The squat is considered the king of all movements, and it’s one of the most important exercises to master for any lifter or athlete. It’s a lower-body exercise that engages the largest muscle in your body — the gluteus maximus, aka butt — and most sports and athletes greatly rely on the strength of their legs for improved athletic performance.
There are various ways to improve your squats and bolster the strength and size of your lower body; some even include resistance bands and chains. One of the best (and simplest) training strategies you can implement is paused squats. Here’s what you need to know about this basic but effective squat tactic.
What Are Pause Squats?
Pause squats are exactly what they sound like. They’re a regular squat, except you’ll add a pause at the bottom of the squat. (You can also pause halfway between the top and parallel of the squat, though pausing at the bottom is more common.) During a pause squat, the lifter comes to a complete stop at the bottom of the movement and holds that position for a couple of seconds. They then explode out of the hole — the lowest position of a squat.
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It’s important to note that just because you’re pausing at the bottom of the squat doesn’t mean you’ll be changing the tempo (the pace at which you squat) of your squat during the eccentric phase. You’ll still squat down at your normal rate, except you’ll be holding it at the bottom. This can be done on any squat, including barbell back squat, front squat, dumbbell squat, or kettlebell squat. That said, you can lift the most weight, generally speaking, with your back squat.
Benefits of Pause Squats
Pause squats are a great way to add some variety to your regular squats and come with a range of benefits. Below, we’ll cover the benefits adding a pause to your squats will reap you.
Greater Time Under Tension (TUT)
Your muscles grow from the progressive overload principle, increasing the stimulus you place on your muscles. You can do this a few different ways, including increasing the weight or sets you do, but another way you can do this is to increase the time under tension — how long your muscles are placed under resistance — of your muscles. In the case of the pause squats, you’re maintaining an isometric contraction — keeping your muscles contracted in a stable position — at the bottom of the movement.
For example, say you’re squatting 225 pounds at a normal tempo. Well, if you were to pause at the bottom for two seconds, you’ll increase the amount of time your leg muscles were underneath the load, which makes the muscles grow bigger. In fact, this 2018 study performed on women found that pause squats resulted in a greater increase in hypertrophy than regular squats. (1)
Improves Concentric and Quad Strength
In a normal squat, lifters are leveraging their stretch reflect muscle to move the weight back up. This takes away strength from your quad muscles. Technically, you’re working the same muscles — glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, abdominals — during a pause squat as you would during a regular squat. When you’re doing pause squats, however, you’re forced to rely more on your quad’s concentric strength — tension on your muscles as it shortens — to drive the weight back up from the hole. This will make your squats much harder, but as a result, you’ll own bigger quads and a stronger standard squat. (2)
Enhanced Knee Extensor Strength
Your quads extend your knees, and the pause squat relies more on knee extension than many other variations. That’s because you’re coming to a full stop in a knees-flexed position and then exploding out of the whole. This particular squat variation is beneficial for lifters who have issues during the concentric part of squats.
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Improve Other Olympic Lifts
Olympic lifts — and weightlifting lift variations — require you to drive up from a pause position and out of the hole like the power clean and snatch. Pause squats rely on bending your knees for a moment and then driving through your hips and legs just like the power clean, snatch, and clean and jerk.
Improve Athletic Performance
Many sports require you to explode through your legs out of a knee-bent position — just like pause squats — including football, basketball, baseball, and CrossFit. Pause squats also engage your core for stability and work on your balance, which is paramount in sports.
Refined Movement Patterns and Control
Pause squats require you to stay braced and rigid in your core throughout the entirety of the movement. Pause squats also require an immense amount of balance in your mid-food and hips, and you’ll be forced to keep your hips stable and remain over your center of mass.
When performing squats, you must keep the weight in the center of your mass in the bottom position, or you’ll end up falling forward or backward — which can lead to improper squat mechanics or, worse yet, injury. To ensure you’re over the center of mass during a squat, align your body with the center of your feet.
Where to Pause During Squats
As mentioned earlier, you’ll want to pause at the bottom of a regular squat. This will be parallel or slightly past parallel (when your hips are low enough that your thighs are parallel with the ground). In general, you’ll want to go down as far as your ROM allows you to, although powerlifters will need to make sure the crease of their hips is below the plane of their knee. Mobility is a factor here. The more mobile you are, the further down you’ll be able to squat.
You’ll squat down at the same tempo you would a normal squat, then hold it at the bottom while making sure to keep your hips and body as stable as possible. You’ll hold the squat for a set amount of seconds — two seconds is a good pause — then use as much power as possible to drive yourself back up to the starting position of a squat. This will mitigate the stretch reflex response without fatiguing your leg muscles too much to build maximal strength and muscle.
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You can hold the pause at any position of the squat that’s weak for you. For example, if you noticed that as you get closer to the top of the squat right past parallel, you seem to struggle, then you can implement pause squats there. (Side note: The half squat can also help with the top of your squat.)
How to Program Pause Squats
Anyone who wants to improve their leg strength and hypertrophy, specifically your quads, should try implementing pause squats into their leg routine. Especially if you’ve plateaued on barbell squats, pause squats may be a way to break that stagnation. Although pause squats are extremely beneficial for athletes, including powerlifters, Crossfitters, and football players, it’s a staple exercise that all athletes should take advantage of if they want to maximize their leg strength and size.
How Much Weight Should You Use On Pause Squats
You’ll be able to use about 90% of your one-rep max on regular squats with pause squats. For example, if your one-rep max on squats is 315 pounds, then you’ll be able to use about 280 pounds for one rep on a pause squat. So if you were following a training program that had you lift five sets of five reps at 70% of your one-rep max, you would use around 195 pounds on pause squats.
Example Pause Squat Workout
- Barbell Squat: 5 x 5 for a two-second pause with 70% of your 1RM.
How Many Reps Should You Do
Since you’re adding time to your squats by pausing, you’ll want to reduce the reps as you’ll accumulate as much if not more TUT with pause squats. With that being said, it’s suggested to stick with a rep range of three to five on pause squats. This will ensure you’re using heavy enough weight needed to stimulate muscle growth and strength.
Pro tip: Be cautious and leave an extra rep or two left in your tank on pause squat. It will be a lot easier to get caught in the hole and not bring the weight back up compared to regular squats.
Whether you’re an athlete such as a CrossFitter or linebacker who needs more power or a regular lifter looking to increase the size and strength of their legs, you’ll want to start incorporating pause squats into your training plan. Pause squats force you to rely more on your concentric and quadriceps strength, increases your muscle’s TUT, and increases your ability to maintain your body’s center of gravity under a heavy load.
- Korak, J. A., Paquette, M. R., Fuller, D. K., Caputo, J. L., & Coons, J. M. (2018). Effect of a rest-pause vs. traditional squat on electromyography and lifting volume in trained women. European journal of applied physiology, 118(7), 1309–1314. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-018-3863-6
- Usui, S., Maeo, S., Tayashiki, K., Nakatani, M., & Kanehisa, H. (2016). Low-load Slow Movement Squat Training Increases Muscle Size and Strength but Not Power. International journal of sports medicine, 37(4), 305–312. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0035-1564255
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