There are far too many occasions where I have seen novices at the gym do partial lifts — not to increase their potential gains. Most of the time, it’s out of ego rather than necessity, but there are times when partial lifts can be a formidable addition to one’s lifting arsenal.
First and foremost, the only time a novice should be doing partial lifts is if they’re working towards developing adequate mobility for a main compound lift — such as block pulls for deadlifts.
I’m not a fan of novices doing half-squats, half-benches or 21s — they should, ideally, learn how to execute lifts properly and safely, ingraining proper motor patterns, before even considering partial lifts for maximum gains.
One should have at least a few years of training, tapping out gains through quasi linear progressive overload, before utilizing partial lifts.
Otherwise, imbalances can arise, injuries could flare, and subpar muscular/strength development may take over.
But that’s not, to say, that partial lifts aren’t useful — they sure as hell can be.
When to Do Partial Lifts for Gains?
As a former powerlifter, I would program my partial lifts to attack weaknesses in my lifts.
I often advocate for lifters to find their sticking point in the lift which is one of three places: beginning, middle, or end.
By filming oneself executing certain lifts, you can identify where the grind begins and where deceleration may occur.
Once you find your weakness, you can address that weak area by incorporating partial lifts, either from a dead stop beginning at where you stall or by increasing time under tension in that weaker area.
For example, with the deadlift, I was weak off the floor, so I would incorporate deficit speed pulls, floor-to-knee speed pulls, or 1″ off floor-to-knee Romanian Deadlifts to get stronger in this portion of the lift.
All of these exercises would address my weakness and helped immensely in increasing my numbers.
One exercise that help blow up my squat and deadlift is the “Herc Squat.” This exercise I created by accident is a partial supramaximal Bulgarian Split Squat that is monstrously effective for gains in your lower body. However, I always advocate to exercise it with caution and sparingly.
And with all partial and supramaximal loads, they should be either cycled or used as a get-out-of-plateau-free card.
Partial lifts can serve as a great finisher — but not as a replacement to the main lifts.
For a full muscular contraction, a near-full* range of motion must be performed to stimulate the muscle.
*I say “near-full” because locking out on pressing movements can cause you to lose tightness and stability. I prefer stopping 1-2″ from lockout before starting the eccentric phase between reps.
Partial rep ranges can help burn out a fatigued muscle after muscular failure.
Triceps and front deltoids tend to be slightly weaker than the chest and upper back, and therefore, half-reps on a drop set to force more blood into the muscles after failure on a bench or machine chest press can be beneficial, translating to enormous gains.
Half-reps such as 21s for the biceps or even triceps can also add resistance once fatigue sets in to maximize potential gains.
Partial reps, ideally, should only be employed in rare instances or to address particular weaknesses.
Ingraining proper motor patterns and executing full ranges of motion are far more beneficial in the long run than partials.
And for that reason, I advocate only programming partials sporadically into one’s training rather than keeping them as a staple.