There is no one size fits all for lifting cues. Some thing that will work for you might not work for me. But the goal is always better neuromuscular control, more muscle fiber recruitment, and ideally better movement patterns. That’s what today’s episode is all about. After coaching for a decade in person and online, I have used and heard my fair share of lifting cues and tricks. I might share 10 to 15 today. And I will keep them more broad stroke. Because you could have 20 cues just for your core. That is not the goal of today’s episode.
You may have heard these before, and some of them might be new to you. Or if you have heard them before, perhaps the way that I explain them or reference them might make some thing Klick. Whether you are a trainee or a trainer today’s episode is hopefully going to be a value and very applicable for you or your clients.
Big back, tight lats – this applies to almost everything. Or certainly large compound movements. I could see this working for squats, deadlifts, even the start of an overhead press, and certainly for bench press. It also has carryover into most hinging patterns or barbell squatting variations.
Big back and tight lats don’t necessarily always feel the same or mean the same thing. But I put them together because I find that I get the same results with clients when I see either of these.
Your lat is one of the largest muscles in the body and it is the largest muscle in your upper body or back. So often times when you say big back people will automatically engage their lats. Or when you say engage your lats, and it will make their back look larger. Both are the goal.
Your lats attach from the top of your upper arm bone, your humerus, to part of your scapula, to your mid spine all the way down to your hip bones. So you can see why we would want to engage the lats, as they really lock everything in from your shoulder girdle to your hips. And we want that, for most compound movements.
I find that big back works best for back squats when a client seems to just be resting the bar on their back, without actually engaging muscles in the upper body. Tight lats can do the same.
The next cue can have a similar effect.
Break the bar – especially on bench, RDL and deadlifts. This has always worked really well for me personally. I just think about driving my pinkies backwards and bending the bar. That typically gets everything engaged that I need to be. With benchpress, I really feel like it locks in my shoulders and lats. And with dead lift it keeps the bar close to my body. It really makes no sense for some people, but I think it’s worth a try.
Elbows forward – same effect as break the. Bar but VERY specific to deadlift. If a client is having a hard time keeping the bar close to them, or locking in their upper back, telling them to turn their elbows forward can be very effective. The lats engaged as well as teres minor and infraspinatus really work to lock on that upper back.
So try yourself or telling a client to show their elbow pits to the front and see what happens with their upper body engagement. Particularly with the dead lift.
Screw in – applies to feet and glutes or hands depending on the lift. Screwing in your feet, especially with soft knees causes external rotation at the femurs via the glutes. Or, rather, the glutes cause the external rotation of the upper leg, and for tension to be created at the foot. Now, the foot creates tension itself as well. And that ideally means a solid foundation. Think of opening the toes, pressing the toes, ball of the foot, outside if it touches and the heel into the ground, then pulling front and back of foot together but not scrunching the toes. Those are different. You’re not curling the foot, just “activating” for lack of better work, the arch, and screwing your big tow into the ground. As for the hands, I’ll use a push up as an example. This is actually similar to the break the bar analogy. So, you want your thumb, whole palm, first knuckle and Allll finger tips planted. Then think about externally rotating the arm – again with the elbow pits to the front idea but not that aggressive this time. This screwing in engages the lats and “packs the shoulder.” Which is another one of my favorite overall cues. Basically another sister of tight lats, break the bar, screw in.
Scapular rotation – picturing the bottom or outer edge of the scapula swinging toward and away from the spine. I don’t have a cue for this but I think about it and describe it to my clients often, mostly during pull ups or overhead movements. Where in many movements we want to lock the scapula in place, as to create stability in the shoulder, we also need and want that scapular to MOVE – to depress and elevate and protract and retract, and swing side to side (aka lateral rotation). Lots of tendons pass through the shoulder joint. The scapulas being able to rotate is one of the things that creates space for those tendons to not get compressed or impinged. So, do a google and look up all scapular movement, then think about or continue looking up what the scapula should do during overhead pulling and pressing. And attempt to picture that when going through these motions.
Scaps in your back pockets – this can apply to many many movements from initiating a pull up to setting up for a deadlift. Similar idea or cue is to create space between the ears and shoulders – equating to scapular depression, or shoulders DOWN. “Big chest” can also have the same outcome depending on the client. But more often than not, that can lead to rib flare as well. And we likely want the ribs mostly pinned down.
Sit between your feet – for squats. Often we say hips back but hips down is more accurate. This doesn’t mean tuck your tail. I tend to use this with clients who hinge more than squat in their squats. Of course if a client has uber long femurs, their knees will knee to come forward more, demanding ankle dorsiflexion, and/or the hips will have to go further back. Don’t get married to one cue or idea of a movement for all clients.
Big toe down or whole foot – We discussed this a bit with “screw in.” But that big toe is the bodies balance point. So, pin that shit down.
Wide foot – This one is personal to me because I supinate like a mother fricker and tend to curl my toes under one another in attempt to grip the floor. Part of that is the anatomical make up of my foot and feet being club feet + casted as a baby. Part of that is my having an abnormally narrow foot. And part of that is just lack of practice with toe and foot mobility. I have toe spacers and don’t work on it as often as I should.
Press the floor away – I was told to “spread the floor” by a college weight lifting coach for two years before I heard press the floor away. The latter made way more sense to me. Spread the floor never clicked for me. It’s still not one of my favorite lifting cues. To each their own. It’s why we say the same thing six different ways as coaches. What makes sense for one athlete may never compute for another.
A cousin of this one could be quad drive – often used in squats out of the hole, and the first pull of a deadlift; be it sumo or conventional.
Small things like ulnar deviation in cable tricep push downs.
But generally all of these lifting cues improve or look to improve both movement pattern and mind muscle connection aka neuromuscular control. There are endless ways to describe and encourage better mind muscle connection. Which is essentially improving muscle fiber recruitment. Or that’s the hope. And like I said ideally that’s a twofold, by improving mindfulness, we are also improving the movement pattern.
On that note, and even more generally speaking, it might help to think about and visualize a muscle lengthening in the eccentric phase, and then visualizing that muscle contracting for the shortening phase. I probably do this most often with bicep work, and hamstring work. Certainly with quad extensions and more isolated movements as well. Come to think of it, I also do this when using lat pull downs. The larger the range of motion, the more this phenomenon can take place.
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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.
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