Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Cueing and Feedback: Science or Art – Does it Matter?

by Gregory Hess and Mark Rippetoe | May 02, 2023

coach teaching the squat

The Coaching Eye, presented by Dr. Stef Bradford, details what constitutes an actual coach. An authentic coach is presented as an individual who understands a movement model and can quickly correct any movement pattern errors. This ability to correct movement patterns stems from the coach’s understanding of the basic movement model and personal experience with the movement patterns, which constitute a “filter” through which movements are evaluated and then corrected.

Within the theory of the coaching eye, the motor cortex is activated through the coach's interpretation of the performer and the coach’s personal experience with the movement. The trainee's movement is compared to both a movement model and the coach's understanding of the executed movement. For a barbell coach, experience under the bar as a lifter and dedicated coaching permit strategies and cues to develop within the coach's repertoire of feedback interventions.

A dedicated amount of time, trial and error, and progress under the bar should be accumulated by the coach. These experiences provide the prerequisite background understanding and framework for quick, quality feedback for lifters.


The actual movement signals that cause an athlete to correct a part or parts of a movement pattern are referred to as cues. Cues may be considered as reminders of what the performer should be doing or thinking about during the execution of a skill, based on previous instruction and correction. Appropriate usage of cues is contingent on an established understanding of the meaning of the cue between the coach and performer. Cues should be kept concise to result in appropriate movement outcomes; cues must be given correctly to avoid over-cueing and confusion. (One underappreciated reason that the power clean is an important lift is that it takes place in a little over 1 second, and there is no time for cueing within the movement itself. Cues have to be given before the pull, and both lifter and coach have to think clearly about the movement correction.)

Strength coaches typically develop favorite cues for specific movement goals and movement errors. Rippetoe defined two distinct varieties of cues for the barbell coach. Body cues reference part of the body or a specific part of the intended movement. In the motor learning domain, these can be identified as “internal cues” for the individual. Bar cues reference the object – the barbell itself – being lifted. The motor learning sources identify these as cues “external” to the individual. Despite the coach’s preference for the type of cue being utilized, a quality coach will attempt to individualize cues to optimize the performer's movement. Some lifters respond better to body or internal cues, while others may respond better to bar or external cues.

These two types of cues cause us to question whether one or the other are the most effective and efficient way to provide lifters with feedback. Should one version of cueing be prioritized during barbell training? This brief overview attempts to associate the motor learning definitions with the established bar and body cues for basic barbell training.

As previously mentioned, internal cues (body cues) direct the lifter's attention to the individual components of the kinetic chain involved in the movement – the lifter's body itself. External cues (bar cues) call the lifter's attention to the resultant goal of the movement pattern with the bar, and are thought to provide new learners more autonomy in completing tasks. The portion of the kinesiology and exercise science-paper industry aimed at investigating these concepts employs methods that utilize tasks that are not genuinely trainable, in the sense of long-term incremental progress, and are not directly applicable to barbell work. Examples include but are not limited to standing long jumps, vertical jumps, agility tests, and ball tosses. Despite most of these investigators having no concept or appreciation for the Two Factor Model of Sports Performance, there appear to be a few concepts from this area that may be useful, or at least interesting, for a barbell coach.

The Constrained Action Hypothesis

A cornerstone of the motor learning material is the Constrained Action Hypothesis. This holds that when a performer or lifter focuses on the end-state effects of a movement, it permits motor actions to occur “automatically.” This hypothesis implies that focusing on the constituent parts of the kinetic chain of a movement pattern may interfere with conscious control and accuracy of the performance. This is especially true of exercises where the bar is in the hands: deadlifts, cleans, presses, and bench presses – “Keep the bar closer to your shirt” works better than a reference to the hips.

The squat is quite receptive to cues specific to the hips, the chest, and the knees. Most people try to squat with too vertical a back angle, and a body cue is effective for correcting this – “Drive your ass up first, after you bounce out of the hole.” But for the other lifts, a correct bar cue is very effective for allowing the lifter to solve the mechanical problems by feeling the effects of changes in the bar position relative to the mid-foot balance point and the gravity vector over that point. “Start with the bar over the middle of your foot, and then push the floor away from the bar. Keep it close to your legs.

The Guidance Hypothesis

Another related concept from motor learning sources is the Guidance Hypothesis. This states that performers may become overly dependent on, or too distracted by, too much feedback, especially when the cueing is exceedingly specific. An impairment in the natural and automatic movement patterns may occur for the lifter if the coach inundates him with too many body cues about pieces of the movement. If excessive cueing accumulates to the level of micromanagement, the lifter cannot pay any attention the movement pattern for himself because he's too busy listening to cues about separate pieces of it, and not busy enough learning the flow of the whole movement. The use of feedback works best when it is consistent, minimal, and focused on the movement pattern components that require the most improvement.

Regarding coaching skilled movement, the literature points to a few areas the barbell coach could consider. First, the utilization of bar cues appeared to be superior to body cues for the novice lifter, which may explain why the squat is harder to coach to novice lifters. Second, the lifter's maturity level and ability to comprehend the cues provided must be considered early on during training.

The constrained action hypothesis appears to apply to both inexperienced and experienced lifters. The utilization of bar cues can be prioritized by barbell coaches to avoid higher-order motor programming interference. Additionally, the barbell coach must take time to establish a relationship with each lifter, so that a common vocabulary is created. By doing so, the coach will learn about the lifter's prior experiences and the potential to receive regular feedback.

The motor learning concepts relating to basic barbell training are intuitive – they must be applied by the coach based upon the bridge between lifter and coach supplied by his personal experience on both sides of the bar, and the real-time nature of this interaction doesn't permit a lot of analysis. No amount of scholarly study or any unique teaching model can replace the hours of experience the barbell coach accumulates on the platform. This experience permits cues to be quickly and accurately provided, one rep at a time. There may be a time and place to prioritize a bar cue over a body cue, but proper feedback will always come from a coach's extensive history of training, teaching, and observing the lifts.

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