The following is an excerpt from the Wall Street Journal best-selling book, Weightlifting Is a Waste of Time.
While inventing the osteogenic loading devices, John developed a deep understanding of the impact-ready ranges of motion. (“Impact-ready” refers to the ranges your reflexes would choose in order to absorb high forces experienced in hard contact with the ground.) Approaching the subject with the ultimate goal of stimulating bone growth required taking a different perspective than prior researchers. By determining where peak forces occur in relation to body placement on the OsteoStrong device, John was able to plot the strength curve throughout the range of motion in a way no scientist had before.
A closer look at a range of motion
We’ve already briefly introduced the concept of the different ranges of motion using a standard bench press as an example. The same can be done for any movement, whether single-joint or multi-joint.
Take a push-up. The weakest range of motion is when your arms are bent and your nose is almost to the ground. Right before the arms come to full extension marks the strongest range of motion. Anyone who has ever attempted a push-up knows there is a vast difference in strength between these two positions.
For this reason, people often end up using only the top range of motion where the movement is easiest when doing push-ups. Everyone subconsciously does this to maximize reps, even children. If you watch a high school physical education class, you’ll notice a percentage of kids won’t go all the way down to where their nose touches the ground. They only do what they see as the easy part at the top, because that’s where more muscle is usable.
Let’s look at a deadlift. The weakest position is when you’re bent over, the bar is near the ground, and your spinal erectors, hamstrings, and trapezius are elongated. The medium range is in the middle of the movement and the strongest is just before you’re standing up. We’re making the qualification of “just before” because if you lock out the joint, the muscles essentially turn off. Ever watched a professional mover move furniture and how they use moving straps? They change the length of the strap so they can engage with movements in JUST the optimized range.
The squat is another example. The weakest range is when your knees are the most bent and your body is closest to the ground. Just before full knee extension, as you approach the top of the lift, is the strongest range of motion. Sprinters subconsciously know this one. Does a sprinter use a full range of motion when contacting the ground to push off for the next stride? Absolutely not. A sprinter uses seven degrees of flexion behind the knee when contracting, yet has 180 degrees available. This is the range of efficiency where force delivery through the muscle is optimized.
Weights are for the Weak (Range)
John was the first to discover the sevenfold difference between the weakest and strongest range, effectively demonstrating that muscular capacity is far greater than anyone ever realized. His findings also exposed the Achilles’ heel of weightlifting: Because the weight used is determined by the weakest range, there is a vast mismatch between the amount of weight lifted and our actual muscular potential. What’s more, the stronger a lifter gets, the more cumulative damage to joints, since they are at their maximum possible capacities in the weakest range of motion. This causes pain and stops the muscle from contracting effectively through the process of neural inhibition (a concept we’ll cover in greater depth in upcoming chapters).
Lifting a weight light enough to accommodate the weak range means the mid and strong ranges aren’t being worked to anywhere near their full capacity. Choosing a weight heavier than what your weak range can handle isn’t effective either, because it ensures you can’t complete a single rep. It also increases your risk of injury. As a result, weightlifting ends up fatiguing the least amount of tissue possible based on the limitations of the weakest range of motion.
Some people think low-force, high-repetition exercise—doing three sets of fifty curls with two-pound weights, for example—is the solution to this problem. However, research shows muscle is not built through low forces. In fact, you can actually greatly diminish muscle exercising this way. In a 2016 study, researchers concluded that when it comes to training for muscle strength and hypertrophy, “a trend was noted for the superiority of heavy loading.” 1 What does this mean? It means that when you want to grow muscle in the most effective way possible, there is no getting around HEAVY.
Other people try to focus their training on the weaker range in an attempt to activate more muscle there. This, they reason, will eventually balance out the mismatch of power among the ranges of motion. Unfortunately, that is not how the body works, and here is why:
- As we’ve stated before, the weak range is where joints are at the greatest amount of risk and most prone to injury. For example, the bottom of a deadlift is where people tend to injure their backs, sometimes resulting in permanent damage.
- Research demonstrates muscle does not effectively fire in the weak range. A recent electromyography study on pectoral activation during bench press showed the nervous system is actually unable to recruit as much muscle tissue at the “sticking point,” where the bar is closest to the chest.2 As the movement progresses through the medium and strong ranges, increasingly more muscle is activated. Two studies have shown this neurological inhibition (often called neural inhibition) in the weak range is an evolutionary mechanism to protect joints when the muscle is in a compromised position.3 4
This is common knowledge among neurologists, but many in the sports science industry have little familiarity with the concept. Unfortunately, that means athletes who follow the “power through the pain” theory only end up making their problems worse by adding to their chronic/long-term joint damage.
The increased possibility of injury coupled with the fact that the human nervous system makes complete muscle recruitment a physiological impossibility at the weakest range proves the training is not a sound investment of your exercise time. If muscle is not firing/activating, there can be no benefit. You’re just fighting against nature.
Higher Weight, Higher Risk
Serious/elite weightlifters understand gains don’t come from working on the weakest muscle range. They, therefore, try to lift as heavy as possible during their exercise routines. Unfortunately, “high force” in the context of static weightlifting still means “high for the weak range of motion.” Chronic soreness of the joints along with more serious injuries occur as a result.
The most typical overloading injury we see is tendinitis of the elbow, also known as golfer’s elbow or tennis elbow. Shoulder and knee problems are common as well. These injuries are indicative of damaged cartilage and are cumulative and permanent.
We’ve worked with experienced weightlifters who have been training hard for decades. They’ve certainly spent enough time and energy to see significant results when it comes to physique and strength. The problem is they also suffer a myriad of biomechanical issues—they’re almost all injured in some way. People who have been doing heavy squats for many years can barely get out of a chair without tears coming to their eyes. They were seeking health and ended up with long-term, debilitating knee pain instead.
The Solution: Variable Resistance
Sustaining injuries and underutilizing muscle tissue are symptoms of weightlifting’s biggest weaknesses: it overloads joints and underloads muscles. In no other type of functional movement would a human voluntarily attempt to deliver the same force through an entire range of motion. If someone had a piano to move, they wouldn’t bend their back as much as possible and pick it up from the lowest point available because that would maximize the opportunity for injury and reduce their lifting capacity. But that’s exactly how people exercise, and the logic just doesn’t add up. Clearly, a more effective training protocol would be one that challenges muscle where we are most capable and takes stress off joints where we are least capable.
What’s more, being limited to the weak range of motion’s capacity seriously limits results. There’s untapped potential a fixed weight cannot stimulate because the weight is constant while our muscle force output capability is variable. To create greater strength, the tissue in the medium and stronger ranges needs to be completely fatigued as well.
Matching our differing capacity with an appropriate level of resistance throughout the range of motion instead of using a constant weight chosen for our weakest point would make far more sense. For example, what if the weights got heavier as you got to the top of a bench press? What if the weights got lighter at the bottom of a deadlift? Delivering peak force at all ranges would certainly result in a better muscular response—in far less time—than conventional weightlifting. This type of exercise, called variable resistance, already exists. In fact, it’s been around for quite a while. So why wasn’t everyone doing it?
Schoenfeld, B. J., Wilson, J. M., Lowery, R. P., & Krieger, J. W. (2016). Muscular adaptations in low-versus high-load resistance training: A meta-analysis. European Journal of Sport Science, 16(1), 1–10. ↩︎
Van den Tillar R & Ettema G (2010). The ‘sticking period’ in a maximum bench press. The Journal of Sports Science, Mar 28 (5): 529–35. ↩︎
Sterling, M., Jull, G., & Wright, A. (2001). The effect of musculoskeletal pain on motor activity and control. The Journal of Pain, 2(3), 135-145. ↩︎
Pageaux, B. (2016). Perception of effort in exercise science: definition, measurement and perspectives. European Journal of Sport Science, 16(8), 885-894. ↩︎
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