Big Rock Cues That Work For Pretty Much Everyone
As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to be more succinct in many facets of my life.
– When I was 25 I’d consider it a travesty if I didn’t spend at least two hours in the gym. Now? A few “top sets” of my main movement, followed by an accessory movement to compliment that movement, and 45 minutes later I’m good.
– I’ve learned to trim my prose over the years, too. One of the best pieces of advice I ever learned on the topic came from my good friend (and my former editor at T-Nation.com), Bryan Krahn.
“Write your first draft, and then cut 20% of it, no matter what. Get rid of the fillers, fluff, and extraneous jargon1 that doesn’t do anything to support your message.”
– When I first met my wife and was wooing her I was all about impressing her with my
collection of vintage Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirts culinary skills. I remember a time or two2 attempting to drum up a four-course meal without burning down my apartment.
Now? “Babe, how about some tacos?”
The same can be said about my coaching career.
In a presentation I did last weekend at Iron Village Strength & Conditioning in Beverly, MA titled The Art of Coaching I discussed how, early in my career, I made the mistake of trying too hard to win-over my clients with big words like reciprocal inhibition, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, post activation potentiation, and plethora (<— because, you know, that word is a boss).
Moreover, I made another huge mistake: Peppering my clients with too many coaching cues.
A set of squats would sound like this:
“Okay, squeeze the bar.”
“Push your knees out.”
“Don’t forget to spread the floor with your feet.”
“Drive out of the hole.”
“Finish with your hips.”
“Stay tight, stay tight, I said STAY TIGHT!”
It was a juxtaposition on how not to coach clients. More often than not, they would end up feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and thiiiiiiis close to wanting to drop kick me in the kidneys.
So today I’d like to share some succinct, BIG ROCK cues I feel work for pretty much everyone. At the expense of sounding like a fitness cliche, less coaching is more.
The Deadlift: Place Shoulder Blades in Your Back Pocket/Squeeze the Orange in the Armpit
Anything we can do to ensure (and maintain) upper back tightness throughout a set is going to be money. I could wax poetic and quote Dr. Stuart McGill here and all the work he’s done over the past 10-15 years to demonstrate how counteracting sheer force is kind of important for spinal stability and reducing the likelihood of back injury.
Instead, go read Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance.
“Place shoulder blades in your back pocket” or “squeeze the orange in your armpit” do an amazing job at engaging the lats, which are a big player in spinal stability.
The Squat: Sit Down, Not Back
Like many young, impressionable coaches at the time, back in 2002-2005 I read many, many articles written by Dave Tate and the crew over at Westside Barbell.
And why wouldn’t I? If you were (and still are) remotely interested in getting yourself or your clients strong, you’d be hard pressed to find better information. More to the point, if you were/are a powerlifter or training powerlifters those were the guys to read.
There’s no question there’s validity in using the cue “sit back” when coaching the squat. We can break down the biomechanics and draw lever arms…but at the end of the day, if the goal is to lift as much weight as humanly possible it makes sense to target the hips and posterior chain more by sitting back.
However, as the years passed and as I coached the squat more, I started to see a trend where people’s lower backs started flipping them the middle finger. They didn’t feel good.
This is when I started putting two and two together and understanding that the cues that work very well for powerlifters – specifically, geared powerlifters, where squat suits help with providing more stability – don’t necessarily jive well with un-geared lifters.
The cue “sit back” (and subsequently: arch!) places a lot of people in a compromising position where they fall into excessive anterior pelvic tilt, which can promote a more unstable position…to the point where they’re relying more on their “passive restraints” (ligaments) and bone(s) to stabilize their spine and not their “active restraints” (muscles).
“Sit Down, Not Back” (bracing abs, moving through the hips (not initiating with lower back), and pushing knees forward/out) works very well here. The squat is equal parts knees coming forward and hips going back
You know, a squat.
NOTE: Yes, there is still a forward lean in the torso. Relax. Deep breaths, internet.
Individual differences need to be taken into consideration, of course, in terms of injury history3 mobility restrictions, anthropometry, stance width, depth, etc, but I’d encourage you to give this cue a try and see if it feels better.
The Bench Press: Wrapping the Barbell
The bench press is a much more nuanced lift than some people give it credit for. As far as technique is concerned, I find it’s a black hole for many lifters – myself included.
There are many things to consider here.
For starters: is it Monday?
Secondly, cues like “meet the bar with the chest,” “shoulder blades together and down” and “put force into the ground with your feet” (leg drive) all have merit.
However, one cue that has resonated with me (and that of my clients) is the idea of wrapping the barbell. It’s a great way of ensuring lat activation/upper back stiffness without having to cue someone to “turn your lats on” when they have no idea what the fuck that even means.
Cressey Sports Performance coach, Miguel Aragoncillo, explains it better than I:
These Cues Don’t Mean I’m Right4
My objective here was not to insinuate these are the best cues for everyone. Only “pretty much everyone.” (<— It’s a fact. A true, fact).
Rather, the idea was to demonstrate various cues that have worked for me and my athletes/clients throughout my time as a coach. They may not be a good fit for you and your clients, and that’s cool. I’d be honored if you’d consider them nonetheless.
If not, “I HATE YOU. YOU’RE RUINING MY LIFE!!!”