Understanding ROM - Pt.I
It's more than just a sci-fi comic from the 80's
by Arik Orosz

The ROM Debate

Range of motion (ROM) in exercise is an often debated and even more often misunderstood topic in developing an effective lifting protocol. I've had more than one flabby, misguided trainer approach me in the gym with his, "dude, you gotta use full range!" speech. Rather than melting their robot-like brains with a lecture on the difference between ROM of a specific muscle verses ROM in a particular plane of movement, I prefer to just say thanks for the free advice and offer to buy them nice, cold soy protein drink from the juice bar. That'll learn 'em!


Theories of Yesteryear

It seem as though every magazine I've ever read in my earlier lifting years talked about using full ROM in every single exercise like it was the gospel! Unfortunately many weight training athletes are still roaming the gym with this misconception planted firmly in their unwritten list of lifting how-to's. ROM is quite an extensive topic and breaking down every facet of it would definitely be beyond the scope of this article. However, we will lay the foundation for using common sense in determining the appropriate range in a movement to achieve the desired effect.

Determining the Correct ROM for a Movement

There is certainly a time and a place for using full range on many movements. Full squats for example are without a doubt one of the most beneficial leg movements around. However if you already have watermelon-sized glutes and want to stimulate the quads more directly, you would probably opt for a narrow stance and a shorter range, perhaps a half squat. Long story short don't always assume that moving the joint as far as it will possibly go is the ideal way to get results.

First you must realize how many different muscles are acting on a particular joint and what those muscles do. Now I realize most of you are not running to your local university book store to buy a biomechanics text anytime soon. This is where common sense comes into play. Without being a training guru and knowing every muscle action, origin, and insertion you can still tune into what your body tells you when performing any given movement. At the very least, know what muscle(s) you are trying to work when you perform an exercise. This will give you the ability to determine whether an exercise "feels" correct or not. All the book knowledge in the world cannot substitute substitute developing an intuitive feel when training and an overall body awareness. This is what you should be striving for above all else when lifting. Learning how to hook up the muscle is everything when it comes to getting results whether you are a bodybuilder, powerlifter, or athlete. You can dumbbell press until the cows come home but if your chest is concave, you will end up with decent front delts at best and most likely develop a shoulder injury when you try to increase the poundage.

On that note, lets talk about the difference the range of a muscle and the range of a plane of movement. There are too many examples to even list here but part 2 of this article will focus more heavily on the specifics of ROM for various movements. Lets take for example, an incline bench press. This has got to be one of the most commonly abused movements you will ever see at the gym. Aside from the basics, keep the scapula together, the traps tight, keep the hands equal to or closer than the distance of the elbows from the body, etc., lets look at how far we should take the bar down. There are a few determining factors here such as flexibility and that particular individuals natural range of the shoulder capsule. Other factors include grip width and intent of the movement. The closer the grip is, the shorter the necessary range becomes for effective upper chest work. Also if you are trying to become strong using a full range, then you should practice using full range most of the time. However if you just want a nice looking, muscular upper chest then you must know at what point in the movement the chest checks out and the shoulders take over. If your shoulders are feeling more brutalized than your upper chest then you are either not keeping the back/traps tight or you are simply coming down too far to isolate the upper chest. Most people (depending on arm length) will stop about 2-3 inches from touching the clavicle in order to keep the majority of the work in the chest. So you see, using full ROM for that plane of movement would involve the bar touching the chest. This is very different from using full ROM for the targeted muscle (upper chest in this case) which involves shortening the movement.

Another example of this is the triceps pushdown. Most often you see people letting the bar all the way up as high as will go, or worse yet, letting the shoulders move. Just because the joint allows the bar to move up that far doesn't necessarily make it the ideal way to do it. In the words of Chris Rock, "you can steer your car using your feet if you want, but that doesn't make it a good f****n idea!". Case in point, if you are targeting a shorter range muscle, you are going to use a shorter range of movement. In this case you are targeting the lateral head of the triceps which doesn't require a very large ROM to be worked effectively.

Laying the Groundwork

Hopefully part 1 of this article laid a foundation for understanding the general concept behind altering ROM to suit the appropriate circumstance. In part 2 of this article we will go into depth about how to determine ROM more specifically for a variety of different exercises. So remember, the next time a someone tells you to "always go full range", just say, "thanks bud" and buy 'em a soy shake!

Note from the author: I'd like to give a special thanks to James McCormick for his invaluable knowledge and insight on this topic throughout the years. He is truly one of the greats in the biz.