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!


What Are We Really Training For Anyway?

Every now and then in a fitness program you have to stop what you’re doing and think, “What am I really training for anyway?” Are you registered for an upcoming competition of some sort (CrossFit, triathlon, Olympic lifting, grappling, etc.)? If so, then great! You are one of the lucky few people in gyms nowadays who have a clear vision of what they should be doing: preparing for and practicing your sport.

However, if like the majority of gym-goers, you do not have any particular event on your calendar for which you are training, then why do you push yourself in the gym on a daily basis? Let’s go through some common answers:

  • “I’m trying to lose some weight.” – Here’s a super secret fitness tip from an insider: the guaranteed way to lose weight instantly is easy… just cut off a limb! Voila, weight lost! Oh… that’s not what you meant?
  • “I’m trying to lose some body fat.” – The good news: you have great intentions. The bad news: studies show that exercise alone is not all that effective at losing body fat. Ouch, sorry.
  • “I’m trying to build some muscle.” – Okay cool, this is something I can get behind, and you don’t have to be a bodybuilder to want to build muscle. Simply put, increasing your lean muscle mass helps prevent aging, not to mention getting that much closer to being both jacked and tan.

Okay, so all kidding aside, what are we missing here? How about the simple fact that humans are meant to move! If you haven’t yet watched Daniel Wolpert’s TED Talk “The real reason for brains,” then please do so immediately. If you engage in a structured physical activity or fitness program, then please acknowledge the fact that MOVEMENT needs to be a higher priority in your life.

Let’s work through a specific example. CrossFit, in its humble roots, is a GPP program: General Physical Preparedness. Taken from the CrossFit.com website: “Our program delivers a fitness that is, by design, broad, general, and inclusive. Our specialty is not specializing. Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist.”

Towards this end, CrossFitters often talk about “work capacity,” i.e., the ability to do a given amount of work in a given amount of time. It is precisely this theoretical underpinning that justifies the emphasis on quantity over quality that is present at so many CrossFit gyms. Who cares if those push-ups didn’t look good? You got 1 more round of Cindy than last time, so you are more fit!

*Raises hand* “Excuse me, but how exactly do you demonstrate work capacity in the absence of doing specific movements?” For instance, if your Fran time improves, then you very well may have just gotten better at the specific skills of barbell thrusters and kipping pull-ups. Or maybe you knock a minute off of Diane, in which case you probably just level’ed up at the skills of barbell deadlifts and kipping handstand push-ups.

What is my point? These are all specific skilled movements. There is no such thing as pure unskilled work capacity. CrossFit’s version of GPP is actually more like SPP: Specific Physical Preparedness. Why do so many CrossFitters choose dumbbell snatches and shy away from kettlebell snatches? Because snatching a kettlebell requires practice! Why work on your static handstand hold when you could be doing something sexy like handstand walks? Because static holds are harder!

To wrap up this long-winded rant, I propose that we, as fitness generalists with no specific attachment to any one competitive sport, adopt a new mindset and purpose for why we train:

Train to learn new skills, gradually and progressively, so as to become capable of and masterful in more complex movements.

Intrigued? Good, there will be much more to come on this topic in the future. Thanks for reading, and thanks to Ido Portal for the inspiration for this post:

Addendum: It occurred to me after publishing this post that I absolutely must also credit Erwan Le Corre and his Movnat system of movement for inspiring some of these ideas as well. I recommend you read, “The 5th MovNat Principle: Vital,” and study this Venn diagram:

Movement as Nutrition

Next up in my series of posts of possible Performance Menu article ideas…

“Movement as Nutrition”

In an effort to get people moving more frequently in more beneficial ways for their minds and bodies, I put forth the notion of Movement as Nutrition. First, we will talk about frequency, or as Ido Portal would say, we as human movers can get a whole lot more out of our bodies than simply 45 minutes of exercise 3 days per week. Second, we will discuss quality, as certain movements are more wholesome and nourishing for our bodies just like certain foods are.


How often do you eat? Three meals per day most likely, maybe a snack or two in there as well. But here’s a better question: how often do you move? For some of you, it might be as infrequent as 45 minutes of exercise 3 days per week! Have you heard of the Warrior Diet? In essence, you only eat one huge meal each day (typically dinner) and fast throughout the morning and afternoon. While many of you are probably thinking that sounds ridiculous, I challenge you to think about your exercise habits. Chances are, you are on a “movement fast” each day before splurging on a huge “movement meal” each night!

So what if we tried having “movement snacks” throughout the day? For example, do some basic joint mobility work before breakfast, then go for a 15-minute walk after lunch, and lastly practice a few sets of weightlifting and gymnastics movements at the gym before dinner. Scientifically speaking, this has multiple benefits: fasted training in the morning burns fat, walking after lunch minimizes the insulin spike from eating, and eating carbs at dinner after training heavy helps to replenish depleted glycogen stores.

Now I am not asking you to quit your job and train 3 times per day like most elite athletes do. This “movement snacks” idea has plenty of variations, even if you don’t have that much time. How about 5 minutes of yoga sun salutations in the morning, a 20-minute bodyweight workout at the park in the afternoon, and 5 minutes of deep static stretching at night before bed? Bam! More frequent movement sessions means more physical energy, mental clarity, fat loss, muscle gain, skill acquisition… you name it.


Who here eats a Zone diet? Anyone? Yeah, didn’t think so. Again, if you’re reading this blog, then you probably gravitate towards the Paleo / Primal eating crowd. That is because many people have found better results through less effort by focusing on quality food rather than strict quantity.

Yet, why do we go into the gym and do exactly 3 sets of exactly 8 reps with exactly 1 minute 30 seconds rest between them? How does whoever wrote that exercise program know your body, your background, your experience, and your fitness level? Unless you have a coach or trainer who gave you an assessment and then wrote you an individualized program, the chances are that the focus on exercise quantity is unnecessary. Rather, let’s discuss movement quality.

Everyone knows about the macronutrients found in food: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Let’s also now talk about the macronutrients of movement: push, pull, squat, hinge, and gait (props to Dan John). Just like you should be aiming to eat protein, carbs, and fat each day, you should also try to include some sort of pushing, pulling, squatting, hinging, and gaiting each day! What does this look like in application? Warm up with bodyweight squats, push-ups, chin-ups, KB swings, and KB walks. Go heavy with barbell squats, handstand push-ups, muscle-ups, barbell deadlifts, and sprints. For more ideas, refer to this movement chart.

What about supplements? Personally, I take fish oil, vitamin D, whey protein, magnesium, and zinc daily. These supplement my diet of mostly meat, fish, veggies, fruits, and nuts. In movement terms, the auxiliary exercises you do are the supplements to your regular old training. For instance, do some dumbbell external rotation isolation work to help strengthen your shoulders. This is a micronutrient, a supplement, an auxiliary movement.

Lastly, just as fasting intermittently from food has benefits, so does “fasting” from movement, i.e. “rest.” Fasting gives your body a chance to catch up, whether that means muscle recovery, glycogen replenishment, or digestion. Fatigue masks fitness, so in order to reap the benefits of your hard work, you need to “fast” from movement every so often.

Alright, enough from me. Go move, in interesting and meaningful ways, and spread the message. Thanks for reading!