A cue is a signal, word, or any action that triggers a sequence. Developing a proper sequence for an exercise improves your form and performance. When dealing with the heavy weights and utter fatigue that occurs during strength training, you have little room for error. Implementing some good cues provides a form of insurance against bad form.
A good cue has these traits:
A good cue is simple. Overthinking will distract you. While dwelling on any complexities, you may completely disregard your form. A lack of focus also invites unrelated thoughts which will harm your concentration.
A good cue is thorough and should address many issues through a single tip.
A good cue is personal, as the best cues vary depending on the individual.
A cue implies a coach or the trainee saying a quick statement at the right moment during a set, especially if something looks or feels wrong to quickly correct it. Nonetheless, you should review your cues prior to the exercise as well.
Consider adding these cues.
Rule your mind or it will rule you.
- “Chest up” or “shoulders back.”
- “Stick your butt out.”
On the squat, pushing out with your hips will engage the powerful hip extensor muscles.
Most trainees will do this naturally unless they consciously prevent it. This cue mainly works to prevent trainees from allowing their knees to surpass their toes. This explains in most cases why squats bother the knees. Many squat this way purposely, confusing an upright back with a neutral one. This helps to teach them a proper squat.
Taking this too far though pulls the chest in and can hyperextend the lower back.
- “Elbows down” and “elbows tight.”
The process of keeping a barbell fixed across your shoulders and back on the squat can force you out of a good posture. To keep it fixed, some will point their elbows to the wall behind them in order to create a larger yet unnecessary shelf. This caves in the chest and allows the lower back to round throughout the range of motion. This also overemphasizes the hip extensors and makes it difficult to achieve enough range of motion at the knees.
Pointing your elbows down brings your chest back up, returning you to the right posture. It keeps the hips under the back so that they rise evenly, instead of the hips rising first on the lifting phase.
I mention keeping the elbows tight since imagining them digging into the sides of your rib cage tends to keep them pointed downward along with keeping you tighter throughout the whole body.
- “Stay tight.”
Staying tight keeps you stable, protects the joints, and allows you to exert your full force in the right direction. Brace the muscles outside of the active ones on any exercise.
- “Line them up.”
Lining up the wrist with the elbow on the bench press and row will minimize wrist, elbow, and shoulder stress. This effect comes mostly just from choosing the right grip, but these joints can still misalign if a trainee flares or tucks their elbows too much.
On the squat, it minimizes ankle, knee, and hip stress when you keep your knees aligned with your ankles.
- “Spread the floor.”
Expanding on the above statement, this technique prevents the knees from collapsing and moving inside the ankles. This increases knee stress. This can also serve to fully activate the outer hips to stay stable.
- “Look forward.”
Looking forward provides another way to maintain good posture on the squat. It prevents rounding of the lower back and keeps your chest up. It also works to relax the neck into its neutral position.
- “Drive, drive, drive.”
I give variations of this command, including “push, push, push” and “pull, pull, pull” depending on the exercise. I will reserve this for when a trainee hits a sticking point near or on their final rep.
When a weight feels heavier through fatigue, we all have a tendency to slow down before it should occur and therefore fail the rep. This reduces effort and also prevents the fast-twitch muscle fibers from contributing as much as possible. This cue ensures your best effort when the weight grows challenging.
- “Squeeze the bar.”
The lowering or negative phase of an exercise ranks as the potentially most dangerous type of contraction. It also functions as the most productive since it generates the most tension, the main stimulus for more muscle size and strength.
Resisting ensures the trainee spends some time on the negative and avoids dropping the weight. In addition to making the exercise safer by preventing a force spike to catch the resistance at the bottom, it improves performance by allowing you to maintain stored elastic energy. This pre-stretch redirects power into the lifting or positive phase.
Since you remain stronger lowering than lifting weights, you can always move slowly enough and in control here. A trainee that can still lift a weight yet fails to lower it has chosen to do so to their risk and detriment.
- “Drive that elbow back” and “hit the ceiling.”
Both of these encourage a safe, effective, and efficient pull on a row. It ensures you use the powerful shoulder extensors that includes the lats. Otherwise will use too much elbow flexion.
- “Through the heels.”
If a trainee lifts up onto their toes during a squat then they should consider this cue. Apply it rarely though. It usually reveals a mobility problem, so you may need to limit range of motion and in the meantime if it affects you. The weight should distribute throughout the entire foot normally.
- “Touch your body” and “hit that endpoint.”
You need consistent endpoints to make measurable and true progress. This reminds you not to limit the range of motion. Some will reduce it when the set feels toughest.
- “One rep at a time” and “breathe.”
This reminds the trainee not to rush a set. Some trainees lose control when approaching failure. Pausing when needed will help maintain good form.
This allows a short reprieve to eliminate by-products of fatigue and flush in some nutrients during a long, grueling set. The idea that you need to rush a set in order to generate fatigue efficiently is flawed. This can limit your performance and cause you to fail due to lactate buildup.
This tip also allows you to catch your breath on high rep squats.
- “Big breath.”
Holding your breath briefly on the sticking point of a tough rep feels natural. It actually makes you safer by supporting the spine with a column of air. It especially helps on squats when exploding up from the hole.
Good Cues for Lifting
Consider these cues to improve your form and performance while lifting.