The Big 3

Becoming a better, stronger lifter takes years of practice, but you can sure speed up the process by remembering a few simple cues.

Lets begin with my favourite:

The Deadlift

Cue #1: Place Your Shoulder Blades in Your Back Pocket

In short, one of the most common mistakes I see is not setting up properly — part of which entails not getting the lats involved in the lift. As it is, getting the lats to fire helps to activate the lumbar fascia, which in turn, keeps you much more stable throughout the duration of the set.

Unfortunately, there are many folks who don’t quite get this concept, and as a result, their setup ends up looking pretty concerning. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that this is far from an optimal position to pull from.

Conversely, the cue “place your shoulder blades in your back pocket,”(scapulae together and down) establishes a much more conducive setup to pull. With that simple cue, we get a few things happening:

• Upper back is tight

• Chest is tall (which prevents the shoulders from rounding)

Good deadlift set-up.

I automatically fix many common technique flaws with just that one cue. Moreover, anyone who says it’s impossible to maintain a tight upper back with heavier loads can watch my 210kgPR and suck it.

Cue #2: “Sit Back!”

Granted, I don’t have any research to back this up (other than common sense), but it may come as a surprise to some of you that the deadlift isn’t a squat.

For starters, unlike the squat, which typically starts with an eccentric motion, the deadlift is the exact opposite and starts with a concentric action.

Next, and more to the point, saying that the squat and deadlift is crap: specifically, when training with heavier loads, the “sticking point” occurs at different positions.

Put another way, the squat generally has a more linear relationship between the hip and knee angles, while the deadlift essentially has three distinct joint actions – the knees at lift off, the hips when the barbell reaches knee height, and both the hips and knees simultaneously at lockout.

Either way, one of the main flaws I see in most people’s deadlift occurs when they start to initiate the descent back to the ground. After lockout, I often see trainees trying to “squat” the bar back down to the floor; that is, they’ll break with their knees, which results in the bar having to travel around the knees, resembling more of a squat than a deadlift.

Instead, I like to use the simple, effective cue “sit back” when trying to teach the hip hinge pattern. More specifically, I tell them, “I want you to imagine I’m standing behind you with a rope around your waist. When you descend, pretend I’m pulling your hips back with the rope.”  By doing so, we place a greater emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes, which is the point of the deadlift in the first place.

If you’re not used to it, it will definitely take some practice. But if this sounds like you, it’s definitely going to be an ego check, and I highly suggest taking some weight off the bar until you’re able to groove that proper hip hinge technique. It will make all the difference in the world.

Bench Press

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve all heard the same cues before: Arch your back!, get your air, spread the bar.

The bench press is my least favourite exercise. Admittedly, my bench numbers are nothing to brag about, which may help explain my attitude. Even so, I realize that for many the bench is what separates the men from the boys, and at the expense of losing my man-card for dissing it, I’d like to think that I’ve learned a thing or two on proper technique.

 When done correctly, the bench press incorporates the entire body to systematically lower the bar under control, pause, and hoist it off the chest. That being the case, one of the best cues I learned is “Pull the bar to the chest.”

Many just bomb the bar down to their pecs and never really learn to use their upper back to assist in the movement. Furthermore, many flare their elbows out and/or perform the movement with their feet up in the air, in some misguided effort to “isolate their pecs” more. In reality, all you’re really isolating is how retarded you look, not to mention increasing your chances of pissing your shoulder off in the long run.

Much like with the deadlift, it’s crucial to keep the upper back tight when benching. Again, the shoulders should be together and down, and you’re essentially going to “row” the bar down towards your chest.

In doing so, you’ll keep the lats activated, provide a ton more stability, and provide more of a spring effect when you push the bar off the chest. It takes some getting used to, but once you master it, I promise you’ll see your bench numbers soar.

The Squat

Cue #1: Maintain a Vertical Shin

Simply put, when most trainees squat, thy tend to push their knees forward, causing their shins to migrate forward over their toes, not necessarily a bad thing. The resulting positive shin angle places a ton more sheer force on the joint even more so when you add an external load such as a barbell on someone’s back.

Nevertheless, attempting to maintain more of a vertical shin angle (where the knees stay behind the toes) throughout the duration of a set will take much undue stress off the joint itself, and go a long way towards long-term success with the lift.

Cue #2: Sitting on Broken Glass

I think box squats are the perfect movement to teach beginners to squat with picture-perfect technique. By doing so, we cement the shin angle, engage the posterior chain to a greater degree, and more importantly, keep people honest with achieving proper depth (and I hate to be an arse here, but the vast majority of you reading this don’t even come close to proper depth on your squats.)

With the box squat, however, comes a multitude of errors and flaws in technique. Often, on the descent, I’ll see trainees just drop on the box.

Outside of the obvious (making their spine hate them), we can see how form gets sloppy when the lift is not controlled, particularly when discussing the transition between the eccentric and concentric portion of the lift. Additionally, the lifter loses all sense of “tightness” at the bottom of the lift and usually ends up “rocking” off the box.

To help use the phrase “pretend like you’re sitting on broken glass.” By doing so, learn to slow down and control the weight down to the box. At the same time, cue them to push their knees out to the left and right to open up the hips and engage the hamstrings a little more  all of which helps to maintain “stiffness” throughout the duration of the set.


In the end, while the cues discussed above are by no means an exhaustive list, I feel quite confident that they’ll help many of you out in the long run. Try them out today, and let me know what you think!


Aspire to Inspire. 


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