To fully stimulate a muscle, you must challenge it across its entire contractile range. Just doing a full range of motion (ROM) in the big lifts won’t achieve this. Moving through a full ROM is very different to being challenged over a full ROM. You see, muscles need to be worked in the mid-range, lengthened, and shortened positions. While compound lifts do provide the most bang for your training buck, they do not overload a muscle in all three of these positions—no single exercise can.
Exercises do not require you to produce a constant force at all points throughout the ROM. Changes in the length of the lever during an exercise mean that force differs across the ROM. For example, when doing a DB lateral raise there is no tension on the lateral delts at the beginning of the lift when your arms are by your side. This is because the lever arm is practically non-existent. At the top of the movement, however, the lever is much longer and the challenge to the muscle in this position is far greater. This is an example of an exercise which overloads the shortened position as it gets hardest as the muscles are close to fully contracted.
To further illustrate the point let’s take a look at the biceps. Elbow flexion would have to be performed in, or near, full shoulder flexion to create the opportunity for full biceps shortening—think high cable curls. Conversely, training the biceps in full shoulder extension is required to create the opportunity to challenge the biceps from their fully lengthened state—think incline DB curls.
The Role of Full Contractile Tri-Sets
To train a muscle at all points along its strength curve requires at least two and often three exercises. Steve Holman’s Critical Mass: The Positions-of-Flexion Approach to Explosive Muscle Growth book on training worked on this basis, with three exercises performed per body part, every time that muscle was trained. Training in this manner can be quite time consuming.
You do not have to perform exercises for all three positions within one session. If you train a muscle several times a week then, you can distribute these exercises across multiple sessions. Again, this strategy relies upon you having the luxury of enough time to hit the gym most days of the week. This is not a luxury we all have, all of the time. Travel, work, family, and study commitments often limit our gym time.
Most of my clients have hectic work schedules which mean they cannot live in the gym. Their training has to be streamlined and efficient. They want a maximum return on their training investment and can often only spare 45 minutes three times per week. I’m sure you can relate to times in your life when you have…
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