Give Me The Fish (GMTF): Stop taking lifting cues from random places on the web. Cues are for correcting a specific problem that triggers you at the moment to correct a specific deficiency. Just like with all things, context matters, and applying a cue to yourself at the wrong time can end up making your form worse, engrain wrong patterns, and even cause injury unless applied by someone experienced and watching you from the outside in.
Lifting Cues Without Oversight is Cueless
We all scour the web for solutions to our latest lifting problem. Whether that’s a hurting shoulder, a missed clean, or just trying to fix something that just feels off.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this when looking for ways to fix an ongoing problem. But, looking for a global fix is different than using a cue.
The issue is how that specific piece of advice and info is used.
Unfortunately, when people train themselves, they often look for the easy route as all people do and take these “cues” from coaches they see online.
But, lifting cues are not helpful if you don’t specifically know what is wrong. Mostly because of this whole concept of maximal loading. Unless you can specifically tell which muscle is engaging first, you don’t know which cues to apply, and which ones are giving the exact opposite advice. This is hard even for more experienced athletes to recognized as mentioned in the maximal loading article.
Feel does not mean right. Often the uncomfortable choice is the right choice.
This is not to say the cues are wrong. The lifting cues you find online are probably accurate, the athletes shown are probably doing the correct movements, and explaining the correct way in which you should be doing the lift. But, because of the complex ways in which bodies move and the way different athletes think, the cue likely does not apply to you.
Scenarios: Picture This
A guy steps up to a squat rack, he sets his hands, braces his core, steps under the bar. The coach immediately recognizes that the athlete’s lats are not engaged as the athlete is starting to squat the bar out of the rack. The coach yells “bend the bar”. The athlete hears the lifting cue and engages his lats. Coach sees only partial engagement and sees the elbows move out and yells “elbows tight”.
The athlete immediately corrects the issue and has rock hard lats. The coach, upon seeing a fully engaged body, says “up”. The athlete then has a smooth and stable lift out of the rack and then proceeds to have a great set of 5 and then reracks the bar.
Great lifting cues, great athlete, no problem.
A guy steps up to a squat rack, he sets his hands, braces his core, steps under the bar. No coach, but the athlete has not been feeling unstable in his squat setup. He had looked up the problem the night before and saw a guy who just wrote an article about his great experience with a coach and how the cue “bend the bar” fixed all of his lifting problems. Like in the first scene, the lifter says to himself, “bend the bar”.
Except for this athlete, forgot to brace his core, to begin with, and has a softback. He goes to bend the bar and due to the athlete not being tight. The bar doesn’t have a “shelf” to sit on. So, instead of riding along the scapula it slides down and finds a somewhat stable position wedged between his back and his hands wedging the bar into his back.
The man “re-engages his core” (though really engaging for the first time), steps back and squats down, but the shifted bar, and partially tight back cause him to bend over more. He then stands up experiencing a large amount of pain in his back. The athlete then goes back to the web to look for the next lifting cue. He thinks it might be a lack of flexibility because he felt tight at the top, but still, his back rounded. So, it must be his tight hamstrings, right?
This last guy didn’t necessarily have incorrect lifting cues, they were just misapplied at the wrong time.
So, What Do I Do If I Have A Lifting Problem?
The guy above felt he was doing it right because he felt tight. This is extremely common. But, feeling tight does not mean right.
Yes, if you’re doing it right, you will feel that way. But, you can make yourself tight any which way under the sun by just putting a body part at its end range.
Try this, hang your head, and put your chin to your chest. Does your head feel stable?
Yes, it does. Now look straight ahead and flex your neck.
This also feels stable.
But, if I asked you to balance some bricks on your head, which way are you going to feel more comfortable?
Rhetorical question, because you are going to be stronger and safer with your muscles engaged to protect your spine and neck. Which, at least to me, are super important to my well-being.
It’s not that bodies your body is fragile, it’s just that our bodies are made of levers upon levers. And, we all know with basic 3rd-grade education, that levers can create a lot of force. Misapplied, can put a lot of force in the wrong areas. Like your back.
Like the neck example above, bodies can be made stable a million ways, and people are notoriously bad for not being fully aware of what their body is doing at any given time. These together make a really bad combo, that makes lifting cues without oversight really hard to apply.
This is the problem with using lifting cues. If you are going to look for solutions on the web. Don’t look for piecemeal solutions. Look for a whole squat setup from top to bottom. Then get obsessed with following it.
The problem is that without seeing yourself at the moment, it’s hard to apply specific lifting cues if you don’t know you are doing the previous steps correctly in the first place.
It’s like getting advice on how-to put-up walls in a house you’re building, but you forgot to pour a foundation.
Lifting cues taken from online are kind of like that.
Cut Scene: It Might Be Time To Get A Coach
You guys all know I’m a big fan of doing things yourself, but some things are not worth it. I see the squat the same as building high-end electronics. There’s a level of expertise and a level of understanding of technicalities that are just hard to learn and understand and take time to develop. For the same reason why you don’t go out and build your own cell phone I recommend you don’t go out and learn your own squat.
Unless of course, you want to have a tin foil back, with lots of time off due to years of poor training, poor technique, and a chip on your shoulder about how certain exercises are bad for you.
When it reality it was just miss-preformed techniques given from misapplied advice.
How do I know this? Because I was the second guy.
Fortunately, after years of watching my form, learning the right thing, and continuously training, I’m able to perform all the physical movements I could ever want, but I will never again have the luxury of performing things with poor technique without immediately feeling pain shooting up and down my body.
And If I could do it over, I would have started with a coach.
So, for those out there, if you cant find an experienced buddy to help you out, and can’t pay a coach, at least video yourself. Preferably from lots of angles. But, remember that it’s not a cue you are looking for. It’s proper setup and ensuring you are sticking to it, in order and one step at a time.
So learn to lift (especially the squat), embrace the form obsession, earn to lift correctly (link for learning the Squat), and find someone that can ensure you do. In the meantime, forget the lifting cues.