The same phrase or saying can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
For instance, let’s say you’re a personal trainer working with someone who has an arched back during a plank hold and you would like them to straighten it. Some people will completely understand how to “squeeze their abs”, while others may need to be told to “push their mid-back toward the ceiling”. Both can fix the same saggy position, both can make perfect logical sense, but sometimes individuals simply have different mental models and learning styles.
Thus, as a proper coach or self-educating athlete, it’s important that we recognize the role of verbal cues and corrections. Not only to instruct others, but also to better connect with ourselves and our bodies.
When I was learning a proper conventional deadlift a few years back, my then-coach / now-colleague Alberto Nunez told me to “put my shoulder blades in my back pockets”, and to “wedge my hips under the bar, rather than picking it up like a suitcase”. While I did feel like I was executing both of those pieces of advice, I had to think VERY hard about them each and every rep for the next couple of months. I was improving, but slowly.
A few weeks later, we were all lifting together again and our friend Ben Esgro was in town. He was telling another lifter that an important part of the starting position was to have your shins perpendicular to the floor. My next set, I made this tiny adjustment for myself, and immediately was able to execute Alberto’s cues instinctively from then on.
Ben’s comment brought my knees a couple of degrees backwards, which forced my hips to be just a smidge lower, which helped every other tiny correction fall into place with ease. It’s not that Alberto was wrong and Ben was right — it’s that any complex movement requires an enormous number of physical and mental processes to align appropriately.
Fast forward to about a year after that when I was visiting a good friend and elite powerlifter Steve Kleva at his home in Tempe, Arizona. I vocalized my amazement in how bent his bar was (i.e., how much slack he pulled off the bar) before his official pull from the floor even began. He mentioned something about how if he let go of the bar, he would definitely fall over backwards. I tried to think of this in the set-up of my next attempt, and my speed off the floor improved dramatically.
The point I’m trying to get at is that lightbulbs come when you least expect them. There were hundreds of training sessions separating these three interactions mentioned above, but these cues hit me in the right way at the right time and made magic happen for me. I still think about those mental images years later when my form is feeling a bit wonky.
This is an entirely different type of education that people are not typically seeking. Usually, someone who wants to learn about weight lifting breezes through the basics and quickly moves on to principles and programming. They think their education is done as soon as they are able to move the weight, and there is no further need to focus on execution. Once form is half-decent, now it’s time to learn about how to create a training program, quickly focusing on what is “optimal” in terms of sets, reps, volume, and training splits.
I think this approach is reckless, and that far too many lifters cut themselves short here. Some of the big strength jumps you seek are limited by your form — not just visually, but also in terms of what you are thinking about. And unfortunately, a lot of those corrections are so tiny to the naked eye that you can’t rely on a video, coach, or painful joints to point them out to you. There is a certain amount of healthy experimenting that should occur throughout your career to ensure you are improving how you think about your lifts and how they are performed.
On that note, with stories and pleas aside, I want to leave you with some recently released videos on the big 3 powerlifting movements by Dr. Mike Zourdos while teaching in the Shredded By Science Academy.
I think it is important to watch these, regardless of your experience level. I say this because my stories above are unique to me and my personal situation. Not everyone reading this at home has exposure to high level coaches and athletes, and the internet can make it difficult to find credible information in the sea of amateur videos that are published on the daily.
Additionally, even if you do not have terrible form or disastrous lifts, hearing tiny verbal check points and seeing what they do for you in practice can have profound affects immediately. Studying science and theory is cool, but it generally takes years for those things to conclusively change the recommendations of practitioners. On the other hand, one little cue that results in a lightbulb moment for your heavy compound lifts can work wonders almost instantly as it has done for me many times in the past in each of the sports I’ve competed in.
Sure, if you are a coach or scientist, be a coach or scientist and read theory as much as you’d like. But if you are an athlete, be an athlete and remember that you need to practice your movements. Your squat is no different than a pitch, golf swing, or jump shot. These things can always be refined, and if you are not open to the occasional instruction or critique, you could be missing out on some of the most golden nuggets of all.
So here are those videos below. I would not only pay attention to what it looks like, but what he is actually talking about and the specific language he uses. If this isn’t a game-changer, I hope it’s at least a reminder of all tiny nuances that can be tweaked on any given day to continue refining your craft. Enjoy