By Tony Gentilcore
Squats. You either love them, or hate them.
If you’re reading this site, you’re probably a member of the former camp.
You love them.
But even if you love squats, I think it’s safe to assume that we all secretly love to hate them.
Squats aren’t easy.
They take a lot of practice, patience, and attention to detail to perform correctly. And even when all of that is taken into consideration – and you’ve anointed yourself the Ambassador of Squatting Badassery – there are still days when you step into a squat rack and it feels like riding a bike for the first time.
The sucktitude is always right around the corner.
I’ve written my fair share of articles on squat technique.
HERE’s one discussing the set-up which, more often that not, is going to be the determining factor on the success of a set.
99.94% of the time, anytime you see a technique flaw or breakdown during a set it can be attributed to a lackluster set-up.
Pigging back on the set-up conversation, HERE’s one where I discuss Active Foot vs. Passive Foot and how getting & maintaining TENSION is a huge factor in squatting success.
Annnnnd, running with the whole “setting up” theme (are you catching onto the gist that the set-up is kind of a big deal yet?) here’s a video where I discuss how cueing more of posterior pelvic tilt can help with squatting (and deadlifting) performance.
And that’s just glossing over the tip of the iceberg. Entire books and weekend seminars have been dedicated to the squat. The technique differences between all the different variations (back squat vs. front squat vs. powerlifting squat vs. ATG squats vs. high-bar squat vs. low-bar squats…..ALL vs. Godzilla), programming considerations, periodization schemes, corrective strategies….you name it, there are any number of resources out there that covers all of it.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Bret Contreras has written a 10,000 word blog post on hand position during the squat alone.
If anyone can do it, he can……;o)
There is one “thing,” however, I feel is often overlooked with regards to helping people get better at squatting and feeling more comfortable while doing it.
And yes, I realize that using the word “comfortable” in the same sentence as “squatting” is a bit of an oxymoron. Kind of like “deafening silence” or “random order” or “non-douchey Justin Bieber.”
Work with me for a second.
What’s that one “thing”?
As in, actually pausing at the bottom of your squat. Not fake pausing. But actually STOPPING at the bottom.
[And maintaining good spinal position]
In Brospeak: pausing in the hole.
It’s by no means an Earth shattering suggestion, and I highly doubt it’s going to win me any “Strength Coach of the Year” Awards…but it is something I find not many people (coaches and trainers included) utilize enough.
Let me ask you this.
1. Where do most people “fail” or dump the weight when squatting?
2. What portion of the squat are most people weakest and feel less comfortable?
Here’s a quick video I shot yesterday of one of our female clients, Emma, who’s training for her 3rd powerlifting meet, performing her paused squats:
A Few Things To Note:
1. Most cogent to the conversation, you’ll note she comes to a complete stop. Kind of a crucial component for paused squats.
2. Generally speaking, a 1-3s pause is the goal. If we want to be super meanie-heads, we can up that to 5s holds.
3. Most important: she MAINTAINS TENSION in the bottom. Far too often I see people just kind of “hang out” in the bottom position and don’t actively use their musculature to do the work. Instead they use their passive restraints – ligaments, tendons, etc – and aren’t really doing much work to begin with.
Not coincidentally these are often the same people who complain of back pain.
It’s important to learn to stay tight throughout the entire set, even in the bottom.
4. Emma was only doing 2-3 reps per set in this case, with a relatively short pause (1-2s) so her breath didn’t play too much of a role here.
However, it’s not uncommon to have people perform paused reps for a longer duration and work on owning the position while maintaining their breath.
This is something Greg Nuckols has discussed in the past:
5. It’s also important to note that paused squats don’t always have to be performed in the lowest position. I’ve played around with having people pause at a certain point on their descent AND/OR on the ascent (out of the hole).
Practicing pauses in the hole is where I feel most people, most of the time should focus their time.
All of this to say: paused squats are an awesome way to not only help people get better at squatting (learning to get and maintain tension, increasing time under tension, even working on breathing) but also to feel more comfortable in the positions where they feel most vulnerable.
Don’t dismiss them.
Yes, you’ll need to use lower loads (I rarely ever go above 80-85% of 1RM with them, and most often stay in the 60-75% range for 3-6 sets of 4-6 reps)….but it’s the notion that paused squats will help you address a weakness in your technique that makes them so valuable in the first place.