Dead-Stop Reps For Pain-Free Muscles

One simple change to the way you lift will make everything more difficult—and effective. When your body is screaming, ''Go up,'' make the choice to stay down!

Dead-Stop Reps For Pain-Free Muscles

You look at the card today, and it says, "8-10 reps." So what do you do? A rep, and then another, and another. You keep moving until you're done. The only pause is between sets, while you catch your breath.

This is the normal way of doing things. Why would anyone mess it up with something like stopping in the middle of a rep? Because, it turns out, something magical happens during that pause. When you perform what's known as a "dead-stop rep," with a deliberate pause at the bottom position, it instantly makes many movements better—and, not coincidentally, way more difficult.

There are many benefits to doing dead-stop reps:

  • They help keep you honest, and clean up form without the need for a ton of extra cueing.
  • They can help ease joint stress and pain, and allow you to perform certain exercises they might otherwise have to avoid.
  • They give muscles a different and effective stimulus, since you're eliminating the stretch reflex.
  • For stronger lifters, it's a way to get a great training effect with lighter loads, meaning you can tax the muscles with less joint stress.

Here are a few movements where dead-stop reps are particularly awesome. Set your expectations low in terms of how many reps and how much weight you can handle with them, and then go to town!

Kneeling Chin-ups

As the name suggests, these chin-ups are performed starting from the knees. I actually found this gem of an exercise by accident. I was training a very tall basketball player in a gym where the bar was too short for him to be able to do chin-ups with a full range of motion. I had him start from the floor on his knees and set the bar in a power rack to a level that allowed him to get a full range of motion.

It allowed him to do chin-ups, but even more than that, I noticed that his chin-ups looked way better than when he did them normally. Intrigued, I started doing chins from the kneeling position on my own and having more of my clients do the same. I quickly saw how starting from the knees addresses some of the most common problems I often see with chin-ups—and best of all, it does so reflexively, meaning without any coaching or cueing needed.

Kneeling Chin-ups

For example, any trainer will tell you that getting clients to go all the way down on chin-ups is a constant battle. If you're lucky, your clients will give you a few good reps, but as soon as you turn your back they'll almost inevitably start cutting them short as the set goes on. When you start on your knees, the floor serves as a depth gauge, similar to the idea of squatting with a box. If you touch your knees to the floor, you've gone all the way down. If your knees don't touch, you haven't. There's no gray area.

Beyond ensuring a full range of motion, I've noticed that this variation really eliminates—or at least drastically minimizes—swinging and kipping, which are both massive pet peeves of mine. Friends don't let friends kip their pull-ups.

Also, whereas some people get shoulder pain in the dead-hang position of chin-ups, this variation allows you to achieve full extension without stressing the shoulders in the bottom position.

For stronger people, I'll have them start each rep from a dead-stop position, like my client Ryan is doing in the video above. This makes the exercise much harder though, so I reserve it for people who can already do 10-12 regular chin-ups. As a frame of reference, guys who can do 10-12 regular chins will do about 6-7 good reps from the kneeling position from a dead stop. Otherwise, if paused chin-ups are too hard, you can still do them from the kneeling position, but just lightly tap the floor each rep without pausing.

Tip: If you're performing these in a power rack, set the bar even with your forehead when you're standing in front of it, as this will allow for a full range of motion from the kneeling position.

You can also do kneeling chin-ups from the rings, which I like. Just set the rings at a position that allows full arm extension and have at it.

Sternum Ring Chin-ups

It should go without saying that in both variations, I strongly recommend putting a pad underneath your knees.

Kneeling Ring Dips

Like the kneeling chin-ups above, these are dips done starting from the floor in a tall-kneeling positon. You'll need rings for these unless your gym has an adjustable dip station, or you can get creative and figure out how to rig something up.

Dead-Stop Kneeling Ring Dips

Set the rings so that when you're on your knees, the rings are even with your armpits. This will allow you to perform each rep from a dead stop while still using a full range of motion. Pausing each rep definitely makes the exercise harder, but it also feels better on the shoulders. Even with a pad, it forces you to control the eccentric portion of the rep so you don't slam your knees.

Be sure to keep your feet off the floor the entire set to avoid using them to cheat. Most people are very humbled at first because they can't do anywhere near as many kneeling dips as they can do regular dips. That's partially due to the fact that starting from the knees is harder, but more due to the fact that most people do their regular dips with a woefully short range of motion, so when they're forced to start from the floor it keeps them honest.

As an added bonus, the height of these rings also ends up being the perfect height to perform inverted rows, which makes for an awesome pairing at the end of an upper body workout.

Dead-Stop Front Squats

I really like using paused reps with front squats for a few reasons. For a lot of folks, the limiting factor in front squats is how much weight they can hold with their upper body, not how much weight their legs can handle. Pausing at the bottom makes the exercise significantly harder, which means you simply won't be able to do as much weight.

That may sound like a bad thing, but it's actually a good one. The lightened load means you'll be able to support the weight better, which means you can explore all kinds of options to make your legs the limiting factor.

The first and most basic way to stop your squats dead in their tracks is to come to a pause on a box at appropriate depth. This video demonstrates this technique with 1-1/2 reps, which is another excellent variation as well.

Paused Front Squats

While you can certainly do dead-stop front squats without squatting down to anything, I prefer to squat to either a box or pins to help serve as a depth gauge. This can be particularly useful when you're using a technique that really forces you to grind through reps, like these reps with deliberately slower eccentrics.

Eccentric Paused Front Squats

If your gym doesn't have a box that is the proper depth for squatting, or if you simply don't like squatting to a box, you can also pause the bar on the pins in a power rack. Some people prefer doing it this way, as it more closely mimics the free squat.

Paused Pin Front Squats

Like with chin-ups and dips, coming to a dead stop forces you to control the eccentric portion of the rep more so you don't slam down. Pausing also helps you maintain a consistent depth, which is particularly valuable with squatting, since so many people cut their squats higher and higher as the set goes on. Interestingly, I've also found that, whereas bouncing out of the hole can be very stressful on the knees, doing paused reps can mitigate that problem.

"Bottoms Up" Front Squats (Anderson Front Squats)

The bottoms-up squat—also known as an Anderson squat—starts from a dead-stop position at the bottom, usually with the bar on pins. This simple tweak makes every additional pound you add feel way heavier than the scale says. To add resistance, add straight bar weight or accommodating resistance via chains or bands. Here's what it looks like with chains:

Anderson Chain Front Squats

If your gym doesn't have chains, here's a simple way to get a similar training effect with a basic mini-band:

Band-Resisted "Bottoms Up" Front Squats

Hold it right there

When it comes to dead-stop chins and dips, some people will try these and never go back to the old way. Others might find that adding a pause for a few weeks just really cleans up their technique and addresses some glaring weak spots.

The same goes for the front squats. As I discussed in "Five Front Squat Variations You Must Try," intense variations like these aren't meant as a substitute for heavy front squatting, especially if your goal is to move big weights. But if your joints are hurting, your gains have stalled, or you've let your form start to slide and need to take a step back and clean it up, you should definitely give dead-stop reps try!