Despite what you may read on a Mike Chang ad, there are very few secrets in the world of strength training and performance improvement any more. Unfortunately, Cambridge scientists have not discovered a new legal steroid, there is no “one trick” secret to getting ripped and no, trainers don’t hate him.
Hate to be the curmudgeon here but unless you are a complete beginner, progress is going to be slow, and your success will depend mostly on your capacity to be consistent in doing a select number of boring, repetitive, fundamental tasks day after day after day.
When it comes to fitness, people simply just don’t have that much extra time and energy so they want to know they’re being efficient with their efforts. They want the best and the latest but usually find themselves hopping from program to program with no real results.
This becomes even more confusing with vertical jump training specifically because there are so many different schools of thought on what actually works best to increase the vertical jump. This coach says strength training, while this guy says plyometrics, while this website says Olympic lifting, and so on and so forth.
Well, despite my natural inclination to not declare any one exercise/program/anything THE BEST, I will assert today that there is one exercise that is absolutely KILLER for increasing the standing bilateral vertical jump.
And, in my personal opinion, it is certainly one of the best exercises you can do if you want to start jumping out of the gym in the shortest amount of time possible.
You obviously already know from the title of this post that the exercise I’m talking about is…
If you’ve never been introduced to paused squats then, well, they are exactly what they sound like- at a certain point in the squat movement (usually the bottom), you simply pause and hold that position for a couple seconds or so.
You can watch an inhuman example of pause squats demonstrated by Olympic lifter Clarence Kennedy here. Don’t try that at home. If that video hurt your ego a little too much you can see a much less impressive example of pause squats by yours truly here.
The reasoning behind paused squats can be summed up with Newton’s first law of motion: an object at rest will tend to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. In other words, it takes greater force to get an object moving initially than it does to keep an object moving. In our case, that object is a loaded barbell on our back.
One important note before we move on- “plyometric ability”, “reactive ability” and “stretch reflex ability” all mean the exact same thing in the context of this article. All three terms aim to describe the body’s ability to quickly absorb and then utilize force into an explosive athletic movement. The stretch shortening cycle is mainly responsible for this skill, so when you hear plyometric or reactive ability, think depth jumps.
“Starting strength” and “rate of force development” also both mean the same thing. While plyometric and reactive ability are your body’s ability to “react” to a force, rate of force development describes how fast you can generate force. When you hear “rate of force development” think of a sprinter exploding out of the starting blocks, generating immediate tension in his muscles at the sound of the gun.
In addition, eccentric, isometric and concentric strength are all expressions of strength at different phases in a movement. For these terms, think of the squat- the eccentric phase is when you are lowering the weight down, the concentric phase is when you are raising the weight back up, and the isometric or transition phase is the brief transition period between the two.
Now that we have semantics out of the way let’s get into why paused squats are da bee’s knee’s…
Why Paused Squats Are Awesome
First let me say that the research on paused squats and paused lifting in general (not to be confused with rest-pause training) is frustratingly scarce. In my search I found a grand total of two studies (1, 2) discussing or testing the merits of lifting with a pause. So admittedly, most of the benefits I talk about below are either theoretical, from personal experience or from the mouths of strength coaches that I hold in high regard.
That being said, if you give them a try I’m sure you will find that paused squats are awesome for several reasons.
Reason #1 Paused Squats Are Awesome: No Stretch Reflex = Greatly Improved Rate of Force Development
The common theory on what makes paused squats and paused lifts in general so effective is that pausing takes what’s called the stretch reflex out of the movement. The stretch reflex, also known as the stretch shortening cycle, is an extremely complicated biomechanical process but in short, it can be comparable to having an elastic rubber band in your legs.
When the muscles and tendons in your limbs are quickly stretched, it’s thought that they first store elastic energy and then recoil or “snap back” to their resting position with greater force. This release of stored energy helps augment the concentric portion of the movement and leads to greater force output and a more efficient effort. One non-sport related but familiar example of the stretch reflex is when your doctor taps the hammer on your patellar tendon and your leg quickly shoots up.
The stretch reflex occurs mostly in the tendons and is largely an involuntary action. In other words, it’s a function that takes almost no effort or energy from our actual muscles. This is why kangaroos are able to bounce around so effortlessly- their incredibly long and stiff tendons are able to exploit a tremendous amount of force with little contribution from their actual muscles.
The stretch reflex is an important aspect of the vertical jump in humans too and plays a large part in an athlete’s ability to quickly go from eccentric to concentric contraction. Almost all sports actions involve the stretch reflex and while there is some debate over the exact mechanisms behind their effectiveness, plyometric exercises are thought to increase performance mainly by teaching an athlete to improve this reflex’s capacity to absorb and utilize force.
When it comes to the squat, when someone talks about “bouncing out of the hole” at the bottom of the movement, they are talking about using the stretch reflex to gain a mechanical advantage. The video below shows a good example of someone “bouncing” out of the hole.
When you pause instead of “bouncing” out of the bottom position you take the stretch reflex out of the equation and are then forced to recruit only your muscle’s motor units to move the weight. In other words, the pause reduces our efficiency of movement, and our muscles have to work much harder to accomplish much less.
Okay so wait a second- isn’t the stretch reflex a good thing then? If the stretch reflex allows us to move more weight and be more efficient, shouldn’t we actually train it instead of taking it completely out of the equation?
Yes, the stretch reflex is a good thing and we need it to perform on the field and on the court. In fact, the stretch reflex and plyometric ability are SO important that we should train them more directly using actual plyometric exercises instead of trying to train it with the squat.
Remember, with any exercise, our goal is never to mimic the vertical jump exactly- it’s to improve specific aspects of our performance on the strength-speed spectrum. The squat is a strength exercise.
You see, the stretch reflex allows our muscles to kind of take a free ride at the bottom of the squat. Without the stretch reflex, your legs are required to generate high levels of force from basically a dead stop in order to explode out of that bottom position. This is the beauty (hell?) of paused lifts.
Generating force from a dead stop requires not only a high level of strength- it also requires a high level of what is called rate of force development (ROFD). As I mentioned above, ROFD describes how fast you can generate force and, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, it’s one part of the 3-part equation for vertical leap:
Force + ROFD + Reactive ability = Vertical jump
As I said before, the research on paused squats just isn’t there BUT one study did show that box squats (which are very similar to paused squats) have been shown to elicit 3 times the rate of force development of a traditional squat (!).That is an enormous difference and a huge endorsement for paused work.
Remember that it doesn’t matter how strong you are if you can’t express that force within the time it takes you to jump, which is usually between .2 and .3 seconds. Humans usually take around .4 seconds to develop maximum force, which is the reason you see a bunch of strong guys walking around who can squat and deadlift the moon but couldn’t jump over a brick. All other things equal, a kid who can squat 250 but develops 90% of that force is .2 seconds is going to jump higher than a kid who squats 350 but can only develop 60% of that force is the same time. At the highest levels, rate of force development is usually the difference between great athletes and guys riding the bench.
So to sum it up, paused squats more directly build strength and rate of force development ability while taking reactive ability out of the equation. We can still improve our reactive ability elsewhere more directly using plyometrics, ballistics and speed work. Certain plyometric exercises like depth jumps involve impact forces in the thousands of pounds- much higher forces than you could encounter during any style of squat.
Therefore, using the paused squat to build strength and ROFD and then depth jumps to build reactive ability is a better training strategy in my humble opinion than trying to train all aspects of performance using one exercise. As I mentioned in my last training update, this is the strategy I am using and the philosophy I believe will give me the most effective vertical gains in the long run.
Reason #2: Awesome at improving concentric strength and power from the bottom of the hole
All dynamic athletic movements involve three phases of muscle action- the eccentric (lengthening), the amortization (transition) and concentric (shortening) of the muscle.
What you probably didn’t know is that some research suggests that concentric power is the most highly correlated factor to vertical jump height. This makes sense- the more power generated while going upwards, the higher the jump should be.
Heavy paused squats develop concentric strength in the legs better than any other exercise out there, hands down.
Paused squats also build tremendous power out of the hole because at the bottom of the squat you’re basically at your end range of motion with full knee and hip flexion. This puts tremendous tension on the muscles in a stretched position for a prolonged period of time which, as you might imagine, is an ideal scenario for GAINZ.
Reason #3: Greatly improved form and reduce chance for injury
Paused squats are a more controlled movement than to the touch-and-go (TAG) squat. With the TAG squat, its common to see the lifter descend into the hole with no regard for integrity of form just praying that they can just get the weight back up. This won’t work with pause squats- you’ll have to lower the weight and leave your ego at the door.
In fact, you’ll have to lower the weight anyways as typically you’ll only be able to pause squat at most 80-90% of your traditional squat maximum. In general, lighter weight equals less potential for injury.
Furthermore, if something you’re doing during paused squats is putting you in a biomechanically compromised position, you will receive feedback that’s loud and clear. It’s much harder to overlook faulty form with a paused squat.
Anecdotally I’ve personally found pause squats to be much easier on my knees, which is especially important for athletes training to improve their vertical.
In addition, pause squats are a great tool to teach beginners how to squat correctly because you’re breaking the movement down into two parts. This is the main reason I advise everyone to incorporate pause squats but especially novices who are just beginning to learn the movement.
Reason #4: Easier to recover from despite a higher rate of perceived effort
Anyone who has ever done paused squats will tell you they’re a bitch- every second in the hole feels like an hour and standing the weight back up is never an easy task.
However, because you’re forced to use a lower percentage of your max, pause squats take less of a toll on your body and your central nervous system won’t be quite as taxed afterwards. Also, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is mostly caused by muscle tension during the eccentric phase of an exercise and is therefore minimal after paused squats.
I’ve also found that it’s much harder to do higher rep sets with paused squats, probably because of the already higher time under tension during each single rep. Doing 6-8 reps of paused squats are BRUTAL.
Reason #5: Improved core strength
Learning to brace your core and keeping it tight throughout the movement is one of the most important aspects of paused squats. Incorporating pause squats doubled my maximal plank times with no direct plank training.
So what does all this add up to? Well for one, some experience putting upwards of 50-100 lbs. on their touch-and-go style squats in a short period of time after incorporating paused squats. A lot of people also experience enormous improvements in explosiveness and power. But don’t just take my word for it- take it from one of the best strength coaches in the country, Cal Dietz.
“I find that if an athlete gets stronger in their weakest position then they’ll also get stronger in their stronger positions. I’ve never seen a method strengthen athletes faster than isometric holds in the weakest positions.” – Cal Dietz
At certain times during a training cycle Cal has his athletes perform isometric paused lifts in which the athletes hold tension in the stretched position for up to 3-5 minutes!
How to incorporate them
Okay so I’ve talked a lot about how awesome pause squats are. So how exactly do you do them and how should you incorporate them into your training?
Well to be honest it’s really up to you. Like I mentioned before, there is very little research on them so there aren’t many studies to go off of.
First let me start out by saying that just like there are different variations of squats, there are different ways to do pause squats. For our purposes though we’ll just say that high bar full squats with a pause and low bar powerlifting style squats with a pause will probably be the most common variations.
Full vs Powerlifting Style Squats
A major difference between the two variations is that during the full version your core must stay tight but your legs are able to take more of a rest at the bottom because you are able to basically sit on your calves. Then on the ascent you must turn back on the tension in your legs and “explode” out from of the bottom. The paused full squat is similar to a box squat because you’re greatly lowering the tension held in the legs for just a moment.
With the shallower version of the squat you would pause at least slightly below parallel and must not only maintain tension in your core but also in your hips and leg musculature. This version requires less mobility and might build more isometric strength, though my gut feeling is that it doesn’t build quite as much rate of force development as the full version.
As far as which one is better, it’s really up to you. I like the full squat version because I feel it’s easier on my knees and again improves my rate of force development better, but it does take more practice and a higher level of mobility, especially ankle mobility*. If you’re a beginner I recommend starting with a variation closer to parallel.
Whichever variation you decide to use, you should keep your form and set up relatively consistent between your paused and traditional squats for optimal carryover. For instance, there is sometimes a tendency to pause at a more shallow depth compared to the bottom of your usual squat. Resist this natural tendency- if you squat to parallel during regular sets of squats, make sure you’re pausing at parallel or slightly below on pause squats. If you usually squat ATG, again make sure you’re pausing at the rock bottom of the movement.
And again, whichever form you decide to use, it’s important to make sure you maintain tension in your core and glutes throughout the movement. Losing tension will lead to form breakdown and a greater likelihood of injury.
As far as when to incorporate them, a lot of people like to include them in their first couple warm up sets which is what I recommend trying at first. You could also do some additional paused reps at lower weight after your main sets of regular squats. So say for instance you worked up to a max of 275×5 during your last set of regular squats. You could then reduce the weight by 20% or so and do a couple back-off paused sets of 225×5.
The length of time you pause in the hole is also up to you- as long as it’s more than 2 seconds or so the stretch reflex will play a negligible part in the movement. Some people prefer to sit in the hole for minutes doing what’s called breathing paused squats. Breathing squats have been popularized by the very smart Greg Knuckols and they’re great at improving your core stability as well as your ability to brace. To start out I’d personally recommend you only pause for 2-3 seconds or so though.
Well there you have it folks- I’ve gone over the awesomeness of paused squats and how you should do them. If you’d like to learn more about squats check out some other articles here.
*Because I have a desk job and choose to do full squats two or three times a week I pretty much have to work on my hip and ankle mobility work every day to maintain good range of motion)