Chipotle is better than Moe’s.
Dogs are better than cats.
Carolina is better than Clemson.
People like absolutes. Black and white thinking provides solid gridlines and an immediate framework from which to base subsequent decisions.
Without context, we can provide solutions based upon specific, logical algorithms. This further drives the idea of a “quick fix” or “silver bullet” mentality.
However, physiology and biomechanics are incredibly complex systems responding to multiple stimuli simultaneously.
As such, coaches need to be especially careful when providing cues given the immense variability present in each individual.
Absolutely Never Assume Absolutes
“Push through your heels!”
You’ve probably seen most of these cues thrown around the comments section of someone’s video on Instagram. More than likely a “certified” movement specialist will feel the need to pop in and drop their unsolicited biomechanical assessment of the lift. While the blanket cues above can work, it’s important to realize the need for individualization within the coaching process.
Remember, position affects activation – put someone in a crappy position and they will be forced to compensate around the mechanical limitations to complete the desired movement pattern.
For example, try to arch your back as hard as you can (aka “show off your butt”) and then attempt to squat. What happened? You likely hit a point where you felt a pinching sensation in the front of your hips and you either stopped your descent or you proceeded to “buttwink” (aka your pelvis tucked under to free up some range of motion in your hips).
In other words, you altered the position of a joint (i.e. your hip sockets) by firing a specific muscle group and this subsequently influenced which muscles fired during the movement.
Cueing is the bridge between movement pattern optimization and neuromuscular control. Cross it wisely.
1. “Stay On Your Heels”
You’ll likely hear this during a deadlift or perhaps a squat as the coach is seeking to push the lifter’s center of gravity backwards. The bar tries to push (e.g. squat) or pull (e.g. deadlift) you forward and as such, coaches perceptively cue more of the posterior chain to improve position.
It’s not a bad fix per say, but it may potentially limit force production capabilities. To illustrate this idea, consider the following scenario - setup for a maximal effort vertical jump, descend into a squat, extend hard, but push through your heels. What happened? You’ll find that your ability to push through the floor and generate force is drastically reduced.
Given some of the differences in movement mechanics, this cue may be situational and exercise dependent as I discussed in the video below. However, I think this cue should provide a subtle weight shift and equalize foot pressure, not completely shift a lifter’s center of gravity.
Being able to maintain a balanced “tripod” foot during a squat or deadlift will generally place lifters in a better position to complete the lift in a safe and efficient manner. This “tripod” is formed from the base of the big toe, base of the pinky toe, and anterior portion of the heel.
A Better Approach: If an athlete is having a tough time maintaining a balanced midfoot during a squat or pull, I’ll often tell them to “wiggle their toes”. Rather than encouraging them to shift all their weight posteriorly (i.e. “push through your heels”), this cue can help to redistribute weight through the base of the foot and promote proprioceptive awareness of the ground.
2. “Arch Your Back”
Promoting extension during hip flexion based movements (e.g. RDL, deadlift, etc.) is an easy way to force an athlete into an extension based compensatory strategy. In other words, you can promote spinal stability by arching your back and jamming your vertebral facets together but it’s likely not the best solution.
That may allow for some movement competence, but in the long run, you may run into joint issues within the lower back or hips once you reach end range. Remember the squat hip pinch example above? Prime illustration of end range issues.
A Better Approach: To effectively teach the hinge, there are a variety of different tools a coach can implement but this varies depending upon the individual and their compensation pattern (flexion vs. extension). Here’s a video which may help you understand how to hip hinge more effectively:
If that video doesn’t help, you can consider implementing some RNT (reactive neuromuscular training).
This essentially overloads a compensatory pattern by feeding into it to help correct it. So, in the case of a hinge, we want to push the person’s weight forward so they’re forced to sit back and utilize the posterior chain. Altering an individual’s center of mass can drastically change movement quality and kinesthetic awareness.
Here’s a simple RNT solution for hip hinging:
3. “Knees Out”
Recently I was having a conversation with some fellow strength coaches and one of them posed an intriguing question: “What cue has made the largest difference in your training lately?”
I responded with “I stopped reminding myself to push my knees out. Instead, I simply thought about sitting straight down and then standing back up.” That’s correct, I did the exact opposite of what most in the fitness industry advocate.
We must be careful about cueing rotational joint kinematrics (e.g. “knees out”, “screw your feet into the ground”, etc.) in the transverse plane as certain biomechanical force couples exist for a reason and altering them may reduce mechanical efficiency.
In the case of the shoulder, the upper trapezius, lower trapezius, and serratus anterior all contribute in upward rotation of the scapula as the arm goes overhead. In the case of the hips, this exists as a combination of internal rotation, adduction, and extension.
Now, if we think about a squat, during the concentric portion of the movement the hips are entering into extension (along with internal rotation + adduction) as the lifter stands up. If we’re constantly cueing knees out, you essentially remove the internal rotation and adduction component.
This compensatory strategy may provide a short-term hip stability solution, but in the long run many lifters may find it leads to knee and lower back pathologies.
If you want a deeper discussion on the biomechanics behind this recommendation, I touched on it in depth here: Squatting: 3 Things You've Been Doing Wrong All Along.
If you don’t want to read the full article, I’ve provided a somewhat simplified version in the video below.
A Better Approach: If you put someone in a good position biomechanically and they possess adequate range of motion within the hips and ankles, the only cue you should have to provide is “PUSH”.
This is where coaching is key – you must select the appropriate exercise variation to allow for proper positioning and execution. Everyone doesn’t have to barbell back squat day one. Assess, modify, execute, repeat.
Cueing is entirely individual by nature, it cannot be distilled into a single Instagram post or Facebook live feed.
Context will always be king.
Learn to appreciate the small details and you will begin to understand the art and science of coaching.
Think critically, challenge everything.