What I’ve Learned About Sticking Points

We’re approaching the end of the month, and the end of the year. Right around this time about a year ago, I was in a pretty precarious spot physically. After a stupid mistake, I found myself struggling with a chronic ache in my left knee. It was a tendon pain that I had inadvertently caused with poor form, a nagging feeling accompanied by instability.

Nothing was torn, there was no weakness, and I could walk and balance on one leg. But I couldn’t lift without pain, and the thought of putting time into just resting was sending a cold shiver down my spine. I felt demoralized. Utterly defeated. Shitty, in fact.

There I was, after a year of on and off training, without serious commitment, finally seeing strength gains and flushing it all down the toilet. 2018 ended and 2019 began, and all I could feel was sorry for myself. It was a messy situation and taking time off training entirely had me stuck at home most days, powerless and angry. The pain subsided, but not entirely. I finally got back into training around February, only for the pain to recur. I realized that I couldn’t ease back into it 10% at a time – I had to start from zero. And so, I did.

April 2019, I set out to the gym, and began lifting cautiously – with no weight at all, at first, and eventually with the empty barbell. I worked on rehab exercises – stretching and foam rolling, strengthening my adductors and abductors, doing unilateral movements, eccentric movements, taking my time to feel things out, taking a step back whenever the pain kicked back in. It wasn’t until I was about halfway through 2019 that I finally started putting weight on the bar again.

This week marks about a year since I first started feeling that nagging pain in my left knee, and it’s been absent from my life for months. Despite that, I’ve put more weight on the bar than ever, and finally hit some serious goals of mine. 2020 is looking bright for a change, and I’m happy to start the new year injury-free and completely accomplished, in total contrast to last year. But the road to where I am now wasn’t easy, especially mentally, and I’ve had to humble myself and realize that, sometimes, the best way to make progress and move on is to take a step back.

That’s why the first topic I’ll be tackling on my recovery and lifting future is one all lifters come across at one time or another: the infamous sticking point.

What are Sticking Points?

A sticking point is any portion of a lift wherein the speed of the lift slows down substantially, to the point that it may stop entirely. It’s literally “sticky” – as though there was an invisible force adhering to the barbell as it reaches a specific part of the lift. In powerlifting, the goal of any of the three main movements is to bring the barbell from point A to point B with as much weight on the bar as possible, and without breaking any of the rules of the federation you compete in. A sticking point can occur when a weakness, nagging injury, or imbalance is revealed because of the sheer weight on the bar.

Common examples of sticking points include:

• Just below the knee in a deadlift.
• Right above parallel in a squat.
• An inch or two off the chest in the bench press.
• At the top of a press or deadlift.

As you press, pull, or squat, the bar slows down and you get stuck. You break down. The bar drops, you groan or sigh, and you’ve missed the lift. Or, you’re working with a submaximal load – but it becomes obvious that you’re struggling to get past a specific part of the lift.

Not all slowdown in bar speed is an example of a sticking point. There are certain points in a deadlift, squat, or bench press where the weight we’re holding is in a position that is much harder to work with. In other words, we’re biomechanically disadvantaged within portions of the lift, and the bar will be slower there than it might be in other portions of the lift.

For example, in the squat, the point just above parallel is much harder than when your knees are at a 90-degree angle and up, extending into a standing position. Similarly, the lockout in a bench press is easier than that point where the weight is hovering about halfway between points A and B.

But sticking points are not indicative of exactly where the problem is, but they’re indicative of the result of specific weakness. Think of a car crash – you’re not looking at the moment of collision, but what happened just before it.

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

To identify and fix a sticking point, you have to observe yourself. Grab a camera (and a friend), and start taking videos of each working set, and take notes of the difference in bar speed and movement between your 70% sets, your 80% sets, and so on. We’re obviously never trying to hit failure in this sport (unless you’re on the platform, putting everything on the line), so bar speed is the major telltale sign here. Where do you begin to slow down? In what portion of the lift? Are you within the first half of the concentric phase? Or the second half? Are you getting out of the hole too soon or struggling to lockout?

Different sticking points can be due to different problems. If you’re hitting a plateau on your squats, it’s not enough to just train your legs differently, pack on more size on the quads, or arbitrarily change your training. It’s clear that all training works until it doesn’t, and it’s at that point that we need to reorient ourselves and figure out what needs to change in order to reintroduce and foster progress.

That’s where it’s critical to take a step back – not just physically, but mentally. Watch your training from an objective point of view. You can’t progress effectively if you aren’t willing to self-critique and be honest with what you see on camera.

Many novice lifters don’t regularly or consistently monitor their lifts, to their own detriment. If you’re taking videos of your major working sets week after week, from the same angles, you begin to recognize mistakes in your form, problems you need to work on, weaknesses you need to address – long before they cause failure or lead to plateaus. So, take that step back and start watching yourself more closely.

That, in turn, will lead to serious gains.

A Sum of Parts

As powerlifters, we largely focus on training three movements – these are ‘compound’ lifts, as opposed to isolation exercises, and there’s a symphony of muscles coming together to complete each lift. That’s one of the reasons you’ll see newcomers at the gym make incredible jumps in strength within their first few weeks, especially under the directions of a good coach – these jumps are the result of neural adaptations, which is a fancy way of saying that you’re getting used to the movement, and your muscles are beginning to adapt to the whole thing.

But that doesn’t mean that isolation doesn’t have its place in a lifter’s repertoire. The whole argument of weights versus machines is a false dichotomy – use both, because you’re not just one whole, but a sum of many parts. As are each of your lifts.

Sticking points represent a need to address these parts. Which parts, exactly? Well, that depends on where and why you’re weak.

Taking a step back to observe yourself and identify where you’re slowing down isn’t just an exercise in analysis, but self-reflection. You begin to view how you spend your training time more critically. Injuries and issues that you might not have seen coming now begin to crystalize before they pose a real threat.

You’re as Strong as the Weakest Link

Sticking points are not just annoying, but inevitable, and they teach every novice lifter an important lesson: that no matter what path you take and what plan you create, there’s no perfect approach, and you’ll always need to learn how to be flexible and course correct.

If you haven’t noticed yet, I’m not just talking about training methodology, sticking points, and powerlifting. This is a post about self-reflection, learning to progress faster by slowing down first, and understanding that strength isn’t just a measure of what you put on the bar, but what you’re prepared to do to avoid giving up. I was fortunate enough not to struggle with an injury that required professional intervention, or surgery. But I could’ve easily pushed past the problem and found myself in a situation where surgery wasn’t just an option, but a necessity.

When lifting weights, you learn quickly to respect the limits of your own body – but understand that there’s a chance to change and shape those limits. The approach you choose to take to do so is entirely in your hands, and there are many risks to face. Sometimes, you’ll come across issues and roadblocks that you might not have anticipated – ones that force you to adjust your expectations and change your goals.

In lifting as in life, we need to acknowledge that things can always go in an entirely different direction, and our ability to anticipate these changes is limited by how much we are willing to sit back, dissociate, and objectively criticize the way we spend our time – and act accordingly. Even then, injuries happen, life happens, and we can sometimes only make the necessary changes in response to sudden sharp pain, rather than a gradually growing ache. To address sticking points is to acknowledge that you are, always, a work in progress and that everything you do is subject to change – down to the very way you live your life.

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