As athletes and coaches, our results are highly depend on proper movement execution and the continuous progress towards optimizing movement patterns to build a foundation of pain-free function.
One of the single most challenging aspects of coaching is individualizing foundational movement patterns to best fit the athlete or client in front of you based on their specific presentation and needs, NOT just based on theoretical exercise variations with a “one size fits all” mentality.
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 cues they use with their athletes and clients on a daily basis.
Here are the 8 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.
#8 Raise The Rib Cage
by Lee Boyce – Strength & Conditioning Expert
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. The reason I also like this cue is 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 term like “retract the shoulder blades” which can go over many people’s heads, saying “raise the ribcage” can accomplish the same thing while the client puts a mental emphasis on his anterior – likely easier for him to visualize early on. Moreover, I’ve found this cue usually promotes a proper spine position rather than a hyperextended one.
#7 Brace Like You Are About To Get Punched In The Stomach
by Meghan Callaway – Strength Coach and Writer
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 body against injury, will allow you to generate significantly more strength and power with your limbs, and it will help your body remain in control so you can execute finer motor skills.
Many people fail to gain this ever-important level of core stability/spinal stiffness as 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 perperuate, is that they should “suck in.” This bad advice is making more people susceptible to injuring themselves, and is impeding their performance.
My favourite cue to rectify this problem is to have people 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 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 utilized during big compound movements like the deadlift.
While this is a subject that requires greater detail and explanation, 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 that occurs during “lower risk” exercises and where the rep range is higher and the weight is lower, or during sports specific movements (a tackle in soccer, or striking a ball), and in life (bending over to pick up a box).
#6 Co-Contract Your Lats & Pecs For Strong Stable Shoulders
by Dr. John Rusin – Performance Coach & Injury Prevention Specialist
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 we are moving, this is NOT the best way to create strong and stable shoulders.
I have started to use the “squeeze the lats AND pecs” cue with our athlete in just about every loaded movement we do. By co-contracting the lats and pecs, we can optimize the position of the shoulder by using the two strongest muscles of the upper quadrant (the lats and pecs) to create torque and tension while keeping the shoulder blade 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 down on the ground in the quadruped position to use the floor 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, tapping 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 that are part of our dynamic warm ups. Remember, this is about activation, NOT strength, so get a feel for it and let it transfer into your big lifts when you need them the most.
#5 Push Your Ankles Out To Optimize Your Positions
by Dr. Joel Seedman – Sports Performance Specialist
Proper foot and ankle mechanics are the single most neglected aspects of performance and fitness. Without correct activation and alignment throughout the feet, ankles, and toes it’s literally impossible to perform any lower body exercise correctly.
Although there are a number exercises and drills 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 “ankle push-out” cue is the single most important instructional cue I give when coaching as it has a direct positive impact on a majority of exercises. This includes squats, hinges, lunges, single leg exercises, overhead press, seated rows, glute bridges, bench press, and really any exercise where a firm lower body foundation is required.
In fact, this simple cue has become such a game-changer for my athletes that I turned it into it’s own specific exercise which I program daily for a majority of my clients.
It’s really quite simple First make sure both feet are completely straight with no internal or external rotation whatsoever.
Second make sure your ankles are pushed out or slightly supinated. As you push your ankles out by placing more weight to the outside of your feet, focus on pressing the base of your big toe into the floor. This will ensure you are not over-supinating and will also help engage the muscles of the toes. It should feel like you’re feet are literally gripping into 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 you on all exercises as it becomes your body’s default strategy for foot and ankle activation. To find out more about how to fix your feet and ankle check out Dr. Joel Seedman’s Foot and Ankle Training Book and use the coupon “RUSIN20FEETANKLE” to receive 20% off at checkout.
I try to give my clients cues that are relatable to everyday experiences. One that resonates well is my ice cube analogy. Often find my client don’t quite get core bracing and also aren’t aware that different levels of bracing need to occur depending upon the activity—like not bracing for a 1RM max squat or punch to the gut when simply sitting in a chair, and vice versa.
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 1/3 of the breath.
Once they get this practice, we work on it in supine with extended legs, then bent knee as the beginning of a bridge position (even loaded in a barbell glute bridge or hip thrust), 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 causes pelvic floor issues and belly distention, along with other unpleasant side effects like fat stores on the mons pubis (or as the kids say ‘FUPA’).
So 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.
by Christian Thibaudeau – Strength Training Authority
I got to teach the Olympic lift variations a lot when working either with athletes. Specifically, we do power snatches from the hang and power cleans from the hang. These athletes always did the same mistake: lower the bar o their knees using mostly knee flexion instead of a hip hinge.
The best cues are analogies that create images in the athlete’s mind, helping him get the proper feeling of what he needs to do. Second best type is utilizing external cues (e.g. bring your hips to the wall behind you) and the work type of cueing uses 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, but that I also use when teaching the Romanian deadlift, is that you should imagine that your body is a bow trying to shoot an arrow: Your hips are the string, your head and feet at 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 RDL) 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).
Many lifters get lazy when they get weights in their hands. No matter if you are deadlifting or bench pressing, utilizing the powerful feedback that a maximal effort grip is an overlooked aspect of staying tight and improving strength in almost any position.
Cueing lifters to “squeeze the weights as hard as you can” is simple, but also highly effective. By squeezing your hands around bars or dumbbells, we can increase the tension throughout the body and help improve positions at the shoulders, scapulas and thoracic spine.
This cue also helps to initiate controlled movements through the lowering portion of many lifts that will improve the “feel” of a movement as well as the performance.
Many lifters, females especially, have a hard time improving their grip strength with ultimately holds back the loads they are able to use, especially on big lifts like the deadlift. Challenging your grip during these lifts and cleaning up your grip strength with accessory work in the form of heavy rowing and carries.
Remember to use chalk as we are getting serious about the grip and slippery weights are no excuse!
by Tony Gentilcore – Strength & Conditioning Coach
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 out to people “don’t let me tickle your armpits” when I was coaching them up 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 “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 your hips can then move forward, decreasing the hip extension moment arm. And then you become a deadlifting Terminator. True story.