performed full range of motion squats increased its maxes in the full squat by an average of 5.1% compared to the combined training group’s 8.2%. The full range of motion training group improved its partial squat max by 10.2% but fell shy of the combined group’s 14.9% improvement.

The researchers concluded that partial ROM squats in conjunction with full ROM squats may be an effective training method for improving maximal strength in males with previous strength training experience. “Practically, partial squats may be beneficial for strength and power athletes during a strength-speed mesocycle while peaking for competition,” the researchers added.

Interpreting results

Increases in the quarter (partial) squat, value-wise, rival the Zimbabwean dollar!

At the end of the day, what was most interesting is that the combined training group performed 50% less full squats than the full range of motion group, but still made 64% better gains than the full squat-only group.   

Paul Anderson, the greatest squatter from the classical era, incorporated heavy partial squats in conjunction with heavy full squats to set numerous world records. Ed Coan would train heavy walkouts in the squat prior to peaking for a competition.

Why partials?

The famous Russian sports scientist Vladimir Zatsiorsky wrote about the accentuation principle, which means to train in the range of motion where the highest amounts of force are produced.

The drawback to partials is, many times, lifters train to lift more in the partial movement rather than mimic the proper, full-ROM technique of the lift they are training to increase.  An example is a partial deadlift above the knee: if a lifter typically misses at this spot, more than likely, their back is rounded and mechanical advantage has greatly decreased because of something that happened earlier in the lift. A partial deadlift from the weak spot generally turns into a ¼ squat with the barbell in the hands, optimizing mechanical advantage, so transference to the weak point of force production is non-existent.

Technically, train the partial to transfer to the main lift. The biggest advantage to training with partials with weights exceeding a lifter’s one-repetition max is the lifter will become accustomed to heavy weights, neural inhibitions will decline, and confidence shoots sky high.

Practically applied

Here is a squat workout straight out of the playbook of “The Mighty Minister,” Paul Anderson, incorporating partials for increasing strength.

Exercise Sets Reps
Squat 2 101
Squat 3 22
½ Squat 1 23
¼ Squat 1 44
Deadlift 4 6-85

1 Use 60% of your squat One Repetition Max (1 RM), rest 4 minutes between sets.
2 1st set: use 80% 1RM; 2nd set: 85% 1RM; 3rd set: 90% 1RM. Rest 5 minutes between sets
3 Use 110% of 1RM.
4 Use 125% of 1RM.
5 Use 75% 1RM, rest 3-4 minutes between sets.

Studies, including the one cited, that show favorable results with partials use trained subjects. In other words, this is for experienced lifters only. Partials for intermediate and advanced trainees can serve as part one of a plateau-busting strategy when combined with full range of motion training. Partials are a supplement to traditional training, not a substitute.