Full vs. partial reps: which is better? Originally published 16 Nov 2018. Last updated 16 Feb 2021.
On any given day, if you really take a moment to notice what everyone else is doing in the weight room, you will find folks performing a variety of routines, using different numbers of repetitions and sets, different exercises, and different form, like full reps vs. partial reps.
What’s so interesting about exercise (and, well, nutrition for that matter) is that some exercises go in and out of favor.
For example, think back to the 1980s when aerobics were in style… think Jazzercise and spandex. Or, maybe not, that’s not an appealing visual.
Moving into the 1990s, fitness videos like Tae Bo and home gyms, like Bowflex were all the rage. The early 2000s brought us P90X and Insanity which emphasized functional, high-intensity training. And, now, we have spinning, yoga, CrossFit, Barre, Zumba, and the list goes on. Between all of these training styles, we often find mutations of sorts, where folks will follow the general premise of the style of training they prefer with some modifications.
My long-winded point is this: it’s hard to keep up with all these trends. The fact that you’re seeing more and more folks not performing reps at their fullest range of motion is not surprising. This has gone in and out of favor since bodybuilding was all the rage back in the 1970s.
Seeking easy ways to improve your health and fitness? Join our free 5-day email course to get started.
Why Perform Partial Reps?
I’ll start by saying there may be good reasons why folks only perform partial reps. Performing a movement through its full range of motion can be painful. For example, when I first train someone to perform a standing squat using just their body weight, I may not have them perform a deep squat so their bottom touches the ground before they stand back up. Instead, I may have them stop halfway so that their bottom is parallel to the ground as if they were attempting to sit in a chair.
This is because it may be too painful or too much stress on their knees to perform a full deep squat. The same goes for performing bench or chest press. I often don’t have folks lower the barbell or dumbbells all the way to their chests; it may place too much strain on their shoulders and elbows.
Partial reps can be a nice way to ensure safety and prevent injury or further damage if the person is training after an injury.
The Science of Full Reps vs. Partial Reps
But let’s say you do have the ability to use your full range of motion without any aches and pains. Would it provide you with similar strength gains?
What’s unfortunate is that there aren’t many published studies examining the effects of partial reps vs. full reps and strength gains. Much of it has been anecdotal. You’ll get so-called experts talking about the benefits of partial reps based on their experiences training others. But if this analysis is not done systematically, all sorts of biases can pop up.
Some exercise physiologists believe that performing partial repetitions is ideal because it forces you to engage your muscles through that entire repetition. When you reach the full range of motion, the argument is that you’re not engaging your muscles at the very top or at the very bottom of that movement.
Using my example of performing a squat, if we were to perform squats using the full range of motion so that our bottoms have to touch the ground with reach rep, would we really be engaging our muscles at that moment when our bottoms actually touch the ground? Some say, no–that at the point our bottoms touch the ground, we are no longer engaging our leg muscles (more specifically, the quadriceps).
I will say that this is a bit short-sighted. Performing repetitions through their full range of motion, when it’s safe to do so, can potentially prevent injury and promote flexibility.
When it comes to whether strength gains are comparable using partial reps when compared to full-reps, again the data are limited. First, there aren’t many published studies, and second, those that have been published are performed with only a few individuals and for a short period of time. Furthermore, they only examine one or two moves like bench press and squats for example. They don’t study how it effects shoulder presses, or one-arm rows, or lat pulldowns, or exercises performed using machines. We really can’t say with any confidence how effective partial reps can be.
The Bottom Line
If you are willing and able, aim to perform exercises using the full range of motion. If it is uncomfortable to do so, go as far as you can through the range of motion, but stop before you feel discomfort. Then gradually see if the discomfort goes away with time and practice. If it does, increase your range of motion and again stop when it feels uncomfortable.
The key is to concentrate on the work you’re doing–imagine your muscles getting stronger as you perform each rep. Think about how this exercise is going to help you feel your best. This way, you’ll be in tune with your body as you perform every single repetition of every single set to minimize injury, maximize your gains, and help you feel your best.
Editor's Note: We have six shows in our podcast network to optimize your life in multiple areas (health, personal finance, and more).
To learn more, visit our “start here” page or click on each logo below to learn more about each show!
Partial or Full Reps and Sets of Squats
QUESTION: Are there differences if you do sets/reps of squats or if you do continuous squats for a certain number of minutes? Or is one better than the other? Thanks.
DR. NEAL: Thank you for your question. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other. Instead, I would recommend incorporating both styles into your routine.
This is because each method will train your muscles in different ways. One form of training is often used to build muscular strength, while the other could be used to help build muscular endurance. And having muscles that are both strong and capable of performing for longer periods of time are important components of someone’s overall fitness level.
What Does “Fitness” Really Mean?
The term “fitness” is so misleading. This is because it can mean so many different things. If I were to have you imagine that a patient of mine was “really fit”, what would this patient look like? I guarantee that if I asked 10 of my listeners to describe what this “fit patient” looked like, I would get 10 different responses. Luckily, health organizations like the American College of Sports Medicine have helped us make sense of the term.
Fitness actually incorporates 5 different components:
- Cardiorespiratory fitness – this basically refers to how strong your heart and lungs are
- Muscular strength – an example of this would be, what’s the heaviest weight you can lift?
- Muscular endurance – this would be like performing as many sit-ups you can in 1 minute
- Body composition – determining body fat percentage and where on the body fat is stored falls under this component
- Flexibility – are you able to bend down and touch your toes?
Alright, so notice that muscular strength AND muscular endurance are both separate, but equal components of fitness. Ok, so how does that translate to planning our workouts? Well, it means we need to incorporate each. We need to spend some time improving our cardiorespiratory fitness by walking, running, cycling, swimming, sprinting… and so on. This will strengthen our heart and lungs.
We also want to make sure we stretch at least twice a week to help keep the body flexible. We want to eat nutritious foods in appropriate portions to help improve our body composition. And, finally we want to incorporate some heavier lifting AND improve our muscular endurance.
Building Muscular Strength and Muscular Endurance
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that if you want to build muscular strength, like increasing the amount of weight you can lift at one time, you want to perform a specific number of sets and reps. The recommendation is to aim for 3-5 repetitions per set. That means, pick a weight that you can only lift 3-5 times before having to put it down.
If you can lift the weight more than 5 times, it means you can increase the weight. Because you’re lifting a heavy weight, you should rest for 2-3 minutes before picking that weight up again. This will increase your muscular strength.
To build muscular endurance, we can drop the weight and perform exercises just using our bodyweight. This is a great time to set a timer and try and perform as many repetitions of an exercise as you can in 1 minute.
Now, you asked about squats specifically. So, let’s talk specifics. Here’s what a sample workout might look like:
- For building muscular strength: using a barbell or while holding dumbbells, perform 3-5 squats. If you find that you can perform more than 5 squats using the current weight, add some weight. Rest for 2-3 minutes. Then, perform another 3-5 squats. Rest for 2-3 minutes. Repeat for a total of 5 sets.
- The next day, perform some easy cardio. Go for a walk, bike ride, a swim, etc.
- Rest the following day or perform some flexibility exercises.
- Then, it’s time to add some muscular endurance training into the mix. So, after a day of rest or stretching, you can do something like this: perform as many squats using just your body weight for 30 seconds. Rest for 30 seconds. Then, for the next 30 seconds, perform as many squats using just your body weight. Repeat for a total of 5 or more times.
Again, both muscular strength and muscular endurance are important components of our overall fitness. So, it’s important to incorporate each regularly!