“Concentration is the secret of strength.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Any trainer will agree with me, teaching someone how to squat (or just about any movement) properly is one of the most difficult tasks.
This may be slightly controversial, but since I started training people, I’ve always steered away from teaching a given form as law. This is due to my belief that we all move differently, our motor patterns are unique to ourselves, and someone figuring out how to do something properly on their own produces more confidence.
All that being said, in the realm of powerlifting we tend to have all sorts of coaching cues that we give to people to ensure that they are doing a movement properly.
Less Optimal Coaching Cues
Squat- “sit back” “knees out” “spread the floor” “stay tight”
Bench press- “pull the bar apart” “drive” “arch” “pull the bar to your chest”
Deadlift- “hips back” “big chest” “pull the hips through”
Now don’t get me wrong, these cues have utility. For some, they teach them how to activate previously dormant muscle and this typically translates to more weight on the bar, and big stronger muscle. This is of course what we all want, but is there a better way?
These types of cues are viewed as being internally focused (meaning focusing on your body or something inside of you, how you feel, your biceps, etc…). However, from the research, we know that this doesn’t produce optimal motor learning (1). From that I mean that it takes longer to learn how to do a movement properly when you are focused on what your body is doing.
Thus, I recommend an external focus (focusing on something outside of yourself, bar speed, moving the weight, where you want to put the weight, maybe even something that makes you mad).
An external focus is associated with greater power production (2, 3) better movement learning (1) and optimal brain and cardiovascular functioning during movement performance (4).
The only real benefit to an internal focus is greater muscle activation (5). This is why bodybuilders often think about their biceps while doing curls and subsequently get better results.
How does muscle activation go up, but power production goes down for internal focusing? Well, I wish it was magic, but it probably has to do with the neural efficiency of a movement. So if you do it right you don’t have to use as much muscle mass to move the same amount of weight (or more!).
More Optimal Coaching Cues
Squat- “Throw the bar” “Jump through the roof”
Bench- “Throw the bar”
Deadlift- “Throw the bar” “Jump to the ceiling”
Honestly, I can’t think of many ways to say, “Throw the bar through the roof!” When I do these movements or teach them I try to emphasize focus on the bar, speed, explosiveness, or just where they are putting the bar.
Give these concepts a try and let me know what you think.
1. Wulf, G., Höß, M., & Prinz, W. (1998). Instructions for motor learning: Differential effects of internal versus external focus of attention. Journal of Motor Behavior, 30(2), 169-179.
2. Wulf, G., Zachry, T., Granados, C., & Dufek, J. S. (2007). Increases in jump-and-reach height through an external focus of attention. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 2(3), 275-284.
3. Porter, J. M., Ostrowski, E. J., Nolan, R. P., & Wu, W. F. (2010). Standing long-jump performance is enhanced when using an external focus of attention.The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(7), 1746-1750.
4. Radlo, S. J., Steinberg, G. M., Singer, R. N., Barba, D. A., & Melnikov, A. (2002). The influence of an attentional focus strategy on alpha brain wave activity, heart rate, and dart-throwing performance. International journal of sport psychology, 33(2), 205-217.
5. Wulf, G., Dufek, J. S., Lozano, L., & Pettigrew, C. (2010). Increased jump height and reduced EMG activity with an external focus. Human movement science, 29(3), 440-448.