3 Squat Coaching Cues to Avoid

Disclaimer: What I am about to tell you probably goes against everything you have ever learned about the squat. I will discuss three commonly used cues, explain why I feel they are usually incorrect, and offer three alternatives that I feel are more effective. I ask that you keep an open mind and try these cues out before you knock ‘em.

 

The squat, a movement learned and mastered in infancy, often becomes a great challenge for many as they enter adulthood. As these adults hope to relearn this pattern, they are often bombarded with cues from magazines, friends, and professionals on the “perfect squat technique.” In this article I will address three of the most common cues that I deem incorrect and/or overused, as well as offer three cues that improve the function and safety of the squat.

 

1. Weight on the heels

By far the most common squat cue used is, "Keep your weight on your heels." The goal of this cue is to prevent the squatter from shifting their weight forward over their toes. When someone is first learning the squat this can be a beneficial cue to help a person "sit back" into the movement, but it often promotes incorrect mechanics once the person has mastered the basics.

Why do I feel this cue is incorrect?

By shifting the body's weight to the heels, it also moves back its center of gravity. Once in this position, the body has the option of falling backwards onto its butt or bending forward excessively in the torso to maintain balance - neither option is ideal. In this bent-over position a large amount of unnecessary stress is placed on the lower back and hips.

Secondly, when looking at the "real world" application of the squat, we see that this movement almost always results in the body rolling up to the toes and eventually off the ground (ex. running, jumping, walking up stairs). When we keep our weight on our heels, we limit the involvement of the ankle extensors, preventing us from training the last link of the squat chain.

 

2. Head up/Chest up

Thankfully, this cue is not used as much as it use to be, but it can still be heard enough at your local gym to touch on it. The thinking is if you keep your head and chest up the back will not round, keeping you safe from injury. In some rare cases, this cue might be helpful for someone that bends forward excessively, but more times than not this does more harm than good.

Why do I feel this cue is incorrect?

It is important to understand that during a proper squat the body’s torso naturally angles forward (which is a good thing). So, the only possible way to keep the head and chest up is to extend (arch) the lower back and/or the neck - both of which cause excessive compressive forces on the intervertebral discs of the spine. Also, as the lower back extends, the hips tend to rotate anteriorly (forward), which can set up the body for anterior hip injuries.

Beyond the obvious safety concerns, extension of the lower back can rob a person of pounds on their squat because it reduces core stability and the amount of force that can be transferred from the lower body up into the bar.

 

3. Knees back

The theory was that forward knee travel was harmful to the knees, so many personal trainers and coaches cued their clients/athletes to prevent their knees from traveling over their toes. Luckily, through research, this myth has been completely debunked and it is now known that forward knee travel is completely safe for the knees and often less stressful on the body than keeping the knees back.

Again, in some rare cases this cue can be appropriate, but not often. Once and while, a person just learning the movement will attempt to squat with a completely vertical torso, only allowing his/her knees and ankles to bend, without any flexion of the hips. Sometimes, cueing this person to keep their knees back will teach them to naturally flex at the hips and lean forward into the squat.

Why do I feel this cue is incorrect?

Reducing forward knee travel results in the same issues as keeping the weight on the heels (i.e. hip and back stress).

 

3 Squat Coaching Cues that should be used

 

1. Butt under, ribcage down

Most personal trainers/strength coaches nearly have a heart attack when I recommend clients/athletes reduce the amount of curve in their lower backs during the squat. The dangers of lumbar flexion have been ingrained in them since high school and even the mention of lumbar flexion is taboo. One important thing many people fail to consider is that most athletes and adults already have excessive curve in their lower backs and the slight reduction of this curve does not put them into lumbar flexion, but actually it restores their proper alignment.

This cue is crucial because it allows for greater hip range of motion (by preventing anterior tilt of the hips) and it forces the core to stay engaged during the movement, resulting in a safer, stronger squat.

How to perform cue

Simply contracting the glutes will cause a slight posterior tilt of the hips. To pull the ribcage down, forcefully exhale all the air out of the lungs by pulling in the belly-button and contracting the abs. It is important to practice this position by going through a full range of motion with only body weight, before attempting with a loaded bar.

     * Once this posture is learned, return to your normal inhale down, exhale up breathing pattern.

 

2. Weight through the arches

The look on many peoples' faces when I give this cue is priceless. Another taboo of squatting is having the weight of the body anywhere but on the heels.

This cue is important because it balances the body’s weight over the arches of the feet, allowing for a strong solid base throughout the exercise. For athletes, this position allows for a smooth transition to their tip-toes during explosive squats or completely off the ground when performing jump squats.

How to perform cue

As you walk the bar out and get set up for the squat, you should slightly rock forwards and backwards until you feels your weight centered through your arches.

 

3. Knees forward, butt back

When following the previous two cues, "knees forward, butt back" should take care of itself, but it is still a good idea to focus on pushing the knees forward and the butt back on the eccentric portion of the squat. Doing so allows the weight of the body to stay centered over the arches and prevents excessive stress on any area of the body.

How to perform cue

As you descend into the squat, think of the knees and hips on railroad tracks, in line with the angle of the feet. The further down you go, the further the knees travel forward and the further the hips travel backwards. As you ascend out of the squat, simply reverse the motion by tightening an imaginary string between the back of the knees and the butt.

 

Putting it all together

The end result of these three cues is a balanced squat in which the torso and lower leg form close to parallel lines, while the weight of the body is positioned through the arches. In this position, stress is evenly distributed through the body, allowing for a safe, yet strong squat.

 

 

 

Ron Hruska and Mike Arthur describing the biomechanics of the squat: