By: science-based fitness author Calvin Huynh
Check out his website: https://awesomefitnessscience.com/
Editor’s note: Thank you Calvin for this fantastic guest blog post! Readers, this is a summary of a video on the science of sticking points for Monthly Applications in Strength Sport, my research review alongside Greg Nuckols and Dr. Mike Zourdos where we write reviews of new studies, and produce video summaries of scientific concepts as they apply to bodybuilding, strength sport, life and lifting! If you want to regularly nerd out, please consider subscribing using the in-text link above. Enjoy!
Sticking points are annoying. Every lifter deals with them. If you’re a strength athlete, they could stall your powerlifting total for months and if you’re more hypertrophy focused, they could plateau you in key lifts, preventing you from applying overload.
A sticking point is the most challenging part of the lift. It’s also described as the point in which you fail if training to failure or attempting a new 1-rep max. This is the point in the lift that keeps you up at night whether it’s the lockout of a bench press or the initial pull of a deadlift where it feels like the bumper plates are glued to the ground.
Why Sticking Points Are Hard to Predict
Sticking points aren’t universal. They’re not as simple as bench presses are hard at the bottom, so everyone must struggle at that same point. Sticking points are deeply individual and can be hard to predict without thorough screening.
Here’s what causes sticking points and why it’s more complicated than what reductionist type thinkers would have you believe (1).
- The length-tension relationship. For each individual muscle, there are points where isometric force is optimized and points where it isn’t. For example, during a sissy squat when the quads are fully stretched, it’s harder to generate force from that position as opposed to the top of the movement where the quads aren’t stretched. This gets more complex with compound movements involving multiple muscles.
- Weaker muscles in compound movements. Within compound movements, if a muscle’s force production capabilities aren’t up to par with the others, it can hold back the entire lift at a certain point.
- Biomechanical lever arms. This refers to how long the lever is to the fulcrum in a given exercise. It can also be affected by an individual’s limb length like their tibia to femur ratio.
- Body composition. Yes, how much muscle you build can affect the insertion angles (2). This is why your leverages can change and why people report different rates of progression on various lifts during bulks/cuts.
- Unseen flaws. There are things we can’t visibly see consistently that contributes to various sticking points like someone’s genetic hip structure or someone losing intraabdominal pressure.
The totality of these reasons explains why sticking points are not only different between people, but also different within individuals over time.
How Do We Deal with Sticking Points?
Everyone has a sticking point on every lift, but finding the ideal solution to smash these annoying plateaus can be tricky. Fortunately, science can help.
Kompf and colleagues published a paper in 2016 that proposes 6 solutions many lifters already use, but gives them more context so we don’t have to just throw everything at the wall hoping a method will stick correctly (3).
Let’s weigh the pros and cons of each method, so you can apply what’s most ideal for you.
Doing isolation work on a weak link in the chain can bring up the entire lift. For example, if you have puny hamstrings, building them up might help you bring up your deadlift.
However, the issue with isolation work is that it can be tricky to find the correct weak point and the right exercise to serve as a solution.
This is because the strength you build in isolation might not transfer well to the compound exercises you’re stuck on.
Let’s say, you know without a doubt, your quads are weak and holding back your squat. It seems logical to hammer in a bunch of leg extensions, but leg extensions might not transfer too well because the motor pattern is so different from a squat.
A leg extension is seated where as a squat is standing. A leg extension also starts with a concentric where as a squat starts with the eccentric.
Isolation work is great if you have an obvious weak link, but finding the ideal exercise can be trickier than it seems and what transfers well for one person might not apply to another.
The next solution for sticking points is partial reps where you cut some range of motion out of a lift like with box squats, board presses, or block pulls.
The law of specificity is a 2-edged sword here. On one hand, you’re able to exclusively strengthen the range of motion you’re weak in, but on the other hand the motor pattern will be compromised.
For example, with a pin squat or a box squat, you’re breaking up the eccentric and concentric phases whereas a typical back squat in competition will require the eccentric and concentric to work together.
This is why partial training will lend itself better to certain exercises than others. With this considered, partials are great if you’re particularly weak towards the top of a lift.
Then there’s isometric holds which are very similar to partials as they allow you to leverage the principle of specificity to your advantage by strengthening specific joint angles.
Isometric holds are also great because they’re more versatile at strengthening a sticking point near the top or bottom, but like all good things, there is a caveat.
With isometric holds, you have to know exactly where you’re weak and where you’re weak isn’t where you fail in a lift. You see, the point where your body is no longer accelerating is not where the failure actually happens. Failure occurs a bit after this point.
Take one of those Hotwheels you played with growing up for instance. When you pull it back and let it go, it would sling forward and continue to accelerate. There comes a point where the wheels stop accelerating, which is an example of where you’re weakest, but the Hotwheel will continue moving forward. (Got this analogy from Eric Helms)
The same occurs with lifting. The bar will continue to move a bit even after your muscles begin hitting the brakes thus isometrics should be applied below where you fail not at the point of failure to truly strengthen your weak angle.
For example, if your sticking point is halfway off your chest in a bench press, it means you likely have to do isometrics just a few inches off your chest.
And if your sticking point is a few inches off your chest, you likely have to do isometrics on or barely above your chest.
And if your sticking point is right off the chest, you have to get creative. Try doing pauses with a cambered bar or buffalo bar to strengthen the range below what a standard bar would allow for.
With isometrics, there are 2 strikingly different ways to apply them. The first is the simple pause where you just, you know, hold an isometric contraction. This is great for people who are weak due to losing tightness or having control issues usually with beginners or intermediates.
The second way is the technique called overcoming isometrics for more advanced lifters whose technique is already good, but just needs more force at a certain point. This means it doesn’t make sense to just do a simple pause.
While simple pauses are great for improving technique and maintaining tightness at a specific portion, you have to slow down which is counterintuitive if you’re an advanced lifter needing more force to blow through that sticking point.
This is where overcoming isometrics comes in. It’s the same isometric contraction, but you’re actively pushing against an immovable object. This would be doing a bench or squat up against pins. Another great application for those who struggle at the bottom of a deadlift is to simply load the bar heavier than your 1-rep max and pull up on it with maximal intent. It won’t move, but you’ll be strengthening the portion you need.
Long story short, isometrics are great for all portions, but they can be tricky to find the point that truly needs strengthening.
Next is speed work which is common among certain circles of powerlifting. Basically, you’re using low loads (around 50-60% 1-rep max) and lifting them in an accelerated fashion sometimes with the addition of bands and chains (we’ll talk more about those later).
Unlike isometrics, where you’re trying to improve control or produce more force at a certain weak point, speed work is designed so you accelerate through your sticking point by generating peak force faster or sooner.
This is called improving rate of force development and is great if you tend to lift slow.
Research supports this method as well, but it also shows not everyone responds the same way (4). Some people can improve rate of force development more effectively simply by doing more heavy lifts, but for others it could be wildly effective to include.
The next method is technique alteration. This refers to small changes in exercise variation like changing from conventional to sumo, switching your bench press grip, or squat width.
This might be the most rewarding method as it could show you a better variation for your biomechanics that you or your coach couldn’t predict due to invisible factors like hip structure.
If you don’t end up switching over to this new technique alteration, it could at least provide a different stimulus and prevent overuse injury.
The drawbacks to technique alteration is that they might not do much for your actual sticking point or cost additional time adjusting to an unaccustomed variation to truly discover if it has any merit.
This refers to taking a portion of a prescribed working weight and replacing it with bands or chains.
This would be great for hypertrophy focused lifters as it would flatten out the strength curve on certain lifts giving them a more complete stimulus.
For strength focused lifters like powerlifters, this might not be the best option. It’s hard to predict how much weight is optimal to replace with bands and chains. With bands in particular, it’s also hard to predict how heavy a band actually is at certain lengths.
Accommodating resistance also makes the lift easier at the bottom and more difficult at top. It can be counter-intuitive because most of the powerlifts are generally hardest near the bottom of the lift, so you would be unloading the portion that needs the most strengthening.
On the other hand, this can be great for lifters who struggle near lockout or equipped lifters who inevitably struggle more towards the top of a lift.
Overcoming Annoying Stick Points
Finding the right method for your individual sticking point can be annoying. I suggest you take an objective look at your personal sticking point, weigh the pros and cons of each method, and figure out which one might be best.
Stick with a method consistently for at least a few weeks to truly know if it’s working. Track your main lifts along with the applied method. So, if you try doing partials and your partial squats are going up, but your standard squats is still stalled, partials aren’t the right solution.
Eventually you’ll find what works, blow past your sticking point, and set glorious PR’s.
- Helms, Eric. “Sticking Points – What Do We Know?” Monthly Applications in Strength Sport, Volume 3, Issue 2.
- Vigotsky, Andrew D, et al. “Biomechanical Implications of Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy and Atrophy: a Musculoskeletal Model.” PeerJ, PeerJ Inc., 30 Nov. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26644989.
- Kompf, Justin, and Ognjen Arandjelović. “Understanding and Overcoming the Sticking Point in Resistance Exercise.” Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), Springer International Publishing, 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4887540/.
- Peltonen, H, et al. “Increased Rate of Force Development during Periodized Maximum Strength and Power Training Is Highly Individual.” European Journal of Applied Physiology., U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=29511921.