Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

The Order of Your Verbal Instructions and Cues Matters

by Brent J Carter, SSC | July 06, 2021

brent carter explains a few things about cueing

Every school kid learned the mnemonic device Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally (or Selena if you grew up in Houston). This was to remember the order of operations for your arithmetic (parenthesis, exponential, multiplication, etc…) because, as it so happens, this kind of thing matters. So too does it matter when you are delivering verbal instructions or cues.

Most lifters, being eager to please their wise and experienced coach, will start moving as soon as they hear an “action” cue before waiting for the “descriptor.” For example, in our teaching progression for the press the lifter is instructed to bring the bar back from the lockout overhead to the start position while keeping the bar close to the face. If after the lockout you instruct your lifter to “bring the bar back down aiming for your nose” odds are they will start moving the bar down as soon as you finish the first half of the instruction without waiting for how they should be moving the bar back down. Instead, try putting the descriptor first: “Aiming for your nose, bring the bar back down to the start position.” This forces the lifter to listen to the how first before the what.

While the Starting Strength teaching progressions of the lifts are often recited as a script without the coach actually evaluating as they are teaching, there is benefit to having canned sound bytes. It increases repeatability from lifter to lifter and allows you to actually focus on the quality of movement vs what to do and say next. In the deadlift we tell the lifter to “drag” the bar up the shins. This word, “drag,” has an implication that the bar will remain in contact with the legs on the way up. Still many lifters fail to register this nuance. You could consider adding, “Keeping the bar in contact with your legs, drag the bar up to the lockout position.” Again, this is adding the descriptor prior to the action. In very bizarre and extreme cases I have witnessed folks drag the bar up their legs, with their arms flexing at the elbows! When this happens I correct them by modifying my instruction: “With your arms straight, drag the bar up your legs as you stand up.”

In the power clean, I have witnessed countless times the lifter begin to move before I have finished my instruction on how to move. The power clean being the longest of our instruction methodologies, I can understand the impulse to want to get the thing done. However, just as is true for the other lifts, if the lifter is allowed to move incorrectly, they are reinforcing incorrect movement patterns. The application of descriptor then action applies here as well when teaching the jump: “Keeping your arms straight, jump as high as you can.”

I’m sure you can think of several other examples where this might very well apply. The concept is pretty straightforward: tell them how, then tell them what. Do not give your lifter the opportunity to do the rep incorrectly by allowing them to jump the gun, because in doing so they are either establishing or reinforcing faulty movement. And if this seems overly pedantic, good. It’s not with the physically gifted, that already understand how to execute these movements correctly, where we as coaches really shine – it’s in working with the pathetic physically hopeless aspiring lifter, the kind that have to be spoon-fed instruction, that gives the coach the opportunity to truly flex their coaching muscles.

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