A verbal or tactile cue can make or break the performance of a lift. A physical therapist, personal trainer, etc. can say the right set of words or place their hands on certain muscles/joints in the body and exercise technique can improve drastically.
Sometimes, too many cues or the wrong cue can not improve a lift or make the movement look even worse. Over the years, some cues may have been implemented into programs being well-intentioned, but in turn were not beneficial whatsoever.
1. “Arch Hard!”
This is a common phrase heard typically when someone is squatting or deadlifting. It is used to try and promote either a neutral spine alignment or to increase the lumbar spine lordosis. Now, if someone is flexing or rounding through the lumbar spine, this may be an effective cue to use to make sure they remain neutral.
The problem arises when the individual can’t arch anymore. Eventually their lumbar spine and pelvis will be unable to arch any more and will either have to flex to go deeper into the squat or deadlift OR they won’t be able to go any deeper.
The reason this cue may not be the most effective for people is that if you create a large lumbar lordosis or “large arch,” you are placing your lumbar spine into extension and in turn, your pelvis into an anterior pelvic tilt.
photo credit: bretcontreras.com
This creates a decreased amount of space at the Femoral-Acetabular joint, aka the hip, and you will either run out of space due to bone stopping any further progression into the bottom of the squat or deadlift OR the lumbar spine will have to flex in order to descend further.
Besides just being in a poor position, increased lumbar spine extension will also place decreased positive stress on the glutes and hamstrings due to the length-tension relationship as shown above.
FIX: Instead of using “Arch Hard,” before you even descend into the bottom of the squat or deadlift, set yourself up in a position to succeed. Set yourself up into a neutral spine alignment to begin with.
A great cue is “bring your belt towards your chin” or “tuck your tailbone.”
-Place spine in neutral position using “belt towards chin” or “tuck your tailbone” cue.
-Just go to neutral. Don’t over-correct and go into lumbar spine flexion.
-Maintain this position as you descend into bottom of the squat.
What this will do is place the lumbar spine and pelvic complex into a more neutral alignment. By placing this area into a neutral alignment, it will allow for increased depth for movement into the squat or deadlift and will place the body in a better position to absorb and adapt to stress.
The body will be able to produce more force and be more resilient being in a neutral position as compared to overly extended.
2. “Knees Out!”
This is another commonly used cue with squats, deadlifts, lunges, step-ups, etc. Again, another well-intentioned cue to avoid the position of knee valgus. Uncontrolled knee valgus is a common position where injuries can occur.
Whether it be macro-traumatic with an ACL tear or microtraumatic with “knee pain,” the “knees out” cue is commonly used. This cue can help to clean up some people’s technique from a knee valgus position to a more advantageous position. The problem arises when the pendulum swings so far the other direction and the “knees out” cue can be more detrimental than helpful.
If someone is cueing a client or patient to bring their knees out, this can go too far and create excessive hip external rotation and hip and knee irritation over the long term.
FIX: Instead of using the term “knees out,” try telling the client to “find the outside of their heels.”
What this cue will do is help to activate the hip external rotators and place more emphasis on gluteus maximus to help to stabilize the lower leg and place it in a better position.
3. “Shoulder Blades Down and Back!”
The cue “shoulder blades down and back” can be a great way to teach clients and athletes how to properly retract their scapulae during rowing variations. The problem arises when the scapula doesn’t move at all.
The scapula is made to move. It is a major player when it comes to overhead function of the shoulder. By maintaining it in a “down and back” position impedes the proper function of the scapula. The scapula is meant to upwardly rotate as the arm is raised overhead and then returns to a neutral state as the arm returns back to the side of the body.
By cueing “down and back,” this can increase latissimus dorsi activation as well as cause downward rotation of the scapula. By causing downward rotation, this will make it more difficult to upwardly rotate the scapula when raising the arm overhead or performing other upper body exercises.
FIX: Instead of saying “shoulder blades down and back,” try using “tilt your shoulder blade back and let it move on your rib cage.”
By instructing the client or athlete to tilt their shoulder blade posteriorly and allowing it to move instead of aggressively bringing it down and back helps to reinforce healthy function of the shoulder.
Remember, people learn via auditory, visual, or kinesthetic cues. What we say can have a huge positive or negative feedback on performance and/or injury risk.
Making sure to speak to the athlete or client after an exercise is over is so important so that they understand what you want them to do. Long term, they will have the knowledge base of how to properly position themselves and lift.
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