Have you ever coached someone or been coached yourself and something just clicks? It’s one of the best feelings in the world. You finally “get it” —(whatever it is) and everything seems to make sense in that moment. Often times it’s because a certain cue (phrase) they said resonated with you on some level and you were able to make the correct adjustment.
But sometimes, despite our best intentions as coaches, we go too far. Maybe we give beginners tips that seem OK at the time to drive a certain point home. Maybe we didn’t understand the lift or our body as much as we do now.
“Stick your butt out, is one [cue] that I hate but admittedly have used,” said Rack Star CrossFit owner and USA-W L1 coach Kevin Moore. “The tricky part about [calling a cue “bad”] is the right cue is about getting my athlete to achieve the desired position or stimulus. I could say ‘Oreo cookies!’ but if it created a favorable change in position or movement than it’s the right cue. Cueing [athletes] into poor position because of a lack of understanding of [what] good position [looks like] is what I hate.”
To be totally transparent, we’ve all heard cues that are wrong. Most of these were said to me at one point in time and I used them on others as a novice coach. This isn’t meant to call out certain people or to throw a blanket over every athlete in every strength sport.
Again, there’s a time and place for MOST cues. But here’s a few that you need to be wary of that often do more harm than good…
Cue: Sitting way back in your heels to squat
I learned to squat with this cue. Chances are, you did too. It’s got good intentions: to prevent you from shifting all of your weight forward onto your toes. It can be helpful for beginners, but the problem is once an athlete starts to progress it can lead to issues down the road.
No matter what kind of squat you’re doing—bodyweight, front squat, low-bar, high bar— you want to remain balanced. Putting all your weight on your heels dramatically changes the squat, putting more bend at the hips/torso, sending your head forward and making it nearly impossible to move big weights with proper form and adequate stability. (No matter what your mobility looks like.)
Why is it important to have your whole foot on the floor? The simplest answer is the more surface area you have to push through, the more force you can produce!
Swap it with….
“I preach [making] the tripod with your feet,” said Dr. Aaron Horschig of Squat University, referring to the heel, big toe and little toe all in contact with the ground. “Yes, you need your heel down but you also need your foot down as well it’s like solidifying the base of a house. You can’t build a solid lift on a wobbly foundation. The feet set the foundation for the rest of your body.”
You want to think about your hips and knees moving at the same time -albeit in opposite directions— when you squat. Almost as if you have a string attached to both of them. If you’re still struggling to find your balance, take your shoes off for a few warmup sets and really work on positioning. This will also greatly help your ankle mobility.
Cue: Puff your chest out (or arching hard) in the squat
This often goes hand and hand with the “send your hips way back” cue that can lead to poor balance and hyperextension of the spine. Two big issues when squatting are anterior pelvic tilt and lumbar lordosis; cueing someone to puff out their chest or create a big arch under heavy load can lead to exactly those issues!
You’ve seen those girls on Instagram pose with their butts out and spine extended. That’s cool (I guess?) for social media posts, but that is not how you should squat. You want to avoid rib cage flaring. You want to maintain an upright chest by squeezing your shoulder blades back and down and engaging your lats.
Swap it with…
Think of staying long in the squat (tucking your hips under in the ascent can also work for some athletes who like to stick their butt out first.) In the bottom of the squat, you want to lead with the chest, or push into the bar to prevent your butt from shooting up first and your chest from falling too far forward.
Bracing is also of big importance here. If you think of creating maximal stiffness in your core, all 365 degrees, you’ll be able to keep your torso more upright and avoid putting your back in a bad position. (No clue how to brace your core? Read this.)
Cue: Throwing your head through the rings on a muscle-up
This cue is a good way to teach a quick, explosive turnover for muscle ups, right? Wrong.
“That’s not only an incorrect movement pattern, it’s a good way to hurt yourself,” Hybrid Performance Method gymnastics coach (and former circus star) Sean Lind said. “What ends up happening is the athlete swings and throws their head and shoulders forward, and sometimes they’ll catch a muscle up. A lot of athletes who aren’t skilled will do it and fall through the rings.”
Imagine throwing a ball in the air that you want to go vertical. If halfway through someone pushes it forward, you now lost your momentum to go up, you are going horizontal. That head through style works against you based off of physics and puts your shoulders in a very bad position.
“There’s a Chechi move in gymnastics which is essentially a front flip to a swing on top of the rings again. The way to do it is diving your head forward. That’s how you do a flip,” Lind said. “It blows my mind when gymnastics coaches know that and still coach that way.”
Swap it with…
Continuing to pull (and pull and pull!) on those rings long after you think you need to. You want to be pulling on the rings, creating constant tension.
That cue will help you lift yourself over the rings, not throw yourself on top of them. If you can cue to keep pulling, the muscle-up becomes one complete motion, not a half-flip and pray. (For more on building serious pull strength, read our guide .)
Throwing your head through the rings on a muscle-up is not only an incorrect movement pattern, it’s a good way to hurt yourself. — Gymnastics coach and former circus star Sean Lind
Cue: Pop the hips/Banging the hips into the bar on a snatch or clean
This is meant to generate explosive, aggressive power out of your hips and glutes when performing a snatch or clean.
Unfortunately among novice and intermediate weightlifters (and CrossFit athletes) this almost always leads to a pseudo hip-thrust that creates bar looping and an incredibly inconsistent and inefficient lift.
Swap it with…
Think about driving with the legs and creating maximal force pushing against the ground and straight up. You want the hips and knees to extend at the same time.
Squeezing the quads can be another good cue to get them out of that hip thrust mentality and get them to a more vertical bar.
Photo Credit: Denise Ying