Why Do Experts Recommend Exercising Through a Full Range of Motion?

Range of motion is a term most often used in sports training and medical practice (especially rehabilitation) to refer to the movement of a joint from its fully compressed or contracted position to its fully extended position.

As an example, flex your arm right now, bending your wrist first toward your shoulder, and then extending it fully. The arc defined by your arm during this process is a full 180 degrees. This would be the full range of motion for your arm and elbow joint. You would see a similar 180-degree arc defining the full range of motion for your knee. On the other hand, your shoulder has a wider full range of motion, not only being able to raise your arm from your side to over your head, but also to rotate it within the joint, allowing the arm to follow the same 180-degree arc in front of you, and a partial arc behind you.

If you’re already familiar with the phrase “exercising through a full range of motion”, it’s likely that you’ve been exposed to this concept at the gym or in some type of physical therapy setting. And you may know that many athletic trainers and rehabilitation experts recommend that, when you are working the muscles of a particular joint (for example, doing “curls” with your arms to lift a weight from the fully extended position to the fully compressed position), you do so across the full range of motion, not just part of it.

There are cases to be made for exercises using smaller ranges of motion. Some athletes feel that they can build strength, for example, by doing “partial squats” or “partial leg raises,” moving the limbs to the halfway point (or less) of the full range and then either pausing there for a few seconds, or doing more repetitions of the shortened arc. There may, in fact, be isometric or isotonic benefits to such exercises, but on the whole, most researchers still recommend working through the full range of motion.

One of the reasons for this—especially after injuries or during rehabilitation—is that one of the things that joint injuries tend to do is reduce your range of motion. Depending on the nature of the injury, the muscles and tendons surrounding the joint can swell, stiffen or develop scar tissue so that you really can’t extend or contract your arm or leg muscles fully. In such cases, performing rehabilitative and strength-building exercises across the full range of motion are beneficial, in that they re-train the joint so it can use its full range of motion again.

There is some research that indicates that the “full range of motion” approach works better to develop strength and muscle tone. In one 12-week study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, participants in a gym regularly exercising their legs were monitored over the course of the study to compare two exercise methods. One group performed their leg exercises while working through the entire 0-to-90-degree arc allowed by the training machines, and the other group used the same machines, but only moved their legs through a 0-to-50-degree arc. At the end of the study, the group that used the full range of motion had significantly greater strength and muscle size. Fat stores within the affected muscle areas were also lower in the full range of motion group.


A common argument of shorter-range exercising is that it allows people to use heavier weights, and thus possibly build more strength. But in this study, that was found not to be true—the short range of motion group used up to 25% heavier weights than the full range of motion group, but still scored lower in the strength- and muscle-gain results. The researchers also measured the internal load on the muscle groups as the participants were exercising, and found it higher in the full range of motion group, even though they were lifting higher weights. Yes, you heard that right—the full range of motion athletes were lifting less weight, but their muscles reacted as if the internal load on them was greater (and thus of more benefit).

So although in some cases exercises done with a shorter range of motion may be of value, the general consensus is that if you’re looking for maximum benefit from your exercise or physical therapy program, you should generally choose movements that work your joints through their full range of motion. Consult with your chiropractor or physical trainer to determine the types of exercises most suitable for you and your goals.

Contact Dr. Nicholas Carlisle – Atlanta Chiropractor at (404) 316-1190 (Buckhead) or (404) 781-2800 (Southwest Atlanta) for your appointment.




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