Enough With the Coaching Cues! (But Here are Some of My Favorites)

Today’s article is a guest-blog from Derrick Blanton. Derrick is a big thinker and I love learning about his thought-process. It’s very important for coaches to understand that many of our clients don’t process the cues the way that we intend them to. Here are some of Derrick’s thoughts pertaining to coaching cues.

Enough With the Coaching Cues! (But Here are Some of My Favorites)
By Derrick Blanton

Lately I’ve noticed that the times, they are a changin’. Perhaps fueled by the emergence of Crossfit, as well as the growing internet strength training community, untrained civilians are getting off the treadmill, and wandering over to the weight room. This is a good thing!

Many will be seeking knowledgeable instruction on proper techniques of the various strength training movements. These unsuspecting folks are about to enter the Twilight Zone of well-intentioned coaching cues. And after many years of lifting stuff, and pondering countless versions of these cues, I have come to the conclusion that we should ditch them altogether.

Because they suck.

I kid because I love, yet consider a few reasons why coaching cues can be a double edged sword:

  1. They possibly don’t mean to your trainee what you think they mean. Different people process movement using different language.
  2. This is totally OK, though, because the recognized experts are going to change their mind about the wisdom of your cue in a few years anyways.
  3. Information gets passed along and distorted. Often it is just plain wrong, or at the very least, short-sighted. Cues like “draw in your gut to brace your spine”, or the latest, “don’t hollow your glutes when extending the hip”, are not particularly useful once you actually load the bar. In reality, once grooved, they will just be bad habits that are difficult to break later.
  4. They confuse and derail lifters who already possess a decent movement pattern straight out of the gate. As the great Rob Panariello says, (and I paraphrase): “Often, form already follows function”.
  5. Cues tend to promote a concentric muscular action. This is great if we are cueing the agonist (“drive your feet through the floor”). But it can get confusing and downright risky when we are cueing stabilizers, and inadvertently promote a concentric action, rather than our intended isometric action. We’ll see a couple of prime examples of this down below discussing “break the bar”, and “brace the abs”.

The upshot is that cueing is an imperfect, but necessary, learning methodology, so let’s try to get better at it by using an individualized, case by case approach. Along those lines, I’d like to hand out a few “Cueys”, a prestigious, and utterly made up award, to a few of the concepts, cues, and methods that have helped me personally learn and groove effective movement patterns.

Please keep in mind that your list of “Cueys” will likely be totally different, and therein lies the point: These helpful cues are specific to my personal movement process. Which is why they will totally suck…for somebody reading this.

The Shoulder, Pt. 1: Overhead movements

Some of you may remember my lengthy account of trying to learn to “pack my shoulders”. That painful and futile process culminated in two wrecked shoulders, and me giving the cue a retirement party with a one way ticket to Nowhere.

A nice outcome of that article was that it generated some very insightful discussion on scapular stability, and I learned a lot while considering various ideas on the matter. One of those with a different point of view than mine was RKC instructor Brett Jones.

Brett is a super smart, thoughtful guy, and came up with another way to describe this process of “shoulder packing”. He called it a “sticky scapula”. I thought that was pretty brilliant. A “sticky scapula”? Yes, I see it more clearly now! Now here is a concept that I can wrap my mind around. Thus began my “sticky scapula” experiment.

Great hammer of Zeus, it works!

See how fickle this cueing game is? Merely replace the word “packed”, with the word “sticky”, and instantly unlock the inscrutable mystery of overhead movement. It all starts to come together. The scap is sticky, (i.e. moving under tight CNS muscular control); it is not stuck (isometrically packed).

It is nothing more than imagery, and it works.

So now, in some kind of weird synergy, I perform my overhead lifts with an active shoulder AND a sticky 

scapula! I know, I know. This is crazy talk. Cats and dogs playing together. Thank you, Mark Rippetoe, and thank you, Brett Jones! Between the two of you, I am now bulletproof.

D

“Pardon me, sir, but are you aware that your left scapula is in danger of losing its stickiness?”

Co-winners: “Active shoulder”, Mark Rippetoe
“Sticky scapula”, Brett Jones

Incidentally, how do we feel about this possible hybrid cue: active sticky scapula? Anyone? Mmmkay. Let’s move on.

The Shoulder, Pt. 2: The Bench Press

Break the bar.” Aaaaghhh!! Excuse me while I go throw a dumbbell on my foot. I am so not a fan of this one, even as I understand that this cue is very popular and useful for others.

Let me explain. It’s totally my fault. See, when you told me to break the bar, I went ahead and tried to break the bar. I know, right? What the heck was I thinking?

Now, if you didn’t want me to break the bar, uh…why did you tell me to break the bar?! I tried to break the bar, and it almost destroyed my elbows!

You ever try to break a stick or a branch? As you valiantly strain to tear the stick in two, do not your elbows MOVE? Do they not move far inwards of the stick as you apply the force? Can we agree when holding a large amount of weight over your neck and face, that all things being equal, we would prefer to have our elbows stably under the bar, and not actively twisting somewhere down around your navel in some misguided attempt to bend a barbell in two?

What we are really trying to do is create an externally rotating torque (essentially isometric) at the shoulder to counter the internally rotating pecs and lats, right? And this is happening while you are concurrently driving the weight up directly through the elbows.

We need an isometric muscular action, but we are cueing a concentric action.

Enter the evil Russian, Pavel Tsatsouline with his bullet analogy. The bullet spirals out of the chamber; this increases its velocity. This is analogous to the force emerging from the torqued shoulder socket. Note that the bullet doesn’t go floating around trying to bend steel as it spirals out of the barrel. It aims straight ahead.

Consider that this is not even really a cue, but rather an idea, a comparison, an understanding. And this spiral idea fits nicely with my other favorite cue: “Push yourself through the bench”. For some reason, visualizing an open chain movement as a closed chain movement enhances stability, and thus expression of force. The body “gets it”.

Co-Winners: Pavel’s bullet analogy
“Push Yourself through the Bench”, Anonymous

Next Category: The Olympic Squat and Front Squat

Ah, my eternal nemesis, the squat.

When I first started learning the squat, I had a dreadful case of patellar tendinosis. I actually didn’t walk without pain for over a year. At that time, the only SQ that I could perform without crumbling to the ground was the box squat. So I learned to box squat.

As my patellar tendon healed, I started moving the box lower and lower. Eventually I got to where I could squat ATG (ass to grass), but the problem was that I was still using a “sit back” box squat approach to ATG free squatting.

Yeah, it was an ugly mess.

Solution: learn the Olympic style squat. Except I apparently had no available motor program to squat in this upright fashion. Even my front squats were essentially “squat mornings”. Ridiculous.

Fortunately there exists a cue precisely for this dilemma. “Sit down, not back”.

Unfortunately, I could not seem to execute the “sit down” technique.

It sounds silly, but I had lost my ability to load my knee first, probably due to the injury; which though now healed, was still “phantom pain” present on my CNS hard drive. Over the years, I had prioritized the hip break to the extent that the program had become locked.

Nick Horton to the rescue! In this 21-minute bundle of awesome entitled, “How to Squat Like an Olympic Weightlifter”, Nick solved my motor program mystery with this gem: “Put your hip bones right on top of your ankles.”

http://youtu.be/XeDHS13OE1k

Alrighty then! That sounded pretty darn doable. Almost immediately, I’m squatting to the floor in an organized fashion. One thing kept nagging at me, though. I’m breaking at the knee first. Now, I’ve been instructed by all of the knowledgeable experts to “break at the hip first”. Conflict. Dilemma. Scary!

Once I really experienced what keeping a more vertical torso feels like (in a nutshell: good!), the choice on which cue to follow was pretty easy. So in my brave new OLY squatting world, even though I am not consciously thinking about it, as I attempt to “put my hip bones on my ankles”, I find that I am breaking at the knees first before loading the hip.

This is what might be referred to as a “load sequencing error”, per mobility expert, Kelly Starrett, possibly Rippetoe would frown on this technique as it takes away an element of “hip drive”. Oh well, this is working pretty well for me. Your mileage may vary, and that goes back to my reservations about tossing cues out like candy to begin with!

And please don’t think I’m dissing Kelly Starrett. The man knows his stuff, and his work has helped me immensely. In fact, he is the co-winner in this category, for this one: “Knees outtie”.

Again, not so much of a cue, as an excellent explanation, and demonstration. (I actually prefer “screw the hip into the socket”, again illustrating my preference for cues that refer to the proximal attachment of the muscle in question. But again, that’s just me!)

Rippetoe’s version, “shove the knees out” also caused me some movement confusion. Again, this just comes down to terminology. I couldn’t figure out how to actively “shove” (use my glutes to concentrically force the knees out) while simultaneously eccentrically lengthening them as I tried to sink into the hole.

It becomes increasingly clear that even the best coaches, those that are completely on top of their game, and on top of the heap, don’t necessarily have one size fits all prescriptions. This is due to the multitude of biomechanical and mental processing differences that we pesky individualistic humans bring to the table.

Co-winners: “Put your hip bones on your ankles”, Nick Horton
“Knees outtie!”, Kelly Starrett

Honorable mention: “Put a boulder between your legs”, Dan John

D2

Smile! You just discovered the joys of knee-breaking your front squat!

Our Final Award: Core Stability During SQ’s and DL’s

Remember Point #2, on why coaching cues can suck from above? Boy has this one changed! It used to be: “Arch your lower back…HARD!”

There are many reasons why that cue can be problematic. A quick search on MWOD, or Mike Robertson, or Eric Cressey’s blog will find some informative articles. Here’s my anecdotal experience. When you concentrically crank the low back hard under load, and more importantly over TUT (time under tension), a few not so great things happen:

  1. You fatigue remarkably quickly. Your lumbar erectors are like a video game “life force”, limited but quickly regenerative. If you burn out the force unnecessarily hyperextending the spine, it will fail quickly. When it does fail, you may not have any warning. You may just simply buckle. This is usually followed by shrieking.
  2. If the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail. Ask a newbie to power clean an appreciable load, and it is not uncommon for them to try to “lumbar erect” the load instead of using the hips. A hammer is a great tool, but not for hoeing the garden.
  3. Related to #3. The lumbar erectors operate in responsibility-sharing team with the short external rotators of the hip, and the various abdominal muscles, etc. Prioritizing the low back often comes at the price of compromising downstream stability and positional torque at the pelvis and hip.
  4. It takes the glutes out of the movement to a degree. Someone should really write more on this very topic, and that someone is Bret Contreras. Not that he doesn’t have a few other things to do.

So that “hard arch” thought process is slowly being replaced with “Control rib flare”, “Control anterior pelvic tilt” or “Connect the ribcage to the pelvis”, or simply, “Keep the spine neutral.”

I personally like “plank the spine”. Another gem: Starrett’s “global whip”. Now, is “global whip” going to mean anything to Joe Bob Dumbbell, or Mary Jane Blaststrap? Not without some indoctrination. Again, it’s a concept. It requires some thought and study, some explanation. And it perfectly lays out the map for core stability.

Finally a word about, “brace your abs”, (I’m not even going to get into that whole TVA “draw in” maneuver). Abdominal bracing is not a bad idea at all. Except when you overfocus on the muscular action, and apply that force concentrically, as I mentioned in point #5 above. One thing you don’t want to do is unintentionally perform an active crunch with a loaded barbell on your back or in your hands. This is when “bracing” goes bad!

Co-winners: “Plank the Spine”, Anonymous
“Global Whip”, Kelly Starrett

Well, folks, this concludes our impromptu cueing awards show. Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that overall, coaching cues are awful, and should never be used!

But seriously, I think that cueing shorthand works way better when you first take the time to learn the longhand. Without a good base of understanding and awareness, a snappy sounding cue can end up being counterproductive.

Finally, I like Bret’s approach of discussing the intended action with his trainee, and asking them how they would describe it. Let them tell you the cue that they can process in their own movement language.

And if that fails, just yell out, “Global Whip!” as they are grinding out a heavy DL!

15 thoughts on “Enough With the Coaching Cues! (But Here are Some of My Favorites)

  1. Jeroen

    Great article! Well written, well thought, and great cues. And I like it when an author explicitly gives credit where it’s due, like Derrick does here.

    Reply
  2. Ben

    Great points, and I think even the most useful cues for a given individual have a limited lifespan. “Knees out” might be meaningful to someone, but at some point the knees will be out far enough and trying to move them out further won’t be a good thing.

    Btw, that “sit back” cue messed up my technique for a while too. I don’t think that one is meaningful for anyone trying to do a deep squat.

    Reply
    1. Derrick Blanton

      Well put, Ben. A lot of cues are corrective solves that don’t need to be applied to every trainee. At some point, it’s overkill.

      Plus, if someone already has a nice external rotation going on at the hip, and you preemptively coach them “knees out”, now you just gave them an unnecessary, distractive focus. In effect, you took away “unconscious competence” and replaced it with “conscious competence”. The former is better.

      RE: “sitting back”. To me, this one really comes down to three variables: 1.) Individual anthropometry; 2.) Where is the external load in relation to your center of gravity, and 3.) What kind of SQ do you intend to do?

      Your CNS is a supercomputer that is often surprisingy good at sorting out the geometry when given a task it understands. Hence, Nick Horton’s cue really helped me cut to the chase.

      We all posses our biases, and one of mine is using a full ROM. If you intend to squat to the floor, it is very difficult to start swiveling the pelvis forwards halfway down on an initial hip break. When going deep, especially with an overhead or anterior load, I personally find it better to “soften the knee” to set the hip up to flex, rather than vice versa.

      Simultaneous flexion may work even better, but sometimes the less “thinking” about it, the better!

      Reply
    1. Derrick Blanton

      Thanks, Sven! You know I’m not going to be brief, right? Ha ha..

      Short answer: I like that one a LOT. Double super especially when you start going over 90%, or going for higher reps, (in other words when the shit starts hitting the fan!)

      Long answer: One of the rationales for ditching bilateral SQs, and switching to exclusively single leg training was that the lower back was the “limiting transducer”. Now leaving aside the debate about whether you can maximally tax the wheels without the spine limiting the load, consider this:

      Most people will be able to maintain an organized lumbar position, and will start to fall apart FIRST at the T-spine. Giving up the T-spine is like the warning light in your car. The lumbar spine will be the next domino to fall.

      So when I’m challenging, spotting someone, the T-spine is actually where I physically cue by touching. “Get organized, HERE!”, or “Upper back!”

      Once the T-spine starts to tank, you’re rolling the dice with the L-spine, and you’re done. Rack the weight.

      (For a nice demonstration of this, go look up some of last year’s Sexy Challenge videos. On the RDL’s watch how many folks keep repping away with lower back impunity, while their T-spine is rounding over like a question mark.)

      Excellent thought as always, Sven!

      Reply
      1. Billy Santana, NSCA-CPT

        “Warning light in your car / Once the T-spine starts to tank, you’re rolling the dice with the L-spine” – Excellent observations, Derrick. I do remember seeing some loss of T-spine “tightness” during those high-rep Sexy Challenge videos. Will be looking for it with my clients during RDL’s. Thanks!

        Reply
        1. Derrick Blanton

          Hey, a fellow Tough Mudder guy! I’m Colorado, 2011. Awesome! Good looking out, Billy, and I appreciate the nice comments.

          Yeah, I’m a big proponent of getting the T-spine wrecking ball strong and durable. Solves a ton of issues with virtually every lift!

          Reply
  3. Conrad

    Good topic and well put!
    I’m a big fan of cues when done intelligently and some definitely have to applied to a specific person, not just a broad generalization. I think they’re even better when you can cue with actual tangible feedback such as putting a band around someone’s knees during a squat to get them to naturally drive them out instead of consciously focusing on it.
    If you can find a cue based on something someone already knows how to do and apply it to a movement it can be very helpful. For example, it can be hard to explain the lag/whip motion in things like a golf swing or throwing but for people who can skip a rock you can get them to understand how it is the same concept, just a different movement pattern.

    Reply
    1. Derrick Blanton

      Thank you, Conrad!

      I like the way that you are approaching the movement riddle. We are on the same page as far as trying to promote a “flow” wherever possible over conscious “thought”.

      If you think about it, movement is pre-verbal. Our first movements were cued by tactile feedback with our surroundings, and our own proprioceptive feedback. So I like the idea of bypassing joint by joint micromanagement as much as possible, and give the CNS a task that it already understands, as you mentioned.

      Regarding your first point on a squat valgus corrective, here are two other possible solves in the “tangible feedback” category:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXvuuSiEHEM

      The first one has only one focus: “Crush the plates”. By proprioceptively keeping the foot weighted properly, the hip and knee automatically fall in line, they have no choice. If you try this one yourself, you will be amazed at how it sticks with you. Just the physical sense of touch at the feet is primal, direct line feedback.

      The second one: “Don’t touch the barrier”. It’s a great way to give your client “homework” patterning practice as they can use their own toilet as a barrier…(works even better if they happen to be a germaphobe, lol..)

      I know, it’s a little off the grid…Hey, whatever works!

      Reply
      1. Conrad

        I like it! That heel one is really good, I just tried it. Don’t know if I will try the toilet one but looks like it would work well. It reminds me of a recent Tosh video where he sits on the toilet backwards, but that was for other purposes. : )

        Reply
        1. Derrick Blanton

          Ha ha!!

          Plus, Tosh also has some innovative ideas on correcting anterior pelvic tilt. He’s not just a comedian, people! :)

          Reply
  4. Mike

    Great article! Going to try these today.

    Do you have any thoughts on your favorite cues for deadlifts (or common ones you don’t like)? How come you didn’t include this exercise?

    Reply
    1. Derrick Blanton

      Greetings, Mike.

      B/c what started out as 1400 words, morphed into 2400 words in one day, as my OCD and ADD with these things start to get entirely out of hand, and I promised BC to leave it the hell alone!

      OK, DL’s: Here’s my step by step cueing package, (ironic isn’t it, given the theme of my piece?!):

      1. Screw the hips into the socket.
      2. Big breath, load (hinge at) the hip first with a planked spine.
      3. End range of HS mobility, now load (flex at) the knee to reach the bar.
      4. “Weld” your hands around the bar, arms are locked beams. Join the bar. Become one.

      Should be in a very organized, solid position, and be twitching to explode up.

      5. Re-plank the spine, re-breathe. (This is where the magic happens, :)
      6. Screw the shoulders into the socket.
      7. Forget everything, and just Leg Press the floor (spiral bullet analogy).

      I’m so absurdly glute dominant that if I can get the bar over the knees, I have never not locked out. I’m weak off the floor, so that’s where most of my cueing focus is. I have no lockout focus, no nothing. The last thought I have is push my feet through the floor.

      It’s a lot of steps, most are fairly grooved at this point. I think with DL’s, being a technician, and “greasing the groove” (thanks, Pavel) with submaximal weights goes a long way.

      So now you see why I cut it short?

      Reply

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