Pause Your Lifts For Better Performance

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I was teaching a workshop not long ago, and the topic of corrective exercise came up.

It’s a term some fitness professionals live by, and often make their living bastardizing. It’s also a term that makes some fitness professionals – including myself – want to jump into a live volcano.

All you have to do is “Google” the term corrective exercise and you’re flooded with images of people squatting on BOSU balls and performing any number of circus-like feats on stability balls in the name of balance, proprioception, and [cue Jaws theme music]…core engagement.

There is a time and place for such things.

Corrective exercise almost always mirrors the rehab setting when injury and re-grooving motor control are reverberating themes; rarely is it used in the strength and conditioning setting.

When it does, however, corrective exercise simply means doing stuff right.

In other words: Correct movement is corrective.

It’s a running commentary whenever I speak to a group of trainers and coaches:

Q: “what’s the best way to get someone to squat correctly?”

A: “Squat!”

Tah-dah.

There you go. It’s science.

Rather than write the 7,893,904th  article on the internet on the finer points of the “Big 3” (squat, bench press, deadlift) and breaking down technique, I’d like to instead spend some time on the importance of accessory work and how we can manipulate it to correct our performance in those lifts.

What Is Accessory Work?

If you ask ten different coaches this question you’ll get ten different answers. But inevitably most (not all) will tip toe around one common theme: accessory work is used to make something harder.

Many will choose an accessory lift – and subsequently the set/rep scheme – based on how hard or challenging the exercise is. I call it the “will this make me shit a kidney” conundrum.

Making a particular exercise harder for the sake of making it harder isn’t a wrong approach, nor do I feel should it be avoided.

Lifting weights isn’t supposed to tickle, right?

However I’d argue it’s not something that’s going to help improve your numbers in the main lifts in the long term.

For me the main purpose or goal of accessory work should be to address a technique flaw or weakness in something. Put another way: there’s a purpose for the lift and a reason why it’s in a program.

It’s not there just to make you feel tired. That’s easy. Go push a Prowler for 30 minutes or attend a CrossFit class and perform 500 burpees…..on one leg. There you go, hard.

As noted above, correct movement is corrective. You’re not going to get better at squatting by riding a bike. You need to squat, and then squat some more. Squatting is the best accessory movement for squatting.

I know, weird.

The same can be said for deadlifting and bench pressing. As much as trainees hate to hear it, you don’t need as much variety as you think.

As a good friend of mine once said, “the hack for performance is mind-numbing monotony.”

Unfortunately boring isn’t sexy, and for many people they’re more concerned with being entertained with their exercise than to actually make progress.

“Look ma……chains on a barbell!”  Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

Put a bar on the ground and lift it. Add weight next week, and lift it again. Repeat.

Repetition with less variety is the key to better performance (and strength) for most trainees.

Is Pausing the Key?

I’m a huge advocate of making people pause their lifts. This isn’t a new concept as competitive powerlifters and numerous strength and conditioning coaches (myself included) have been touting the benefits of paused training long before I wrote this.

The concept is simple: take the range of motion (ROM) where most people are weak or generally “miss” their lifts, and force them to spend more time in that ROM.

It’s not fun, it’s humbling for most trainees (many will have to check their ego at the door and reduce the weight significantly, and it works.

Lets take a look at some basic iterations.

Paused Bench Press

When it comes to complimenting the bench press, I mirror many of the same sentiments as fellow Cressey Sports Performance strength coach, Tony Bonevechio (AKA: the other Tony), in that board presses are an overrated accessory bench press movement for raw lifters.

Don’t get me wrong, I think board presses are an amazing exercise to build monster triceps (which may or may not be a limiting factor for some lifters) and to help supplement the bench press. But for raw lifters – I.e., those who do not use a bench shirt – they take a back seat to good ol’ fashioned paused bench presses.

For shirted lifters board presses make a lot of sense, as there’s a fair amount of technique involved in learning how to use the shirt. You have to actually “pull” the bar to the chest.

For raw lifters, though, using board presses to build the bench press can be a catch-22. They’re great in that they allow guys to “feel” heavy weight in their hands and to help conquer that “holy shit this is heavy” moment that we all go through.

But most tend to “relax” when they sink the bar into the boards. As Tony B notes, “I want guys to learn to maintain tension [in the lats] throughout the lift.”

This is hard(er) to do with board presses.

With board presses, the bar sinks into the boards and guys tend to lose tension because the boards aid with taking the brunt of the weight.

Take the boards out of the equation, and have guys bench to their chest (still using the lats to “pull” the bar down), and then force them to add a pause, and it’s much easier for guys to feel what it means to actually (attempt) to maintain tension.

For me, with the majority of athletes and clients I train (particularly the 99.7% that aren’t competitive powerlifters) this has much more of a carry over to bench press performance.

Here’s a nice video I came across of both Chad Wesley Smith and Brandon Lilly discussing some finer points on benching technique.

Paused Squats

In much the same way, paused squats – where you descend into the hole and pause for an allotted amount of time (anywhere from 1-5 seconds) – is an excellent way to get trainees to learn how to maintain tension throughout the entire lift.

You shouldn’t “relax” in the hole and “hang-out” on your tendons and ligaments. Rather, there should be a conscientious effort to stay tight, upright, and active in an effort to explode out of the hole.

For more on this topic, I’d encourage you to read Passive vs. Active Foot For Squatting Performance.

As an accessory lift, paused squats are an excellent way to improve your squatting. Most guys hate paused squats because they have to use less weight. But so what!?

Here, rather than adding more weight or sets/reps we can manipulate time under tension to address a technique flaw (almost always: falling over due to a shitty set-up and lack of tension) and help get trainees more comfortable where they’re weak or when they enter compromising positions; which for most is at the bottom of the lift.

Paused squats help to hone technique (because it forces people to use sub-maximal weight) in addition to helping train power and explosiveness out of the hole.

After a few sets of heavy squats, I love following that with a few sets of paused squats (2-4 sets of 2-5 reps) using anywhere from 60-80% of 1RM. It’s important, however, to be honest with yourself and come to a complete PAUSE. And the pause can be anywhere, really.

In the hole, at parallel, during the descent, on the ascent (out of the hole, pause at parallel)…..back squat, front squat, pin squats, there are a litany of options.

Here’s a video of Greg Nuckols performing a pause front squat for 5s, because he’s a big jerk.

Paused Deadlifts

Admittedly less popular, but paused deaslifts are fantastic for those who tend to be slow(er) off the floor and tend to “grind” their pulls half-way up. Again, the key here is to maintain tension.

Pausing a few inches off the ground will:

  1. Increase time under tension in a ROM where you’re weak.
  2. Help you learn to explode through your sticking point (in this case, a few inches off the floor).
  3. Help you learn to engage your lats to a higher degree (not allowing the bar to get away from you), which is a huge component to pulling big weight and helps to better stabilize the spine.

This is NOT a deadlift variation where you’re going to use max effort weight, so you can relax “guy who is invariably going to scoff at this exercise because I’m going to tell you to use 50-70% of your 1RM.”

Remember: the objective of accessory work is to address a technique flaw (see points 1-3 above), which down the road will (hopefully) improve your 1RM.

To that end, I like using these after I pull heavy. I may work up to a few sets of heavy triples or if I’m feeling good, singles, and then follow those up with 4-6 sets of 4-6 reps in the 50-70% 1RM range.

Note: Yes, I’m wearing shoes in the video above. I know it’s borderline sacrilegious to deadlift with shoes on and that I should hand in my CSCS certification and banish myself to some remote island where people do nothing but squat in Smith Machines and watch Tracy Anderson DVDs.

I was just too lazy to take my shoes off during filming. Sorry.

To Summarize

       Correct movement is corrective. If you want to improve your performance on any lift, you need to perform that lift.

Variety, in this instance, is not the spice of life.

       Accessory movements should address a technique flaw or imbalance with a “main” lift. Their purpose is not to simply make stuff harder. There should be a purpose for choosing your accessory movements.

       Pausing your (accessory) lifts can have a profound affect on increasing the overall poundage you can lift on the main lifts.

– Paused training is one component I utilize quite often with my Premium Workout Group on WeightTraining.com. I write the program, you follow it, and increase you general level of awesomeness. It’s that simple.

– Did you hear it was announced that Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass are going to make another Jason Bourne sequel? OMG – BEST DAY EVER!!!!!!

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  • Chris Tangredi

    just googled corrective exercise for the hell of it…the image search actually is not horrible…way better than it has been in the past…still a good amount of bosu balls though….

  • Sean Tangrem

    Loved this post– I’ve been incorporating paused squats into my routine for a few weeks now, using the 2-3 second pause. Funny that you linked Greg Nuckols as I recently saw him speak about holding a paused squat with a relaxed core, anywhere from 1-2 minutes. Can you elaborate on why you prefer the 1-5s? Will a light weight such as 95 lbs truly aggravate tendons and joints on a much longer paused squat?

  • I think my standing on stability ball deadlift is 225 right now. I do this for all the times in life I have to stand on a stability ball to get something from up high. Happens all the time…

    The hardest thing about paused workouts is… making myself do them. They are the red-headed step-cousin to isometrics. In fact, I would probably rather wall sit then do pause deadlifts. For that admission, I am definitely making myself do them today. Yep. Pause preacher curls are in order.

    Another good post Tony. Keep it up.

    • TonyGentilcore

      I’m with you there. Paused training SUCKS DONKEY BALLS. And that’s putting it lightly.

      • For the record… I did pauses yesterday like I said I would. Bench. There was a lot of donkey business going on in that section of the gym. Oh the horror of those tiny plates hanging off the bar! No clamps. No pride.

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  • Shane Mclean

    By the way, I love the shoes. Paused lifts really suck……but they are a necessary suck. Congrats on making the PTDC articles of the week buddy.

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