I love programming our daily classes. A lot of work goes in to putting together the five one-hour classes the comprise the week ahead. A week’s program will typically take an hour or so of actual time sitting in front of my Excel sheet, but many more hours of reading, research, seminars, videos and self-experimentation informs the programming. You, as an athlete, get fantastic results and benefits by simply doing the work prescribed on the white board, but I am a firm believer that understanding WHY you’re doing it will help you get to that next level. While we do try to relay some of this knowledge to you during a class, a lot of that can be easily lost among the initial shock of “wait, you want me to do what now?”. In our Programming Notes series, we will highlight a movement we have used in a recent workout or will be seeing soon and explain how and why to do it. Enjoy! -Tim
In the pause squat, we take a controlled descent into the bottom of the squat – the “hole” if you will – where we pause for a set amount of time (7 seconds or less, typically) before finishing the lift. The pause squat can be done with pretty much any variation of a weighted squat, although the most common and effective ones will be of the front squat and back squat varieties. The pause squat is effective at training for raw strength but also developing more positional awareness, control, and flexibility – all of which are going to make you a better overall squatter. Below are the main areas of focus when we are considering the pause squat.
1. Positional Strength. For almost anyone reading this, your weakest point of any squat will be in the hole. If you fail a squat, it’s because you get stuck in the hole and don’t have the strength to power out. By pausing at the bottom, we get the opportunity to spend some time doing some weighted isometric holds right in that weak spot, which in turn will strengthen the glutes, quads, core and posterior chain the position you are weakest. Additionally, the pause will remove the stretch reflex – storing energy in the elastic lengthening of the muscles that essentially turn them into springs – which means we have to teach our body how to recruit more strength in that bottom position.
2. Control. Once a baseline understanding of a squat is established, the biggest error I see in weighted squats is a crash into the bottom of the squat. This crash typically starts with a nice controlled descent until a point just a bit above parallel, but then most of the tension through the hips and legs is released in an effort to get as low as possible. This causes a collapse through trunk and core and frequently causes the knees to slide forward or collapse in and the hips may drive up first all of which will ultimately be the failure mechanism of the squat. A pause squat teaches us neurologically to slow down going into the hole, to slowly seek out the bottom in a strong, controlled manner which in turn will build proper motor control and muscle memory for future squats.
3. Flexibility. Being tight through the hips, knees, and ankles will manifest itself in a reduction of power in a squat. If we are using muscle power to overcome a tight or short muscle this is a muscle that cannot devote itself 100% to lifting the weight on your shoulders. It’s a common mantra in the weightlifting and power lifting worlds that the best way to develop flexibility for the squat is to do more squats. While this is true to a certain extent, if you think about a typical squat you are spending no more than a fraction of a second in the bottom of a squat, which is the position that requires greatest flexibility. By holding the bottom of the squat for an extended amount of time we are increasing the time the muscles are spent under load in their lengthened position by a factor of ten or even more per squat. More time under tension means faster and more effective results.
Pause squats, while highly effective, will feel a bit torturous during your stay at the bottom of the squat. The most important things to remember is to approach the bottom slowly enough that you are finding a stable, strong position (remember: “comfortable” is not always the same as “stable, strong, and effective”) that will allow you to drive out. Increase your weights slowly as these will take a toll differently from person to person. Depending on the paused time, expect your maxes to be anywhere from 80-95% of what you would be able to do without the pause (more time means less weight, obviously). Ultimately, to continue to lift more and more weight you need to be comfortable in the bottom of the squat, and the best way to develop that comfort is to spend more time there!