Anyone looking to improve the “Big 3” (i.e. the squat, bench, and deadlift) are always looking for ways to become more efficient and effective in these exercises. Sometimes a simple cue can make this happen. Throughout my years as an educator, athlete, and coach, I have encountered some of the same technical faults when it comes to the Big 3, especially amongst novices. Here are some of my “go-to” cues to instantly improve form and effectiveness on the power lifts.
“Fix your feet to fix your back”– During the conventional deadlift set up, many coaches and trainers will use say to “engage the lats” or “squeeze their shoulder blades together”. This helps to combat the dreaded cat-back from occurring and make the initial pull off the floor safe and effective. I’ve seen it time and time again. A coach (or fellow lifting partner) tells someone this cue, the person consciously attempts to engage their lats and upper back only to look like a candy cane upon the pull.
Assuming the weight is not too heavy, often I will point to the feet first. If the stance is too wide, it will forces the arms outside of the shoulders. This makes engaging the upper back and lats incredibly more difficult, especially when the upper back may not be as developed. In this case, bringing the stance in slightly (generally speaking hip-width, sometimes a smidge closer) will allow one to actively engage more of their lats and set their upper back. From here, now one can effectively stay tight and initiate the movement without looking like a candy cane.
“Chest meets the bar”– Bench press can be one of the more technical exercises when done effectively as it involves the entire body executing the lift in an efficient, yet timely manner. One of the most common mistakes amongst novices and veterans is to simply lower the bar to the chest. This can make things incredibly more difficult as one tries to press off the chest, especially when working with near maximal weights. To combat the laxity that is created by simply lowering the bar, using the cue “chest meets the bar” may help. Ensuring the scapula stay depressed and in position, thinking of having the chest meet the bar eliminates the tendency to “relax” the upper body. Retaining this “coiled” or tension throughout the body helps create a better opportunity for the lift to be pressed using the entire body, much like a spring.
“Lat pulldown the bar throughout the whole rep”– A common misconception with the squat is the upper body is only semi-involved throughout. Often when the weights become challenging, one will get buried or the bar will “roll” as one rises out of the bottom of the squat, making things a lot more difficult and quite frankly, unsafe. Maintaining constant engagement with the bar stems from the act of pulling it down into the body, specifically somewhere within the traps depending on the style of squatting used. To cue, think of “lat pulldown that bar into you”. This starts from the initial set-up and is maintained throughout the lift, even as one comes out of the hole and drives their back up into the bar. Missed lifts or inefficient reps can stem from a number of causes, but often a disconnect between this concept can be a quick yet incredibly effective fix. Thinking about it in terms of a lat pulldown allows us to compare this feeling with something we are familiar with.
“Hold your breath to secure your brace, reset between reps”- One of the newer concepts in the strength training field is the timing of breath. Before going into this cue further, it should be prefaced by saying the execution of this may vary slightly based on the reps performed for the set (hence the “reset between reps” aspect included). Essentially, when we breathe, the act of exhaling will naturally relax the body or cause the lose of the brace we are trying to hold, even if it is ever so slightly. Go ahead and try it without lifting, try holding your brace while exhaling. Impossible.
During a lift, relaxing or losing the brace is the exact opposite of what should be done. Bracing allows the spine to stay protected, but also creates an environment where maximal force exertion can be effectively performed. Therefore, holding the breath throughout the entire rep could help. Bracing throughout the duration of the lift will make each lift more efficient, effective, and less likely to acquire injury. When performing multiple reps within a set, one may reset their breathe between reps. Essentially, one will brace, inhale, hold, finish the rep, exhale, repeat. Proper breathing mechanics are just as much of a skill as the lifts themselves. Practicing this concept continuously will help make it more second nature and easier to implement.
Well there you have it. A few simple cues to instantly fix the Big 3. Give these cues a try during your next training session and as with anything “new” it is advised to use weights in the 70-80% range. This allows for the load to be something heavy enough to start showing areas of weakness but light enough where the actual implementation of them will be relatively seamless.