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Through the Wall – Overcome Sticking Points

Sticking points bring progress to a grinding halt and can turn what normally are positive workouts into hours of disappointment. They’re especially bothersome on an exercise that you believe to be the most important in your entire program, such as the back squat, power clean or flat bench. Figuring out how to move past the sticking point isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s seldom easy.

When your numbers are climbing upward steadily, going to the weight room is an enjoyable experience. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as getting stronger and improving your physique in the process. When a primary lift or two go flat, however, those sessions are no longer pleasant but become a source of irritation and frustration. If it lasts only for a short time, it isn’t much of a problem because you expect ups and downs over the long haul. When the sticking point lasts six months or longer, though, many stop training altogether.

As a result, formerly health-conscious individuals become less selective about what they eat, stop taking most of their nutritional supplements and no longer care how much rest they’re getting. Training, diet and rest fit nicely together, but dropping even one of the variables from the routine adversely affects all of them. Even if your program does run up against sticking points, a less-than-satisfactory workout is far better than none at all.

An even smarter approach is to figure out how to overcome the sticking point. Once you can do that, you realize that you have a degree of control over your training destiny. If you can get a certain exercise on the move again, when another one hits a plateau—and they all eventually do—you’ll be much more prepared to deal with the problem.

I’m going to present some ideas that I have used on myself and the many athletes that I have trained over the years. Not all will work in every situation, but one might be useful in your case. If it doesn’t, try another, but by all means keep training while you’re attempting to solve the riddle. Keep in mind that no one ever said going to the gym x-times a week and doing a sound program consistently will elevate you into the elite ranks of strength. If everything proceeded in a smooth fashion without any hitches, then 300-pound military presses and 600-pound squats would be commonplace. Of course, we know that’s not the case. To move to higher limits of strength, you must learn how to overcome sticking points.

The first step is to reexamine your form on the troublesome exercise. You may have inadvertently slipped into some bad habits, as often happens when someone starts training with ambitious athletes who are hell-bent on moving big numbers regardless of technique. The result is all that matters, as there are no extra points for correct form. It is, however, a risky game to play in strength training. When technique becomes faulty, the muscles and attachments that are responsible for performing an exercise don’t receive the attention they need in order to get stronger. Even more important, using sloppy technique repeatedly is an invitation to injury.

Take the practice of rebounding the bar off the chest on the bench press—the norm, not the exception, in most gyms. When you do that over a long period of time, the muscle groups responsible for moving the bar upward off the chest get neglected. So when the poundages get really heavy, you can’t rebound the bar forcefully enough to achieve the height you need to follow through and finish the lift. Plus, the toll on your elbows, wrists and shoulders is significant and will have to be dealt with sooner or later.

The solution is never accepted well: You have to reestablish form. It may mean dropping way back down in weight and basically starting anew, using perfect technique. Most people who have trained for any length of time know it in their gut—especially the strength athlete who’s recognized as one of the best benchers in the facility—but refuse to do it because it’s just too damn shattering to their egos. They’d rather continue to pound their joints and be able to claim a high number in a prized lift than use less weight in front of their training mates. Well, that still doesn’t get them past the sticking point.

I realize that it’s hard. I never liked using lighter weights either, after some sort of physical setback or following a layoff—which, by the way, I took only once. Strength is critical to our self-esteem, but if you want to achieve long-range goals, going back and starting from scratch is quite often a necessary and rewarding move.

Over the years I’ve been around only a few who were confident enough in themselves to clean up their bad form habits. By far the most memorable was John Phillip, the big Tongan I coached on Oahu. I had moved to Hawaii from California to redesign my life. Every venture I tried in the Golden State had turned sour, and I was sick of the back-stabbing, anything-for-a-buck mentality. I rented a small house next to the ocean and not far from the village of Kaaawa.

My original plan was to exercise without any resistance other than my bodyweight, but it didn’t pan out. Once I discovered how weak I’d become, I sought out a place to train. I knew there was a small weight room on the campus of Church College of Hawaii in Laie, not that far away and easily accessible by bus. I told the athletic director about my background and my desire to train in the weight room. He readily agreed, with the stipulation that I help the other athletes with their training.

All the students who trained at Church College were from islands across the Pacific: Samoa, Tahiti, Fuji, Tonga, plus the other islands of the Hawaiian chain: Maui, the Big Island, Molokai and Kauai. In exchange for scholarships, they performed at the Polynesian Cultural Center, which was adjacent to the college. I was the only haole there and no one spoke English. It was either their native tongues or a pidgin version of Hawaiian, which I was able to understand just a bit.

I picked up comments about someone named John Philip who could bench more than 500 pounds, but I took them with a grain of salt. Whenever I’ve run across tales of somebody’s cousin who could lift a full-grown steer or elevate an anvil with one hand, they’ve turned out to be just that. Then John showed up. He’d been coaching the college rugby team. The season had ended, and he was back into training. He was, indeed, an impressive individual, cut from the same cloth as Patera, Bednarski, Pickett and Doug Young. He wasn’t tall—my guess was about 5’11”—and he weighed in the high 200s, but he had the build of an athlete who used his muscles: thick chest, wide back and tree-trunk legs.

The students all greeted him warmly, and he went directly to the bench and started pressing. The equipment in the weight room consisted of a squat rack, a bench, four Olympic bars, an abundance of plates and some dumbbells. The bench was from Sears, a flimsy model intended for home use that had uprights that moved in and out to accommodate different shoulder sizes. At that time I was using just over 300, and having that much weight over my face with the bench creaking in protest made me very uneasy. It didn’t seem to bother John.

He started out with 225 and proceeded to jump 90 pounds on each subsequent set until he reached 495, then finished with a strong 525. I was duly impressed. He hadn’t trained for several months and was handling poundages that only a few others in the country were capable of lifting. That bench sagged and moaned because it was forced to support more than 800 pounds. How it held together I still do not know.

Everyone in the weight room worked upper body exclusively. I was the only person who squatted and power cleaned and did high pulls, overhead presses and deadlifts along with flat benches. Since my goal was to establish a solid base before pushing the numbers up, I did all my lifts in extra strict form. I paused the bar on my chest for my benches and stopped for a count at the bottom of my squats.

After about three weeks John approached me and introduced himself. He’d found out from the athletic director that I’d competed in weightlifting meets and had done some coaching. He asked if I would help him get ready for a powerlifting meet that was going to be held in Honolulu in three months. I agreed to do so but told him that he was going to have to change the way he benched. He needed to learn to pause the bar on his chest for a one-second count. Then an official would give him a clap to signal for him to press the weight. Otherwise none of his attempts would be passed. “Like you’ve been doing,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “exactly like I’ve been doing.”

John was a guidance counselor at Pearl Harbor High School and was also the head of security for the Polynesian Cultural Center. In truth, he was the law on the North Shore and had a reputation that reached far beyond Oahu. At the first session where I gave him a clap to start the press, he managed 405. Certainly good yet a far cry from 525. That meant he was going to have to swallow a great deal of pride, and he had a great deal. Still, he did just that. I knew it was difficult.

At the meet he finished with a strong 515. Two months later he surpassed his former best, and 18 months after he started doing benches strictly, he placed second at the World Powerlifting Championships in Birmingham, England. Keep in mind that while he was learning to pause for the start of the bench press, he was also adding squats and deadlifts to his program. He really was a remarkable athlete and living proof that if the desire is there, you can accomplish a lot.

When you’re trying to clean up your form, it helps to have someone around who knows the finer points of technique. That may mean traveling some distance to train with an experienced lifter or coach, but it will be well worth the time and effort. Should you know what needs to be done in terms of shaping up your technique but hate the idea of using a lot less weight in front of your buddies, train at a different time for a while, or at home if you have equipment available. Perfecting form is always a good idea because it will help in the long run and lessen the risk of injury.

I’ve noticed that whenever an athlete hits a sticking point on a certain exercise that he deems important, his first reaction is to do more work on that lift by adding an extra day or doing more sets than usual. The problem with the approach is that in all likelihood the reason the lift is stuck is that it’s being overtrained. So more work only makes matters worse.

Instead of hammering away at an exercise that’s floundering, try this. Drop the exercise entirely and hit the muscle groups it uses from a different angle. Let’s say your bench has stayed at the same number for a very long time. Put that lift on hiatus and replace it with overhead presses, weighted dips and steep inclines. That gives the flat-benching muscles a much-needed rest and will strengthen many groups that have been neglected. After a couple of months on that program reinsert the flat bench, and you’ll find yourself moving upward right away.

I’ve also had success by changing the grip on pressing movements. When the overhead press was still part of Olympic-lifting competition, some of the York lifters would do wide-grip presses to hit certain shoulder muscles more directly. It worked. What’s more, close-grip benches done in strict fashion improve the flat bench.

Laying off a lift that has gone stale is usually a good idea. At York Barbell, once lifting season ended in June, programs were drastically altered. The high-skill lifts were dropped and replaced with more pure-strength movements. So rather than drilling on snatches, cleans and jerks, they did high pulls, shrugs and lots of work in the power rack. All those who followed the change of routine said the same thing when they returned to the more complicated lifts: Their form was better after the layoff.

Dumbbells can be most useful in jarring a lift out of complacency, especially for upper-body exercises and, to a lesser degree, pulling movements. Heavy dumbbell benches, inclines and overhead presses force the muscles involved to work much harder than they would with a bar because of the balance factor. Having to control the moving dumbbells takes much more effort than pressing a barbell, and that translates to more strength. Plus, it’s much harder to cheat with dumbbells than it is with a bar. Rebounding them off your chest only creates problems, as they’ll run in all directions. They have to be guided upward, and that has a positive effect on the muscles and attachments being used in the lift.

Power cleaning heavy dumbbells and snatching one dumbbell at a time are good exercises for helping you get your top pull stronger. Again, the dumbbells have to be pulled in a very precise line and be under complete control from start to finish. They have to be turned over forcefully in order to be cleaned or snatched. Once you learn the feel of it, you can use it with a barbell very readily.

Be conscious of the smaller muscle groups when trying to figure out how to break through a sticking point. It could simply be that having relatively weak triceps is holding your presses back. Or it may be that your deltoids aren’t up to par. When pulling movements hit the wall, check to see if all segments of your back are receiving equal attention. Same idea for the hips and legs. I’ve had athletes badly stuck on their squats go on a hard and heavy calf raise routine, and suddenly their squats were on the move again. I also had a powerlifter add 20 pounds to his deadlifts after he added calf raises to his program.

Overtraining, as I’ve mentioned, is a major reason for many sticking points, but where that’s not a factor, weak areas are the culprits. In order to deal with them, you first have to identify them. Sometimes they’re rather obvious—perhaps weak adductors displaying themselves when your knees turn in during heavy pulls or squats or a lack of trap strength on heavy cleans or snatches. Most are so subtle, however, that they need a trained coach to spot them, and not everyone has the opportunity to work out in front of such an individual. That means you have to find the weak area yourself. A tough task? Not at all. That is, if you have a power rack.

You believe your form is correct in the back squat, and you work it diligently, making sure you’re not overdoing it. Even so, it’s been stuck at 350 for more than six months, and you’re stymied as to how to get over the sticking point. The rack will reveal the weaker area right away.

Set the pins in the rack a couple of inches below where you hit the bottom on the squat. While you can start this from the finish of the lift, most weak areas are either in the start or somewhere in the middle range, so it’s best to start from the deep bottom and work up. Squeeze under the bar loaded with 135 pounds, and stand up with it. That will help you get the feel of what you’re trying to accomplish. Do only singles. Keep adding weight until you find your limit. Record that number, and move the pins up to the middle part of the squat. Then repeat the procedure, and do the same for the finish. If you’re not positive where the weakest area is, you can do more than three positions, but usually three are enough.

In this case it’s clearly the middle where you were able to use only 505. Reset the pins at that middle position, put 275 on the bar, and do three reps with that weight. If it’s not difficult, add weight and do another triple. Try to find a poundage that gives you three reps, and knock out five sets. It doesn’t matter what poundage you use in the beginning on partial squats because you’re going to be increasing it each time you do them. When you’re able to handle 30 or 40 more pounds than you used the first time around, that weak area will be much stronger, and the new strength will display itself when you do the full movement.

Another way to use the rack to strengthen a weak area is with either pure isometrics or isotonic-isometrics. I believe the latter is more effective as it’s often difficult to tell if you are, in fact, exerting 100 percent of your effort against the stationary bar. When you have weight on the bar and have to hold it against the top pins for a definite amount of time, you know for certain. That’s because if you slack off then, the bar will move away from the top pins.

To work the weak middle very specifically, set the lower pins at the same place you had them for the partial squats. Then put two pins directly over the bar. The closer the better. You want to move the loaded barbell only an inch or two—no more than that unless the holes are set wide apart in your rack. You might have to stand on a board to place yourself a bit higher so the bar is closer to the top pins.

Start out with a light weight so you can determine what you’re doing on the concentrated exercise. Squeeze under the bar, making sure your feet are positioned correctly and your torso is where it should be. Then elevate the bar up against the pins. Tap them, and lower the weight. Do that three times, and hold the third rep for a couple of seconds. Add weight and repeat. Now decide how much you can handle for your work set. It doesn’t have to be on the money the first time around, but it should be close. Tap the top pins twice with the bar and lock in the third rep, holding it for an eight-to-12-second count. Here the time element is more important than how much weight is on the bar. If you can’t lock into an isometric contraction for at least eight seconds, use less weight. If you can hold longer than a 12 count, you need more weight. After a couple of workouts you’ll have a good idea of how much to use. Just do that one work set. Isotonic-isometrics are condensed strength work, and a little goes a long way.

Of course, you can seek out weak spots in pulls and presses in the same way and make them stronger with isos. A learning curve is involved. When you lock the bar against the top pins, you must think about steadily increasing the pressure as the count gets higher. When you reach eight, you should be squatting, pulling or pressing with absolutely all your might. You should hold nothing back. Isotonic-isometric contractions strengthen the tendons and ligaments, which are the ultimate sources of strength. Be sure to warm up thoroughly before doing them. Locking into an iso hold on cold muscles is asking for a pulled muscle or attachment.

Another rather simple way to strengthen a troublesome exercise is to give it priority in your routine. Do it first on Mondays, when you have the most energy. Gaining bodyweight is a tried-and-true method of blasting through a sticking point. Add 15 or 20 pounds, and all your primary movements are going to benefit.

Finally, if you find that the exercises in your program have all gone flat, you need to take a moment and examine your rest and eating patterns. Have you been eating plenty of protein and getting the rest you need? Both are crucial for recovery. Have you been neglecting your nutritional supplements? Not getting enough vitamin C or E or minerals might be the reason everything has flatlined. Making some changes in your lifestyle might be just what you need to break through some sticking points. If you’re fine on that score, however, try some of my ideas. All you need to do is find one that works for you, and you’re on your way once again.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit IM

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