Here's Why You Should Understand Active Range Of Motion If You Want To Build More Muscle And Reduce Joint Pain
Range of motion. Exercise execution. Form. All things you hear frequently when it comes to performing exercises correctly.
But what do they even mean? And what adjustments should you make to your training for more effective workouts?
"Use a full range of motion."
No doubt you've heard this one. And while it's true, without further context, it's nothing more than a surface-level sound bite that could do you more harm than good.
You have to ask more questions in order to make the statement meaningful.
For example, a full range of motion of what? And for whom?
In this article, you'll discover everything you need to know about range of motion. More importantly, how you can assess and apply it to your training to build more muscle and save your joints from total destruction. Let's start off by tackling some common exercise myths.
Common Myths About Range Of Motion
"Powerlifting Standards Don't Apply To Aesthetics"
From the bro's in the gym to social media (and any other information platform you can think of), you're bombarded with rules of exercise.
- Squats are the best exercise for big quads.
- 8-10 reps per set is the hypertrophy sweet-spot.
- You have to do the big four to build muscle. Squat, deadlift, bench press, and shoulder press.
- The bar HAS to touch your chest on a bench press.
But these frequently perpetuated myths have no basis in fact when it comes to building muscle and personalising exercise.
Let's take 'bar to chest' as an example.
The worlds of powerlifting and bodybuilding are very different. So applying the standards of the former to the latter, makes about as much sense as Jar Jar Binks being in the Star Wars franchise.
You see powerlifting has a set of rules. And rightly so.
After all, if there wasn't a specific rule about the bar having to touch the chest for a bench press, how would you compare one athlete to the next? One athlete might perform a textbook bench press with 150kg, only for some clown to rock up and do a partial rep with twice the load.
It wouldn't make sense. So rules focusing on range of motion are there to create a standard.
But here's the thing.
These rules don't apply if you have no intension of being a powerlifter. In fact, genetics, body shape, and your active range of motion could mean following these rules would be damaging for your joints.
Why do these rules exist?
With that said, it begs the question of why these rules even exist. Particularly for those of us with no aspirations of being the next Eddie Hall.
My theory is two-fold.
- Powerlifting and bodybuilding are seemingly similar physical endeavours. Move a fuck-ton of mass in multiple directions. Get big. Get strong!
- Rules and sound bites are simple to understand and follow.
But, powerlifting and bodybuilding are VERY different. And generic rules lose sight of the individual's needs. Your needs.
Generalised rules about range of motion should be thrown out of the window. And here's why.
Range Of Motion Rules: The Damaging Effect Of Flawed Logic
"You Gotta Go Ass To Grass, Bro!"
"You gotta go ass to grass, bro."
Sounds great in an Instagram caption, but not so helpful in the real world.
Many things affect range of motion and how you should perform an exercise, compared to the next person. It might even the case you should walk away from an exercise altogether because it simply doesn't fit you.
Everyone is different.
Think about it this way. Do you think the same range of motion rules should be applied to a pro bodybuilder and a complete novice in exactly the same way?
Maybe. But chances are, there's individual differences to consider.
For example, here's a short list of things that could influence your range of motion for a given movement:
- Amount of muscle mass.
- Ribcage thickness.
- Sternum angle.
- Femur length.
- Humerus length.
Even your skill-level and inherent ability to maintain certain positions play a role in how to perform an exercise correctly.
This makes most rules arbitrary and only applicable to some people. By definition, most people will need some level of customisation. Fail to adapt exercises to suit your own range of motion and you are dicing with the devil of injury. Ultimately, this will catch up with you sooner rather than later, limiting your progress in the gym.
To customise an exercise correctly, you need to understand 'active range of motion'. So let's explore this concept.
Customising an exercise to fit your active range of motion is essential for joint health, building muscle, and longevity in the gym. Ignore potentially harmful, generic rules.
What Does Range Of Motion Even Mean?
"Exceeding Your Active Range Of Motion Could Limit Your Gains And Destroy Your Joints"
If you're reading this with a somewhat quizzical expression because you don't know what 'range of motion' even means, don't worry. All is about to be explained.
There are three types of range of motion (or ROM for short):
- Functional ROM.
- Passive ROM.
- Active ROM.
And it's the last one you need to be more acutely aware of when it comes to building muscle.
During any exercise, your brain is hard at work controlling the muscles around the joints involved. How far these joints move, under control, is your Active Range Of Motion. Fairly simple, right?
Staying within this active range during an exercise should always be your goal. But it's not always that easy. Let's go back to the bench press example to illustrate the point.
Lying on your back with a loaded bar in your hands changes the game.
Without the bar in hand, your active range of motion might stop an inch above your chest. But with 100kg and gravity thrown in the mix, the bar could quite easily force you to exceed this active range and push you into passive range.
"But is that even a problem?"
The simple answer is yes. Moving into your passive range of motion under load, could be damaging for your joints. You've exceeded the range you can control, and now you're asking joints and ligaments to do the work. You might get away with this for a short period of time, especially when you're young. But if you do it often enough and for long enough, you're asking for trouble.
Train within your active range of motion if you want to avoid joint destruction in later life.
Assessing YOUR Active Range Of Motion
"Assessing Range Of Motion Takes Less Than 2 Minutes"
You might think assessing your active range of motion requires years of knowledge, or that it'll take hours to figure out. But there's good news...
It takes less than 2 minutes. And once you've done it, you probably won't have to do it for a while.
For example. here's how to assess your AROM for the bench press and leg press.
Bench Press Range Of Motion Assessment
Sit upright on a bench and grab a pole with both hands (in the same position you would for a bench press). You can use any type of pole or bar as long as it weighs almost nothing. Essentially, you don't want the weight of the bar and gravity to play a role in the assessment.
Pull the bar towards your chest, while still in the upright position.
Wherever the bar stops, relative to your chest, is your active range. Don't exceed this point when you perform the exercise for real.
Leg Press Range Of Motion Assessment
There will be a subtle difference in this assessment depending on the equipment being used, but the overall principle is the same. You're trying to prevent the leg press unnecessarily crushing your hip joint. Seems like a good idea, right?
In a 45 degree, plate-loaded leg press, sit down and assume the position (don't worry, this isn't a rectal exam... I'm not qualified for that).
With you feet on the pad, pull one leg back as far as you can, while maintaining contact between your butt and the pad. This is your active range of motion. When you load the machine with weight and have several hundred kilos hurtling towards you, don't exceed that point.
An assessment for a leg press machine is slightly different.
Here you need to sit in the machine at the bottom position, with your feet on the pad. Now try to lift your foot off the platform. If you CAN, then you're within your active range. If you CAN'T, then you've exceeded it and need to make an adjustment.
These range of motion assessments are quick and easy to implement. Spending some time setting up for an exercise correctly, will save you pain and anguish further down the road.
Assessing your Active Range Of Motion is essential and should never be overlooked. And it definitely shouldn't be ignored to boost your ego!
The Bottom Line On Range Of Motion
Assessing and respecting your active range of motion is one of the most important aspects of customising an exercise to fit YOU! Mindlessly following generic rules and sound bites is likely to limit your gains, fuck up your joints, and leave you wondering why you started lifting weights in the first place.
Proper exercise setup is the first principle the Iron Paradise Fitness philosophy of training is built on. And it's what I teach my online coaching clients from the outset.
If an exercise isn't set up for YOU, then you're leaving everything to chance.
You might train the muscle you intended.
You might avoid stressing your joints and ligaments.
And you might build muscle.
But why leave it to chance? Spending a few minutes assessing an exercise and making adjustments so that it fits you perfectly, will ensure your workouts are as safe and effective as possible. After all, that's what you want, right?
Working within a full range of motion is absolutely the right thing to do. But understand what that means for you. Your active range of motion, as defined by your body mechanics may be very different to that of somebody else. So understand and respect your AROM. Because there's no prizes for fucked up joints in 10 years' time.
Here's What To Do Next If You Want More Information
If you want to get on the fast track to a leaner, healthier, stronger body, I've got a couple of things you might be interested in.
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But for now, all I’ll say is… Keep living the Lean Life and I’ll see you soon.