By: Barbell Logic Team
Being coachable is one of the best ways to improve your relationship with your coach and make your own training more effective. Here are a few tips for taking coaching cues and turning them into better movement.
5 Tips for Better Lifting: Learn to Follow Coaches’ Cues
At Starting Strength Seminars, everyone learns the basic barbell lifts from two perspectives. One as a lifter, learning the movement from the ground up, and the second as a coach, teaching the movement to another attendee. With the added guidance of the expert seminar staff, this is a learning process you cannot replicate anywhere else. Mark Rippetoe is known to quote Robert Heinlein concerning the value of this method, saying “When one teaches, two learn.”
To help you prepare, the staff lectures about the Starting Strength methods for teaching movement according to a model. They discuss the principles that help construct each model, the step-by-step teaching methods, the process a coach uses to evaluate each lift, and the coach’s cue as the main tool for communicating with the lifter. The coach’s cue is a forceful verbal, visual, or tactile reminder to the lifter designed to elicit a physical correction that brings the lifter in line with the model.
People who coach well on the platform tend to have a strong presence. A loud voice and confident movement and touch are as important as the coach’s knowledge of the lifting models. Coaching is about forceful communication. There are no milquetoast Starting Strength Coaches because timid coaches cannot communicate effectively. They don’t make the lifter react. If the goal is to produce correct movement, then cues do not require exposition, but they do require action. The way the coach delivers the cue is critical.
What are Cues?
Cues are signals whose meaning comes from movement. “Coaching” is a term of art that means communicating in a way that gets a lifter to move correctly according to a model. While a coach wears many hats–teacher, programmer, philosopher, psychologist, cheerleader– each iteration arises from the coach’s basic role as one who teaches movement. And the cue is the cornerstone of that role.
To lay a foundation for cueing, the coach first puts the lifter into the correct position. Using the squat as an example, the coach will have the lifter assume the correct stance and bottom position: knees out, back relatively horizontal, eyes down, balance on the midfoot. Next, the coach will establish the basic movement pattern–Hip drive! Finally, the coach will add the bar, setting the lifter’s grip and bar position and guiding the lifter through the movement.
From there, you can think about lifter/coach communication as the basic communication of signs. The coach gives signals, in the form of reminders, to develop the lifter’s sense of how the movement should feel. Since movement and feel are the goals, the content of the communication doesn’t matter as long as it achieves the desired outcome, making the lifter move correctly.
The study of communication as signs separates the form that communication takes from its meaning as understood by the recipient. The form of communication can be almost anything that signifies meaning: words on a page, a facial expression, an image, or for our purposes, a coaching cue.
The sign is the smallest unit of communication and has two components. A sign has a literal meaning (denotation) and contextual meaning (connotation). For example, the word “heart” has a denotation that describes the organ of the body that pumps blood. “Heart” also has a connotative cultural meaning in English that signifies love. Or, more to the point, “Knees” denotes the joint in the body that houses the articulation between the femur and tibia, but “Knees” when shouted by your coach while you are under the bar is a signal to shove your knees out so that your femurs are parallel to the line of your toes.
Semiotics, the study of signs, is a deep and confusing rabbit hole. But these concepts matter to coaches whose specialty is translating our head-knowledge into another person’s movement. It should also matter to you as a lifter because everyone brings a slightly different context to the lifter/coach relationship, and cues can get lost in translation. The coach’s cue is an instruction to do something. Ideally, you interpret it as an almost instinctual movement with the literal understanding being merely consequential.
Some lifters, however, take cues more literally than they are intended. If the coach tells the lifter to “SIT BACK!” during a squat rep, there is a chance that the lifter will interpret that in a way that causes her to sit all the way down to the floor. To the coach, this lifter ignored the context of the cue (we are trying to squat and not fall over), but from the lifter’s perspective, she was just following the instruction. Other times, a lifter might ignore a cue. This happens in the deadlift a lot, where the lifter has become comfortable setting up and pulling in a certain way. The problem is that the correct form, with the bar over the middle of your foot and your back squeezed into extension, is not comfortable. Whereas the lifter’s goal may be merely to survive while moving the bar from the ground to the lockout, the coach’s goal is to make sure it gets there safely and efficiently.
Developing the trust and rapport that fixes these issues may require some extra effort from the coach.
But you can help too. Being a coachable lifter is one of the best ways to improve your relationship with your coach and make your own training more effective. Here are a few tips for taking cues and criticisms from your coach and turning them into better lifting:
Five Tips for Following Cues
- Know the cue. This is mostly a tip for online coaching clients. At SSOC, we give form feedback within 24-hours of your workout. This means that you might read your coach’s feedback one or two days before your next workout. Make sure to reread the relevant cues immediately before you start a lift. It is important to put the cue in your brain without the intervening interpretation. There’s a good chance that between your first read and your next workout, you’ve added your own twist to what the coach said. Know the cue in its raw form before you start each lift.
- Warm-up reps are practice reps. As with any skill, practice makes perfect. You do not want to be practicing new cues or new movements under a heavy load. Instead, use your warm-up sets for practice. You can get away with squatting light weights with poor form, but if you apply the cue(s) and lift light weights with perfect form, that practice will better carry over to your heavy sets. Slow things down if you have to and work on the cues that make your heavy sets better.
- Make a change. The cue is a directive. The coach is telling you to change something. For example, “KNEES OUT” during a squat means the coach is reminding you to do something with your knees. If you do not make a conscious change, you miss the opportunity for learning. If you make a change that doesn’t work well, more cues are coming your way. If the cue has the intended effect, you’ve added the feeling of the correct movement and improved your ability to do it right again.
- Evaluate your success. If you are an online client or have received cues remotely, you need a way to evaluate your own success during the workout. A video of your lifts isn’t as good as a coach in your ear, but it’s still a great way to learn. Review the video, see the difference, then try again. You will get better at evaluating your own lifts with practice.
- Cues are constructive criticism. Criticism may not be pleasant. Cues as criticism serve the same purpose as a cattle prod, a buzzing reminder calling attention to some part of your movement. They are not meant to highlight the mistake but to cause a physical reaction, as if you are a marionette, your cerebellum is the puppeteer, and the coach is the director shouting motor instructions that have to penetrate all the way to your brain. Cues have to be forceful, even visceral, to make sense and elicit a change. Understanding the coach’s goal may help you accept the criticism for what it is, a building-up process intended to make you better.