Plateau Buster #3: Partials
The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, goes the old adage. And that probably best describes how partials training can chew up obstacles you face in the gym and propel you through to the next level of growth. Simply put, partials entail overloading small sections of the full range of motion (ROM) with more weight than you could possibly handle if you tried moving that same weight through the entire ROM.
Anatomy of Partials
You may be stronger at the top portion of a lift like overhead presses, squats or bench presses, but the weight you choose is always limited by how strong you are through the so-called sticking point, typically the weakest section in the ROM. But that’s not the case with partials, because you’ll be training above the sticking point, so you’ll be able to use more weight. By applying more force across a particular area than the muscles are typically accustomed to, the fibers will be stimulated to grow. The genius of this technique is that you can ultimately apply it across the entire ROM, one segment at a time.
Complete Benefits of Partials
Partials are best done inside a Smith machine where you have the benefit of safeties but you also have multiple levels built in to the machine to use as guides. (Hardcore lifters do them in something called a power rack, but the Smith works well, too.) You can choose the top portion of the range of motion, like the last 6 inches of the overhead shoulder press, or the middle sticking point, or even the bottom portion of the rep. That’s important to know because your gains will be limited to the particular ROM you train in, so over time, you’ll need to adjust the safeties and work all various parts of the full ROM. For the shoulder press, the full ROM starts with the bar just off your upper traps to a position in which your arms are fully extended.
Do partial-rep training early in your workout. Because partials are so intense, do them with only one bodypart at a time over the course of your training split, even if you train multiple muscle groups on a given day. It’s also a good idea to precede a partials day with a full rest day so that you’re fresh and ready to go.
Select the top third of the range of motion of a given move and insert the lower safeties on the Smith machine, which restrict your ROM. Compute your 10RM weight (the weight at which you can do just 10 reps with good form), and add 25% to that. Do two sets of 10 reps — the bar should be moving only about 6 inches. Lower the safeties another third of the ROM and reduce the weight back to your 10RM and do two more sets of 10 reps. Put the safeties all the way to the bottom of the ROM and do two more sets of 10 reps, working through the full ROM.
Partials: To Sum Up
- Break down the full range of motion of a given movement into thirds.
- Partials allow more force per square inch than standard lifting, especially when working above the sticking point. So take advantage and go heavier accordingly.
- Doing partials only helps you at that particular angle, so it’s important that you work throughout entire range of motion.
- The technique is best used on a Smith machine or power rack for safety and ease of varying angles.
- Because they’re so intense, do partials early in your session.
Plateau Buster #4: Antagonist Sets
If it’s true that opposites attract, you’ll go crazy over this plateau breaker. You’ll see the benefits of this tactic in the mirror immediately after the first time you try it. While you may be familiar with the idea of doing two exercises back to back, this variation entails pairing exercises for antagonist, or opposing muscle groups. Research shows that a muscle is stronger if its antagonist is contracted immediately before it.
Anatomy of Antagonist Training
The reason behind the increase in strength of the second muscle group is because there’s an innate limitation of an agonist by its antagonist. In other words, during a few standard sets of bench presses, the back muscles inhibit the contraction of the chest to a degree. But if you precede the bench press with a set of wide-grip rows, it will lessen the inhibitory effect so your bench-press motion can contract with greater force. And this phenomenon can be applied to virtually every bodypart.
For whatever bodypart you’re training, select an exercise for its opposing muscle group to perform first. If you’re doing leg extensions, precede the movement with some lying leg curls for hamstrings. Antagonist muscle group pairings include: triceps with biceps, quads with hams, back with chest, and shoulder exercises with other delt or back exercises (for example, pair front- and rear-delt movements, but choose overhead dumbbell presses with lat pulldowns).
You can add this plateau buster at any time during your training session. Some caution points on the first exercise: Do only a few light reps and don’t go to muscle failure. Instead, do 5–6 reps with a weight you could do for about 15, and use an explosive motion. Rest 1–2 minutes before doing the target exercise. After the rest period, ratchet up the weight on the focus bodypart and do a set of five reps with roughly 85% of your 1RM (that’s 85% of your one-rep max weight).
Switch It Up
The next training session where you pair two exercises together, switch the order in which you train, allowing the opposite muscle to reap the same benefits of the agonist/antagonist relationship.
Antagonist Sets: To Sum Up
- Choose opposing muscle groups.
- Try to select a move that’s the mirror image of the target move.
- The target muscle will be stronger if its antagonist is stimulated prior so long as you choose a fairly light weight and do just 5–6 reps.
- After a short rest, hit your primary target with a fairly heavy weight. Be sure to swap the order the next time you pair the two moves.
- You can do this technique at any point in your workout, but since you’re strongest early in your training session, it’ll have more impact when done early on.