In previous articles I’ve talked about the role of improving your technique as the main means of progression in your workouts. All too often adding intensity or volume is the fallback method of progressing one’s workout. While you certainly can progress to adding intensity and more volume, it’s important to keep in mind that these methods have a finite capacity to bring you results. You can only add so much intensity or volume to exercise before it stops being productive and at some point you can even add so much that it’s actually detrimental to your health and fitness.
Improving your technique on the other hand is exactly the opposite. Even if you focus on the most basic exercises for the next 20 years you’ll still be able to improve your technique. What’s even better is that the stronger your technique is, the more it safeguards your body against the stresses and abuses of adding more intensity or volume.
The only downside to adding technical progression is that it’s not as clear-cut on how to progress. Adding intensity is very simple, just add more resistance or attempt to do more work in less time. Adding frequency and volume is also similar where you simply tack on another set, another workout or you grind out a few more miles. Ask people how to improve your technique and you’ll get a barrage of thoughts, opinions and methods that may or may not make sense for you. Sometimes you may even get technical advice that may be counterproductive to your workout goals.
For example, if your objective is to bench press more weight then there are technical changes you can make so that you can press more weight at your current strength level. On the other hand, if your objective is to work your muscles as much as possible then using the opposite technical improvements may be your objective to work as hard as possible with as little weight as you can manage. Both technical changes and adjustments will bring you closer to your goal and further from the other one.
In today’s article, I want to highlight a specific technical advancement that most people can add to any sort of strength training program. This technical advancement is learning to increase the range of motion your joints go through during a given exercise.
The primary reason why range of motion is so important to consider is because many people, including myself, will sometimes sacrifice range of motion to add intensity or frequency. It’s a classic case of compromising technique to feed the ego.
Back in the day, I used to ensure that my knees and elbows never went beyond a 90° bend and I thought this was to prevent injury. Looking back now I know it was just an excuse to pile on more weight or accomplish more reps. When I started to get more into bodyweight exercises I no longer needed to shorten my range of motion to enhance how much weight I could lift or how many repetitions I could do. Instead of looking for ways to lift more weight or perform more reps, my focus became more on working harder with each repetition. I quickly learned that using a larger range of motion meant more work during each rep of any exercise.
Push-ups used to involve coming within a fists width to the floor only, and now I’m going down until the floor physically stops me. My goal went from bringing my chin up above the bar with chin-ups to bringing myself up until the middle of my chest touch the bar. And when it came to squats and lunges, I aimed to keep lowering myself down until I physically could not bend my knees or flex my hips any further.
In some cases I simply added an inch or two to the range of motion and in other cases I may have added as much as a full half a foot. It didn’t matter what the exercise was or how much range of motion I added, more range meant more work and better results.
From a strength standpoint, my muscles became far stronger not just in the bottom of that range of motion but throughout the entire range of motion as well. Almost without exception, I had avoided that last few inches due to the fact that the leverage on the muscle made it more difficult to use that range with a lot of weight and volume. In other words, I was refusing to use a range of motion that worked my muscles harder as a whole.
An unexpected benefit was how much stronger my joints became. I had long thought the shorter range of motion was to protect the joint but it actually made the joint weaker and more susceptible to injury.
If the joint is only trained and strengthened within a particular range of motion it is consequently less strong and stable outside of that range of motion. By strength training with a shortened range of motion, I was building a false sense of security that my joints were stronger than they really were as the weight piled on and I tried to force my body to handle more intensity and volume I kept playing chicken with myself and how much stress my joints could handle. Once in a while I would lose the game and go through part of the range of motion when a joint wasn’t as strong or stable and injury would occur. At the time I thought that my injuries happened because my range of motion was too big but now I see that I had to train the joint to be strong through the entire range of motion to eliminate instability or weakness.
Once I made a bigger range of motion a priority, my joints started to fill in the strength where they were weak and all of my joint issues disappeared. The other technical point to consider with the range of motion is how close your limbs are working towards your centerline.
If you get down on the floor and place your hands very wide apart with a push up, your range of motion at each joint is considerably less than if your hands were directly underneath your shoulders. The same can be said for having a very wide stance while doing squats. The closer your feet are to each other the closer they are to your centerline of your body and the more range of motion your lower body joints will go through.
Once again, this is the technical advancement that often means you won’t be able to handle as much intensity. Doing squats from a narrow stance often means you have to lighten up the bar considerably as opposed to using a wider stance. It also means that balance and joint stability are trained at a much higher level with the narrower stance.
Lastly, consider strengthening specific parts of your range of motion with techniques that may feel weak. It’s only natural for your technique to feel stronger and weaker at different points along a range of motion. For example, with push-ups many people feel weakest when their chest is closest to the floor. To help strengthen this point, within your range of motion, I recommend using an isometric style technique.
This technique simply involves bringing yourself into the heart of the range of motion where you feel weakest or, less stable, and then you hold that position and hang out for a few moments. While you’re there you may even want to slightly shift and move your weight around a little bit to build a wider base of stability. This sort of technique is particularly effective with bodyweight exercises as opposed to moving and shifting an external weight around. It’s particularly effective for squats and lunges. The idea is to lunge or squat down as low as you possibly can in the bottom position while subtly shifting and twisting your weight around feeling for areas in the motion where you feel weak or unstable. This will build joint integrity as well as muscular control that will protect your joints as well as take the weak link out of your range of motion.
Of course, remember it’s always important to use your best judgment with how your own joints respond to an exercise. If you suspect a joint issue is holding your range of motion back, then see a health care professional to diagnose the issue so you can get it corrected as soon as possible. Anything that compromises your range of motion is something that will compromise your potential in any form of strength and conditioning.