Stop with The Cues: Words Don’t Fix Technique

Written By: Kevin Cann

You know how many cues that Boris Sheiko has given me over the 140 weeks I have been training with him? Zero.  Not a single cue.  Instead I get feedback on my lifts and appropriate variations to help me fix the issues that he sees.

It was not always like this. There were a few months before I started working with Boris that I decided to learn the lifts.  I hadn’t done anything more than a front squat and trap bar deadlift in close to 8 years at this time.

My first time squatting I looked like a baby giraffe just out of the womb.  My limbs were going all over the place.  I was training with a group of coaches at the time that were helping me out.  After each repetition I received a million cues like “root your feet”, “big air”, “knees out”, “rib down”, “chin tucked”, “sit back”, “chest up”, and so on.

So here I am trying to learn the squat and thinking of all of these things at once.  It was extremely confusing.  I have played sports at a high level my entire life until powerlifting.  Learning the squat should not have been that difficult at first.

The squat does take quite a bit of practice as I have learned over time, but that is not something I realized right away.  I was thinking if I do all of those things that they are saying my squat should look fine. I was too focused on the words and not what I was supposed to be doing with the squat.

We want our torso to be fixed in position to maintain the bar over the center of our foot, where our weight is balanced, from start to finish.  All of those words are trying to accomplish that.  It wasn’t until I started working with Sheiko that I learned that important lesson.

After the first month of working with him, I had sent my videos in for analysis.  He gave me feedback and I asked him if there were any cues that I should be focusing on to correct those issues.  He basically came back (I am paraphrasing) and said that I just need to do it.

I was very confused. I expected some magical words to be emailed to me that would make me a world champion powerlifter.  I was like “I do not know how to fix this.”  I was so used to focusing on the cues that it literally paralyzed me during training.

I digested it a bit and had an epiphany.  I needed to act like an athlete under the bar.  I needed to stop worrying so much about the fucking cues and focus on what I needed to do.  I ended up watching a ton of videos of elite squatters and comparing them to mine.

I didn’t see them going through a cue checklist to squat.  I also saw some differences.  I had been told “head back” 1.5 million times while I was squatting.  Upon analyzing elite squatters, I saw that the majority of them bent their wrists and had their elbows angled under the bar more than I did. All of a sudden it was easier to stay upright and keep my back tight.  I didn’t need a cue here to fix my issue, just an adjustment.

I stopped focusing on “rooting my feet” and “driving my knees out” and instead focused on keeping my weight balanced on my entire foot.  This conscious awareness and the special variations helped me improve my technique.  I was acting like an athlete and doing specific drills to get better instead of relying on words.

This was a huge moment for me as a coach as well.  I used to be like those coaches that were helping me.  I tried to use cues to fix everything.  Now it is much different.  I put each lifter in the best position physically in each lift to do what is required.

From there I give them variations that help correct their technical faults and give them feedback on their lifts.  Instead of me attempting to use some fancy cue, oftentimes I will have them record their set and we will watch it together.  I will show them what I see and give them some pointers to help correct that.  This is very similar to the way I was taught to kick a soccer ball or throw a punch.

We view the lifts as skills and do specific drills to improve that skill.  We also practice, a lot.  You get better at doing something by actually doing it.  My original program had very little competition lifts and lots of accessories.  This was not adequate skills practice.

My knees weren’t caving in because I had weak glutes.  They were caving in because I was not skilled in the squat.  In fact, I agree with the Eastern Europeans and their views on breakdowns within the lift.  The breakdowns are not occurring because of weak muscle groups.  They are occurring because of a lack of neuromuscular coordination (skill) of the lifter.

This is where the special variations come into play.  For example, Alyssa gets pitched forward out of the hole in the squat.  We used variations such as pauses on the halfway up and pin squats to correct this as well as lots of submaximal repetitions.

We want every repetition to look the same.  This helps us build a stable movement pattern.  With the correct variations to improve Alyssa’s skill in the lift as well as the right amount of repetitions at the appropriate weights we see an improvement in her technique.

She did not need me to tell her “head back”, she didn’t need a ton of isolated quad work.  She needed to improve her abilities (neuromuscular coordination) within the lift itself.  This is what coaching is.  The ability to analyze a lifter and put a plan in place to fix issues and get them stronger.  This gives the lifter the greatest opportunity for the highest total possible in their career.

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Now, before some people get their panties in a bunch, there is a time where cues are appropriate. For me I use them as reminders when lifters get a little tired and technique may begin to break down.  However, they should not be a main focus in a lifter’s head upon lifting.

Don’t rely on words to fix your squat.  Be an athlete under the bar.

About Kevin Cann 33 Articles
Precision Powerlifting Systems is based out of Boston, Mass. Head Coach Kevin Cann leads the raw and single ply powerlifting team through individualized programming leading up to local, regional, national, and international level USA Powerlifting meets. Coach Kevin has worked as a nutritionist and strength coach for several facilities in the greater Boston area including Harvard University and Total Performance Sports. He holds a master’s degree in kinesiology from A.T. Still University and a bachelor’s degree in health and wellness from Kaplan University. Currently, Coach Kevin competes in the 105kg class in USA Powerlifting as both a raw and equipped open lifter and was under the tutelage of former team Russia powerlifting coach and coaching legend, Boris Sheiko, from 2015-2018. Kevin utilizes many of Sheiko’s legendary methods in his programs. This includes the belief that technique is the most important aspect of training. Not only has Kevin been a long term student of Sheiko’s, he also possesses his Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, the science of human movement. The combination of his Master’s degree and time spent working with the legendary coach has awarded him with the skills to thoroughly analyze your lifts and utilize the right variations, weights, and repetitions to improve your technique and continue to steadily progress over time. Through Kevin’s experiences coaching, he has made many adjustments to the program to allow for the success of his lifters. PPS has had an Arnold qualifier every year in its existence, a top 5 national total, 2 top 10 totals, and many top 20 totals nationally. Kevin combined what he learned from Sheiko with a conjugate trining style. He learned that nothing builds 1RM strength like practicing singles. He uses a constraints-led approach with the singles. The variation allows for the athlete to continually take max singles without seeing a decrease in performance. Kevin will use variations that punish technical inefficiency and only leaves room to complete the task with a more technically efficient strategy. Heavy singles also works the psychological components of the sport. Oftentimes this goes untrained and is the largest weakness in a lifter. Along with the max effort work, PPS lifters perform sub maximal work to continue to increase technical proficiency within the lifts. Some of this technique work utilizes special exercises that Kevin learned from Boris Sheiko himself. PPS supports raw, drug free powerlifting. Kevin has coached numerous athletes that have qualified for USAPL Nationals as well as the USAPL competitions at the Arnold Sports Festival. Cost for coaching is tiered and ranges from $125 to $200 per month depending on the services required. This includes an individualized program based around your needs as an athlete as well as feedback on your lifts from videos. Text support as you are training, weekly voice memos explaining details about the upcoming week, and bi-weekly training meetings with the team to discuss training concepts is part of the tier 1 service. For more information email Kevin directly at kevin@precisionpowerlifting.com
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