“Fix your feet to fix your back” and Other Simple Cues to Instantly Improve the Big 3

Written by Brittany Kohnke

Powerlifters and anyone looking to improve the Big 3 are always looking for ways to become more efficient and effective in the execution of the squat, bench, and deadlift.  Sometimes a simple cue can make this happen. Throughout my years as an educator, athlete, and coach, I have encountered some of the same technical faults when it comes to the Big 3, especially amongst novice lifters.  Here are some of my “go-to” cues to instantly improve form and effectiveness on the power lifts.

“Fix your feet to fix your back”- During the conventional deadlift set up, many coaches will advise their athletes to “engage their lats” or “squeeze their shoulder blades together”. This helps to combat the dreaded cat-back from occurring and make the initial pull off the floor safe and effective. I’ve seen it time and time again. A coach (or fellow lifting partner) tells someone this cue, the person consciously attempts to engage their lats and upper back only to look like a candy cane upon the pull.  

Assuming the weight is not too heavy for the lifter, often I will advise the athlete to look at their feet. If your stance is too wide, it will force your arms outside of your shoulders. This makes engaging the upper back and lats incredibly more difficult, especially when the upper back may not be as developed.  In this case, I will advise lifters to bring their stance in slightly (generally speaking hip-width, sometimes a smidge closer) and subsequently this will allow the lifter to actively engage more of their lats and set their upper back. From here, now the lifter is able to effectively stay tight and initiate the movement without looking like a candy cane.

“Chest meets the bar”- Bench press is one of the most technical lifts in the sport of Powerlifting as it involves the entire body executing the lift in an efficient, yet timely manner. Over the years I have seen a number of people, myself included, who simply lower the bar to their chest. From here, when the lifter presses things seem to get incredibly difficult, especially when working with near maximal weights. A cue I like to use myself and with lifters is to always think about the “chest meeting the bar”. Ensuring the scapulas stay depressed and in position, thinking of having the chest meet the bar eliminates the tendency to “relax” the upper body while also closing the gap or the distance the bar has to move to get to our touchpoint. When we relax or simply bring the bar down to our chests, we are creating a longer path. Even though we are talking about a few inches at most, when you’re fighting for a few extra kilos, the difference of inches can be gold. 

Further, I have found, especially with female lifters, when we think or cue “chest meets the bar” this allows us to stay “coiled”. Effective benchers are like a coil; they create a great deal of tension and tightness throughout their whole body when they set up. As they lower the bar to their chest this tension continues, only to be released throughout the whole body as the bar is pressed into a lockout.

“Lat pulldown the bar throughout the whole rep”- A common misconception with the squat is the upper body is only semi-involved throughout the lift. Often these lifters will become buried or the bar will “roll” as they rise out of the hole, making the squat a lot more difficult and quite frankly unsafe. Maintaining constant engagement with the bar stems from the act of pulling it down into the body, specifically somewhere within the traps depending on the style of squatting used. To cue this I like to say, “lat pulldown that bar into you”. This starts from the initial set-up and is maintained throughout the lift, even as one comes out of the hole and drives their back up into the bar. Missed lifts or inefficient reps can stem from a number of causes, but often I see novices have a disconnect between this concept. Thinking about it in terms of a lat pulldown allows us to compare this feeling with something we are familiar with.  

“Hold your breath to secure your brace, reset between reps”- One of the newer concepts I’ve been using with athletes is the timing of breath. Before I can go into this cue further, I should preface by saying the execution of this may vary slightly based on the reps performed for the set (hence the “reset between reps” aspect I’ve included).  Essentially, when we breathe, the act of exhaling will naturally relax the body or cause us to lose the brace we are trying to hold, even if it is ever so slightly. Go ahead and try it without lifting, try holding your brace while exhaling. Impossible. 

During a lift, relaxing or losing our brace is the exact opposite we want to do. Bracing allows us to keep our spine protected, but also creates an environment where we are able to effectively exert as much force as possible. Therefore, I tell my lifters to hold their breath throughout the entire rep.  This helps the lifter brace throughout the duration of the lift making them more efficient, effective, and less likely to acquire an injury. When performing multiple reps within a set, I advise lifters to reset their breath between reps. Essentially, one will brace, inhale, hold, finish the rep, exhale, repeat. Proper breathing mechanics are just as much of a skill as the lifts themselves. Practicing this concept continuously will help make it more second nature and easier to implement.

Well, there you have it. My simple cues to instantly fix the Big 3. Give these cues a try during your next training session. With anything “new” I like to try things when I’m working with weights in the 70-80% range, so something that is heavy enough to start showing areas of weakness but light enough where the actual implementation of them will be relatively seamless. 

Did these cues work for you? Want to learn more about Brittany and her coaching? Visit brittanykohnketraining.com or find her on social media: Instagram @brittany_kohnke or on Facebook CoachBrittanyKohnke.


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