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Starting Strength in the Real World


My Cues are Not the Same as Your Cues

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | July 30, 2019

carl raghavan coaches the deadlift in london

Carl Raghavan coaching the deadlift at a Starting Strength Training Camp in London. [photo by Pete Troupos]

A client of mine inspired me to write about this topic after we discussed it during a recent training session. The gist of our discussion? My cues are not the same as your cues. If you’re just starting out, what’s going through your mind as you lift will be very different from what’s going through the mind of a veteran. From a coaching perspective, this means recognizing that you will have to translate and simplify for your client, adapting the wide-ranging store of knowledge in your head to the specific needs of the individual.

Take the squat, for instance. The fifty-page chapter on squats in Starting Strength 3rd edition is an in-depth and comprehensive analysis of the movement that we teach as Starting Strength coaches. It’s great to have that information, but it doesn’t mean that every single detail will apply to your squat, or that you have to run through every single cue known to mankind every time you get under the bar. That’s impossible – and it won’t actually help with your particular issues. Here’s where the coach’s eye comes into play. It’s the difference between learning from a book and learning from an experienced veteran in real time. I can see what needs to be improved – and, crucially, I can prioritize. Think of it as triage. You’re trying to make the most effective changes to improve a lifter’s squat, and this means that not everything is equally important.

A lot of new clients are obsessed with being perfect before they add their next increment, and I have to break it to them that that’s not how it works. Many of them come to me having read Starting Strength or watched the videos on YouTube. There’s nothing wrong with that: the internet is an incredible source of material, especially when it comes to fitness. More and more coaches and industry pioneers have made videos, articles, and seminars available online, many of which are free. It is a double-edged sword, however, because as important as this information is, overload can lead to massive paralysis by analysis and an over-emphasis on perfection. At some point you do need to get your ass under a barbell and strain – you need to get real-life experience, and this means you’ll make mistakes.

The harsh truth is, perfectionism is not your friend. If you try to absorb and implement everything at once, you’ll only end up overwhelmed. We do want consistent improvement, of course, but the approach is more like a water tap dripping slowly into a bucket: at first the water is shallow, barely noticeable, then over the course of several days or weeks it will have risen significantly. This new level represents experience, strength, kinetic awareness, and knowledge. And this bucket is infinite. It will never be full. Frustrating, I know. It’s the barbell version of Zeno’s paradox: patience and persistence will bring you closer to your goal, but you’ll never actually reach it.

This is why cues are so important: they’re a means of condensing all this overwhelming information into a few key points that can be implemented practically in a short span of time. This holds true whether you’re a novice or an advanced lifter, but the cues themselves – the specific pieces of information you need to recall in the moment – will change. In working with my clients, I’ve found that the differences between my cues and theirs usually follow a familiar pattern. This makes sense. After all, cues are there to address particular problems, and some problems are much more common in the early stages than others.

Squat

My cues: Keep the shoulder blades squeezed and stay mid-foot.

Their cues: Concentrate on hip drive and leaning forward.

The problem: One common issue I encounter while teaching the squat is the client complaining about his shoulders. In most cases the lifter has never placed a bar on the spine of the scapulae, so he experiences a huge stretch through the shoulders and chest, especially at the bottom of the squat. It’s such a deep, intense feeling that it creates a white noise all its own. Half the time, all the lifter can think  of is, “When can I get this fucking barbell off my back?” He doesn’t have much brain space left over for cues, so I pare it right back to the basics: hip drive and back angle.

Press

My cues: Use a Kung Fu grip and double-tap the hips forward.

Their cues: Stay confident when leaning back to utilize the hips, and keep the bar path over mid-foot as you press the bar to lockout. In other words, as Rip says, “Aim for your nose”.

The problem: If a lifter has already done a variation of the movement – like a strict press or a dumbbell press – he’s usually thinking more about shoving the bar upward than about his hips, because that’s the part he knows well. As a coach, I have to correct for this. Often the client will completely drop the ball when it comes to using the correct 2.0 hip motion before he presses, so this is usually the cue I emphasize.

Deadlift

My cues: Stay over the barbell for longer than you think at the bottom and keep pulling for five seconds.

Their cues: Concentrate on being tight, pulling out all the slack at the start of the lift during the set up, and arch the lower back hard throughout.

The problem: One hugely common trait I observe is the lifter wanting to drop his hips very low, like he’s Dmitry Klokov going for a traditionally taught Olympic-style clean. In fact, I want the lifter’s hips quite high, so that the back angle stays consistent from the starting position to the moment the barbell breaks contact with the floor (side benefit: this will also mean the person locks out the bar more quickly). This is why my usual cues emphasize the importance of good lumbar extension throughout.

Bench

My cues: Drive hard through the legs and squeeze the lats throughout.

Their cues: Concentrate on the bar path and keeping the shoulder blades pinched throughout the whole press, especially at lockout.

The problem: Lifters often want to watch the barbell for the entire rep instead of focusing on a spot on the ceiling. They also frequently don’t realize that the correct bar path isn’t a straight line: if that were the case, the bar would touch the throat, which for several reasons – including death and shoulder impingement – is not a good idea. It’s actually more like a smooth arc, touching the chest then moving back over the shoulders. Pinching the shoulder blades and focusing on the bar path help encourage this.

Although my cues are different than theirs, I understand where my clients are coming from. Their mistakes are familiar from my own journey towards achieving strength. I read the previous edition of Starting Strength in the late 2000s and have been lifting in the Starting Strength style ever since. The cues and form corrections I needed for my squat back then are vastly different to those I use today, ten years and a hundred kilos down the line. Back in the day, my cues were hit depth and knees out. I’m glad to say that things have changed somewhat since then, but my squat still isn’t perfect. It never will be – and that’s okay. My cues will continue to change as I continue to learn and improve. The bucket will never be full.

I always try to bear this in mind when I’m with my clients – to walk the walk and lead by example. I tell them that if they really want to better their knowledge and gain a full, rich experience in the barbell game, they have to let go of perfectionism and learn to prioritize – and this cannot be learned from a book or T-Nation’s latest post. There is no substitute for the grind.


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