Getting better at an exercise is not just about the muscular development associated with the movement, it’s also about the neurological adaptation of the mind to muscle connection when performing an exercise. This is why you should always perform an exercise with some cues in your head to keep your technique perfect.
Intensity vs. Precision:
When it comes to developing strength, not only is it important to have good technique, but it also performing the movement as efficiently as possible, which in turn allows for a greater environment to get stronger. Training heavy is important, but when it comes to getting strong there is a great difference between BUILDING strength and EXPRESSING strength.
As an example, technical breakdown to some degree will occur with near maximal loads. This is more commonly seen when people attempt their 1RMs (1 repetition maximum).
For this reason, it is important not only to do heavy sets where you focus on the development of strength with 3-5 reps, but also doing sets of the same movement where you focus on the speed, or dynamic component, is key to developing overall strength.
The formula for force is F = MA, which means force equals mass x acceleration. This makes complete sense to not only focus on building muscle and strength to get stronger but also focus on the dynamic component. When you are training with lighter loads, this precision of technique allows you to move the weights faster and in turn is training your central nervous system to fire on all cylinders.
An example training session of using both a maximal effort method in turn with a dynamic method can be done as per below:
Completing 6 sets of 3 at 70% of the top set weight, focusing on precision, will allow you to move the weight as fast as possible. Of course, even with top end weights, technique should be dialed in and focused on!
This combination of maximal weight and volume with lighter weights, will ensure you’re getting enough practice in, to be able to perfect the movement. Perfect practice makes perfect!
What are the right cues for learning an exercise?
When learning a new exercise, technique should always dictate the weight you use. Due to the need for maximal focus on the task at hand, when performing an exercise, minimal cues are best but maximal efficiency.
Cues for the squat:
The squat is a fairly technical exercise. It’s not as technical as the snatch or power clean, but the movement patterns require the lifter to be in the right stance. The first thing that needs to happen in the squat is that the bar should move up and down and be behind the knees throughout the movement. Everyone will find a way that works better for them in comparison to someone else but the key with cues is to find the ones that work for them.
A good cue for the squat is to fill your belly up with air and brace it for the duration of the rep. This not only keeps you tight, it stabilises your spine so when you descend and ascend, you are coming back from a stable environment and can explode on the way up.
The best cues are:
- Shoulder blades in your back pockets (this tightens up your traps and creates a shelf for the bar to sit on)
- Tuck your chin (same reason as above)
- Big belly of air
- Spread the floor with your feet
- Open your hips – this will allow you to perform the above and give you the best opportunity to squat deep and utilise some of the strongest muscles in the body (the glutes)
Cues for the deadlift:
The deadlift definitely requires lots of technique and proper movement patterns. Though the deadlift looks pretty straight forward since all you see is the bar moving up and down, there are many things that need to be done to perform the movement. Whether you perform the sumo or the conventional stance, the bar needs to be moved up and down, any deviation will throw you off balance. In addition to that, the bar should be about midway over your foot, so when you go to bend down to initiate the lift, your shins will come into contact with the bar without pushing it away from you.
The best cues are:
- Shoulder blades in back pockets – in this case, it allows you to have longer levers (arms) to minimise range of motion for the lift
- Hips close to the bar
- Big belly of air just before you initiate the lift
Cues for the bench press:
When it comes to the bench press, like all the above compound exercises, stability and transfer of force is the key.
Some people find it easier when they arch because this creates tension and stability, which allows for better leg drive. Whether you perform this movement with flat feet or heels raised is personal preference. By creating an arch, you ideally want to rest the weight on your traps, so when you push the bar up, you will be driving your back into the bench, so you are in the best environment to create force. If you push yourself back on the bench, you’ll slide and you’ll find yourself losing tightness, which in turn will shave kilos off the bar. As the saying goes, “you cannot shoot a cannon out a canoe”.
The best cues are:
- Chest up
- Shoulders in the back pockets
- Heels down
- Tuck your elbows
- Squeeze the bar apart
Cues for other lifts:
To focus on cues for other lifts, it’s first important to understand the nature of those exercises and what they do. Compound exercises such as the pull up, dips, bent over row, overhead press and many others need cues that help the core stay tight with minimal spinal flexion. Exercises such as the single joint movement require different thinking. Tricep pulldowns and dumbbell curls only need one joint to function and it’s usually a hinge joint. They don’t require as many cues except to engage the muscle, stretch at the start and squeeze at the end of the movement.
Over-cueing and progress in cues:
Cues are very important at the start of the progression. However, you could go without them in the future when you are five or more years into the progression. You can definitely over cue and this can confuse you even more. You should keep the cues for the parts of the lift you have most trouble in. For instance, if a lifter has a problem of hips shooting up too early in the deadlift, it’s a good cue to remind yourselfor the lifterto engage the quads and push through with the hips.
As you progress, it’s important to know which part of the lift needs the most cues. As a general rule of thumb, three cues are important for each part of the lift. The setup, the descentand the ascent. This two to three-part cue technique is very good to teach you to engage the right mechanics at the right time. As mentioned previously, some cues may work better for others and the key is to find what works best for you.
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