by Christian Thibaudeau T-Nation
Here's what you need to know...
• For hypertrophy, it doesn't really matter what the exercise looks like as long as it puts the muscle under an optimal load/tension. Accordingly, some of the biggest bodybuilders on the planet rely heavily on partial reps.
• If you can't feel a muscle working in an exercise, you can't stimulate it or grow it optimally. Isolation work will fix this problem and even improve your compound lifts.
• You can build muscle with almost any kind of rep range. If you train consistently and try to gradually become stronger in the rep ranges you're doing, you'll grow muscle with 3 reps or 20 reps.
Despite my focus on performance, I also want to look muscular and lean, as do my clients. I've even competed in bodybuilding myself to see what it was like and to understand it better. I also had the opportunity to work with a lot of great bodybuilders, amateurs and pros. I worked with Amit Sapir for a few years, starting when he was an amateur and up to when he won his pro card. I also was involved in the Darryl Gee project that was documented on T Nation. Currently, I'm training Patrick Bernard, a new IFBB pro in the 212-pound class, as well as a young woman who won her class in figure at a recent contest. I've definitely learned a thing or two in the process.
You can learn from anyone who's training hard and making progress - bodybuilders, powerlifters, athletes, CrossFitters, Olympic lifters, etc. Close your mind to any of these training modalities because of pre-conceived ideas and you'll miss out on a lot. That said, here are three things I learned from working with bodybuilders.
1. Partial or "incomplete reps" can be very effective.
As a performance guy, form is important to me. Good technique equals better performance. Of course, when you're competing in lifting sports like Olympic lifting, powerlifting, strongman, and CrossFit, a rep doesn't count if it's not complete or done within the rules. As such, I've always had a hard time accepting half squats, benches that weren't locked out, and touch and go deadlifts. With bodybuilders I often see these same "incomplete reps" - things like squats that are just a tad too high (coming from an Olympic lifting background, I'm used to going as low as your ligaments and bones will allow you to go!), bench presses that aren't locked, close-grip benches not lowered all the way to the chest, etc., but I've changed my tune. Here are some observations I made:
1. The first guy I ever trained who had thighs over 32 inches was a bodybuilder who was only going down halfway on his squats (thighs parallel to the floor) and on some reps he would stop even higher, yet this guy had humongous quads! I also noticed recently that even the (arguably) best Olympic lifter in the world, Ilya Illyin, squats in a similar manner. It's also very common for Chinese Olympic lifters to do quarter squats or quarter front squats after their main squat work is done.
2. My client, IFBB pro Patrick Bernard, has amazing triceps, yet he never works full range on close-grip benches (stopping 1-2" from the chest and just short of lockout), dips (just doing the upper half of the range of motion), or bench presses (stopping 1-2" before lockout). He can easily do a full range lift - he's benched 455 pounds using a competition-style bench press - but when he trains, he generally uses one-half to two-thirds of the range of motion.
3. I used to work with Alex Raymond and he used to stop short on any triceps extension because of an elbow injury, yet his triceps were among his best body parts. When doing shoulder presses, he'd also stop just short of lockout and lower the bar or dumbbells only to mouth level, yet he had amazing shoulders.
4. Some of the guys with the biggest biceps I've seen are those who only train the middle of the range of motion on curls, keeping the muscle under constant tension.
5. While Patrick Bernard uses a full range of motion on his squats, he uses only a very short range of motion on his leg press. As a result (or in spite of it), he has amazing vastus medialis development.
And these are only examples. Partial reps are fairly common, if not the norm, in bodybuilding. It was a shock for me at first, but after analyzing it I realized that for a bodybuilder, the purpose of doing a lifting exercise is simply to put tension on a muscle to make it grow. It doesn't really matter what the exercise looks like as long as it puts the muscle under an optimal load/tension. Empirically, they found that doing only a portion of the range of motion on some movements is what worked best for their own goals and their own body.
Furthermore, bodybuilders tend to use relatively higher reps while still relying on pretty heavy weights. That's something that can take its toll on the joints, and reducing the range of motion can give the joints a break. Now I'm not saying to start avoiding full range of motion on every set of every lift. After all, going full range on big movements often involves a greater amount of muscle mass and reaching a stretched position increases growth stimulation by activating the mTor pathway. However, when you're focusing on constant tension training (as opposed to heavy/strength lifting), it's perfectly okay to train in the range of motion that keeps the target muscle loaded.
Here are some examples of how to incorporate partial range of motion training:
Exercise Training Range Purpose
Bench Press Stopping a few inches from lockout Keeps constant tension on the pectorals, prevents the triceps from kicking in too much; reduces elbow strain
Close-Grip Bench 1-2" from chest to just prior to lockout Makes the close-grip work safer on the shoulders, avoids having the chest kick in too much
Incline Bench Press 1-2" from chest to 1-2" from lockout Keeps constant tension on the pectorals, avoids excessive shoulder strain
Dip Keeping the shoulders above the elbows in the low position Has the triceps do most of the work while reducing shoulder strain
Shoulder Press Bar/Dumbbell handle no lower than mouth level and up to 1-2" short of lockout Keeps constant tension on the deltoids, prevents the triceps from taking over, reduces shoulder strain in the bottom position
Squats/Front Squat From upper thigh parallel to the floor and up to 1-2" short of lockout Keeps the quads under constant tension and reduces the participation of the glutes and hamstrings
Leg Press Going down just prior to reaching a 90-degree angle at the knees Increases vastus medialis stimulation and reduces hip and lower back strain
Curl (Biceps) From just short of full elbow extension up to just short of finishing the flexion Keeps the stress on the biceps by preventing the front delts and traps from kicking in too much, reduces elbow strain
Triceps Extension (pulley, dumbbell or bar) Go from full flexion to about an inch before reaching full extension Reduces some elbow stress, provides constant tension on the triceps
Romanian Deadlift Going as low as possible but only going three-fourths of the way up Keeps the hamstrings under constant tension, reduces the risk of possible lumbar hyperextension
I wouldn't use partial-movement training exclusively. For me, it's more of an assistance technique. I certainly wouldn't use it when going heavy for low reps as it defeats the purpose of the exercise. This is best kept for when using moderate-to-high reps (8-20). If you decide to use this technique, incorporate at least one full-range compound exercise with each muscle group. The bottom line is that you should train mostly in the full range of motion, but understand what partial range of motion can do for you and don't be afraid to use it if it fits your goals.
2. Learning to feel a muscle makes it easier to stimulate (and grow).
I used to make fun of isolation exercises, yet I was the one praising the importance of having a good mind-muscle connection. It might not seem like a huge paradox until you understand that if you have a lousy mind-muscle connection, the best way to fix it is by doing isolation work for that muscle. In that regard, isolation work is a good idea, even if it's just used as a tool to improve your recruitment of a muscle so that you can better stimulate it with compound movements.
If you can't feel a muscle working in a movement, you can't stimulate it optimally. The more you feel a muscle doing work, the better your recruitment of that muscle is and the more it will grow. Period.
Most of the time, just "thinking" about a muscle while doing an exercise, or trying harder to feel it working, isn't going to make a difference. If you don't feel the pectorals being loaded during a bench press, you won't feel them better simply by thinking about them. That's where isolation work can help you. By learning to isolate and flex a muscle, creating maximum tension with that muscle, you'll gradually improve your capacity to recruit it. The better you are at recruiting it, the easier you can integrate it when doing the big lifts.
A few years back, after I'd just transitioned from Olympic weightlifting to regular strength lifting/bodybuilding, my delts were so dominant I couldn't make my pecs grow no matter what. I could bench press in the 400's but had a flat chest. So I decided to "reprogram" my chest recruitment by doing more isolation work and pre-fatigue training. Within a short period of time I could feel my chest during any variation of the bench press. It wasn't long until my chest caught up to my shoulders, so much so that at one point I had to use the same strategy for my deltoids because my chest had begun taking over!
Now let's be honest here. Sure, it sounds better to preach doing the big basics rather than isolation work. Squats, bench presses, deadlifts, push presses, power cleans... all of those make you sound hardcore. But the truth is that any resistance exercise can build muscle mass; isolation exercises just do it on a smaller scale because they don't involve as many different muscles. But, if you train hard on them, they "work" too.
Still, I feel that the biggest benefit of isolation work is to increase your capacity to recruit a lagging muscle, and by increasing that capacity you also improve your chances of optimally stimulating that muscle during the big basic lifts. I see isolation work as motor learning - learning to maximally recruit and contract a muscle. While the bulk of your training program should revolve around the big basic lifts, isolation work might be necessary to solve a problem with lagging muscle groups. In that case, isolation work by itself or as a pre-fatigue superset (doing the isolation exercise before the compound movement) can help solve the issue by increasing your capacity to recruit a muscle and integrate it optimally in a big compound lift.
3. Use a large arsenal.
Bodybuilders tend to use a much broader range of training stimuli than strength athletes, and I'm not even talking about exercises but rather about the different types of loading. Strength athletes tend to stick to low reps (1-5) in their training. Sometimes they might go up to 6-8 reps, but that's mostly on isolation work. Bodybuilders, on the other hand, will use any type of reps to stimulate growth - low (1-5), moderate (6-10), high (12-20), and even very high (more than 20).
Bodybuilders have long understood that provided you work hard, you can grow muscle with pretty much any kind of rep range. If you train consistently and try to gradually become stronger in the rep range(s) you're doing, you'll grow muscle regardless of if you are doing 3 or 20 reps. Strength athletes, by being so focused on simply lifting bigger and bigger weights, are actually robbing themselves of some potential gains. After all, while it's true that the nervous system is key when it comes to showcasing strength, it's still the muscles that are lifting the weight. All things being equal, the more muscle you have, the stronger you'll be.
I love low reps. If I were to train only based on what I enjoy doing I'd never go above 3 reps per set, with the bulk of my work being done for singles or doubles. And I actually did that for a pretty long time. But the truth is that when I also included slightly higher reps (5-10), I gained more muscle, faster. Now that I want to gain some muscle back after some medical problems, I'm including some higher rep work (up to 10 reps), even on the big movements, and I'm noticing a difference in growth. And while I'm only lifting heavy once a week, I've noticed that I'm still getting stronger even though I'm doing less "pure strength" work.
If you get significantly stronger in any rep range, you'll be stronger overall. It's true, though, that gaining strength on lower reps (let's say 2-5 reps) will transfer better to a 1RM test of strength and make you a lot stronger overall than gaining strength on higher reps (8-12).
A good approach could look something like this:
Day 1: Pull workout, sets of 10 reps
Day 2: Push workout, sets of 10 reps
Day 3: Leg workout, sets of 10 reps
Day 4: Test* (1 leg, 1 push, 1 pull), sets of 3 reps
Day 1: Pull workout, sets of 6 reps
Day 2: Push workout, sets of 6 reps
Day 3: Leg workout, sets of 6 reps
Day 4: Test* (1 leg, 1 push, 1 pull), sets of 2 reps
Day 1: Pull workout, sets of 3 reps
Day 2: Push workout, sets of 3 reps
Day 3: Leg workout, sets of 3 reps
Day 4: Test* (1 leg, 1 push, 1 pull), sets of 1 rep
* Day 4 of each week is designed to be a "test" day where you go for a heavy set to ensure that you keep the feeling of using near-maximal weights. For instance, work up to a 3RM of front squats (leg), bench presses (push) and deadlift (pull) in 5-6 sets.
Of course, bodybuilders use even broader rep ranges, but this represents a great compromise for my goals and training preferences as it allows me to keep gaining strength fast while also building a bit more muscle.