Learn Barbell Lifts Cues

Improve the Barbell Lifts with Tasks

Body cues tend to involve more interpretation on your part. As an athlete, precision is the desired result but often a byproduct of practiced, unconscious habit rather than conscious effort. If it were otherwise, anyone could rain three-pointers, hit the bull’s eye every time, and bowl a perfect game if they just tried hard enough.

Use Task Cues to Learn the Lifts

Let’s try an exercise. We are going to teach you how to do something. Ready?

Step 1: Stand up.

Step 2: Place your feet are directly under your hips.

Step 3: Flex your knees to about 80-degrees of flexion and bend at your hips a little bit. Remember to keep your center of mass centered on your foot.

Step 4: Quickly throw your arms up over your head while simultaneously extending your hips and knees. Do this violently enough to accelerate your body mass upward. Try to build enough momentum so that once your feet leave the ground, your body continues upward for another 10 to 20 inches, depending on how explosive you are.

How’d it go? Let’s try it again. This time we will explain the movement using your existing body awareness, control, and understanding:

Step 1: Jump! (high)

Better?

Each set of instructions are trying to get you to do something—jump in the air. The first one attempts to explain the details of what you should do in detail, micromanaging each body part, attempting to inspire movement through the force of knowledge alone. The second instruction relies on the shared knowledge and experience of most humans.

Don’t Get Lost in Translation

When you are learning a movement, there is a necessary amount of translation that takes place. What a squat means to a barbell coach may be different from the image in a lifter’s head. Translating what is in the coach’s brain into the athlete’s movement is at the heart of most sports coaching and athletics.

How you translate information depends both on the nature of the communication and the familiarity of your own experience. The first set of instructions above are not only unnecessarily complicated, but you might be lost if you don’t know what “flexion” means, or you are unfamiliar with the difference between “acceleration” and “momentum.” You might do something different than we intended if, when we said to do something “quickly,” “violently,” or “explosively,” your understanding of those adverbs differs from our own.

With the second instruction, however, we rely on our likely shared experience: that we both know what a “jump” means and that if we tell you to jump, it will at least approximate what we want you to do.

This reveals how we can reduce the amount of translation that happens when learning a new movement. There is a difference between body cues and task cues. Body cues tend to involve more interpretation on the lifter’s part. While precise movement is the goal, precision is most often the byproduct of practiced, unconscious habits rather than conscious effort. If it were otherwise, anyone could rain three-pointers, hit the bull’s eye every time, and bowl a perfect game if they just tried hard enough. Instead, even though we know what our bodies need to do, it is only through practice that we can consistently get them to match the image or feel of a movement in our heads.

This presents a challenge for coaches who want you to do something precise but whose tools are verbal, tactile, and visual cues. Getting a person to perform a novel movement is like operating a complicated machine whose instructions are in a foreign language.  The more unfamiliar the movement, the less likely the lifter and coach will have an immediate meeting of the minds. Some foundational understanding must be laid first.

Some people will understand what the coach means when he or she uses a body cue like “Knees out.” The correction requires some conscious and accurate control over your body. Other body cues are “eyes down” in the squat or “elbows forward” on your press or “push with your feet” to start your deadlift.

Sometimes cues may not be immediately clear. We have to translate the cue into a task. “Knees out” may become “Shove your knees out to the sides” or “apart” or “away from each other,” adding in a specific goal for the movement. When you add a task into the mix, this is an act of translation that we hope leads to the “aha!” moment of understanding the “knees out” cue.

A good example of a task-related cue is the Master Cue or the practice of maintaining balance in the squat.

The Master Cue starts as a visualization exercise for the squat. You think about the bar traveling in a straight vertical line into and out of the bottom of the squat, and by doing so, your body automatically makes the adjustments it needs to keep the bar path (mostly) vertical. Once you’ve learned to feel where your balance is on your foot, simply giving yourself the task of maintaining balance as you move through the range of motion of the lift tends to fix a whole lot of issues. “Balance” or the Master Cue is like the “Jump” command up above. It encompasses a lot of information into one easily learned and easily understood cue.

Translating information directly to movement is why a lot of people struggle to learn the lifts without a translator—a coach—to guide them. You can read all about how to do a lift and even watch videos, but then you have to translate that visual information into movement. When you are having trouble with this translation, learning a task-related cue can help you reach your own “aha!” moment and help speed up your learning process.

Form goals are built on single-task and short directive cues. The master cue is a directive to maintain balance on your midfoot during a big, difficult movement. Sometimes directives are specific to body parts, but often these cues can be turned into more encompassing tasks. If you consider that each cue or short-term goal is a smaller piece of the model for each lift, then each workout, set, and rep has a purpose, clearly defined by the previous workout, set, or rep.

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