Strength in Full Range: Why do we have to get our ass to grass?

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We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘full range of motion’ (ROM). It’s what we strive for at every joint in our body and why we spend endless hours (or should be) hanging onto a band above our heads or waving a dowel around the gym, or perfecting our pigeon. It’s crucial to the health of our joints, maintaining their function without pain or stiffness. Having a full ROM is what allows us to perform a push press correctly hitting the finishing position behind our ears, or squat to a depth where our hamstrings touch our calves, or even prevent protraction of the shoulder at the bottom of a ring dip. This blog is going to take a closer look at how full ROM can not only prevent chronic injury but also lead directly to improvements in strength, robustness and power!

I’ve teamed up with physiotherapist and CrossFit Perpetua member Kieran Macphail to get into the science behind outer range movements and their impact on power and robustness. Kieran is an absolute fountain of knowledge when it comes to anatomy and specializes in chronic pain. That coupled with his CrossFit training experience here and he’s in a great position to see exactly where CrossFit fits in to the picture, how it can be the solution to chronic pain or weakness, and the crucial role of strength work in end range to health and performance. Throughout the course of the year we plan to post a series of blogs like this one, focusing on the anatomy of movement and the integral role that CrossFit can play within the bigger picture of health.

But for now it’s back to strength in range…

Below is a simple example of the length tension curve. 

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Figure 1. Length Tension Curve

If the resting length of a muscle fiber is too short or too long, it is not able to produce optimum tension. Frequently it is a lack of length that hinders our strength levels. The length requirements are specific to the movement. For example if the hamstrings are tight, and have insufficient length (strength at end range) in the deadlift pattern, you will struggle to get the weight off the floor and then be fine from there up. In contrast in experienced dead-lifters, it is the lock out that is frequently the most troublesome part of the movement.

The body will go to where it is strong. When developing new movements we need to work through a flexibility-stability-strength-power continuum. First you need to be able to achieve the position. For example, if you haven’t got full hamstring range of motion you won’t deadlift with good technique. You see it countless times, strong athletes who have to deadlift off blocks raised off the floor because their hamstring length prevents them getting into the set-up without coming onto their toes or rounding their backs. That said, you may have the range to get into the set-up but lack the strength at the key ‘end range’ to get the bar off the floor. 

We rarely, if ever, get acutely injured when moving in mid range; it is at end range we get acute injuries. For example when sprinting hamstrings are torn when on stretch and decelerating the power of the quadriceps. It is this strength at end range that is integral to athletic performance and robustness. 

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When working with athletes with hamstring injuries they consistently have a lack of outer range strength in the hamstrings. Addressing this has meant that to date Kieran hasn’t had a patient re-injure their hamstring after completing a sequence of progressive end range hamstring strengthening. Unsurprisingly strength training in outer range has been shown to improve flexibility measures. 

During CrossFit sessions this can be achieved by hitting full depth in the squat. If you only train just below parallel you will not be developing the strength in outer range in your hamstrings, glutes and tendo-achilles complex. The caveat is that this should be done with good form to avoid injuries. For example if on hitting the bottom of your squat your back rounds out, you will be putting significant load through your intervertebral discs and posterior ligamentous tissues in particular.

So many movements in CrossFit require strength and power at the very end of our range. Getting up out of the bottom of a squat. The first 4 inches of the deadlift. Pushing your head off the mat in a handstand push-up. These are the places that limit people doing the movement or going up in weight. Another very common example is the pull up. If you can assist people to a point where their elbows are halfway bent, they are typically fine to pull the rest of the way. It’s the end range that’s toughest to achieve and so crucial to performing moves correctly, so it’s no coincidence that this is where we need to concentrate a lot of our efforts in training.

Developing strength like this will additionally, have a lot of carry-over between movements. For example if you front squat 100kg to parallel, you may only “squat” clean 85kg. However, if you can squat 100kg ‘hamstrings-to-calves’ you may well ‘squat’ clean closer to 95kg+. Likewise, if you pull up to only ever just get your chin over the bar, you are not developing the strength in your scapula retractors to develop your chest to bar pull ups and progress towards muscle ups.

So our message is this… Recognise the importance of going to the very end of your ROM in your day-to-day training. If this means squatting 90kg instead of the big 3-digits because you can only get your ass-to-grass at that weight….do it! Drop the weight, work in end-range and it wont be long before you’re cruising past 100kg in your squats AND cleans. Don’t be the guy/girl who never locks out their elbows on pull-up day. Go down to the ring rows and work on not only full lock out, but pulling right into your chest too. Spend 5 minutes on your back every day to lengthen your hamstrings so you can start deadlifting off the floor. Sacrifice weight for full range of movement. 

By developing strength through full range you will not only become a stronger more complete athlete, but also greatly reduce your risk of injury.

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