November 08, 2021 10 min read
The beauty of using free weights is that there are a million ways to vary the exercise: making it easier, harder, or just different. And thousands of lifters have explored the many ways of performing lifts, so we’re left with a lot of knowledge to work with.
Pausing is one way that a lift can be tweaked. Although a pause sounds simple enough (it is, after all, just a length of time where you don’t move the weight), there’s a lot that happens with your body when you decide to slow down and take some time.
Down below we’ll explore how exactly pausing affects your bench press, and how to optimally introduce it into your training.
Whenever the topic of lifting comes up in a group, one of the first questions thrown out is, “How much can you bench?” The ubiquity of the bench press as a benchmark for strength is almost universal, and for good reason.
The bench press builds a powerful chest and arms, making your upper body look powerful and exude confidence. It hits probably the most aesthetic mirror muscles, and so it gets a lot of attention from novices to pros alike.
However, much like other free weight exercises, the bench press is a complex beast.
There is the “conventional” way most people are taught, but that only begins to scratch the surface of what you can do with the bench press. Before we dive further into paused benching, let’s take a closer look at the standard variation.
The touch-and-go method of bench pressing is what you’ll see most people using in the gym. It’s when a lifter brings down the bar to the bottom of the movement and lightly touches their chest before immediately switching direction and driving it back upward.
The point of the chest touch is to make sure that a full range of motion is being used, and that no cheating half-reps are done.
However, the quick turnaround of the touch and go still leaves some room for “cheating” in the way of stored elastic energy that helps you drive the bar back up. But this also isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing if understood and utilized correctly.
Most of your strength will be developed through the conventional method of bench pressing since you’re able to move more volume.This mostly comes down to the fact that the touch and go method is easier, allowing you to finish more repetitions and/or use a heavier weight when you bench press.
While you won’t necessarily be developing the “weaker” parts of your bench press (right before you press up again), your chest will definitely see significantly more activation. And the chest is, after all, the star of the show when it comes to the bench press.
More volume can also come in the way of easier recovery when performing touch-and-go benching. Whether it comes down to weight, rep ranges, or recovery time, the classic bench press method is the standard for a reason—more volume on the pecs.
However, a lot of this comes down to the fact that touch and go is simply easier. And, as we all know, easier is not necessarily better. Although there are times to work “smarter, not harder,” a lot of this will come down to your specific needs and goals.
The paused bench press is the standard used in powerlifting, and so if strength training is your goal, it’s a good technique to implement into your training. It mostly comes down to making the bench press more difficult. Greater difficulty will lead to better results in several areas of both your overall strength and your bench pressing technique.
Although you might not necessarily be tempted to replace all of your bench pressing with the paused bench press, there are many good reasons why you should give the pause its worthwhile attention.
When you take more time to accomplish something, you’re going to be improving your technique. When it comes to the bench press, this goes a lot further than just improving your general form.
A paused bench press makes it much easier to more consistently find the touchpoint on your chest.
A novice bench presser will be touching their chest at a different spot on every descent, but a pro will consistently find the spot every time. Not only does this allow the lifter to find the optimal bar path after every rep, but it’ll also allow you to train consistently which will improve your bench-pressing performance.
When using the touch and go method, the barbell almost “bounces” off the chest, and with that sort of erratic behavior, it’s much more difficult to maintain consistent form. This sort of consistency also plays a big part in the standardization of the bench press.
Although a lot of benching technique comes from the physiology of the lifter (length of arms and mobility, for example), powerlifting federations have agreed on some rules to level the playing field.
One of these rules is the pause, ranging from between half a second and two seconds.
This pause takes away the ability to cheat, both with the stored elastic energy and by bouncing the bar off the sternum (which in itself is dangerous).
While you might not be considering entering any powerlifting competitions anytime soon, better standardizing your lifts is a good way to avoid injuries and track your progress, since your “good” and “bad” days might simply be caused by slight variations in technique.
Pausing at the bottom of the bench press is significantly more difficult, and so you’re going to develop your strength that much more. This comes down to momentum and the energy stored in the stretch reflex at the bottom of the exercise.
The “sticking point” is the most difficult part of the lift, and for most lifters in the bench press, this happens to be just as the weight is lifted up about 5 inches above the chest.
Stored elastic tension allows most people to power through this area.But powering through this sticking point using stored energy doesn’t acknowledge the source of failure: weak muscles. Your pecs are most activated at the bottom of the movement when the bar is on its way down and up.
Relying less on momentum will mean that your pecs get a better workout.
Your rotator cuff muscles also play a big role in stabilization at the very bottom of the movement, so your shoulder muscles will see more strength gains as well.
And even if you’re looking for an aesthetic physique rather than strength gains, pausing is still something you shoulder consider applying.
Much has been talked about when it comes to controlling the eccentric part of lifts, when the weight is coming down in the bench press.
Knowing that you’re going to have to pause with the bar forces you to slow down during the descent, and maximizing your time during the descent has been shown to increase muscle hypertrophy.
However, pausing is only part of the story here. You can still increase your time in the eccentric portion of the lift by simply slowing down, rather than completely stopping at the bottom.
Since this is a powerlifting technique, after all, it follows that incorporating pauses will better prepare you for powerlifting needs. This comes down to learning how to decelerate the bar and getting accustomed to heavier weights on your chest.
We did just spend some time talking about how the pause forces you to perform the eccentric movement slower, but this isn’t exactly the end goal of paused bench presses.
In fact, the aim of powerlifting is to allow the bar down as quickly as possible while also decelerating it as fast as possible. This not only takes a lot of technique, but also motor control. When someone does the conventional touch and go bench press, they effectively skip the “stopping” step of powerlifting, and there isn’t as big of a need for deceleration.
Pausing at the bottom of the movement will also get you used to having a heavier weight on your chest. This can be surprising, especially if you’re used to the touch-and-go method. However, if you’re preparing for powerlifting meets, getting accustomed to this is a must. Both deceleration and this aspect will get you in the right powerlifting form and mindset.
This goes without saying, especially after all we’ve talked about so far, but the increased difficulty of paused bench presses is a terrific way to break through plateaus without having to shake up your workout routine too much.
You’re going to be forcing your muscles to work harder in the most difficult parts of the lift, meaning that your conventional bench pressing is likely to see great improvements. This also spells good news for unrelated lifts, since there’s a lot of carryover strength benefits with the bench press.
Pausing sounds simple enough, but there’s a surprising number of factors to consider if you’re going to be implementing the technique. Not only are there different places to pause along your lift, but there are also different methods of pausing that both see use at the highest ranks of powerlifting.
So far, we’ve been talking about pausing at the bottom portion of the movement, in the “mid-range.” The bottom position is where most lifters have the most trouble and so it makes sense that a special emphasis is placed on it, but this isn’t the only area to implement a pause
You can also pause about 1 to 2 inches above the chest, rather than at the very bottom.
This will further increase the activation of your pecs, and it’s a good way to train yourself to think of pressing yourself down into the bench, rather than pressing the barbell up. The third method is pausing towards the top of the lift, near the lockout.
Although this isn’t as common of a place to pause, it’s good for those who have trouble finishing out their bench press. It’s usually lifters who stick to a lot of bodybuilding principles that have his issue since the bench press is never completely locked out. This is also a good method for placing some extra emphasis on the front delts and triceps.
When it comes to the pause at the bottom of the lift, there are also two different ways of going about it. The more popular pause, the “soft pause,” is the one you’re probably thinking of when we say “pause.”
As the bar comes down, you arch your spine and get your chest to meet the bar partway through. Once the bar reaches your chest, you let it rest there for a few seconds while maintaining tension throughout your body.
Then you drive the bar up. Then there’s the sinking technique. Although you still maintain tension, the point is to allow the bar to collapse your arch very slightly. After pausing, the goal is to quickly re-extend the spine and use that energy to help you press the bar back up. While this does give some mechanical advantage, it’s not recommended because of the amount of technique needed to master it.
While it’s fairly straightforward, there are some tips you can keep in mind when pausing. As you can imagine, the pause can be used in a lot of different lifts, but it’s recommended you stick to compound exercises like the bench press. The benefits you get from isolation exercises will be slim to none.
When it comes to programming, the pause can either be used to add some variation into your workouts, or you can implement it in the last few paused reps or sets of a workout. This will add some difficulty and ensure that your pecs are completely gassed out. If you’re lifting heavy weights and pausing at the bottom portion, it’s always best to have a spotter to help you out of a tough situation.
So now that we have all the pieces, how do we go about performing a successful paused bench press? As we’ve seen, there’s a lot of thought that goes into choosing the right pausing method, and that should always come down to your starting fitness level and your overall workout goals. However, we’ll look at a standard paused bench press as an example.
This means using the soft pause over two seconds at the mid-range point of the bench press.
As always, remember to warm up with some stretches or workouts to get your blood pumping. If you’re doing this for the first time, it’s best to start with an empty bar (or just light weights) so that you can get your technique down before moving up.
The bench press is a big lift, but a little twist with the pause is enough to completely change the requirements of it. Introducing more difficulty into your workouts doesn’t have to come down to increasing the weights or the rep ranges—it can simply come down to taking some time in the middle of your lift to allow your muscles to work harder.
The harder you make your muscles work, the more your strength and muscle mass will increase, and the more plateaus you will smash, and pausing in the middle of a bench press is only part of the recipe for success.
The bench press is a big lift and making it even more difficult will mean you need to take enough time to rest and recover. Work hard in the gym, get enough sleep, and you’ll soon be reaping all the benefits.