When most people want to learn how to do an exercise with proper technique, they copy what other people do in the gym.
While this method can help you find your feet, it can also teach you bad habits that are hard to uproot later on.
The reason for this is simple: most people don’t use proper technique, and if you ape them, you’ll end up making the same blunders.
As the old saying goes, practice doesn’t make perfect—practice makes permanent.
A better approach is to learn and use what are known as weightlifting cues when you’re training, especially when doing compound exercises like the squat, bench press, deadlift, and their many variations.
At bottom, a weightlifting cue is just a simple reminder that draws your attention to a particular aspect of your form. For example, the cue “spread the floor with your feet,” is a helpful weightlifting cue for remembering to keep your knees from caving in while squatting (more on this cue in a moment).
These mental mantras may seem trivial and tedious, but when used properly they can boost your strength, fix technique foibles, and reduce your risk of injury.
So, if you want to learn the best verbal cues for weightlifting for all of the most important exercises, this article is for you.
Weightlifting cues fall into two broad categories: internal cues and external cues.
External cues direct your attention toward how your movements impact an object in your environment. Examples of external cues include “push the floor away” in the deadlift, or “break the bar in half” in the bench press.
Although this may seem like splitting hairs, research shows that external cues are far superior to internal ones for quickly mastering new skills.
Studies show that external cues help you . . .
This is why studies have found that employing an external focus is superior to an internal focus in just about every sport you can think of, from football, basketball, and soccer to golf, figure skating, and dart throwing.
If you want to make external cues as effective as possible, it helps to . . .
- Make your weightlifting form cues short—six words or less works best. This makes them easy to remember and repeat in your head as you perform an exercise.
- Start the cue with a verb such as “drive,” “crush,” or “explode” that directly pertains to how you want to move (and avoid using adverbs such as “quickly push,” or nouns such as “the bar should be under your eyes”). This keeps the cues succinct and clear.
- Only focus on one cue at a time. Trying to concentrate on more than this dilutes your focus and muddles your movements.
That said, internal cues have their place. Once you’ve already mastered proper technique for an exercise, internal cues can help fine-tune other aspects of your technique. Don’t put the horse before the cart, though, and make sure you focus on external cues first (generally during your first 6-to-12 months of learning a new exercise).
For example, once your squat form is largely squared away, you might prefer to use a less specific, external cue like “explode” when you get to the bottom of the rep.
The problem: Your knees collapse in toward one another as you stand up in the squat.
The fix: Think about spreading the floor apart with your feet by driving your feet into the ground and away from each other (though they shouldn’t actually move). This prevents your knees from caving inward, increases the activation of your glutes, and enables you to lift more weight with a lower risk of pain or injury.
The problem: Your hips rise faster than your shoulders as you stand up in the squat.
The fix: Focus on driving your back into the bar as you begin to stand up in the squat. This prevents you from leaning too far forward, which wastes energy and may increase your risk of lower back injury. It also ensures that your quads, hamstrings, and glutes work together to help you lift heavy loads with good form.
The problem: You slow down about halfway through the rep and struggle to complete it.
The fix: “The hole” refers to the bottommost position of the squat. The most difficult part of the squat is when your hips are about 6-to-12 inches higher than they are when you’re “in the hole,” also known as the “sticking point.”
“Explode out of the hole” reminds you to push hard at the bottom of the squat to build momentum that will help propel you through the sticking point. If you don’t, the weight slows down and you expend more energy grinding through the last part of the rep. (This is a good example of a worthwhile internal cue).
The problem: Your elbows drop so that they point toward the floor instead of straight out in front of you, causing the bar to slide down your shoulders and your torso to tip forward.
The fix: Throughout the entire exercise—though particularly as you stand up—focus on driving your elbows toward the ceiling. This helps you to maintain a good “front rack” position which prevents the barbell from slipping off your shoulders.
The problem: You feel like you might fall forward and/or feel unsteady throughout the rep.
The fix: Try to “grip” the floor with your big toe, pinky toe, and heel. This ensures the bar moves straight up and down over your center of gravity, which helps you feel more stable and allows you to lift heavier weights.
The problem: You look down mid-rep, causing your elbows to drop so that they point toward the floor instead of straight out in front of you, the bar slips off your shoulders, and your torso tips forward.
The fix: Generally speaking, where the eyes look, the body follows. Looking at the ceiling reminds you to gaze upward, which helps keep your elbows high, which keeps the bar in place, which improves your posture, efficiency, strength, and comfort. Don’t look directly up at the ceiling, but tilt your head back slightly so you can see some part of the ceiling when you glance upward.
The problem: Your shoulders slump forward mid-rep during the deadlift, which banjaxes your balance, wastes energy, and possibly increases your risk of injury.
The fix: Try to squeeze the juice out of two imaginary oranges that are wedged in your armpits. While this sounds strange, it . . .
- Ensures your shoulders are in the right starting position, which helps you lift more weight and maintain consistent form from one rep to the next.
- Helps prevent your upper-back from rounding (which reduces the likelihood of your lower-back rounding).
- Helps you get your entire body into the proper position before you pull, which helps you lift more weight.
This is another example of a worthwhile internal cue (although it would be external if the oranges were real, anyway . . .).
The problem: Your lower-back rounds as you stand up.
The fix: Pushing your butt back does two important things:
- It helps flatten your back, which reduces your risk of injury and helps you lift more weight.
- It ensures your hips are at the appropriate height when you begin each repetition, which saves energy and thus helps you lift more weight.
Again, this is a good example of an effective internal cue, though you could also make it external by saying “push your back against the ceiling.”
The problem: You let the bar drift forward several inches in front of your shins, which wastes energy and increases the likelihood of rounding your back.
The fix: Think about dragging the bar up your shins, over your knees, and up your thighs until you’re standing up straight. This reduces the distance the bar has to travel and makes it easier to maintain a straight back.
(If you have a sanguinary imagination, you can also pretend that the bar is a giant vegetable peeler, and you’re trying to shave the skin off the front of your legs. Grisly, but memorable!)
The problem: Your shoulder blades slide out to the side and up toward your head when bench pressing, which causes you to lose “tightness” in your upper back, reduces your upper body stability, and wastes energy that could be used to lift more weight.
The fix: Instead of thinking about bringing the bar to your chest, think about bringing your chest up to meet the bar. Pushing your chest toward the bar ensures your shoulder blades stay “back and down” and in a safe position, your pecs do the lion’s share of the work, and your back stays engaged, which gives you a more stable base to press from.
The problem: You relax your lower body, which reduces your torso stability and thus how much weight you can lift.
The fix: As you set up for the bench press, imagine screwing your feet into the floor by turning your toes out to the side. This creates tension in your legs which increases the stability and rigidity of your entire body, ensuring you don’t waste energy during your sets trying to maintain your balance.
The problem: You relax your grip on the bar, which reduces your ability to produce force and allows your wrists to bend backward slightly, wasting energy and possibly increasing your risk of injury.
The fix: Think about snapping the barbell in half with your hands. The goal here is to maintain a strong grip on the bar throughout the entire rep, which helps you press heavier weights and keeps your wrists in the proper position.
The problem: You push the bar too far in front of your body, which wastes energy and reduces how much you can press.
The fix: As soon as the bar is over your forehead, push your head under the bar and between your arms (“the window”). This helps you maintain tightness in your shoulders and upper back, and aligns your body so that your hands, shoulders, hips, and feet are stacked on top of each other underneath the bar.
The problem: You fail the rep somewhere between eye level and the top of your forehead.
The fix: Failing the overhead press as the bar reaches your forehead is very common because it’s at this point that your body is in an inherently weakened position (your elbows aren’t stacked over shoulders, and your wrists aren’t stacked over your elbows). The best way to work through this “sticking point” is to create as much momentum as possible as you push the bar off your shoulders. An effective cue for this is “throw the bar into the ceiling,” because it encourages you to move as quickly and forcefully as possible.
The problem: You relax your lower body, and then have to waste energy trying to maintain your posture throughout each rep.
The fix: Squeezing your glutes helps to bring your body into alignment (hips over feet, shoulders over hips, hands over shoulders) which improves your stability and increases how much you can lift.
Again, this is another example of a decent internal cue. If you want to make it external, imagine you’re trying to pinch a credit card between your butt cheeks.
The problem: You struggle to get your chin above the bar as you reach the top of the rep.
The fix: The resistance curve of the pull-up and chin-up is such that the hardest part of each rep is getting your chin over the bar. A good way to get around this is to imagine pulling yourself up with enough force to “smash” your chest into the bar. This helps you attack each rep with the intensity you need to get your chin over the bar.
While this might sound dangerous, you may not even touch your chest to the bar and even if you do, it won’t be hard enough to hurt. Pinky swear.
Another cue that serves the same purpose is “slam your elbows into the floor.” Play around with both and see which you prefer.
The problem: As you get deeper into a set you start to swing your legs and use momentum to get extra reps, which reduces the effectiveness of the exercise.
The fix: Bracing your core, arching your back, and squeezing your glutes—or “staying tight”—while you do pull-ups and chin-ups prevents you from swinging. This . . .
- Prevents you from using momentum to make your reps easier, so that your back and arms are forced to do most of the work.
- Reduces how much energy you waste keeping your body from swinging, which means you can put more energy into pulling your body up to the bar.
(That’s why you often hear people say the maxim “tighter is lighter”).
The problem: You struggle to feel your lats working during pull-ups and chin-ups.
The fix: At the bottom of a pull-up or chin-up, lower yourself so that your shoulders rise up to your ears and you’re in a “dead hang” position. Before you start the next rep, though, do a “reverse shrug,” pulling your shoulder blades together and down, and then finish your rep. This will look like one smooth motion when you do it correctly, and may not look any different from how most people do pull-ups and chin-ups, but it helps more thoroughly train the lats.
The problem: You fail to touch your upper body with the bar at the top of each rep.
The fix: The barbell row is most difficult when you’re at your weakest—when the bar is just a few inches from your torso. While you can’t change the physics involved, you can remember to lift more explosively, building momentum to help you get through this noisome sticking point. A great cue for this is to “slam your elbows into the ceiling.” This cue also helps you engage your mid traps, which should help you lift more weight.
The problem: You struggle to “pop” the weight off the floor.
The fix: Just before you initiate the pull from the floor, remind yourself to drive your feet into the floor. This helps you extend your legs explosively to build the momentum you need to complete each rep.
The problem: You make the barbell row easier and less effective by “whipping” your upper body backward.
The fix: As you start to pull the barbell toward your upper body, imagine pushing your chest toward the floor. This helps prevent the urge to lean too far backward and forces you to use your lats to lift the weight, rather than relying on momentum.
+ Scientific References
- Kristiansen, M., Madeleine, P., Hansen, E. A., & Samani, A. (2015). Inter-subject variability of muscle synergies during bench press in power lifters and untrained individuals. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 25(1), 89–97. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.12167
- Yavuz, H. U., & Erdag, D. (2017). Kinematic and Electromyographic Activity Changes during Back Squat with Submaximal and Maximal Loading. Applied Bionics and Biomechanics, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/9084725
- Porter, J. M., Nolan, R. P., Ostrowski, E. J., & Wulf, G. (2010). Directing attention externally enhances agility performance: A qualitative and quantitative analysis of the efficacy of using verbal instructions to focus attention. Frontiers in Psychology, 1(NOV), 216. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00216
- Lohse, K. R., & Sherwood, D. E. (2011). Defining the focus of attention: Effects of attention on perceived exertion and fatigue. Frontiers in Psychology, 2(NOV). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00332
- Wulf, G. (2008). Attentional focus effects in balance acrobats. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 79(3), 319–325. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701367.2008.10599495
- Wulf, G., & Su, J. (2007). An external focus of attention enhances golf shot accuracy in beginners and experts. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 78(4), 384–389. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701367.2007.10599436
- Marchant, D. C., Greig, M., Bullough, J., & Hitchen, D. (2011). Instructions to adopt an external focus enhance muscular endurance. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 82(3), 466–473. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701367.2011.10599779
- Halperin, I., Williams, K. J., Martin, D. T., & Chapman, D. W. (2016). The Effects of Attentional Focusing Instructions on Force Production during the Isometric Midthigh Pull. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(4), 919–923. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001194
- Wulf, G., Chiviacowsky, S., Schiller, E., & Ávila, L. T. G. (2010). Frequent external-focus feedback enhances motor learning. Frontiers in Psychology, 1(NOV), 190. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00190
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