Friday, March 23, 2018

Hill Bombs and Pause Squats: Committing to high risk efforts for personal development.

Preface: This post discusses relatable benefits of my past experience to training as an adult today. Whether this adds pounds to the bar or builds a more resilient head space the goal is to make risk taking produce advancement, not derailment. Risk taking should be measured and considered within reason. Besides advancement, risk is a large component of ‘fun’ in the gym, at least for me. So, bear that in mind, never being too stupid. (Don’t make me post that bosu ball squat photo…) Ideally this post improves risk-taking skill by means of specific practice with the pause squat.

My skateboarding background makes finding a connection to the gym rare. If one collected a group of 100 professional skateboarders 98 of them would look like you personally rescued them from a concentration camp. There is little comparison between such a crowd and the gym going type. One group obsesses about nutrition after hard sixty-minute workouts. The other eating only dollar menu items during marathon skate sessions lasting weeks. A huge gap exists between skaters and the massively strong. So, what do they have in common? Each take incredible risk. Nearly all professional athletes play this game as a function of their sport. Achieving ultimate victory by accurate navigation and will. But not all sports share severity of outcomes. Easily understood when comparing table tennis to tennis. By name and aesthetic similar; by risk, separate altogether. Through metaphor risks can be made similar, thus translating lessons effectively between unrelated sports.
"Look how tiny your forearms are. Eat a sandwich between plays kid. You look like a skateboarder."

The reason to do this is because observing and discussing risk taking behavior in dissimilar sports may communicate more effectively the skills improved and rewards earned while practicing risk within wholly different physical activities. In other words, some things visually or verbally do a better job at teaching stuff. So, I present to you, my lifting audience, Nuge’s Hill Bomb. 

I encourage everyone to watch all the “My War” videos on Thrasher’s YouTube. Some tough bastards. This hill bomb serving as a fantastic visual representation of what is gained from practicing heavy, long, pause squats. Or bench too I suppose. Further elaboration:

0. Each challenge commitment. Make, bail, or quit. Options for both skater and lifter. Few times in the gym do we run into this standard of performance. Making it through a workout is not the same as making a PR lift. Likewise quitting midway through a workout has less risk severity when compared to quitting in the middle of a rep. Rarely are we put in such a place while training. Pause squats can put us in that place without requiring chasing true rep max PR's, within the 1-5 rep range, too frequently. Which is not recommended. What is recommended is taking a fairly heavy weight and sitting down with it for a bit. Get comfortable with it. Have a tea party or something.

1. Sitting in the hole with a heavy weight long enough to gain attention earns respect in the weight room (and at the base of steep hills). This benefit speaks for itself. Should failure occur then the ego is destroyed, thus necessitating the importance of reason zero - commit to the rep. 

Less important reasons:

2. Technical improvement.

3. New form of progression (time).

Heavy pause squat progression carries a high risk of failure and potential injury. Hills can only get steeper and longer before eating the pavement, after all. Same goes for time and weight. From this progress many things can be gained. The first two above affect internally and externally motivated lifters. Knowing how to motivate yourself is a seriously effective tool to keep in the toolbox. Besides motivation factors, long, heavy, pause squats bring forth progress in the form of technical mastery. Holding a proper position under such load and duration takes improved skill. Skill encompassing a broad set of characteristics, such as but not limited to: speed, balance, bar path, and proprioception. Further, this sort of movement training shifts effort towards an isometric performance standard rather than eccentric or concentric intent with the lift, which is common in most resistance training plans. 

While most consider reps and weight the only form of progression for barbell lifts, begin working with time while doing paused variations. That being said pausing 50% of a max for two minutes is far from what I’m talking about. I will elaborate. The reason for this is to prevent straying too far from the intended application. Paused variations are used to help teach proper positioning, bracing, and bar control. Should the weight be too light, then the challenge exists only in duration. In the context of energy systems, that is more akin to running than lifting. In the context of Nuge’s Hill Bomb going slowly down a long, shallow hill, is not bombing a hill. The speed provides the technical challenge, just as the weight should, not the duration (which is a byproduct of getting up to speed for Nuge.)

More like aided stretching at this weight. Don't church it up.

For such reasons I suggest the pause length be kept to 10 seconds maximum. That long for the execution of one rep is nearly unbearable if properly weighted. Do not begin with a 3RM weight and attempt 10 seconds. Have some dignity and build up. Think ahead just a little and steer far away from failure if new to paused work. Consider only two to four seconds paused in the hole with a weight near your five to seven rep-max the first day; to feel things out. Of course, if a shorter pause is desired then the weight should go up accordingly. Do this over time. But the rep should always be just one, like the hill, one big bite, make it or don’t. Bust or bail. Stand or be stapled. 

A cautious approach for those familiar with paused work is to begin lengthening the pauses on the final rep of the last set. An example being someone who does five sets of three reps, each paused for one to two seconds. A short but somewhat steep hill. They begin taking their final reps for longer pauses, building up to whatever time they determined as their goal. Once achieved they add weight and strive to make it their new record. Those familiar with Hepburn’s method of adding a rep will find this similar in nature. When 10 seconds becomes comfortable at weights used for multiple work sets the lifter should refocus with weights relative to rep max sets as described above. Gradually longer pauses become an improved skill that can be safely tested with increasing weights. This practice drives up technical limits, pushing them nearer our maximal strength threshold. 

Many reading this use the Valsalva maneuver when lifting heavy so some advice is offered on breathing. Between three and five seconds breath control becomes a factor, so that must be improved first for most everyone. Using lighter weights and shorter pauses aids this improvement, which should be focused on first. Beyond that quality factors come into play: knee cave, chest collapse, general tension loss and more. This is because of fatigue and novice pause skills. Frequency and consistency dissipate these effects. Around the eight second mark one thinks time is up (if the weight is heavy enough), but it is not, so go a little longer. Weight makes time weird in the hole. Film these sets to track time and identify errors in ability. Doing so uses pause squats to target qualitative factors for improvement. You can see what is going wrong at what time in the paused set and strategize to ensure success on the next attempt. 

Assessing past performance for future victory a lifter plans ahead:

“Three seconds in I should take a deep breath and hold that as long as possible. When I let that go my chest always caves. Next time I’ll release that breath slowly and focus on bracing my abs harder as I do. Hopefully my chest stays higher as I reach the seven or eight second mark. Right when I feel my chest begin to cave I’ll take a deep breath and that should take me to the ten second marker. Standing before blacking out this time, I swear.”

Nuge progressively works up the hill in his War, having a few short goes as he feels out the Murderhorn. Practice runs allow him to identify the specific hazards associated with the hill as well as dial in his own riding that day and if needed adjust his board. Cracks, manhole covers, cross streets, etc., each demanding assessment. In much the same way pause squats allow lifters to notice what breaks down as they gradually increase duration and intensity. Over the course of many training sessions developing their pause skill and everything associated. 

Nothing feels dumber than crawling out from under a weight paused too long and dumping a bar earns no harsher scorn because of “show boating” in the hole. Those two reasons are why #1 from the list above should be considered. While not exactly a “do or die” scenario like bombing hills can be, pause squats function similarly in the weight room. Failure here still resulting in death; death of the ego. But damn does it grow when standing after a long pause under a heavy weight! The skateboarder and the lifter, each skillfully working with gravity to test their will and develop abilities. Those lacking courage stand on the sidelines in amazement. 

My longest and heaviest

Now beat me.


  1. Have you seen Jaws vs the Lyon 25?


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