We all find ourselves struggling at a specific point of lift, at some time or another.
Addressing sticking points might be a more efficient way to attack the weakest link in the chain of a movement, and therefore a faster way to increase strength.
If you have stalled with traditional training on one of the Big 3 (Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift) but not other movements for a couple of mesocycles (few months), and are already at the point of being an intermediate trainee, this article will help explain your options.
The following is an excerpt from our Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid book…
Up to this point we’ve addressed weak points mostly from a musculature perspective, and with a nod to limb lengths. However, there are schools of thought that focus more on the output; weaknesses in portions of the movement itself.
Common in powerlifting circles, often a “sticking point” or region is targeted in one manner or another either with pausing at or around these points, by using specific variations of the big three that are thought to train that point differently, or by using variable resistance (also known as ‘accommodating resistance’, e.g. bands and chains — more on this in a moment) to change where the weak point of a lift is.
Some of these approaches have merit, while others operate under flawed assumptions.
The tactic of using a pause at a given point in a lift can be effective, depending on how it is performed. For example, if you “stick” at a given point in the range of motion of a lift, does it make sense to pause at that point in training?
I’ve heard it argued that this allows more time spent exerting force at the point you are weakest. However, that doesn’t make sense if you think about it for two reasons:
However, this doesn’t mean pausing is always useless, or counterproductive. Slowing down a portion of a lift gives you more time to be aware of what your body is doing and the position of the bar relative to you at that point. Done intentionally and prescribed logically, pauses can make sense.
There is nothing wrong with pausing below the knee on a deadlift, for example. If you often let the bar drift out in front of you, pausing here might teach you to keep the bar close. This approach may be a useful way to ingrain a better movement pattern by breaking the lift into “chunks” that are more manageable from a motor learning perspective.
Likewise, if you lose tightness as you come out of the hole on squats and struggle to control the ‘bounce’, pausing in the hole allows elastic energy to dissipate and gives you time to pay attention to, and focus on generating tightness. Doing pause squats may allow you to better control the transition from eccentric to concentric when you go back to regular squats.
As a final example, as you get closer to competition, you might decide to do longer pauses on your chest before pressing the bar up when benching. Given you aren’t always sure how long you’ll have to wait for a press command in competition, getting better at generating force from a dead stop may help you on comp day.
Also, don’t get me wrong, there is merit to the idea of training to exert more force at a given portion of a range of motion where you are weaker. As I discussed in Level 2, strength is specific in many ways, including at specific joint angles. While pausing in the middle of a dynamic repetition won’t address this deficiency for the reasons I gave above, there are some approaches which might help address such weak point 1.
Isometric (pressing against an immovable object) training at the point in a range of motion where you are weak may be a potential way to get stronger at a sticking point. However, the problem remains that exactly where you are weak, versus the visible point where momentum stopped carrying you through the sticking point, is hard to discern. (To be exact it would require lab equipment or at least video analysis.)
Another cause of sticking points in certain lifters is when a technical fault predictably occurs near maximum. Some lifters perfectly execute squats at 90% of 1RM and lower but perform “squat mornings” (the hips shoot up out of concert with the torso, back tightness is lost and it slightly resembles a good morning) when going heavier.
Another common technical fault at maximal loads is when the normally rigid thoracic (and sometimes lumbar) spine moves into flexion during deadlifts. These faults (and others) can prompt or exacerbate a sticking point.
Likewise, it is certainly reasonable to use variations on the main lifts which “punish” these movement faults and “reward” when they are avoided (as my friend Mike Tuchscherer would say).
For example, a front squat will be almost immediately dumped forward and lost if your hips shoot up and you lose back tightness. Maintaining a proper rack position requires intentional focus and provides an anti-flexion challenge to the back extensors. Other such exercises that highlight when you make an error can be used in similar scenarios for other technical faults that might lead to a sticking point.
Finally, variable or accommodating resistance (typically in the form of chains and bands) is commonly used to address sticking points.
By adding chains to a barbell, more and more links uncoil off the ground as the bar is lifted further from the floor during the concentric phase, making the load progressively heavier. Similarly, with bands attached to the bar and anchored to the floor, the resistance on the bar increases during the concentric as the bands stretch.
Either method changes the resistance curve of the movement, as typically the squat is most difficult in the mid-point after ascending from the hole, the bench press a few inches above the chest, and the deadlift is (typically) hardest below the knee. Subsequently, these movements get easier (not always) as you approach lockout. Adding accommodating resistance alters this slightly such that as you gain a biomechanical advantage, load also increases.
The use of bands and chains gained original popularity with equipped lifters.
To some degree, bands and chains mimic the strength curve of lifting with suits, knee wraps, and bench shirts. This lifting equipment provides most of its assistance in the early stages of the concentric phase, and less assistance you approach lockout.
However, suits, wraps, and shirts are difficult to get in and out of, uncomfortable, and are time-consuming to train with. Subsequently, training in equipment is not done year-round. Instead, a fair amount of time is often spent training raw with accommodating resistance, to provide a bit more specificity to lifting in equipment.
The latest meta-analytic data suggests there is not an advantage of training with accommodating compared to traditional resistance 2.
However, it is worth noting studies haven’t assessed the effect of traditional versus accommodating resistance on equipped 1RM strength. Furthermore, just because accommodating resistance may not be better on average, doesn’t mean it couldn’t prove to help individuals with specific weaknesses near lockout. Finally, it has been proposed that generating greater force prior to a weak point in a lift may help by helping momentum to carry you through a sticking point ¹.
While traditional, heavy resistance training is an effective way to increase the rate of force production, explosive “power” type training (often called “speed work”) has been proposed as well.
Accommodating resistance can be helpful for power training as traditional speed work with light loads results in a “braking” phase near lockout 3 as you decelerate the bar to prevent your back from “jumping” off the bench or your feet from leaving the floor when squatting or deadlifting.
With bands or chains, the increasing resistance makes lighter load heavier near lockout, preventing this from occurring 4. Thus, bands or chains can allow you to attempt to accelerate the bar through the full range of motion.
Therefore, an argument could be made if you are a lifter who gets stuck right off your chest when benching, in the hole when squatting, or who can’t break the bar off the ground when deadlifting, that explosive training (possibly with accommodating resistance) could be of utility. However, it seems that whether or not explosive training improves the rate of force development compared to just heavy lifting, is highly individual 5.
To summarize weak points and sticking regions, let’s recap the potential approaches a powerlifter or strength athlete might take ¹:
When assessing the above options as a lifter or coach, you’ll see there is a degree of guesswork involved in implementing some of the options, and a great deal of individuality in most as well. Thus, I want to reiterate that choosing variations on the main lifts, be they with pauses, bands or chains, limited or increased range of motion, etc., should be intentional and logically informed.
They also aren’t required.
Sometimes, the best way to improve a lift is to do more practice with the lift in competition form. Don’t confuse variation with randomization, be intentional.
Finally, it’s important to understand that in reality, sticking points don’t actually change. Rather, addressing them might be a more efficient way to attack the weakest link in the chain of a movement, and therefore a faster way to increase strength. If this ends up being the case for you, the stick will still occur, you’ll just be able to lift more weight despite it.
If you have found this helpful, you might be pleased to know it is just a small section taken from our Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid book. The second edition, along with the Nutrition companion book, was released this January 2019.
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Thank you for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments.
– Eric, Andy, and Andrea