Q: What do you think of supramaximal methods such as heavy partials, limited ROM exercises and holds for building strength and size? I read your Templates article and most of your others and don't ever recall you using things like board presses, lockouts, holds etc.
A: I recommend them sometimes but not really in the traditional sense. Partials, Heavy supports, supramaximal holds, and limited ROM isometrics all pretty much all work via the same mechanisms.
They increase strength 2 ways. First of all, they can "temporarily" increase neural drive. Say you take a heavy weight out of the bench press rack and either hold it for 10 seconds or do partial reps for 10 seconds. After the hold your ability to then lift a heavy load in normal fashion is temporarily enhanced. This is due to increased sensitivity of the contractile proteins that effectively bind up large amounts of calcium that were released during the supramaximal hold. Therefore, due to enhanced force of the mechanical twitch, you temporarily end up stronger than before. This is why I've told some lifters I was training for powerlifting to unrack a supramaximal bench press and simply hold it for about 5-10 seconds about 5 minutes prior to their heaviest bench attempts in competition.
Additionally, by loading up and emphasizing certain parts of a movement with supramaximal weight, you can prolong the level and duration the muscles are under tension. Thus partials, holds, and isometrics can be good for increasing strength in the "sticking point" of a movement. This is why I often prescribe them for bodyweight exercises like chinups and why some variation of "partial holds" are included in most gymnastics progressions. If you can't do a chinup and the tension you can generate at the midpoint of the movement is what's holding you back strengthwise, how much time under tension do you get in the midpoint of that movement in a standard set of 5 rep assisted chinups?? Maybe 5 seconds.
Now, say you start at the top of a chinup and lower yourself down to the midpoint and hold it for as long as you can, or do partial reps in that same limited ROM, both for say 10 or 20 seconds. Now you compare 20 seconds to 5 seconds. It's obvious the set of 10 or 20 second holds or partials can be better for increasing strength in the weak part of that movement cuz of the increased and lengthened tension you created in that ROM. Same with bench press. Powerlifters that wear bench shirts find the shirt lifts the bar about halfway up for them. So all they have to worry about is the top half of the movement. Which is why powerlifters do lots of "partial range" board presses and lockouts since the lockout is their "sticking point". That won't work for shirtless lifters though because their sticking point is more towards the bottom.
The bad thing about using those methods for strength is that the strength from a partial movement is fairly specific to the joint angle. In other words, the reason you see lots of guys in the gym that can do 1/4 squats with 405 but can't squat an empty bar ass to the grass is because the strength they gain doing those 1/4 squats isn't transferable to the full range squat. Another thing is, it's very easy to get injured working with supramax loads associated with those methods. Working with the bodyweight is one thing but supramax bench presses, pulls and squats with heavy weights way above your maximum full range strength is another. Do that for a good while and you could very well end up being a Train Wreck.
Now what about size? There are bodybuilding books recommending schemes that consist 100% of partial range training by loading up weight in the strong range of a movement and performing partial reps. (Static contraction training/power factor training by Pete Sisco). Basically, anything you do to place tension on a muscle group will develop strength or size to a certain extent. Bodyweight movements, pushing a car, throwing rocks, isometrics, positives only, negatives only, or whatever. There are plenty of ways to induce tensions and plenty of books on each one of those schemes alone.
Now, if the basic tenet of partial range bodybuilding were true, then the guy squatting 405 in quarter squats would be a lot stronger in a full squat and have bigger legs then deep squatters wouldn't he? yet in the real world the reverse is true. If you unrack a bench press 200 pounds heavier then your max and do a bunch of partials, you will probably feel like you're "the man", and you'll temporarily probably be quite a bit stronger due to the potentiation affect I described above. You might also stimulate "some" chronic strength and growth, yet you do NOT fully activate and train all the muscles involved in the full range bench press or train "full range" strength.
Additionally, a bodybuilder using partial range supramaximal weights on every exercise for the whole body WILL over time strain the heck out of their joints, ligaments and tendons, no doubt about it. That's why most powerbuilders and guys who use a lot of heavy partials are almost always training around injuries. In fact the only time I've ever been hurt in the gym was following one of those types of routines for squats and I strained ligaments in my back!
So, for size improvements, the only time I'd recommend partials in the strong point of your ROM is when the ROM must be limited due to injury, or sometimes at the every end of the set when you do a static hold or partials to increase the length of stimulus on the muscle. Partials and isometrics etc. performed in the "weak" range of a movement have much greater value and greater overall carryover based on what I've seen in the real world and the research.