Range of Motion
by Erik Castiglione
At any CrossFit gym, and particularly here at Viking Athletics, you might hear a coach tell you to “go all the way down” or “get lower” in a squat. Similarly, in push-ups, you’ll frequently hear “chest to deck” and “all the way up, full lockout.” We’re instructing you to achieve full range of motion (ROM) in these movements. What is range of motion, why do we care, and is it ever acceptable to NOT use full ROM? Let’s dive in.
What is range of motion?
The biomedical definition of range of motion is “both the distance a joint can move and the direction in which it can move.” Range of motion also refers to how far a load can move in a particular exercise. There is a lot of overlap in these definitions, especially when we look at complex movements like snatches and cleans. A snatch moves our joints through much greater ranges that say, a shrug.
This brings us to an important sub-topic: active vs. passive range of motion. Passive range of motion is when your joint is manipulated by an external force and your muscles are relaxed. A good example of this would be a partner assisting your stretching. Some of our members have the hip flexibility to hang out in the bottom of a squat without effort, and they can relax while in this position whether they are bearing weight or not. If you’ve ever gotten pinned in the bottom of a squat, you know what I’m talking about. We want you to move through your ACTIVE range of motion, which is where your muscles are contracting to allow you to move the joint. For our deep squatters, this might mean that you don’t squat ass to grass, but rather stop a little higher up where you’re still under tension.
Why do we care about it?
We care about active range of motion vs. passive range of motion because it’s a safety issue. If you’re performing handstand push-ups and are not strong enough to descend without smashing your head into the ground, your spine is going to be angry with you. Similarly, if you lack the shoulder mobility to perform an overhead squat with good form, you’ll end up holding the weight with flexed arms, or you’ll contort yourself into a position that isn’t ideal and is potentially injurious.
We recognize that not everyone has full range of motion right away. We want you to perform movements to YOUR full active range of motion, because performing these movements is a great way to help increase your mobility. Going back to the overhead squat example, by performing limited overhead squats with good form, you will eventually build increase your ROM to the point that you can achieve full depth with good form.
When you can safely achieve full range of motion, you can activate more muscles with a full movement than with a partial one. To build the most strength and lean muscle possible, we WANT this recruitment. So, a full range of motion is better in this case.
An added benefit of a longer range of motion is that it creates a greater cardiovascular effect than a short one. Think of a push press vs. a thruster. Which one gasses you more? The thruster, of course. As we recruit more muscle, we get a greater spike in heart rate, and this is more easily achieved with bigger ranges of motion. So, while it may be tempting to do half squats in a workout so you can move faster, you actually get a better conditioning benefit by squatting all the way down, even if it takes a little longer.
Is it ever acceptable to NOT use full ROM?
Yes, it is! (insert audible gasp here). We covered active range of motion earlier, so one reason to shorten a range of motion is for athlete safety. We can scale athletes to ranges of motion where they are able to remain safe and under control.
Building on this idea, we can limit range of motion as a scaling option to build strength over time. The handstand push-up is a great example of this. We start athletes with an Abmat or two under their head. As they get more proficient with the limited ROM, we gradually increase it. Over time, they develop the ability to perform a full ROM HSPU.
Third, we can shorten the range of motion in a lift by using boards, pins, or boxes, to force athletes to train through their sticking points. We discussed box squats last week, and we performed floor presses this week. In a floor press, the lack of an elevated surface prevents our arms from traveling lower than our backs. As a result, we don’t get the same chest involvement of a bench press, and instead we’re forced to use more triceps. We also don’t get a bounce off our chests, so we can’t rely on elastically stored energy in our tendons to give us momentum on the way back up. This means that we’re forced to train only the lockout portion of the bench press when we perform floor presses.
Lastly, we can train a shortened range of motion to target a particular muscle or improve parts of a complex movement. We do this frequently when training the snatch and clean – variations from the hang and high hang have a smaller pulling range of motion than lifts from the floor. Muscle and power variations do not require a full squat, so they have a shorter receiving range of motion. For athletes who use weight training to supplement their performance on field, the hang power clean is often preferable to a full clean, because it requires much less technique, and can be mastered more quickly. Similarly, partial squats have been shown to increase top running speeds in athletes, so for sprinters, it sometimes makes sense to do quarter or half squats rather than full depth squats. For body builders, doing a limited range of motion bicep curl can activate a specific part of the bicep more than a full ROM curl would. If the body builder feels that the peak of their bicep isn’t high enough, training a specific part of the curl can fix this.
The key point in all these ROM limiting situations is that they are DELIBERATE. Unless we are intentionally limiting range of motion, we expect you to achieve YOUR full ROM on every rep. When we know you can go lower and you’re not because the workout is getting tough and you’re starting to get a little lazy, THAT is when we take issue. We’re here to push you to be the best you can be, and you’ll achieve it by working through YOUR full ROM. If not, you’ll hear a coach yell “all the way down!”
See you in the gym.