Here's what you need to know...
- Most of your strength should be built via regular sets (no pauses) on the big lifts. However, the strategic use of two-second pauses can help strengthen weak parts of specific ranges of motion.
- Pausing also allows you to do a mental check to see if your body position and lifting mechanics are optimal. As such, pausing is a great learning tool to master technique.
- Intra-set pauses can be performed both during the eccentric (lowering) and concentric (lifting) phases of a lift. Pauses during the eccentric portion of a lift are much easier and less effective, though.
I believe in the big, basic lifts: deadlifts, squats, bench presses, cleans, and snatches. These form the core of my training as well as that of my athletes and bodybuilders.
There are three key elements in each of these lifts and a deficiency in any of them will impede optimal performance and, by extension, gains. Including pauses during a compound lift can help improve each of these key elements.
1 – Strength in the Key Positions
Using pauses in key positions will strengthen you isometrically more so than with regular lifting. If you aren't strong enough isometrically to hold the body in perfect form at the most important points in the range of motion, that's where your form will break down when under maximal loads.
For example, if you can't maintain a tightly arched back when the bar is just below the knees in a pull, this weakness will manifest itself as a sticking point when you attempt maximal weights. The stronger you are isometrically at those potentially weak positions, the less likely you are to have a form breakdown.
Now, when you lift regularly you build momentum gradually throughout the movement, and the momentum can help you blast through the key positions. Likewise, the use of light weights will allow you to compensate for being weak in those positions, but not so with big weights. The stronger and more solid you are in the key lifting positions in a movement, the better your performance.
2 – Strength to Lift the Barbell
Most of your strength should be built via regular sets (no pauses) on the big lifts. However, the strategic use of pauses can help strengthen weak parts of the range of motion.
When you lift submaximal weights (85% or less), you're able to produce a lot of momentum from the start. As a result of this momentum, the body becomes "lazy" during some points in the range of motion. It ends up reducing muscle at those points because you don't need maximal force production.
As a result, the body learns to modulate muscle activation in such a way that you develop weak zones that end up being sticking points while using heavy weights. A lot of sticking points are due to suboptimal muscle activity at those muscle angles and that can be due to a habitual reliance on momentum.
Pausing, however, will kill momentum and will force the body to recruit the muscles more throughout the whole range of motion. Your body will thus learn to maximize force at all points in the movement.
3 – Optimal Lifting Mechanics
Pausing also allows you to do a mental check to see if your body position and lifting mechanics are optimal. As such, pausing is a great way to master technique.
Those are just some of the reasons I love to include paused lifting in my training, along with, of course, greater muscle growth.
Eccentric vs. Concentric Pauses
Intra-set pauses can be performed both during the eccentric (lowering) and concentric (lifting) phases of a lift. Pauses during the eccentric portion of a lift are much easier and, in my opinion, less effective. They work mostly by increasing eccentric strength (the body uses different contraction strategies when lifting and lowering weights) and by activating mTor. Both are good things, but regardless, intra-set eccentric pauses aren't very effective at building lifting strength.
Think of it this way: Momentum makes the concentric part of a lift easier, but it makes the eccentric portion of the lift harder. Pausing during the eccentric can fatigue the fibers, but it also makes the actual lowering action easier.
Pauses during the concentric phase are much more demanding because they kill the momentum built during the lifting of the barbell. By stopping the barbell you need to overcome inertia a second time, often from a weak position, to resume the upward movement. This requires a higher force production at a joint angle where momentum usually makes the job of the muscles easier.
So, pauses during the lifting portion of the lift forces you to produce more muscle activity at all points in the range of motion. They also allow you to focus on perfect body position and mechanics.
Eccentric pauses can be used mostly to build muscle mass and to activate mTor. As such, doing 1-2 sets of eccentric pauses prior to switching to concentric pauses is a good idea. You can also start with concentric pauses and when you're tired, finish off the workout with a few sets of the easier eccentric-paused sets.
Pausing at the bottom of the squat
Paused squatting is very effective at building leg strength and size by removing the contribution of the "bounce/stretch reflex" you get at the bottom of a squat.
Because of that stretch reflex, the actual effort of the contractile elements of the muscles is decreased during the first third of the movement. By including a two-second pause at the bottom position, just prior to initiating the lift up, you force your muscles to do all the work over the full range of motion. That's why the paused front squat is the ultimate test of the muscular strength of the legs.
Holding a pause at the bottom of a squat/front squat is also a very effective way to improve hip mobility by acting as a form of loaded stretching. It's not unusual to see significant improvements in squatting depth and posture in as little as one session of using paused squats.
Regardless of whether you're using a squat or a front squat, your focus during the bottom pause should be the same: torso upright as much as possible, weight on the middle of the feet, knees out, and hips "between your feet" (I'm talking high bar/Olympic squat here).
With the front squat you also need to think about pushing your elbows up as high as you can. As you can probably see, holding the perfect posture during the pause is almost as physically demanding as doing the lift! It's worth it, though, because it will quickly improve your squatting form and performance significantly.
Pausing just out of the hole
Pausing out of the hole will improve strength in the first few inches of a squat. I'm referring to either movement strength (those with a sticking point below 90 degrees) or positional strength (those who lose their proper lifting posture as soon as they start to go up).
Go down into your full squat and initiate the ascent as you normally would, but only go up a few inches, stopping before you hit 90 degrees, having the hips roughly at knee level. Pause there for 2 seconds and then finish your lift. Do not go back down after the pause.
Again, the key here is to maintain a perfect lifting posture – back arched, torso upright, upper back tight, and head looking up. If you can't maintain that perfect posture during the pause, use less weight and do it right.
Pausing at a 90-degree knee angle
This pause is for someone who 1) has trouble optimally recruiting his quads when squatting, 2) has a sticking point at the mid point of the range of motion, or 3) loses his optimal lifting posture – leaning forward, upper back rounding – when he reaches the half-way point of the movement.
Go down into a full squat, start to stand back up, and when you reach a knee angle of about 90 degrees (just above parallel), pause for 2 seconds. Focus on keeping an upright torso, tight back, and knees pushed out. Don't let your hips drift back or your torso bend forward.
Pausing in the quarter squat position
This pause is useful mostly with the front squat, but would also be specifically used to improve the drive in a push press or jerk. A lot of people lose position/tension when they switch from the dip to the drive in a push press/jerk. They'll lean forward a bit or round the upper back, resulting in a weak drive and pushing the bar away from the body instead of behind the ears.
It can also be used to focus on quadriceps development, as pausing in the quarter squat will allow you to use more weight than pausing at 90 degrees. This added weight will put more tension on the quads, especially the vastus medialis.
When using this pause with the front squat, you want to focus on keeping the torso as close as possible to perpendicular to the floor since this is the position we want when jerking/push pressing.
Paused Pulling (Deadlifts, Olympic Lifts and Olympic Pulls)
Pausing below the knees
It's imperative to have sufficient positional strength during the first pull (from floor to above knees) so that you can maintain an optimal position. Keeping this optimal position during that phase is crucial, especially for the Olympic lifts. The moment you lose your position your weight will shift forward and the bar will move away from your center of mass. This gives you a much weaker lever to complete the lift.
I will go as far as to say that in the Olympic lift, most of the mistakes occurring later in the movement are due to an improper start. Pausing below the knees for two seconds, however, while focusing on maintaining the same torso angle from floor to knees will strengthen the lower back, core, and hamstrings to a large degree and build positional strength.
The key with this exercise is to focus on maintaining the same torso angle (relative to the floor) during the first pull. This means that your torso angle at the paused position (just below knees) should be the same as it was when the barbell separated from the floor. This will build positional strength and teach you to use your legs properly when lifting the barbell.
An important note regarding the start: You need to engage/tense your lats and maintain that tension at all times. How do you do that? When you're in the start position, use the bar (pulling the bar toward you) to push your chest forward. And when you begin to lift the barbell, try to go through your shins (that's called sweeping the bar in). If you don't feel your lats tensed, the bar will always tend to move away from you, especially with heavier weights.
Pausing above the knees
This pause will allow you to work on keeping the bar close to your body throughout the whole pull while learning how to engage the hips to finish the lift. Remember that the moment the bar moves away from your body/center of mass during a deadlift or Olympic lift is the moment you begin to get in trouble!
When you pull off the floor, focus on maintaining your torso angle. When you reach the knees you need to sweep the bar toward you so that it brushes the lower thigh. Pause about 1-2" above the kneecap. Obviously you need to focus on keeping a good position during the pause (arched lower back, in balance), but your main goal is to get to the pause while keeping the bar close to your body at all times.
Don't let the bar drift away, even for half an inch! You need to keep the lats engaged/tight to do this. Imagine trying to push the bar through your shin when you pull.
Power clean/snatch paused in a half-squat catch position
I know firsthand from coaching a lot of CrossFit athletes and hockey and football players how it can be hard to transition from a power clean or snatch to the full lift caught in a deep squat. This is because these athletes are often doing the power variation of the lifts wrong. They're pulling the bar as high as possible and catching it with almost no knee bend. They never learn to get under the bar.
A proper power clean or power snatch should be caught with bent knees. Shoot for at least a quarter squat, ideally a half-squat catch – a knee angle of about 100 degrees. By doing this you'll pull high enough to have high power production, but you'll also learn to get under the bar as soon as you finish the pull.
The drill I use to teach how to do a proper power clean/snatch and then transition to the full squat version is to have athletes catch the bar in a half squat position, pause there for a second or two, and then stand up. This teaches them how to get under the barbell.
The second step is to catch the power clean/snatch in a half squat, pause for a second, and ride it down into a squat. The final step is to do the exact same motion, but receive it directly into a full squat position.
Paused Bench Pressing
Bench press paused just above chest
This pause improves thrust off the chest during the bench press. It also increases pectoral activation and can reinforce focusing on pressing yourself down through the bench instead of thinking about pressing the barbell up.
Lower the bar down to your chest, lift it up 1-2" above your chest and hold it there. During the hold, focus on keeping the back tight and shoulders back, along with thinking about pressing yourself through the bench. After a 2-second hold, lift the weight using as much force/speed as possible.
Bench press paused at the mid-range point
The mid-point of the range of motion is the weakest point for most people. The best place to pause is just slightly below the weak point when using light loads for higher reps (5 or more), and slightly above the weak point when using more weight for lower reps (1-4). This pause also increases deltoid activation during the press.
From a technique standpoint, this pause allows you to see if you're maintaining the shoulders in their sockets instead of pushing them up, which is a natural tendency for most and is inefficient and dangerous for the shoulders.
The key points to focus on when holding the pause is making sure your upper back and glutes are kept tight, along with keeping the chest up and the shoulders back.
Bench press paused near lockout
This is a good drill for those who have a hard time finishing their presses strong. It's a problem that's not as common as a mid-range sticking point, but it is sometimes seen in people who use a lot of "bodybuilding" bench pressing where they never go to lockout. This pause can also be used to strengthen the triceps and front deltoids.
The focus point here, besides keeping the back tight and chest up, is to try to "tear the bar apart." This will maximize triceps activation.