Have you ever watched someone bench press an impressive weight but noticed them bounce it off of their chest? What about the guy curling (in the squat rack of course) 185lbs who swings it up and then just let it drop? How about someone taking a heavy weight into a low squat but bouncing out of the bottom position?
While all 3 of these scenarios require strength, if you train this way you are missing out on an important component of strength training: the isometric contraction. The isometric contraction refers to when muscles tense and contract but do not change length and there is no movement within the joint. Picture that guy doing the heavy bicep curl. The concentric contraction of the bicep occurs as the bicep shortens and the bar travels upward. An isometric contraction occurs when the bar quits moving at the top. And finally, an eccentric contraction occurs as the bicep lengthens and the weight is lowered to the starting position.
So if traditional weightlifting emphasizes primarily the concentric and eccentric contraction of the muscle by raising and lowering a weight, why should we be concerned with the isometric contraction? Well for starters, studies have shown that during isometric training the body is able to activate a higher number of motor units than any other type of training. Isometric training is also a great way to increase the Time Under Tension of each repetition by utilizing pause reps.
Pause reps are the most practical (and beneficial) way to implement isometric training into your training regimen. Traditional Isometric training involves pushing or pulling against an immovable object at a fixed position for 5 - 10 seconds. Using the bench press as an example, imagine setting the rack pins at the half way point and pressing against the bar at max effort for 5 seconds. Although this style is effective and can be utilized even with no equipment - pushing against a wall for example - I find it to be too much of a departure from my normal routine. There’s something satisfying about moving heavy weight thru a range of motion, and traditional isometric training takes that out of the equation. Pause reps are the best of both worlds, you get to move some heavy weight while focusing on the isometric contraction at a set point in the movement.
Traditionally, a pause rep will be utilized at the point of an exercise where the movement switches from eccentric to concentric, such as when the bar touches your chest during a bench press. A major mistake I see when lifters use pause reps is relaxing slightly during the pause - resting the bar on their chest or letting their hips get loose while holding the bottom pause on a squat. The key is to keep everything tight for 3-5 seconds, pressing against the bar as it sits on your chest even though it is not moving. This is a “transition pause”, the most basic form of pause reps, and here are a few other variations:
Transition Pause - the isometric contraction is held at the point where the movement changes from eccentric to concentric. Example: holding the pause at the bottom of a bench press.
Iso-Lateral Pause - this is a style of pause reps utilized on dumbbell movements. One dumbbell is held in an isometric contraction while the other completes a full range of motion. Typically the weight is held at the transition pause, and the reps are alternated back and forth as you complete each side. Example: curl both dumbbells to the top, then hold one in place as you complete a full range of motion curl with the other. Once the moving curl returns to the top position, hold it in place as you curl the other side.
Eccentric Pause - utilize one or several pauses at different intervals while lowering the weight. Example: Serrano Pause squats, developed by my mentor Dr Eric Serrano, which utilize 5 separate 3 second pauses on the way down, with the last one at the very bottom of the squat.
Concentric Pause - pause during the concentric portion of the movement. Example: During a deadlift, pull the weight off the floor then pause for 3 seconds when the bar is just below the knee before finishing the rep.
There are also several different strategies for employing Pause reps during a workout. You can pause each rep of a set or just the final rep of each set. Each pause can be held for a set time of 3 to 5 seconds, or you can utilize the Rep Hold Method, which is where the length of the pause corresponds to the number of the rep (the third rep is held for 3 seconds, the forth for 4 seconds, etc.). Mixed set pauses utilize pause reps on the first 3-5 reps then finish the set with a certain number of regular repetitions. Give this 3 day workout split a try that incorporates all of these strategies on several different types of pause reps.
A. Superset: 5 sets
Deadlift - 3 reps (pause at knee height)
Pull Ups - 3 pause reps + 7 regular
B. T- Bar Row - 5 x 5 - pause only on the final rep for 5 seconds
C. Seated Row - 3 x 10 pause on the first rep for 10 seconds, 2nd rep for 9 seconds, etc until you reach the final rep for a 1 second pause.
D. DB Iso-Curl - 3 x 5 each side
E. Plank Positions - 6 minutes total
This workout begins with a superset of Deadlift and Pull-Ups. Utilize Concentric Pauses on the deadlift, pausing for 3 seconds when the bar is just below the knee. After the pause concentrate on pushing your hips to the bar and squeezing your glutes as you complete the movement. During the pull ups you will pause for 5 seconds at the top of the first three reps, then complete an additional 7 reps. Next up is T-bar Row, where you pause only on the last rep. During the sets of Seated Row you will utilize a “reverse Rep Hold Method”. Pause the first rep for 10 seconds, the second rep for 9 seconds, and keep going in descending order until the 10th rep is held for a 1 second pause. On both T-bar and Seated Row the pause is held at the “top” of the row when your scapula is fully retracted. To complete Dumbbell Iso-Curls, curl both dumbbells to the top, then hold one in place as you complete a full range of motion curl with the other. Once the moving curl returns to the top position, hold it in place as you curl the other side. After 3 sets, finish up with the ultimate test of core isometric strength, a six minute plank. Switch to side planks when necessary, but hold each position perfectly still for as long as possible.
A. DB Bench - 10, 5, 5, then 3 x 3 pause reps
B. Superset: 5 sets
DB Iso-Shoulder Press - 5 each side
Iso-Shoulder Fly - 8 each side
C. Superset: 3 sets
Shrugs - 10 reps using the rep hold method (number of rep corresponds to the length of the pause. Example: rep 6 has a 6 second pause)
Dips - Max reps, pause for 3 seconds at the bottom of each
D. Iso Kick Backs - 3 sets of 5 each side + 5 regular reps
E. Push Ups - 3 x max reps, pause briefly 3 times on the way down of each rep
F. Hanging L-Sit Holds - 3 x 5-10 seconds
Start this workout with a warm up set on dumbbell bench then 2 heavy sets of 5, before using pause reps on the last 3 sets of 3 reps. Remember to hold everything tight at the bottom of the pause, do not let the weights rest on your chest. Next up is a superset of iso-lateral style shoulder press and Shoulder Flys. Press both of the weights up and hold at the half way point. Press the other DB up, all the way down, and then back to the center. Alternate sides each rep. For the Flys, bring both DBs all the way up, and keep one at the top position as you complete a full range of motion on the other side. Utilize the Rep Hold Method on Shrugs and superset that with Dips where you pause at the bottom. Next up is Iso-Kick backs. I prefer to do these laying face down and flat on a bench. Bring both elbows up and kick the weights back locking them into place. Alternate sides for 5 reps as you keep one side flexed. Finish the set with 5 additional regular kick backs. After your 3rd set, complete 3 sets of Push Ups for max reps, utilizing 3 Eccentric pauses on the way down. The first pause should be about 1/4 of the way down, the second pause at the midway point, and the third pause just before your chest would touch the floor. End with 3 sets of hanging L-Sit Holds of 5-10 seconds each.
A. Squats - 3 x 5 warm up sets
Serrano Pause Squats - 3 x 3, on each rep pause 5 separate times for a 3 count on the eccentric (lowering) portion of the squat
B. Split Squats - 5/5, 4/4, 3/3, 2/2, 1/1 - pause reps on last 3 sets
Goblet Squat - 5 pause reps
Hamstring Bridge - 5 pause reps
D. Reverse Hyper Extension: 3 x 10 reps, 3 second pause at the top
This workout starts with 3 sets of Squats, warming up to a heavy weight before starting Serrano Pause Squats. For a Serrano Squat you will pause 5 separate times for 3 seconds on the way down. The key is to try and space the pauses out at even intervals, if you put to much distance between them you will find yourself out of room at the bottom of your squat with 2 more pauses to go. Make sure to stay tight and stable, exploding up and out of the 5th pause. Next up is 5 sets of Bulgarian Split Squats utilizing a 3 second pause at the bottom of each rep of the last 3 sets. Try to move up in weight each set. Next, transition into a superset of Goblet Squat and Hamstring Bridge. For Goblet Squats, hold a dumbbell or kettle bell at chest height and hold the bottom portion of the squat for 5 seconds. To complete a hamstring bridge, lay on your back with one foot up on a bench and the other leg straight up in the air. Push your hips up, aiming for a straight line from the knee thru the hip to your shoulder, and pause at the top. End with 3 sets of Reverse Hyper Extension, pausing for 3 seconds with your lower back fully contracted at the top of each rep.
There you have it, a great 3 day workout plan that incorporates every type of pause rep imaginable. I recommend doing all 3 of the workouts in a row, then take 1 or 2 days of active recovery before starting with Workout #1 again. Give it a couple weeks and this isometric focus will have you feeling stronger and more stable than ever. You will be amazed at how light weight will feel on “regular” reps.
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