One of the most challenging aspects of coaching is being able to individualize foundational movement patterns that best fit the athlete or client in front of you. These are based on their specific presentation and needs, not just based on theoretical exercise variations with a one-size-fits-all mentality. Our results are highly dependent on proper movement execution and the continuous progress toward optimizing movement patterns to build a foundation of pain-free function.
For that, you need effective cueing.
In this article, we’ve brought together eight of the world’s top coaches in multiple disciplines, including strength and conditioning, sports performance, fitness and rehabilitation, to share the single best coaching cue they use with their athletes and clients on a daily basis.
Here are the eight best coaching cues you aren’t using, and how to perfectly implement them into your training and coaching for smoother, cleaner movements and better, more pain-free training.
1. “Raise the rib cage” by Lee Boyce, strength & conditioning expert
Lee says: I’d say “raise the ribcage” is my most useful cue. In larger movements like the deadlift or bench press, it’s a great cue to get the proper mid and upper back position, mild thoracic extension, and a safe lift. I also like this because it can apply to upper back-isolating pulls, like rows or chins.
An extended thoracic region is needed in order to properly initiate and activate the back musculature. Without it, the arms take over. Instead of using a phrase like “retract the shoulder blades,” which can go over many people’s heads, saying “raise the ribcage” can accomplish the same thing while allowing the client to put a mental emphasis on his anterior. Plus, it’s likely easier for him to visualize early on. Moreover, I’ve found that this cue promotes a proper spine position rather than a hyperextended one.
2. “Brace like you are about to get punched in the stomach” by Meghan Callaway, strength coach and writer
Meghan says: When it comes to performing most exercises in the gym, sports specific movements and skills, and even basic daily tasks, having a stable lumbo-pelvic region is vital. This essential stability will help safeguard your client’s body against injury, allow them to generate significantly more strength and power with their limbs, and help their body remain in control to execute finer motor skills.
Many people fail to gain this ever-important level of core stability and spinal stiffness because they do not know how to properly brace. A myth that many people have fallen prey to, and one that unfortunately many fitness professionals continue to perpetuate, is that they should “suck in.” This bad advice makes more people susceptible to injuring themselves, and worse, impedes their performance.
My favorite cue to rectify this problem is to have clients imagine that they are about to get punched in the stomach. This cue allows them to properly engage the muscles in their anterior core, versus sucking it in, or hollowing. While the effectiveness of cues varies on an individual basis, I have found this one to work wonders with many of my clients, and it has been especially helpful in individuals with limited experience in strength training and during big compound movements like the deadlift.
Bracing is a subject that requires greater detail and explanation, though know that the type and intensity of bracing will vary. For instance, the bracing that is required for a 1RM squat or deadlift will differ from the bracing during “lower risk” exercises and where the rep range is higher and the weight is lower; during sports-specific movements (think tackling or striking a ball); or even in life (such as bending over to pick up a box).
3. “Co-contract your lats and pecs for strong, stable shoulders” by Dr. John Rusin, performance coach and injury prevention specialist
Dr. Rusin says: How many times have we heard coaches scream at their athletes to “engage the lats and keep your chest up” during big compound movements like the squat and deadlift? While we absolutely want to create tension through the entire kinetic chain to optimize pillar stiffness and transfer a maximal amount of force through the load that is being moved, that cue is not the best way to create strong and stable shoulders.
Instead, I have started to use the “squeeze the lats and pecs” cue with our athlete in just about every loaded movement we do. In this way, we can optimize the position of the shoulder by using the lats and pecs, the two strongest muscles of the upper quadrant, to create torque and tension that also keeps the shoulder blades in proper position against the thoracic cage, without leaking force.
To get an idea of what this co-contraction should feel like, I have my athletes start on the ground in the quadruped position. The floor serves as an external cue to get tight through the pecs and lats. This torque output is referred to as the “synergistic spiral effect”, which initiates tension throughout the chain and taps into the power of the irradiation effect.
Once we teach this position at the shoulders, we ingrain it in our athletes’ movement patterns daily by sprinkling in these cues in the push-up, row, and plank progressions, as part of our dynamic warm-ups. Remember, this is about activation, not strength. Get a feel for it and let it transfer into your clients’ big lifts when they need strength the most.
4. “Push your ankles out to optimize your position” by Dr. Joel Seedman, sports performance specialist
Dr. Seedman says: Proper foot and ankle mechanics are often the most neglected aspects of performance and fitness. Without correct activation and alignment throughout the feet, ankles, and toes, it’s impossible to perform any lower body exercise correctly.
Although there are a number of exercises and drills that I use to correct these deficiencies, cueing my athletes to push their ankles out while performing lower body movements (or any standing exercise) is critical. In fact, the “push your ankles out” cue is the single most important instructional cue I give because it has a direct, positive impact on a majority of exercises. That includes squats, hinges, lunges, single-leg exercises, overhead press, seated rows, glute bridges, bench presses, and essentially any exercise that requires a firm lower body foundation.
In fact, this simple cue has become such a game-changer for a majority of my athletes that I’ve turned it into its own specific exercise that I program daily for them. It’s really quite simple.
First, make sure both feet are completely straight, with no internal or external rotation whatsoever. Second, make sure your client’s ankles are pushed out, or slightly supinated. As they push their ankles out (by placing more weight to the outside of their feet), have them focus on pressing the base of their big toe into the floor. This will ensure they are not over-supinating and also help engage the muscles of the toes.
Their feet should feel like they are literally gripping the floor. As you perform this, you should gradually feel the arches of your feet heighten, with enough space between your arch and the floor to fit your index finger between. This does wonders for fixing flat feet, ankle pronation, and fallen arches, which are the most common forms of foot and ankle dysfunction.
Eventually, this should become second nature to your clients on all exercises as it becomes their body’s default strategy for foot and ankle activation.
5. Use the “ice cube analogy” for core bracing by Kellie Davis, fitness coach
Kellie says: I try to give my clients cues that are relatable to everyday experiences. Oftentimes my clients don’t quite get core bracing and also aren’t aware that different levels of bracing need to occur, depending upon the activity (1RM max squat or punch to the gut versus sitting in a chair). One that resonates well is my ice cube analogy.
The ice cube analogy is to imagine the reaction you have when an ice cube suddenly touches your belly button. That brief moment of shock and how you draw the belly button away from the cold.
We start this first in a prone position on the floor. They learn that it’s not hollowing or sucking in, but a quick tightening of the anterior core muscles–just enough to not touch the ice cube. Then we go over practicing this on the exhale. I like to use a hard ‘tisk’ of the breath through the teeth so they exhale about a third of the breath.
Once they get this practice, we work on it in supine with extended legs, then bent knee as with the beginning of a bridge position (even loaded in a barbell glute bridge or hip thrust), and go from quadruped, then seated, and eventually standing.
This has been the single best method to teach my clients bracing for heavy lifting. I work with several women who adopted the method of bracing on an inhale with a full belly breath, only to later realize that it caused pelvic floor issues and belly distention, along with other unpleasant side effects, such as fat stores on the mons pubis (or as the kids say ‘FUPA’).
Retraining them to brace on the exhale is a tough task. They’ve learned to feel strongest with a belly full of air. Having that hard partial exhale is like creating an internal weightlifting belt.
6. “Bow down to shoot an arrow” for hip hinging by Christian Thibaudeau, strength training authority
Christine says: I got to teach the Olympic lift variations a lot to many athletes. Specifically, we do power snatches and power cleans from the hang position. Athletes always made the same mistake: lower the bar to their knees using mostly knee flexion instead of a hip hinge.
As a side note, the best cues create images in the athlete’s mind and help him get the proper feeling of what he needs to do. The second best type of cueing is using external cues (“bring your hips to the wall behind you”) and internal cues (“feel your hamstrings stretch”).
The analogy I used to teach the beginning (lowering to the knees) of the Olympic lifts from the hang–which is also useful for the Romanian deadlift–is that you should imagine that your body is a bow trying to shoot an arrow: Your hips are the string and your head and feet are the tips of the bow. The more you stretch the string (pull it back relative to the tips), the more power you transfer to the arrow.
Same thing with the Olympic lifts (and Romanian deadlift): the more you pull back the string (hip) relative to the tips (head and feet), the more power you can transfer to the arrow (barbell).
7. “Squeeze the weights as hard as you can” by Lindsay Bloom, fitness entrepreneur
Lindsay says: Many lifters get lazy when they get weights in their hands. Whether your client is deadlifting or bench pressing, they must grip the weights with conviction, as it’s powerful feedback to help stay tight and improve strength in almost any position.
“Squeeze the weights as hard as you can” is a simple, highly effective cue. By squeezing the hands around bars or dumbbells, we can increase tension throughout the body and help improve positions at the shoulders, scapulae, and thoracic spine.
This cue also helps to initiate controlled movements through the “lowering portion” of many lifts and improve the “feel” of a movement, as well as the performance.
Many lifters may have a hard time improving their grip strength, which ultimately holds them back from heavier loads. Improving your client’s grip strength with accessory work, such as heavy rowing and carries, can help. If needed, use chalk to keep the weights from feeling slick and slippery.
8. “Put your shoulder blades into your back pocket” by Tony Gentilcore, strength and conditioning coach
Tony says: When it comes to lifting appreciable weight (or heavy shit for the non- PG-13 crowd), it always has been and always will be about getting and maintaining bodily tension.
I used to shout to people “don’t let me tickle your armpits!” when I was coaching them on the deadlift, but then it got all weird and stuff (there may have been a restraining order or two). A better, less awkward cue I came up with was either “put your shoulder blades in your back pocket” or “pretend to squeeze oranges in your armpits.”
Both cues help to posteriorly tilt the scapulae (not retract) and also help to better engage the lats, which, as Greg Nuckols has noted, works to decrease the required hip and spinal extension demands of the lift.
Engaging the lats more lets shoulders move forward relative to the bar. In turn, the hips are able to move forward, decreasing the hip extension moment arm. And then your client become a deadlifting Terminator. True story.
This blog post originally appeared on drjohnrusin.com. It has been reposted here on The PTDC with permission.
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