Range of motion, or ROM, is an often overlooked but very important part of lifting weights. It's a key factor in maintaining mobility, especially as we get less young.
The term "muscle-bound" is usually associated with a heavily developed bodybuilder whose own muscular development limits his movement. But big muscles don't automatically lead to poor mobility. Lots of athletes have significant muscular development along with excellent mobility. It's not a muscle's size that limits mobility; it's the ROM. And that applies to any size muscle.
When lifting weights, there are five things that limit your ROM:
- Run out of environment room; e.g. the bar touches the floor on the lowering phase of deadlift reps, your clavicles hit the pullup bar on a neutral grip pullup (or your head hits the low ceiling on a chin-up--been there, done that).
- Run out of body room; e.g. the bar touches your chest on the lowering phase of a bench press, the bar touches your chest on the raising phase of a barbell row.
- Run out of physical room on extension; e.g. your elbows lock out at the top of a bench press or overhead press, your elbows and shoulders reach their limit when lowering on a pull-up, your knees lock out at the top of a squat or deadlift.
- Run out of physical room on flexion; e.g. at the top of a pullup, at the bottom of a squat.
- Insufficient strength to complete a movement; e.g. at the top of a pullup, at the bottom of a squat.
The first three are just physics. Solid objects can't pass through each other. (Why can't you trust atoms? Because they make up everything. BOOM!) The last two are where we can do something about increasing or maintaining ROM.
The best example of an exercise where we can improve flexion ROM is the squat. A goblet squat should take you to your maximum possible bottom; i.e. you can go deep. But other squats, such as a back squat (or even an air squat) run into a natural bottom. This can be useful as the stretch at the bottom can help you get started back up. (There are even "squat suits" that augment this.) But that "natural bottom" might be artificially high due to stiffness and can usually be lowered with some mobility work.
Insufficient strength at the end ranges often leads people to reduce their ROM in order to lift more weight or do more reps. This is very common with pullup variations where people extend their necks to try to get their chins over (or to) the bar or don't lower all the way to full extension. Form Cop did a video on this a few years back:
It's also very common with squats. Rather than going all the way to their natural bottom position, guys (and it's always guys) will do only partial reps so they can pretend to be able to squat more weight.
Sometimes the lack of strength is related to injury. For example, you might have cranky shoulders that keep you from doing a full range of motion on bench press or maybe from doing overhead presses at all. From a strength training perspective, this is fine. You certainly don't want to aggravate injuries so you might do floor press instead of bench press or incline bench press instead of overhead press.
But from a ROM perspective, that's not so good. So what to do? Simple: reduce the weight! If the bench press hurts in a full range of motion, try it with a dowel. If that hurts, you're out of luck. But usually it won't. Then find a weight light enough that you can do reps with full ROM and no pain. Add these into your workout, or just make them part of your warm-up. Indeed, warm-up sets are the best time to build up your ROM so it's where it should be for your work sets.
Doing things this way helps your lifting increase mobility, not decrease it as most people expect it will.
Between workouts, it's still helpful to do foam rolling and stretching to alleviate the tightness that can manifest itself during recovery. But lifting with full ROM by itself can help keep up your mobility!
There are some cases where we don't want to use our full ROM. For example, on a unilateral (single-arm) row, we bring the weight to around the rib cage to keep from overtaxing the shoulder. On curls, we stop the movement near the top before the angle removes the load on the biceps. Or we might deliberately do partial reps to get stronger in one particular area of the ROM.
Whilst full ROM is important to maintaining (or enhancing) mobility, it also keeps you strong within that full ROM. For example, pulling yourself up to safety. If you don't have strength at the top, you might not make it!
So be sure to get some full ROM in your lifting, even if it means reducing the weight sometimes.
Be seeing you.