Key Takeaways

  1. Paused reps involve a deliberate pause at some point during a weightlifting exercise, typically when it transitions from a lowering to a raising motion.
  2. Paused reps aren’t a “hack” for gaining muscle and strength faster, but they can indirectly contribute to long-term muscle and strength gain by improving your technique, making your training more interesting, and helping you break through plateaus.
  3. How you use paused reps will vary based on why you’re using them and how you want to include them in your workouts.

There are many different ways to program your training, many different exercises to choose from, and many ways to do them.

Some methods and choices are better than others.

Periodization, for example, helps keep the gears of gains greased as you move into the intermediate phase of your weightlifting journey and beyond.

Supersets, on the other hand, are like supplements—a sometimes helpful but nonessential tool.

And then there are many training techniques that have no place in most people’s routines, like forced reps, negatives, and cheat reps.

What about paused reps? Worthwhile or worthless or somewhere in between?

Well, the short answer is when used properly, paused reps can help you gain muscle and strength faster, but not for the reasons people often say. 

And in this article, you’re going to learn why, as well as how to effectively incorporate paused reps into your workout routine.

Let’s get to it.

 

What Are Paused Reps? 

Paused reps involve a deliberate pause at some point during a weightlifting exercise.

This pause is often (but not always) at the point where the movement changes from lowering to raising. 

For example, paused squats generally involve pausing for a second or two at the bottom of the movement before ascending (a position referred to as “the hole”). 

Here’s what this looks like in action: 

With the bench press, you can pause either with the bar on your chest or when the bar is a few inches off your chest. 

Here’s what it looks like when you pause with the bar on your chest: 

 

And here’s what it looks like when you pause with the bar slightly above your chest: 

On the deadlift, paused reps have you freeze the bar a few inches off the ground or around knee height, like this: 

With all paused reps, the pause typically lasts anywhere from half a second to two or three seconds, depending on your goals (more on this in a moment). 

Or, if you want to cock a snook at the form police, you can hit a smooth 22-second paused squat, like this guy: 

Summary: Paused reps involve a deliberate halt at some point during a weightlifting exercise for anywhere from a half a second to three seconds, typically when it changes from a lowering to a raising motion.

Why Do People Do Paused Reps? 

The five primary reasons people do paused reps are: 

  1. To improve technique
  2. To prepare for a powerlifting meet
  3. To make an exercise more difficult
  4. To make training more interesting
  5. To help break through training plateaus

And they can indeed deliver on each of these points.

Let’s find out how.

Paused reps help improve your technique.

Although weightlifting looks relatively simple at first blush, a lot more goes into executing a good squat, bench press, or deadlift than meets the eye. 

Even experienced lifters can almost always find new ways to improve their technique and increase the efficiency of their movements and reduce the risk of injury.

What’s more, the closer you come to failure in a set, the harder it is to maintain your technique (and especially on a heavy lift).

A primary reason for this is we gradually lose the ability to accurately feel what we’re doing with our bodies as our muscles get more and more fatigued. We think we’re keeping our form in, but we’re not.

This is particularly true with some of the more difficult (and productive) exercises like the deadlift, squat, and military press, which are very fatiguing. 

Because they slow you down, paused reps help you pinpoint weaknesses and mistakes in your technique that would otherwise be obscured by the speed and effort of normal reps. 

Whereas you might be able to easily power through regular sets with mediocre form, with paused reps, you have to slow down and take stock of what you’re doing, giving you a chance to notice and correct faults.

For example, if you’re squatting heavy, chances are you “bounce” out of the bottom of each rep, like me in this video:

 

 

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As you can see, the second my hips reach the bottom of their range of motion, I’m immediately driving them upward. 

While this isn’t improper form, it doesn’t give me much time to consider what I’m doing with my body.  

For example, sometimes I have a tendency to raise my hips faster than the bar, which isn’t good technique. While this is easy to see on video, it’s hard to feel when I’m in the middle of a set, and especially as I approach failure.

If I pause at the bottom of each rep for a second or two, though, I can take a moment to tighten my upper body, extend my chest, and ensure that the bar, my chest, and my hips all rise at the same rate.

On the bench press, many people have a bad habit of letting their shoulders, back, and legs relax and their elbows flare outward at the bottom of each rep, when the bar touches their chest. 

By pausing at this point, however, you can take a moment to make sure these muscles remain  tight and your elbows remain tucked before you press the bar upward. 

And when it comes to the deadlift, many people let the bar drift out in front of them and round their back on the way up. By pausing at knee-level, however, you can get used to how it feels to have the bar close to your shins and your back in a neutral position.

Summary: Paused reps improve your technique by giving you time to slow down and pinpoint weaknesses and mistakes in your technique that would otherwise be obscured by the speed and effort of normal reps.

Paused reps help you prepare for a powerlifting meet.

Powerlifting revolves around lifting very heavy weights for singles, but it involves standardized procedures that need to be practiced.

Meets (events) are officiated by trained judges who give competitors commands that must be followed for their lifts to count.

This way, everyone is made to lift in more or less the same manner, and nobody can cheat by bouncing the bar off their chest on the bench press, failing to reach proper depth on the squat, or resting the bar on their thighs on the deadlift.

For example, here are the usual instructions for the bench press: 

“Start” is the signal to begin the lift. 

The lifter will already be holding the bar at this point, so all they have to do is lower it to their torso. 

Once the bar touches their torso, they’ll have to hold it there for a second or two to show the judges it has come to a complete stop.

After the judges are satisfied the bar has come to a complete stop, they’ll yell “press,” which is the cue to push the bar back to the starting position. 

Lastly, the lifter will maintain the starting position for a moment so the judges can verify they’ve fully locked the weight out, at which point, they’ll be told to “rack,” which is the cue to push the bar back onto the uprights of the bench.

The process is similar with the squat and deadlift, although judges generally don’t require a pause at the bottom of a squat, but do require a pause at the top of the deadlift before dropping the weight to the floor.

This type of carefully choreographed routine is quite different from standard weightlifting procedures, and that’s why many people who get into powerlifting and don’t consistently practice its start-and-stop tempo don’t generally do well.

They either can’t lift as much weight as they expect and miss lifts or accidentally finish reps too quickly and wind up disqualified.

So, if you want to be prepared for a powerlifting meet, incorporating paused reps into your workouts is a necessity.

Summary: You can expect to pause your bench press and deadlift reps for 1 to 3 seconds in a powerlifting meet, so if you want to compete in powerlifting, you should incorporate paused reps into your workouts.

Paused reps make exercises more difficult. 

In general, if you can make an exercise harder, it’s probably going to be better for muscle and strength gain. 

For example, using a larger range of motion is more difficult than doing partial reps and produces greater strength and muscle gain. 

Lifting heavier weights is also harder than lifting lighter weights and also produces greater strength and muscle gain.

Yet another example is regularly pushing yourself close to technical failure in your workouts, which is harder than ending sets well shy of technical failure and better for muscle and strength gain.

This is why many people say paused reps help you gain muscle and strength faster, too.

And that makes sense at first blush. 

Paused reps are certainly more difficult than regular ones, as you’re forced to support the weight for longer and, in the case of the bench press and squat, aren’t benefiting from the “bounce” you get at the bottom.

Technically, this performance-enhancing phenomenon is known as the “stretch-shortening cycle,” and it’s a quirk of human biology that temporarily makes a muscle stronger immediately after being stretched.

Scientists aren’t entirely sure how it works, but the most likely explanation is that the connective tissues surrounding your muscles and joints can temporarily store and then release energy, like a spring.

Another theory is stretching your muscles triggers the nervous system to tell your muscles to contract harder. 

Whatever the case, if you’ve lifted weights before, you’ve experienced the stretch-shortening cycle in action.

Take the bench press, for instance. You’ll be able to push more weight if you immediately begin pressing the bar upward after lowering it to your chest than if you pause at the bottom of each rep.

Here’s a video of me using the stretch-shortening cycle to aid my bench press: 

 

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As you can see, I’m lowering the bar fairly quickly to my chest before pressing it upward again as fast as possible. 

Note that I’m not just dropping the weight onto my chest and letting it bounce off my pecs, which would be improper form—the bar is gently touching my chest, not sinking into my ribs, and I’m maintaining control of it throughout the movement. 

The stretch-shortening cycle is also one of the reasons the deadlift is one of the most difficult exercises you can do.

Unlike the squat and bench press, which start with the eccentric (lowering) portion of the movement, the deadlift starts with the concentric (raising) portion.

As the stretching of the eccentric portion of an exercise is what produces the boost provided by the stretch-shortening cycle, the deadlift doesn’t allow you to tap into it. 

Anyway, as the stretch-shortening cycle slightly increases strength, some people say this isn’t ideal for muscle and strength gain because it makes the exercise easier.

If you were to pause at the bottom of each rep, they say, you’d force your muscles to work harder and in response, they’d get bigger and stronger faster.

These people are mostly wrong.

Yes, the stretch-shortening cycle makes each rep slightly easier but that means you can simply lift more weight, which makes it harder.

In other words, you have two choices:

  1. Use less weight with a pause at the bottom of each rep
  2. Use more weight without a pause at the bottom of each rep

And as far as your body’s concerned, both options will produce about the same amount of muscle and strength gain.

Why? 

The amount of time your muscles are under strain (“time under tension”) isn’t a major factor in gaining muscle and strength. 

How heavy the weights are (in terms of percentage of one-rep max), how close you come to absolute failure in each set, and how many sets you perform are the primary determinants of how “anabolic” your workouts are.

Thus, whether you pause at the bottom of each rep to increase time under tension is really neither here nor there if you’re programming your training properly.

Now, detractors of paused reps will often say they’re inferior for gaining muscle and strength because they prevent you from lifting as much weight.

This isn’t entirely accurate either. 

Paused reps only slightly decrease how much weight you can lift—around a 5% decrease in most cases—but as you just learned, they also increase the time under tension.

And as time under tension does contribute to hypertrophy to some degree, what you’re losing with paused reps in the way of a touch of intensity (load), you’re probably gaining in the way of a touch more time under tension.

So, in the final analysis, paused reps are likely just as effective for gaining muscle and strength as regular reps.

Summary: Paused reps make an exercise harder by increasing time under tension and eliminating the boost provided by the stretch-shortening cycle, but they also reduce how much weight you can lift. 

Paused reps are likely just as effective for gaining muscle and strength as regular reps.

Paused reps can make training more interesting.

If you want to get good at any activity—whether it’s weightlifting, golf, or crocheting—you’re going to need to do a lot of reps.

In the beginning, putting in the work is fun because improvement comes easily. In time, however, as progress slows down, the process can become a slog and motivation can wane.

Many gymgoers try to beat the boredom by constantly changing their exercises and workout routines. 

This can spice things up but also get in the way of results because too much training variation makes it more or less impossible to plan and track your efforts and ensure you’re advancing.

And so there are better ways to introduce variety into your workouts.

For instance, you can swap exercises every few months with similar alternatives, like front squatting for a bit instead of back squatting, trap-bar deadlifting instead of traditional pulling, or close-grip bench pressing instead of regular benching.

You can also mix things up with techniques like rest-pause sets and paused reps.

And although paused reps won’t directly boost your results, they can do so indirectly by making your workouts more interesting, which encourages you to work harder in them.

Summary: Paused reps can make your training more interesting by giving you a new and challenging way to perform compound exercises like the squat, bench press, and deadlift. 

Paused reps can help you break through training plateaus.

Many people have different definitions for what a “ training plateau” is, but here’s mine:

You’ve hit a plateau when you’ve failed to increase reps or weight on a key lift (like the squat, deadlift, bench press, or other compound exercise) in the last two to four weeks.

There are many reasons this can occur, including lack of calories or sleep, overtraining, or excessive stress, but if none of those are the culprits, chances are good it has something to do with your workouts.

Oftentimes your workout programming needs addressing, but sometimes, you can break out of a rut by improving your ability to move through the “sticking points” of the exercises you’re stuck on.

A sticking point is simply the hardest point of the exercise, where you’re most likely to lose steam and stall out.

For example, the sticking point on the squat is generally when the hips start to rise above the knees, and on the deadlift, it’s when the bar approaches the knees.

If you can quickly get past the sticking point on any exercise, you’ll likely be able to finish the rep, and if you can’t, chances are good you’ll fail the rep.

Although getting stronger in general will help you consistently beat sticking points, paused reps can help you specifically train your strength in those portions of the exercises, and this, in turn, can help keep you progressing.

In other words, by using paused reps to intentionally make an exercise harder at its hardest point, you can improve your performance during regular reps.

I’m not aware of any scientific research supporting this technique, but it has a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence suggesting its effectiveness, including its long-time use by high-level powerlifters. 

Summary: Pausing during the sticking points of certain exercises like the squat, deadlift, and bench press can improve your ability to move through these difficult portions of the movements. This, in turn, can improve your ability to perform normal reps.

The 3 Best Ways to Use Paused Reps in Your Training

Paused reps may not be the muscle-building “hack” they’re often billed as, but they still have a place in a well-designed workout routine.

Specifically, paused reps are useful if . . . 

  1. You want to refine your technique.
  2. You want to make your training more interesting
  3. You want to improve your ability to move through sticking points 
  4. You’re going to compete in a powerlifting meet in the next 8 to 12 weeks

Otherwise, they’re an unnecessary distraction.

So, how do you effectively incorporate paused reps into your workout routine? That depends on why and how you want to use them.

To the first point (why), if you want to use paused reps to refine your technique or make your training more interesting, here’s what most people find works best: 

  • Pause at the bottom of the squat, before you start raising the bar. 
  • Pause with the bar on your chest on the bench press, before pressing it up.
  • Pause with the bar 3 to 5 inches below your knees on the deadlift, before pulling it up.

If you want to use paused reps to improve in the sticking points of the squat, bench press, and deadlift, you want to use a slightly different method: 

  • On the squat, as you’re ascending, pause for 1 to 2 seconds when your hips are 3 to 5 inches above your knees.
  • On the bench press, as you’re ascending, pause for 1 to 2 seconds when the bar is 3 to 5 inches above your chest.
  • On the deadlift, as you’re ascending, pause for 1 to 2 seconds when the bar is 3 to 5 inches below your knees..

This way, you’re pausing precisely at the point where each exercise is most difficult as opposed to where it changes from lowering to raising or where you’ll be required to pause in a powerlifting meet.

And if you want to use paused reps to prepare for a powerlifting meet, you want to closely mimic what you’ll have to do in competition. 

This means . . . 

  • On the squat, don’t pause at any point during the descent or ascent. 

This isn’t just unnecessary but may be counterproductive as well as it could encourage you to pause in a meet, which will increase the likelihood of missing the lift.

Instead, squat down until you’re at parallel or slightly below it, then ascend as quickly as possible. 

You may want to pause for a second or two at the top of each rep, as this is required in powerlifting, but this isn’t necessary..

  • On the bench press, pause for 1 to 3 seconds when the bar is touching your chest before ascending.
  • On the deadlift, pause for 1 to 3 seconds at the top of each rep (when you’re standing up straight), before lowering the bar to the ground.

So, once you’ve narrowed down the preferred method of paused reps based on why you want to include them in your routine, the next step is integrating them into your workouts.

For that, you have three options:

1. Use paused reps as an exercise variation.

This is my preferred method for including paused reps into my training, and it’s very simple:

Every 8 to 12 weeks, do paused reps instead of regular reps for each set of one of your compound exercises for the next 8 to 12 weeks,

I recommend picking a compound exercise you’re having trouble progressing on, that’s starting to cause aches and pains, or that you’re getting bored with. 

For example, if you haven’t moved ahead much on the back squat in a while, you could do paused back squats for 8 to 12 weeks before switching back to regular reps. 

Of, if your shoulder has been nagging you on the bench press, try paused rep benching for a few months before switching back to regular reps. (This will lower the weight on the bar and thus the strain on your shoulder.)

Or, if deadlifting is getting a bit stale, try paused rep deadlifts for a few months before switching back to regular reps.

2. Use paused reps on the last reps.

With this method, you make the last rep of every set of one or more compound exercises in your workout routine a paused rep.

For example, if your workout calls for bench pressing 225 pounds for 3 sets of 6 reps, you’d do 5 regular reps followed by 1 paused rep for each set.

How long you do train like this is up to you. You could do it for a month to audit your technique or make exercises harder or longer if you’re using it to train sticking points or if you simply enjoy it.

3. Use paused reps on the last sets.

This is similar to the previous strategy.

Instead of making the last rep of each set a paused rep, however, you do paused reps for the last set of one or more compound exercises in your workout routine.

This is a particularly good way to stress-test your form, as any flaws will be magnified by the fatigue you feel after doing several regular sets.

Again, how long you do this for is up to you. Anywhere from a month to three is reasonable.

Finally, here are a few notes on how to properly execute a paused rep: 

  • Pause for 1 to 2 seconds. 

There’s no need to pause longer than this. 

The idea is just to come to a momentary stop, and a pause of one or two seconds accomplishes this.

  • Stay as tight as possible while pausing.

The pause isn’t an opportunity to slacken your body and catch your breath. 

Instead, hold your breath while pausing using the Valsalva maneuver and maintain tightness throughout your body.

Don’t let the bar sink into your chest on the bench press, your chest cave in on the squat, or your back round on the deadlift. 

You also want to ensure you’re more or less frozen in place when stopped, with no swinging or wavering. If you can’t come to a complete stop, reduce the weight and try again. 

  • Use paused reps on compound exercises, not isolation exercises.

You can incorporate paused reps into your isolation exercises, but it’s probably not going to be all that helpful for a few reasons: 

  1. Most people don’t struggle with poor technique on isolation exercises, and even if they do, it’s typically easy to correct without the help of paused reps.
  2. If an isolation exercise isn’t floating your boat or moving the needle, changing the rep range or switching to another exercise altogether will be more productive than applying paused reps.
  3. You don’t do any isolation exercises in powerlifting events. 

The Bottom Line on Paused Reps

Paused reps involve a deliberate pause at some point during a weightlifting exercise.

This pause is often (but not always) at the point where the movement changes from lowering to raising (eccentric to concentric).

You don’t need to do paused reps, and they aren’t a “hack” for gaining muscle and strength faster, but they can indirectly contribute to long-term muscle and strength gain by improving your technique, making your training more interesting, and helping you break through plateaus.

They’re also helpful for preparing for a powerlifting meet.

How you use paused reps will vary based on why you’re using them and how you want to include them in your workouts.

If you want to use paused reps for refining your technique or making your training more interesting, you’ll go about it differently than if you want to break through a plateau or prepare for a powerlifting event.

You also have three ways to incorporate paused reps into your workout programming:

  1. Use paused reps as an exercise variation
  2. Use paused reps on the last reps
  3. Use paused reps on the last sets

I also recommend you use paused reps with compound exercises only, pause for just 1 to 2 seconds per rep, and maintain whole-body tightness and stability while stopped.

If you liked this article, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you like to hang out online! 🙂

What do you think about paused reps? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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