by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC
Pauses aren't fun, and they aren't cool, but they often work wonders.
During Q&A and Livestreams we often get this question:: what are your favorite accessory exercises for the different lifts?
Our answer: we kinda hate them all. Really.
The more time you spend under the bar as a Master's Athlete, the more you will hate them, too. Your dream as an Athlete of Aging is to make progress training the plain old squat, dead, press, and bench--no special wraps, straps, supps, gear, equipment, accessory work, assistance exercises, variations, or substitutions. The longer you do this, the more you don't want to do special snowflake work.
When you're making progress on the vanilla lifts, life is good.
When you have a good coach and assistance and accessory work starts showing up in your program, that means only one thing: The Honeymoon's Over. Either you have a serious and stubborn form error, you're rehabbing an injury, you have an intractable mobility issue or movement disorder, or you're so far along on the flat side of the strength curve that you can only make progress on the vanilla lifts by doing accessory and assistance work, breaking up the big movements into small chunks and working on specific sticking points or weaknesses. It's often necessary, especially as you get later into your training career, but it's never good news, because it means that programming is more complex, workouts are often longer, and progress is slower.
Accessory exercises are NOT cool.
So yeah. We hate them all. But of all the assistance exercises, one group is arguably more useful, more powerful, and more likely to show up earlier in your program than any other: the pause variants, particularly the pause squat and the paused bench.
This article isn't really about those exercise variants per se, but let's touch on them briefly. In the pause squat, you descend to the bottom and--you guessed it--you pause. While you're down there, for what seems like an intractable, unreasonable, even punitive interval, you dial in that bottom position. Knees out. Hips back. Chest up. Feet flat.
My particular approach to pause squats involves a little less loading and a little more pause. Most of my athletes do pause squats for a leisurely count of three. The lifter assumes the bottom position, and then she gets three cues, e.g., “Knees out. Chest up. Heels. Now drive.” Sometimes it’s the same cue three times in a row if that’s the Major Malfunction: “Knees out. Knees out! KNEES OUT! Drive.”
Above all, the athlete needs to be balanced. Unlike a full speed squat at moderate weight, you can't glide through a sloppy bottom position and just bounce up and hope Coach didn't notice (he did). You're down there, baby, for the count, and it has to be strong and balanced, because a lousy bottom position for a dynamic lift won't hold up in a static pause, even at much lower loading. You have to hold a correct position to get away with this.
The pause bench works similarly, emphasizing an absolutely correct and precise bottom position.
Pauses aren't fun, and they aren't cool, but they often work wonders, and we've found them particularly useful for knee-cave and people who just love to squat on their toes flare their elbows in the bench.
All of this underscores an important technical point: the bottom and/or start position of a movement is usually the most critical factor in the successful execution of that movement at heavy loading. If you get to a perfect bottom position in the squat or bench, and if you start with a good bottom position in the press or the dead, you are more than halfway home to a good lift. This also goes back to what I've had to say previously about barbell training as a precision activity.
At the practical level, this means that a very considerable fraction of your attention (which has a quite narrow bandwidth under loading) needs to be focused on getting to that absolutely correct bottom position. Know where you're going--and get there. That's your job during the eccentric phase of the squat and bench. Go home. Arrive tight and balanced and controlled, in exactly the right position. If you do that, driving hips out of the hole or slamming the bar off your chest up to the ceiling is going to be a lot easier. If you don't, then you're exactly like a missile sitting cockeyed and crooked at the gantry. There may be a failure to launch, a miss....or fireworks.
And this is where pauses can be extremely powerful, because they increase, by orders of magnitude, the total percentage of our lives that we spend at the bottom of the movement--from a fraction of a second per rep to 3 - 5 seconds per rep. They drill in and train the correct bottom position, and teach us to be strong and balanced in the hole. Most importantly, they make us familiar with both the correct rout and the destination. The eccentric phase becomes less a shot in the dark and more like a well-trodden path to well-known location.
And you don't have to wait for these to be assigned or show up in your program. It's easy to fold these into your training by just doing pause reps during your first two or three warm-ups on the bench and squat. After that, on the heavier warm-ups, do the reps normally.
But whether you do pauses or not, the lesson is the same: when it comes to barbell training, the bottom of the lift is often the bottom line of success. And maintaining some focus on the bottom line is almost always a good idea.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.