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Paused Reps? (My Experiment)

Paused reps are a gemstone in a strength coach’s toolbox. They target & fix weak points, make your regular reps stronger and just make things that much harder, without having to pile on a crap load of weight.

So why the f*ck did I never train them myself until recently?!?!?!

Well, if I look in the mirror and tell the truth it’s because I never thought I needed to, and my ego didn’t like the hit my lifts/moves would/could take from this kind of training.

Yet I’d seen the power of it with many clients I’ve worked with over the years? And that right there shows the magic of having a coach to get you doing the things you should be doing, but aren’t always doing.

All the knowhow and theory in the world won’t save you sometimes until you stop making progress, get burned out and realise how weak you are in certain positions compared to others.

I’ll keep my story here brief. Most of you know about my tribulations from the end of 2020 pretty much all through 2021. I had a left shoulder impingement/bicep tendinitis from overdoing weighted calisthenics training at the back end of 2020.

During that time, not only did I not do any real paused reps at all, I gradually slipped into shorter ranges as the loads I lifted increased alongside. This is a common but dangerous combo; when you increase the load faster than your body is ready for, or too aggressively, something has to give, and this is usually your body making the move easier by shortening the range of motion or using the wrong muscles, or both.

One of the big things I did to get the recovery train rolling was increase my ratio of horizontal pulling – so things like rows, rear delt exercises, cuban/external rotations and lower trapezius work. Everything involved with pulling the shoulders back and reversing the effects of lots of dips, pull ups & muscle ups.

And it worked. My shoulders got better, are better and are still getting better. But I had an epiphany recently: doing a movement pattern is one thing but addressing where you’re weak in that movement’s strength curve, is a whole other game entirely.

Enter the pauses

My ring rows and pull ups and everything really, has always been very powerful from the bottom (stretch position) but not so hot at the top (contracted position). It’s why I never got great or mastered the slow muscle up in any real capacity. I always preferred the explosive, fast contraction reps, and my body and movements have always showed it.

I was weak as hell at the top of pull ups despite pulling 60kg. But all my pull strength was from the bottom. As crazy as it sounds, if I had someone else’s top lock off strength I’d be able to do considerably more, no doubt. I also remember doing a 28kg ring muscle up at a pretty fast speed (no real slowing at the transition), but what always stopped me really playing with the big boy numbers was the transition.

Just getting up high in that range where the pull up becomes a high pull up and ultimately a muscle up transition with load, would be the key to weights like 40kg+!

Why was I weak there?

I’d never ever trained there! I’d hardly ever trained top pause pull ups, didn’t even train rows at all until a few years ago, and favoured power/weighted reps wherever possible.

And the result was a strength imbalance that gradually worsened until it began bottle-necking me; where your lack of strength at a certain part in the strength curve, prevents you from getting stronger even in your good parts of the strength curve.

Weight OFF, Pauses ON

Over the last month or so I’ve been incorporating pauses into moves like rows & pull ups, in the hardest part of the moves (for me); the top parts. So really trying to pin the rings to my chest for a solid 2 count and keep my chin high above the bar in pull ups for a 2 count as well.

Needless to say my row angle is far more shallow and my pull ups are much lighter (just bodyweight), but the muscle activation is ten-fold better and my joints are feeling just as good on the regular more power based moves like muscle ups.

I’ve even seen my style shift almost unconsciously, too. Back when I had the highest & most powerful muscle ups in 2019, I had a closer grip where the elbows stayed right in and moved behind the body. Then I targeted and obsessed over the hand spin/no false or over-grip muscle up style from late 2019 into 2020, and found my grip got wider over time and my elbows flared out more and more.

June 2019 (left) vs March 2021 (right) – more depressed shoulders & tucked elbows compared to elevated shoulders & wider elbows

It got so prominent that I couldn’t do a close(r) grip, elbows in muscle up even if I tried to! (Both from pain & a sheer lack of practice). Even straight bar dips had that ugly, rolled shoulders & elbow flared style. Yuck.

All of this in conjunction with doing less mobility work, not rowing or doing enough to balance out the training and BAM, achey/injured shoulders!

Going full circle though, it’s coming back to how it used to be and things are feeling great. And the wisdom I’m sharing with you isn’t just exclusive to pulling and correcting injuries/imbalances, it applies to any moves you’re seeing stubborn progress with and/or plateaus completely.

Pausing for better handstand push ups

Again, another famous weakness of mine, the overhead press/handstand push up. While I can do wall facing handstand push ups now, I find if I do them too often or try to push them hard, my form (scapula & elbow positioning) goes out the window and my shoulders feel crappy as a result.

The fix?

Paused reps at the classic 90 degree shoulder/elbow angle in an easier progression – namely the feet elevated, deficit pike push up. This has allowed me to spend more quality time in the position I suck in. Even when I used to do super deep pike push ups, all I was doing was springing out the bottom using elastic energy and by-passing that double 90 degree zone, where I was super weak.

Pike push ups with pauses at 90 degrees

When I went back to the wall reps which were always pretty tough, I found I was way stronger! So the time spent emphasising the weak part of the strength curve allowed me to rocket past my old strength.

You’ll read this and probably wonder why I’m writing an article about something so simple and so commonly known….but without guidance and an objective coach to kick your ass into order, this can be easily be overlooked.

Progressive overload is sung as the be-all-and-end-all but past the beginner stage you have to be smarter. Not addressing weak points is a massive mistake; empirical evidence and science combined tells us this.

Intelligent paused reps are just the ticket. Try these for 4-6 weeks and then switch back to more conventional training and see your strength sky-rocket.

Use pauses to shake things up or break through plateaus.

A crucial tool.

JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

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