How to Take a Cue

By: Niki Sims, SSC, VP of Internal Relations

Sometimes you’ll expect yourself to fail and you’ll visualize what that will look like and how you’ll have to tell your coach about it. You’ll act on that visualization instead of the cue and you will prove yourself right, as someone who fails at this lift. Other times you’ll expect yourself to nail the lift (not the cue). So instead of letting the cue be loud, your ego gets loud, and you fail to use the tool at hand. And this really stings if you miss the lift. Now you’ve missed the lift and the opportunity to practice the cue.

How to Take a Cue

As a coach and a lifter, I have experienced frustrations on both sides of the bar. These frustrations come from failing to improve, both in technique and in weight on the bar. If we trace it back, the source of this frustration may not be a deficit in strength or proprioceptive ability, but rather a breakdown in communication and trust. All the things that interfere with communication normally—emotions, misunderstandings, etc—are ten times worse when you are struggling with a difficult lift. The “simple” back-and-forth of cue and movement can carry a lot of weight, but there are some things I have found, as a lifter, that have helped me with difficult form breakthroughs.

As a strength coach, my goal is to get you, the lifter, to move how I want you to move and to get more weight on the bar. As a lifter who works with a coach, I rely on my coach’s knowledge, experience, and time to get better at my lifts and get more weight on the bar. I get life advice, tell him about all of the problems with my body, indirectly seek validation for weight gain or loss, have someone to blame things on when things don’t work out, and finally, I to have the choice to only listen to the things I want to listen to (winky face emoji). It’s a pretty special relationship.

The success or failure of most relationships boils down to trust, communication, personal responsibility, and the management of expectations. And the coach + client relationship is no different. There are two people who are working together toward a shared goal.

The development of a lifter’s movement patterns is the product of both the coach’s and the lifter’s understandings of the movement model. For the coach, understanding comes from a study of the physics, anatomy, and physiology involved in the lifts and through experience—observing and coaching the movements and performing them under the bar. The lifter’s understanding is refined through many repeated bouts of a cycle that includes the movement: experiencing the movement, feedback of the movement, and understanding of the feedback.

In this cycle, understanding the feedback is crucial. If the feedback is not understood, it is useless. This singular event—that is, the cue and the reaction to the cue—is one of the many many cycles that forge the bond between the coach, the client and the movement. (As a caveat, there are some times when the feedback doesn’t work because there is a strength deficit preventing the lifter from performing the desired type of movement.) Mutual understanding of this communication is how you and your coach eventually reach your shared goal.

Communication is a two-way street. Anyone who’s ever tried to be a respectable human knows that it takes effort to be decent at communication, and it starts with listening. In this case, listening specifically to what is being said. This is hard because you have to actively focus first on JUST the words. Not your emotional reaction to the words, not your expectations of the relationship, not what they said last time and not what you wish they’d say. Just the words.

And this is when things can get very difficult and when you can become your own worst enemy. Emotions tend to run high at certain points in our training. Emotions can act as a filter for your coach’s words, and you end up falling deaf to the cues, conceptual tools, your coach has given you. It’s not reasonable to turn off emotions when we’re communicating, but we have to respond to them carefully. Emotions like defensiveness and frustration can run high with lifters and their coaches, which is fair. After all, we have our bodies, egos, time, money on the line.

I have certain movement errors that plague each of my lifts as the weights climb. These weights make the lift a bigger obstacle than it may need to be, and I wonder, is it the weight itself or is it my history of with this weight that feels heavier? I know you all experience this, too.

It’s at these times when we need to let the cue lead the way, not our history or expectations. This is especially important because sometimes you’ll expect yourself to fail and you’ll visualize what that will look like and how you’ll have to tell your coach about it. You’ll act on that visualization instead of the cue and you will prove yourself right, as someone who fails at this lift.  Other times you’ll expect yourself to nail the lift (not the cue). So instead of letting the cue be loud, your ego gets loud, and you fail to use the tool at hand. And this really stings if you miss the lift. Now you’ve missed the lift and the opportunity to practice the cue. (How we deal with not meeting expectations is the topic if a whole other article, or coaching/therapy session.) The point here is that if we are not careful, the emotion of the expectation associated with the weight will steal our focus from the cue. Use the cue as a tool. Trust it.

How to Take a Cue

When you get a cue from your coach, it will be delivered in a simple and concise phrase (“Make your shins vertical.”). When you get this cue, don’t go down a black hole and try and understand the whole movement pattern of the whole lift, don’t think about how many times you’ve failed at trying this, don’t think about what you’re supposed to do after you fail it it, think about “vertical shins.” What the heck are my shins doing now? What would vertical shins look like? What would that feel like? Really commit to that and see what happens. That cue is the one thing you’re expected to trust in at that moment in time. If you really do think about it and still don’t understand it, just tell your coach. I promise they want to know.

This does two important things. First, it steals back your focus. The number on the bar and everything you associate with it are no longer obstacles; all that matters is “vertical shins.” Second, it builds a shared understanding with your coach. Both of you now have now totally aligned on the task at hand …strength in numbers, right? If you really focus on vertical shins and still don’t quite nail your form, your coach will tell you and the process continues – the cycle only improves as we learn more about each other and the lift. When you do nail it, your coach will cheer, you will have learned what “vertical shins” feels like and you can add that to your conceptual toolbox.

If you take responsibility for the cue, you’ll be much better suited to know whether or not it worked, as will your coach, and your journey toward the shared goal will be that much more successful as a team.


Niki has been a Starting Strength Coach since 2013. She is a Staff Member at Starting Strength camps and seminars, contributes articles to Starting Strength and coaches out of The Strength Co. in Orange County, CA.
Prior to becoming a Starting Strength coach, she spent many many many hours chasing dreams of being as skinny as someone else and having as many abs as “that girl”. Constantly feeling unfulfilled and stuck, it was in 2013 that she put a stop to her “CrossFit douchebaggery and started to fully appreciate true training and the process of getting strong” which has given her a healthier appreciation for her body and its capacity.
She competes in Powerlifting and Strengthlifting. She also practices jiu jitsu.
Niki coaches to help people become stronger and truly appreciate their abilities.

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