Have you ever seen someone jerking the handles of a strength training machine only one inch for every repetition?
This range of motion is almost always seen with people over 50.
I was inspired to write my second article on this very odd phenomenon after witnessing a woman of about 50 or 55 using the shoulder press machine.
Her arms were straightened, hands on the handles above her head. She jerked the handles up and down literally for an inch or two for all of the repetitions.
She applied this fruitless technique to other equipment as well.
I’ve seen men, too, do this, such as with the biceps curl machine, bringing the handles towards them so that their arms are bent, and then moving the handles an inch or two.
Or, they’ll perform this range of motion at the bottom of the movement (arms almost straightened out).
Performing a range of motion for only a few inches is also seen on the leg press, leg curl and leg extension machines.
This approach will not bring on the results.
What results are they seeking?
The answer is up for grabs. Perhaps it’s weight loss if the machine user is overweight.
Perhaps it’s better fitness for slimmer users, such as the woman who was jerking the shoulder press handles only an inch for every single repetition.
Maybe it’s stronger arms for the man who sits on the row machine and pulls the handles towards him only two inches.
Recently I actually spotted three people doing inch ROM’s all at the gym at the same time: two women and a man.
What medical condition requires a strength training ROM of only a few inches?
As a former personal trainer, I can’t think of any that would apply to an able-bodied individual who walks into the gym without any difficulty.
I can certainly come up with numerous conditions that would prevent moving heavy or even medium resistance such as arthritis, bursitis, osteoarthritis and chondromalacia.
I’ve worked with clients with all of these conditions: full ROM but accommodating weight load.
Frozen shoulder syndrome will limit overhead ROM. But there’s no such thing as frozen chest or leg syndrome.
Even a person recovering from rotator cuff surgery is encouraged to perform full range of motion for rehabilitation, as my mother was.
The key is the amount of resistance. For post-surgical patients it begins with NO resistance, but rather, just arm motions, with the goal of complete range of natural motion.
After my mother had hip replacement surgery, her rehab included lying on a bed and lifting the surgical-side leg – held straight – as high as possible, rather than bouncing it only an inch off the bed.
I’ve worked with elderly clients. No matter how out of shape or “weak” they were, all were able to complete a full, natural range of motion with their arms and legs.
The issue was never range of motion for them. It was amount of weight moved.
So if someone is weak, he or she can still perform a complete range of motion for the overhead shoulder press machine, such as my elderly father who started out with the lightest weight possible (15 pounds).
My mother does full range of motion for seated rows using a light-resistance tension band.
What I always see, upon observing someone jerking the machine’s handles only an inch, is that they do this with all of the strength training equipment.
They manage to push the handles outward for the chest press – at full ROM – for the first half of the first repetition – and then from there, do the jerking inch ROM’s.
Same with the lat pull-down. They’re able to reach above their head and pull the handles or bar all the way down to neck level – but then from there, do only a few inches of ROM.
They then have no problem releasing the handles or bar all the way back up.
So you see, they’ve proven they can conduct full range of motion.
But let’s suppose they’d experience pain if they were to do repeated full ROM’s.
A physical therapist, as well as a personal trainer, would advise such an individual to use lighter resistance but with full ROM.
If the lightest resistance on the machine still induces joint pain, then the recommendation would be to abandon that equipment and use very small dumbbells or a light-resistance tension band.
If there’s still pain, then the recommendation would be to use NO weight, and instead just conduct the limb movement.
Years ago after injuring my rotator cuff, I was not able to use any resistance when raising my arms out to my sides or overhead due to the pain.
So I simply raised my arms repeatedly – without any added resistance – until I could do this very comfortably.
I then did it holding 2.5 lb. weights, and over time, worked up to greater weight loads.
After my elective double mastectomy (a choice, after learning my sister had breast cancer), I was restricted from upper-body strength training for six weeks.
Once I was cleared to resume strength training, I felt an odd, tight soreness when straightening my arms overhead while holding 5 lb. dumbbells.
It hurt, but the only way to recover was to employ FULL RANGE OF MOTION.
I would have never “re-taught” my arms to go overhead in a full ROM had I done what that woman had been doing: overhead presses of only one inch of ROM.
This worthless approach would’ve kept everything tight and sore.
That these gym patrons apply inch ROM’s to all their exercises strongly suggests that it’s a very bad habit rather than due to a medical condition, especially since they’re able to execute a full range of motion to get set up, and then when they complete the set.
Though it’s better than sitting before the TV, we should also remember that when watching TV is used as a comparison, this is an exceedingly low standard! “Better than watching TV” is NOT good enough.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer for Bally Total Fitness.