Range of Motion as a Method of Progressive Overload

Alright people, let’s geek out. I mean, seriously, let’s get into the nitty gritty details of what it takes to get better in the gym. In fancy exercise science talk, the term progressive overload means “the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training.” That means that every time you step foot into the gym, you are trying to improve at least one aspect of your fitness program.

You typically have a few options when it comes to stepping up your training game:

  1. Volume: Do more work (e.g., 5 sets of 5 reps instead of 3 sets of 3 reps).
  2. Intensity: Do harder work (e.g., lift 205 lbs off the ground instead of 185 lbs).
  3. Density: Do the same amount and kind of work, just faster (e.g., a 3-minute Fran instead of a 5-minute Fran).

Let’s go a step further and add Range of Motion as a Method of Progressive Overload. I’m talking about how long of a distance you move a certain load in any given exercise. For instance, the standard range of motion for squatting in the sport of CrossFit is that the hips need to travel below the knees at the bottom, and the hips and knees need to reach full extension at the top. Similarly, for pull-ups, the chin needs to travel above the bar at the top, and the elbows need to reach full extension at the bottom.

So how can we manipulate range of motion in order to gradually increase the stress placed upon our body during exercise? Let’s start talking specifics: back squat, deadlift, handstand push-up, and muscle-up.

Back Squat: Let’s say you can squat 315 lbs with a low-bar position, wide stance, and powerlifting range of motion where you stop when the hips are parallel to the knees. Rather than just strive to add weight to the bar, another option in order to increase your fitness would be to then make it a goal to squat 315 lbs with a high-bar position, narrow stance, and Olympic weightlifting range of motion where you descend completely until the hamstrings cover the calves at the bottom. By moving the same weight a greater distance, you have performed more work!

Deadlift: So you can deadlift 405 lbs from the floor… what next? Try this: over time work up to be able to pull, say, 425 lbs, but from a higher position, where the bar begins at your knees instead of at mid-shin level. Once you can lift a heavier weight from this decreased range of motion, then (yep, you guessed it) you will work towards being able to deadlift 415 lbs from the ground. This just demonstrates that range of motion is a two-way street: you can increase range of motion and decrease load, or decrease range of motion and increase load.

Handstand Push-up: As mentioned in my previous post on Progressions and Regressions, you can strive to make improvements in your handstand push-ups by manipulating the range of motion. If you can do a headstand push-up (where your hands and head are both on the floor at the bottom), then strive to work up towards a legitimate handstand push-up (where your hands are elevated such that only your head touches the floor at the bottom). As a regression, you could do what many CrossFitters do and begin by doing mini-HSPU’s with a stack of ABMAT’s beneath your head as a cushion as well.

Muscle-up: Here’s an example that’s a bit less intuitive. When practicing muscle-ups, scale by starting from a bent-arm hang at the bottom. By decreasing the range of motion required to pull yourself up and over the rings, you have made the movement a bit easier to perform. Then, of course, over time gradually work towards being able to muscle-up from a complete dead hang with straight arms at the bottom.

Okay, phew, there we have it. Hopefully these tips make the concept of Range of Motion as a Method of Progressive Overload a bit more clear in your minds. Use this the next time you’re in the gym! You are training sub-optimally and leaving potential performance gains on the table if you only ever strive to increase weight or decrease time without regard to range of motion. Thanks for reading, and please share!