5 Critical Coaching Cues, Confused

  • Hip close to the bar (DL)

Many of us have heard that the closer the hips are to the bar, the better our leverages will be on the deadlift. This is completely true, and a concept that every lifter should understand. However, many people misunderstand what that means. Instead of interpreting this as closeness to the bar laterally, they assume it to means closeness to the bar vertically.

The DL is about finding what is optimal for you. Your build will determine the optimal set up. There are a few constants. One, you want the hips as close to the bar as possible. Which is seen in the top left, not the bottom left. Often misunderstood…the hip to bar distance is measured laterally not vertically. This is why we strive for the vertical shin angle. However, many will not be able to achieve a vertical shin, and keep the second constant in check. The second constant is keeping the crease of the armpit over the bar and mid foot. In order to do so one should allow for just enough shin angle, and upper back extension, needed to make this happen. Seen for my build in the far right. #strengthhouse #trainwithapurpose #cspfamily

A photo posted by Gregory Robins (@thestrengthhouse) on

For those who have never made this mistake, this point will seem rather ridiculous. However, the miscommunication isn’t all that hard to understand. If we were to close the vertical distance from the hips to the bar this would increase the lateral distance. If we close the distance from the hips to the bar laterally this will increase the vertical distance. The confusion is likely a product of the difference. When we close vertically, the lateral distance is nowhere near as great as when we close laterally.   In order to achieve the optimal leverages for your body type, you want to keep the hips as close the bar laterally as possible, while still keeping the crease of your armpit over the bar. This is why the “vertical shin” is so highly cued. The more vertical your shin, the closer the hips are too the bar. Unfortunately, a vertical shin is not a reality for many lifters, and is completely based on limb, and spine lengths.

Better understanding: Maintain as much hamstring tension as possible when pulling against the bar into position, this are great moves to loose that extra fat and gain it in muscle, also use the best fat burning cream to help you achieve your goals.

    • Break the bar (Bench)

You’ve likely had a coach or training partner tell you to break the bar when benching. It’s a great cue; as long as you understand which direction you’re trying to snap that iron. Many register this cue as trying to break the bar downward towards their chest. While this isn’t necessarily unproductive, it’s simply reinforcing something that should already be in place. The downside is it’s keeping you from utilizing something that can add pound to your press. Let me explain. You might want to check an expert career coach establish a plan to take you and your organization to the next level.


When you receive the hand off, you want to settle the bar into your upper back by squeezing the shoulder blades together as hard as possible. When we cue ourselves to break the bar towards our chest, we are asking to create the same tension that should already, in theory, be created from the weight on the bar itself; and our acceptance of that load into the upper back by allowing the shoulder blades to fully retract.   When we focus instead on breaking the bar towards our hips we get the added lat recruitment that will lower the shoulder blades towards our butt, create more arch, and produce a more desired bar path.

Better cue: Break the bar towards your hips.

    • Elbows Under The Bar (Squat)

One of the simplest cues I have received on the squat came 5 years ago from friend, and elite squatter Chad Wesley Smith. He told be to make sure my elbows pointed at my butt. At the time, I had yet to compete in a single meet, and was fairly new to back squatting, as a life long baseball player. This cue made a world of difference. Why point the elbows towards the butt?   When we get the elbows pointed in such a way a few key things should happen. One, we should get better lat recruitment. This will help to maintain a strong back position throughout the lift. Second, when the elbows point behind us it will often lead to the bar drifting forward, away from our mid foot. We always want the bar over the mid foot. Getting the elbows under the bar, or pointed at our butt, is crucial to a proper set up. However, the ways we make that happen is where the confusion lies.

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Essentially, this could be achieved in two different ways. The first, and all to common way, is what we want to avoid. Many people hear the cue, and focus all their attention at the elbow joint. The hands are in a fixed position on the bar, the shoulder blades remain in their fixed position, and the result: people cranking the elbow into an excessive amount of valgus stress. The elbow is designed to flex and extend, there is very little room for movement rotationally, or side to side. Asking the humerus (upper arm) to rotate backwards and the ulna / radius to glide forward places an extreme amount of sheer force on the passive structures at the elbow and leads to cranky elbows.   Instead, when we strive to get the elbows under the bar we want to place the focus on extending (arching) the thoracic spine (upper back), retracting / depressing (pulling back and down) the shoulder blades, and externally rotating (rotating backwards) the humerus. Frankly, the elbow joint itself shouldn’t move at all, the direction of the elbow should change as a result of the above actions.

Better thought: Point the elbows at the butt, by creating more tension through the upper back.

  • Tight upper back (DL)

A critical component to a big deadlift is keeping the upper back “tight.” Often we cue others and ourselves by simply saying exactly that. The issue lies in the generality of that direction. There are many different ways can someone interpret how to keep the upper back tight. Another popular statement is to keep the shoulder blades tight, which more clearly causes the misinterpretation I want to clarify.

Many lifters will process the cue to keep a tight upper back in a similar fashion as to how such stiffness is achieved with the squat, deadlift, or even a row. The first action you will see is the retraction of the shoulder blades, coupled with a newfound range of upper back extension (by retracting the shoulder blades we put ourselves in a more optimal position to arch the upper back). The problem is two fold. One, when you retract the shoulder blades you actually shorten the reach of your arms by as much as one and a half inches. Couple that with a bit more upper back extension and your hands have even further to go in order to grab the bar.

Second, neither of these positions is actually maintainable under the loads being used to deadlift. Let’s face it you shouldn’t be able to row what you deadlift, and you shouldn’t be able to budge a bar off the ground by simply grabbing hold and arching the back. Therefore, once the weight of the bar is no longer on the floor, your shoulder blades and upper back will both travel forward. In some cases this can be recovered from, but the stronger you get the more a slight bar path deviation will hang you out to dry.

Am I saying you want a loose upper back? No way. Again, it’s a question of how you are creating upper back tension. Lat engagement is what will keep the bar close to the body throughout the whole lift. In order to both better engage the lats, and achieve more optimal leverages, the tension should be created through moving the shoulder blades as far down toward your butt as possible (not closer together). Additionally, one should strive to make the arms as long as possible while not giving into upper back rounding (round back pullers aside).

Better thought: While standing over the bar, get tall, make a proud chest and reach your hands and shoulder blades as far down toward your knees as possible, without losing the proud chest or bending at the hips. Carry that tension down to the bar, or memorize that feeling and feel it again right before you pull. Think, tall chest, long arms.

  • Sit Back (Squat)

Sit back, in theory, isn’t a bad cue. I interpret that to mean sitting into the hips, and working to not allow your center of mass to migrate forward. At the same time, never have I seen a cue so misinterpreted, and I’ve grown a high amount of distain for it.

When the average person hears sit back this is what happens. They initiate the lift by unlocking their braced core, arch the lower back excessively, allow the pelvis to tilt forward and then continue to stick the hips back so far they have no choice but to allow an excessive amount of torso lean to keep balanced. Contrary to popular belief when we over extend the lower back, and allow the pelvis to tilt forward, it does not shift our weight back; it shifts it forward. If you don’t believe me, stand up. In a standing position arch your lower back, allow your belt buckle to face toward the floor, and take note of where the weight is on your feet. My bet, it’s forward.

The reality of squatting properly is that sitting into your hips should be something that happens automatically if you’re set up correctly from the get go. How so?


If you have the core braced, spine, feet, and hips properly aligned the only choice is to slightly allow the pelvis to flex forward and move at the upper / lower legs. Sitting back is just what happens, and your job is to make sure that’s all that happens.

The torso’s job is to move as little possible (with varying amounts of lean deemed appropriate depending on the persons build and bar position). Even the pelvis, should remain mostly in place, with the belt buckle facing straight forward as much as possible, again build and bar position dependent. The external, and internal rotation is purely femur (upper leg bone) moving on the pelvic acetabulum (“cup” like contour of the hip bones). The only acetabulum movement occurs as the torso slightly leans forward and the pelvis tilts forward appropriately.

In an ideal squat: there is no pelvic movement without simultaneous femoral movement, and there is no pelvic movement without simultaneous torso movement. Lastly, there is no spinal segment movement. There is only hip flexion which causes a neutral spine’s angle, relative to the ground, to change.

It is when we allow the pelvis itself to move incorrectly that we limit the room for the femur to move and cause issues in depth, or hip pain. Most notably, when we initiate the lift with anterior tilt of the pelvis, making it easier to externally rotate and abduct the femur, but robbing us of the needed internal rotation further down the squat.  When we allow the spine to move, we have to do that at the expense of core activation. Most notably, those told to arch the lower back, spread the chest excessively, they have to do this by creating more stiffness in the back than the front…instead of relative equal stiffness between the back extensors and anterior core.

Sitting back is the wrong thing to think about. Instead we want to think about the players that make sitting back our only option. We want to think about abdominal bracing, lat engagement, and creating torque below the belt by fixing the feet into position and rotating / spreading the upper legs back and out away from the hips.

Better thought: Brace the core so the back can’t move, keep the belt buckle facing forward, and open yourself up to make room for the torso to drop into the hole.

For more information on how we have helped hundreds of people find their ideal technique on the Squat, Bench, and Deadlift click the picture below, and hope to see a bunch of you in Jupiter FL, November 15th!


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