The Language of Lifting
Did you ever read an exercise description and say, hu? These six cues shine new light on old form pointers to sharpen results.
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There are more than 6,500 languages in the world today, and within each one are phrases, words and explanations that make complete sense to one person and sound like Greek to the next. And so it goes with exercise cues — a standard direction that is clear to most people might be hazy or vague at best to others.
For those of you who go hmmm, we’ve taken some common cues and associated moves and, like an Instagram filter, have sharpened their focus, bringing out the detail of the direction and a few new highlights, as well. As a bonus, there’s also an advanced directive to make your lifting experience that much more effective.
The Standard Cue: “Stand with your feet hip-width apart.”
Used For: squats, cleans, deadlifts
The New Cue: “Play with your foot placement to find what works for you.”
If standing with your feet hip-width apart is uncomfortable or inhibiting for you, chuck it out the window. Hip anatomy differs from person to person, affecting squat depth and ease of movement, so find your own personal sweet spot by adjusting your feet wider or narrower and turning your toes outward by degrees until you find a position that allows you to squat the deepest while maintaining a neutral spine.
Advanced Directive: Do dynamic stretching for depth.
Performing a series of dynamic stretches preworkout mobilizes your hips and gets the muscle fibers firing and ready to work. Leg swings, Frankenstein walks, standing knee hugs and dynamic bridges are great ways to warm up and get loose.
Frankenstein Walks: Extend your arms straight out from your shoulders parallel to the floor. Take a step forward and kick your leg straight up to hit your hand. Continue walking forward, kicking with each step. Do three sets of 10 each leg.
The Standard Cue: “Don’t let your knee pass your toes.”
Used For: lunges, squats
The New Cue: “Keep your feet and knees aligned.”
Taller women have longer bones, and allowing the knee to pass the toes (a little) is sometimes necessary to keep the hips in proper position and promote a good movement pattern. This is not to say you should look like a stork folding up your legs into a nest when you squat but rather that your knee stays in line with and over your toes, and perhaps overshoots them a bit. Vertically challenged gals won’t have as much knee-forward action when squatting, but they should still try to maintain alignment of toes and knees to protect their joints and generate the most power.
Advanced Directive: Improve your dorsiflexion for superstar form.
Good calf flexibility and strong tibialis muscles help your knees track more comfortably over your toes. Perform heel walks to build strength, responsiveness and endurance in the muscles of the shin.
Three-Position Heel Walks: Walk on your heels for 15 meters or so with your toes pointing forward. Turn around and walk back on your heels with your toes turned inward. Finally, walk one more lap with your toes facing outward. Do three rounds as part of your movement preparation before training.
The Standard Cue: “Press through your heels.”
Used For: deadlifts, squats, cleans, lunges
The New Cue: “Press through your full foot.
“Yes, you should have your weight shifted rearward rather than forward for posterior-chain dominant moves, but not so much that the front of your foot becomes inactive. The toes and balls of your feet play a vital role in balance and stability, so shifting all your weight to your heel (or even lifting the toes off the ground as is sometimes directed), can negate that stability.
Advanced Directive: Increase ground connectivity and awareness.
Standing more solidly and rooting yourself will translate to better balance and greater power. Spend a few minutes before your big lifts wearing only socks and spreading and stretching your toes. Do the toe-curl exercise as directed below, then put on your shoes and do a few more toe curls before hitting it big with the barbells.
Toe Curl: Pull your toes in toward your midfoot, creating a solid arch and driving all the contact points of your foot more solidly into the ground. Think of the tightness you create when setting your back for the bench press, then translate that tension into your foot. Do two sets of 10.
The Standard Cue: “Clear the bar with your chin on each rep.”
Used For: pull-ups/chin-ups
The New Cue: “Activate your back muscles properly to get as high as you can.”
The maximum contraction of the lats will vary from person to person. A taller lifter with longer arms or someone whose lats attach higher on her back may reach peak contraction before her eyes even clear the bar, making a textbook chin-up pretty difficult to achieve. However, a woman with shorter arms or someone with lower lat attachments may clear the bar easily time and again. There’s no real way to determine where your lats attach without taking an MRI, so instead gauge your personal range of motion by noticing when your biceps and traps begin to engage and assist: That is the point at which you have maxed out your lat engagement.
Advanced Directive: Lead with your sternum to max out your contraction.
A common form misstep with pull-ups is maintaining a pencil-straight body. Because the shoulder blades aren’t fully allowed to retract in this position, you’re not getting the most power from your back as a whole.
Perfect Pull-Up Positioning: Hang from a pull-up bar with your hands spaced wider than your shoulders. Your legs can either hang down or be crossed behind you. Now lift your clavicle toward the bar and look up to create a slight arch in your thoracic spine, tilting your sternum up toward the bar.
The Standard Cue: “Exhale on the exertion and inhale on the return.”
Used For: breathing during strength training
The New Cue: “Inhale to create intra-abdominal pressure and hold it.”
When it comes to heavy, multi-joint movements like squats and deadlifts, your core and spine need to be stable at all times. To create adequate intra-abdominal pressure, take a big breath in and hold it through the entire concentric and most of the eccentric portions of a lift, exhaling only as you approach the start and completion of a rep. This completely eliminates any air transfer through the bottom end ranges that matter the most in a lift, maintaining stability and strength in your core to protect your spine.
Advanced Directive: Consciously train your transverse abdominis.
Your transverse abdominis is like an interior corset that wraps all the way around your midsection. Training it to control your air intake and expulsion will add stability and control during heavy lifts.
Quadruped Breathing: Get on all fours and take a big breath in, allowing only your stomach to inflate — not your rib cage or shoulders. Hold that breath for a full second, then release all the air and gradually pull your bellybutton in as far as you can toward your spine, expelling every last bit of air. Keep your spine straight throughout — don’t arch or round. Do two to three sets of 10 reps to prepare for a workout that involves big lifts.
The Standard Cue: “Keep your back straight.”
Used For: Deadlifts, Planks, Presses
The New Cue: “Maintain a neutral spine.”
It is physically impossible to make your spinal column completely straight. Your lumbar spine has a built-in natural curve, and when doing any type of exercise or daily movement, you should strive to maintain this curvature. Just be careful not to overarch — or contrarily over-round — especially when doing exercises under compressive load or facing downward.
Advanced Directive: Practice core bracing.
Bracing your core means consciously contracting all the muscles in your trunk to stabilize your spine as you move your limbs through space. Dead Bug is a good way to practice this contraction. Just remember to breathe!
Dead Bug: Lie on your back with your head toward a wall. Press your hands against the wall overhead and bring your knees up over your hips, legs bent 90 degrees while maintaining the natural arch in your spine. Brace your core, then slowly lower one leg (bent) toward the floor until your heel nearly touches, then return to the start. Continue, slowly alternating sides for three sets of 10 each leg.