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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
January 14, 2022
Let’s just put this out there, the squat is arguably one of the most important movements to train in any given program. There, it’s noted. A squat variation that is often overlooked, the pause squat, has numerous benefits to building a stronger athlete. One main factor that the pause squat uncovers is any weak links in the squat. If you’re stuck in a cycle of the same compensations in your form with minimal strength gains, pause squats are one variation that can propel your progress forward. It will be a tough adjustment for the body, but an equally rewarding one when you notice improvements. The goal is to build a strong squat, which in turn, builds a stronger you.
Learn why pause squats are the missing link in your training program and exactly how to do them...
Pause squats are standard squats (typically barbell back squats) with a pause at the bottom range of motion (ROM). They can also be performed with a pause halfway between the top position and the bottom position, although it is generally more common to pause at the bottom of the squat.
The bottom ROM is specific to each individual. The standard bottom range is either parallel or below parallel. "Parallel" is defined when the femur (thighs) is parallel to the ground at the bottom of the squat. Similarly, below parallel is when the hip crease sits below the knee plane in the end ROM.
Everyone’s squat mechanics are unique to their anatomy and it’s worth mentioning that working within your current ROM is crucial when improving overall squat mechanics. Avoid forcing your body to move through a range of motion without having the prerequisites to do so. Forcing ROM especially under load can lead to compensations and future injuries. Pause squats are the most efficient when performed within your current range of motion; proper mobility training can lead to increased ranges of motion along with strength gains within those ranges.
Pause squats can be done with a barbell, kettlebells, dumbbells, etc. The most common modality used for strength training is the barbell, for back squats or front squats. The barbell allows us to pack on the heaviest weights and is the most efficient for improving overall strength.
Pause squats can benefit a variety of individuals who have specific goals. Those goals may include: improving squat mechanics, building lower-body strength and power, increasing squat strength and breaking plateaus, and/or improving the bottom range sticking-point of the squat pattern.
For most, a primary goal is to move efficiently for as long as possible. If the pause squat is performed pain-free while using proper technique then it is beneficial for most individuals.
You may think your squats are golden until you try pause squats. Pause squats can and often will uncover weak links in squat patterns. Move through your squat pattern, while utilizing the cues below:
Breathing & Abdominal Bracing Practice:
A proper way to work on your diaphragmatic breathing is to place your thumbs on your obliques (to the side of your abs) and breathe deeply into the thumbs by expanding the lower abdominals. Your trunk will actively push into your thumbs both on the inhale, think of this as “filling the tank”.
As for proper bracing, keep your thumbs in the same spot, initiate proper breathing, then create tension by activating the abdominal muscles and the muscles of the lower back. If you’re having trouble with that, pretend as if someone were to punch you right in the gut and you were ready to resist the blow!
In the position make sure your spine stays neutral. Try not to flare the ribcage out, instead think of pulling it downward and stacked with your hips neutral.
Work on this before you start squatting.
When you’re ready, add resistance to your squat (start light) and practice keeping your abdominal brace throughout the squat, especially at the bottom range.
1. Greater Time Under Tension
Time under tension is the amount of time the muscles are placed under tension which increases muscular recruitment. In this case, the leg muscles are being placed under an isometric contraction with resistance in the bottom position. In the pause, fast-twitch muscles start to fatigue while slow-twitch muscles are recruited to take over stabilization of the body. TUT is a method used in progressive overload which places increasing stimulus on the muscles over time. This method is proven to increase muscle growth when applied properly in training programs.
2. Builds Power Out of the Hole
Pausing at the bottom of the squat forces the legs to recruit both fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers to activate in order to drive out of the hole. As stated above, the pause gives the legs grater time under tension which increases muscular recruitment. When applied in training, this increases lower body strength and builds power out of the hole.
3. Improves Concentric Quad Strength
In a standard squat, the stretch reflex muscles are activated on the concentric phase (coming up), which helps propel the squat out of the hole. The pause squat negates the stretch reflex* and instead isolates the entirety of the load on the leg muscles. This makes pause squats feel much harder for the body and helps directly target building strength in the quadriceps.
4. Ability to Control and Stabilize
Pause squats target the ability to hold a braced position especially when isometrically contracting in the bottom position. This requires proper breathing and bracing techniques to stabilize the bottom position as well as controlling the descending and ascending phases of the squat. When heavier loads are placed in the pause squat, greater demands of stabilization are placed on the body. Maintaining a proper brace as load increases is crucial to seeing substantial progress in the pause squat.
5. Enhance Overall Athletic Performance
Many sports require explosive power from a knee-bent position. Pause squats test the ability to control and load the squat in a concentric phase and explosive power out of the bottom position. Proficiency in explosive power translates to sudden demands of explosiveness in sports like football, soccer, track, CrossFit and more.
*The Stretch Reflex is an automatic response. When a significant amount of stretch occurs in a muscle, the stretch reflex is activated and causes an involuntary contraction. When it comes to the squat, we see the stretch reflex activate in the bottom of the squat, the “bounce” or rebound.
From the point of view of a barbell back squat:
The primary muscles are the “meat and potatoes” of intended and targeted muscles worked. In this case, pause squats are primarily targeting the quadriceps, glutes and hip flexors and are most beneficial when programmed in a lower-body focused session. Whereas, the secondary muscles assist the primary muscles to complete the exercise. We wouldn’t necessarily categorize the pause squat as an upper back isolated exercise but we do acknowledge that the upper back is considerably activated and assists in the overall movement to keep your spine stable and straight. Your core is also going to be working HARD in pause squats, mainly through intra-abdominal pressure during the pause to avoid flexion of the spine.
Specificity in programming varies from individual-to-individual. A well-rounded program will have you hitting legs twice per week. Whether the program focuses just on lower body push (squats, lunges, etc.) or incorporates both lower push and pull (deadlifts, hip thrusts, etc.), pause squats can be programmed twice per week.
Workout A will include the pause squat as the main lift, typically performed at the start of the workout.
Workout B will include pause squats as the accessory movement, which is performed after the compound lifts.
Pause squats are best performed within 2-5 seconds.
As a main lift, pause squats are most beneficial with moderate to heavy resistance with a shorter pause (e.g. 3-5 reps; 2-3 seconds pause). When pause squats are performed as an accessory lift, repetitions can increase while resistance decreases (e.g. 6-10 reps; 4-5 seconds).
Note: Pause squats don't have to be done two times per week even if you hit legs twice a week. You can do them once a week (ideally the second session) as a main compound lift, focusing on heavier loads, low reps, and moderate pause time.
This brings up an important point of goal specific programming, pause squats can benefit a variety of goals and can be utilized in a variety of ways.
Depending on your fitness goals, pause squats can be incorporated in a variety of strength programs. Programs typically follow 4 week, 6 week, 8 or 12 week blocks to gain benefits in specific movement patterns. Longer program blocks allow gradual increases in intensity and/or volume (progressive overload 101).
Pause squats can be incorporated within program blocks when the focus is to build a stronger squat, improving technique and introducing movement variety. The best way to introduce a pause squat into your routine is to start with a longer pause with less load. Throughout the program, decrease the length of the pause and increase the load of the squat. This way, you’re allowing the body to adapt to the pause while fixating on squat mechanics.
Here is an example of a strength based four-week program using the pause squat as the compound lift:
Note: Weeks 1 and 2 are programmed with a lower % of effort. These weeks are dedicated to tapping into technique. Weeks 3 and 4 hone in on strength gains as the load increases.
*1RM = 1 rep max. A one rep max is the heaviest weight you can lift with proper form and technique. Knowing this number can dictate whether or not you are working within the appropriate percentages of intensity. 1RM tests can be intimidating and require time and energy. If you haven’t hit 1RM’s and need guidance - here's how to test your 1RM.
A simple method of adding a pause to a compound lift is often overlooked. The pause squat is more challenging than it seems. When performed through progressive overloading principles, the pause squat can lead to massive strength gains, an increase in muscular power, improved movement patterns and enhanced athleticism. Your time to start building a stronger squat is now.
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