What's a Cue?
A cue is just a short prompt or phrase that quickly reminds you of good exercise form. If you're not thinking about following the right cues when lifting, you might not be getting the most out of your training. Here are 13 of the most bang-for-your-buck technical cues.
1 – Shoulder blades back and down
While this one is often repeated, few people actually do it. That's too bad, because the cue is applicable to almost every movement pattern in the gym, especially for pressing and pulling.
For any horizontal pulling (seated cable rows) or vertical pulling (chin-ups), keeping the shoulders back and down will ensure your lats and mid back are being worked, as opposed to the upper traps and biceps.
In the video here, the first couple of reps are performed incorrectly and the last couple of reps are performed with the shoulders back and down.
See the difference?
And here's how it looks with the pulldown:
While it isn't necessary to start every pull with your shoulders back and down, you want to finish each rep in this position.
Also, doing it whenever you're pressing at a horizontal or incline angle keeps your shoulders safe and stops any unnecessary stress on the joints. It'll also make sure you're targeting the right muscles.
2 – Pull with your elbows on back day
The next time you're doing a row, think about driving your elbows back behind you. You'll automatically place your shoulders in the right position and you'll feel your lats a lot more.
3 – Squeeze the bar as hard as you can
Aggressively squeezing the bar will almost always add a rep or two. What it does is create tightness in your entire upper body, especially the rotator cuff region, through a process called irradiation. The rotator cuff ends up "packing" itself and providing more stability to lift heavy loads.
Squeezing the bar also fixes any wrist positioning issues. When people fail to have a good grip on the bar, the wrist cocks back and creates instability and a poor bar path. Keeping a firm grip on the bar keeps your wrist in a neutral position.
4 – Take a thumbless grip on military presses and vertical pulls
Taking a thumbless grip on barbell military presses makes the path the bar travels a lot smoother. It'll also reduces some of the stress on the wrists, elbows, and shoulder joints.
For pronated grip (overhand) pull-ups and pulldowns, a thumbless grip helps reduce biceps involvement. It also helps you focus on driving your elbows down a lot more than you would with the traditional thumbs-wrapped-around grip.
Don't use it on bench press variations (unless you're advanced), though. There's merit to doing it that way, but it can be a little risky if something goes wrong.
5 – Push your feet into the floor when pressing
You won't believe how much stronger this will make you. Since power comes from the ground up, learning to push your feet into the floor with all forms of pressing will increase stability and overall power.
There are two ways to do this when doing bench press: with your feet out in front of you, or tucked below your knees.
Both work, and the key with each is to think about driving the heels down into the ground.
6 – Exhale as you contract your abs
The best way to breathe during abdominal training is to take a deep breath when you extend the spine and breathe out when you flex. To maximize the contraction as you flex, breathe out and squeeze the abs as hard as possible, pushing every bit of air out of you. Once you've exhaled fully, try to exhale even more!
This is a powerful cue that's particularly useful if you struggle to feel your abs. It encourages you to slow the reps down and focus on the muscle.
7 – Keep your head neutral
Whether you're squatting, deadlifting, pressing, or pulling, keep your head neutral so that the body stays in the right position. In other words, don't try to look up or down.
Two examples that come to mind are during cable rows and deadlifting. With deadlifts, arching your neck too much makes you struggle to keep a neutral spine.
By positioning the head correctly, you'll automatically fire the right muscles and maintain a safe posture.
With cable rows, many lifters will either look up too far or go the other way and look down. This throws off the shoulder and it becomes difficult to bring them back and down.
8 – Chest up!
Given the desk posture adopted by many, the chest up cue will help correct shoulder position and place the back in the correct alignment. For example, when incline dumbbell pressing, thinking about lifting the chest up to the ceiling will create a slight arch in your back and pull the shoulders back where you want them.
During a pulldown, the chest up cue prevents you from rounding over to complete the rep and keeps the tension on the back.
9 – Screw your feet into the floor when squatting
If you have dodgy knees and have trouble firing up your posterior chain, try this three-step approach the next time you squat:
- Create an arch with your feet by gripping your feet into the floor.
- Screw the ball of your feet, the heels, and the fifth metatarsals (the long bone on the outside of the foot that connects to the little toe) into the ground.
- As you squat down, create lateral pressure by "spreading the floor" with your feet.
You should notice your glutes working and a more even distribution of the load throughout your body.
10 – Knees out
If you can nail tip number 9, your knees should be in the right position already. However, some people respond better to knee-based cues than foot-based cues.
Either way, remember that your knees should track in the same direction as your feet when squatting.
11 – Brace!
If you want to stay injury free, you need to learn how to brace your midsection prior to and during any exercise. This is especially applicable to any exercise where the lower back is under pressure, like a squat or deadlift.
Additionally, learning a proper brace typically cleans up many other technical issues commonly found in the squat and deadlift. Take in a big belly breath before tensing your abs as hard as possible. If you do this right you should feel 360 degrees of pressure around your entire midsection.
12 – Protect your armpits when deadlifting
The next time you deadlift, think about someone tickling your armpits. Your goal is to try to stop them without using your hands.
This doesn't mean you should run away, though. Instead, it means you should tighten up in general and pull your lats back. This will create tension in the lats, stabilize your spine, and help straighten the back into position.
13 – Stay tight!
It's critical that you stay tight at all times during any exercise to avoid any energy leaks when lifting, especially during compound movements. It'll keep you safe, maintain your form when near failure, and make you stronger.