Have you ever seen someone using such bad technique when lifting that it made you question everything you know?
Crappy technique is the most direct way to injuryville and a guarantee for preventing consistent strength gains.
But, there are ways to prevent yourself from getting injured while getting stronger.
I’m talking about cues, and more specifically lifting cues.
In this article, I’ll go into detail on cue’s to improve the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
You’ll learn how to implement these cues to lift heavier weights and remain injury free at the same time.
Cue’s: We’re Not Talking Pool Sticks Here
What the heck is a cue and what does it have to do with lifting weights and getting more yoked?
Simply put, a cue is a phrase that is used to help remind the lifter what he/she needs to do at that moment in time to complete their reps.
This could be something the individual lifter says to him/herself, or said by a coach, spotter, or gym buddy.
The most important thing to remember about cues is that they are useless without context. Some coaches believe there are good and bad cues.
I disagree. I think it depends on how the lifter uses a given cue. Understanding and putting into context a certain cue can be very beneficial for one person and may not work for another.
Cues are very useful because they give us instant feedback on what to do at that exact moment. They can even be implemented after the fact to help ingrain better technique over time.
Because squats, deadlifts, and bench presses are foundational exercises, I’d like to provide cues specific to each of these lifts. Feel free to use a few for each if that helps you stay in the correct position for that particular lift.
Whether you’ve squatted 600lbs or 95lbs, the right cue can make or break your squat.
When we squat, our goal is to go down and stand back up (going down as far as you need to or your mobility allows). Sometimes along the way our technique breaks down.
Most people would assume it’s due to a lack of strength.
And sometimes it is. But, other times it’s just a lack of awareness.
This is where applying various cues can really come in handy.
The functional fitness guru’s may have my head for this one, but I think “chest up” can be a great cue if you understand how to use it properly.
Without understanding YOUR usage of “chest up,” you may end up flaring the ribcage and losing tension in your core. This is not what we want.
When I say “chest up” I’m giving the lifter feedback that tells them to avoid collapsing during the squat. This cue doesn’t mean you should arch and crank your back into crazy positions simply to keep the chest up.
With your ribcage locked down to your pelvis, the “chest up” cue is a simple way to make sure your torso doesn’t fold over.
So, next time you’re squatting and you find yourself having trouble staying upright, try this:
Make sure your abs are tight and your ribcage is locked down. Then, on your descent into the hole, think “chest up” while maintaining tension in the core. Core tension is key here. Without that, you’ll just be super extended and you won’t feel as stable during your set.
“Spread the Floor”
Do your knees ever hurt when you squat?
If so, this cue is phenomenal for cleaning up some common problems for many lifters.
A lot of people have trouble keeping their feet from rolling in. This cue fixes that.
Other have issues with knee alignment and proper tracking of the knees as they squat. This cue fixes that as well.
Anytime you squat, your foot should have 4 points of contact with the floor. If you think of your foot as a rectangle then you’d have contact through the left and right part of your heel, and left and right of your toes or forefoot. I’ve used the 3-point method of contact as well with success. This is simply heel, big toe, and little toe. They’re pretty much the same thing. Just make sure you have a solid base during your set-up.
Before you squat down, you’ll want to create slight tension through your lower body by turning your feet clockwise into the floor. You aren’t actually moving your feet at all, but rather creating a little torque and preparing for the squat.
As you descend, “spread the floor” by opening the hips, letting the knees track out slightly, and trying to literally spread the floor with your feet.
Imagine you’re standing on a long paper towel and you’re trying to rip it in half by moving your feet out.
If you tend to let your foot collapse during squats, this is one cue you definitely want to use. By “spreading the floor,” you’ll maintain a better arch through your midfoot.
A better arch through the midfoot is going to mean you can align your knee’s in the proper place, and they’ll be less prone to “knock” in while you’re squatting.
For my online coaching client, Andy, the “spread the floor cue” has helped him immensely. He’s been able to add weight to his squats with good success and finds this cue helpful for getting his knees to track in line with his ankles.
“Break the Belt”
Have you ever hit the bottom of your squat and just folded over like a wet noodle?
Let me tell you, it’s not fun failing a rep, or having to dump a weight.
One way to solve this problem aside from making sure the weight isn’t too heavy to begin with, is to “break the belt.”
With or without a lifting belt on, you can still use this cue with great success.
Anytime we’re lifting we need to maintain a certain level of “tension” through the midsection. I can’t really think of a single exercise that would benefit from letting the abs and core relax completely.
Aside from binge watching The Walking Dead.
Squats are certainly not the time to relax your midsection. Because they’re an almost total body exercise, squats require us to brace and maintain tension throughout the entire body in order to keep good form and limit injury.
“Breaking the belt” is a quick cue you can use to remind yourself to fill your belly, sides, and lower back with air before descending with your squat.
By putting air into the “belt,” we increase intra-abdominal pressure and create stiffness through the core. Both of these are necessary especially as your weights increase.
Creating tension by “breaking the belt” can be the difference between making heavy weights feel light, and light weights feel heavy.
To practice this, put your fingers on your sides, just above your hips. Take a big breath of air into the stomach and try to “fill” air all the way around your core. Make sure you breathe into the belly, sides, and low back and then feel your abs pushing out against your fingers.
Rather than pulling our abs in when you brace to squat, we want to fill 360° around and create pressure this way. This will provide a much more stable base.
You can and should also use this same cue when you’re deadlifting.
When it comes to benching, muscling the weight up will only get you so far. If you want to ensure your numbers keep climbing, you’re going to want to dial in your technique. These cues below are essential to solid bench technique.
“Pull the Bar Out”
No, I don’t mean pull the bar out from the corner because it’s been collecting dust. This cue is something every single person should utilize when bench pressing.
Too many people complain of shoulder problems when benching. The main reason?
They don’t take the bar out of the rack properly. They punch the bar up and off the hooks.
This means they’re using the front of their shoulders to support the weight, rather than using their upper back, traps, and lats as the foundation.
Punching the bar out of the rack also means you won’t be able to create a stable upper back that is so important for bench pressing.
Instead of straining your shoulders, try using your lats a bit more to help guide the bar off the hooks.
This is essentially “pulling the bar out.”
There are several reasons why people punch the bar out instead of setting up properly and pulling the bar out.
1) The bar height is way too low
The height of the bar should be high enough so that you only have a small bench in your elbow when you set-up under the bar. If the height is too low, you’ll have to punch the weight up, which is going to place more stress on your shoulders than necessary. So, set the height so that when you pull the bar out, you’re barely extending your elbows and just slightly clearing the hooks during the unrack.
2) Improper upper back and shoulder positioning
During a bench press, we don’t want our shoulder blades moving. We want them locked into place to create more stability during the press. To make sure you’re in the proper set-up, try to pull your shoulder blades together and tuck them in your back pocket. By doing so, you’ll also keep your chest high and your upper back arched.
Once these are fixed, you can then “pull the bar out” of the rack and into your starting position. Think about doing a straight arm pullover as you guide the bar out of the rack. You should feel the back part of your armpits turn “on.” This means you’re engaging your lats and supporting the weight through your upper back instead of solely on your shoulders.
“Push Yourself Away From the Bar”
One of my favorite bench cues is telling someone to push themselves away from the bar while they’re pressing.
Seems kinda silly until you actually think about what it means.
If you just push the bar away what happens most of the time?
Your chest collapses and you lose your tension.
Rather than trying to press the bar away, try to push yourself away from the bar. This helps you keep your chest up and drives you into the bench more.
This is a very simple cue to implement and it is almost a “catch-all” cue to help get you into good benching position.
Your chest won’t collapse, you’ll keep your lats tight, you’ll maintain your arch, and you’ll be stronger if you can apply this cue properly.
“Reach Your Chest to the Bar”
This one is pretty simple, but many people fail to do it. I notice a huge difference in my bench strength when my chest sinks or when I keep it high.
With this cue, you’ll simply do exactly as it sounds. As you’re lowering the bar to your chest, reach your chest to the bar. This not only closes the distance the bar has to travel, but it also ensures you stay tight.
An arched upper back is a sign of being tight. This is a good thing. We want to meet our chest to the bar when we bench and we definitely don’t want to let our chests collapse or we’ll end up in a tough position to press from.
If you notice you have trouble keeping your arch, just think “chest to the bar” and that’ll take care of it instantly.
A smooth and efficient deadlift is the result of strength and technique. Here are some cues that should help you improve your technique and help you add more weight to your pulls.
“Push the Floor Away”
I used to struggle with the idea that I needed to use my legs more during a deadlift. I fell into the habit of pretty much just pulling with my back, which of course, didn’t allow me to progress in weight.
It wasn’t until I started using this cue that I really started feeling strong again with my deadlift.
Because the deadlift is a combination of a push and a pull, we want to ensure we do both at distinct times.
When you begin the initial break off the floor, imagine “pushing the floor away” from you. You want to try to drive your feet through the floor. Similar to the bench cue above, you should try to “push the floor away.”
If you try to do it the wrong way, you’ll likely miss out on using your legs during the deadlift.
Now, this cue only works if you are tight in your set-up. You can’t just grab the bar and “push the floor away” haphazardly unless you want to be doing some sloppy looking deadlifts.
Only once you’re tight in your set-up will this cue be super effective for you.
“Take the Slack Out”
Maybe you’ve heard this once before, and if you haven’t, it’s one you should engrain over and over again.
“Taking the slack out” of the bar is essential to good pulling technique. It basically means that your arms are fully extended and there isn’t any wiggle room. You can picture it as pulling a piece of rope taught. In this case, your arms are the rope and they should be very taught when you go to pull.
Taking the slack out of the bar ensures you lift the weight smoothly and without jerking off the floor. Not only will it make the lift easier, but you’ll also lessen your injury risk if your arms are fully extended and your back is locked in tight.
When you set-up, try to pull your lats down towards your hips, and straighten your arms as much as possible. When you grab the bar, you’ll want to take the slack out by pulling up on the bar so that your torso angle begins to increase.
Now, with the “slack out,” your initial break off the floor will be strong and crisp rather than herky-jerky.
Next time you deadlift, be sure you’re taking the slack out and getting those arms long before the pull.
“Lead with the Upper Back”
Many lifters tend to let the hips shoot up on the initial pull. This forces them to play catch-up with the upper body and oftentimes causes them to miss lifts.
One cue I’ve been using more lately with my online clients is to “lead with the upper back.”
Rather than the hips shooting up if you think about leading with the upper back, your torso stays in a good and strong position the entire lift.
This cue also forces you to “keep the chest up,” which in this case will help you use the entire body together instead of two separate components.
Hips shooting up are no longer an issue if you utilize this cue.
Putting It All Together
These cues are great. But only if you understand them and use them in the right context.
The surrounding theme with every one of them is the idea of “tension.”
You must create tension when you’re lifting if you want to lift the most weight possible and get stronger.
Start putting these cues to work today and watch your progress go through the roof.