“Range of motion” and “full range of motion” are phrases bandied about in every gym on the planet. But what does range of motion (ROM) mean?
Depends on who you’re talking to. The medical profession, according to the McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine, defines range of motion as the range through which a joint can be moved, usually its range of flexion (bending) and extension (straightening), as determined by the type of joint, its articular surfaces, and that allowed by regional muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints and physiologic control of movement across the joint.
Then there are active and passive ROMs. They mean exactly what they sound like. Active ROM is how far you can move a joint without assistance, either from other muscles, gravity, a machine, or a person. Passive ROM is how far a joint moves when someone or something else does all the work. Usually, passive ROM is greater than active ROM because there is (theoretically) no muscle tension involved in the movement.
How To Practice Full Range of Motion
Full range of motion has more than one meaning. In scientific terms, it refers to the movement of a joint of a cadaver. No muscle tension, no resistance, no life. Not very useful for those of us working on improving the results of our resistance training. The concept of full range of motion in a workout context is completely dependent on the individual.
A term that resistance exercisers might find more meaningful than “full range of motion” is real range of motion (or real ROM). This takes into account all the features of active range of motion plus consciously thinking about other factors:
Goal of the exercise
Is your goal to strengthen specific muscle? Are you working on improving your performance in a particular sport? Are you rehabbing from an injury of some kind? Some other reason?
The perceived traditional full range of motion, for example, on the bench press, involves bringing the bar all the way down to the chest. If your ribcage is barrel-shaped, no problem. Your shoulder joints won’t suffer. If your ribcage is lozenge-shaped, though, bringing the bar all the way down could cause stretched ligaments, torn shoulder muscles, and a whole lot of downtime to let injuries heal. Real ROM takes body type and joint safety into account, too.
The more you can focus your attention on the exercise in question, the more you can control. Distractibility is a topic in and of itself and has an effect, more being positive and less being negative, on real ROM.
Amount of resistance involved
More resistance, whether it be free weights, weight machines, elastic bands, or body weight, calls for a shortened ROM. At least, at first. This applies until you know you can control the resistance the way you need to preserve joint and muscle safety.
Familiarity with the movement
How well you know the exercise and how well you can perform the movement affect real ROM.
Stability and alignment
We’ve addressed this topic in other posts, so let’s just say knowing how to stabilize, align, and isolate the body part(s) in question are critical aspects of ROM.
Range of motion is something that needs real thought before engaging in any exercise. A fitness professional can help you figure out what’s best for you.