Use Cues, You Lose: Alternative Mental Strategies for Better Powerlifting Form

I’ve added 130 pounds to my powerlifting total over the last year, and – considering I spent most of that year dieting and cutting weight to compete as a lightweight at the US Open and a couple of local meets – I’m really happy with that.

But I’m even more proud of how much mental strength I’ve build over that time. You can’t measure your mental game in pounds or inches, but it’s absolutely crucial if you want to compete in any sport.

I used to be a headcase on the platform. Until recently, the squat and bench press never really felt comfortable, so I’d really have to focus on my technique in order to lift my best. That worked fine in the gym, but when the pressure was on, my focus just…disappeared. Take Boss of Bosses 3, for example. It was my first time on a big stage, and even though I felt pretty good after my warm-up, when it was time for my opening squat, I found myself overwhelmed with adrenaline, then my mind went blank, and everything went to shit. I missed my opener and ended up totaling far less than I’d planned (although I somehow still pulled out an overall win at the meet).

Even leading up to the big day, I was a nervous wreck: I’d push too hard in training, miss reps, get frustrated, and end up paralyzed by over-analysis and anger. Contrast that to my experience at Reebok Record Breakers. Meet prep still wasn’t great: I’d been competing in back-to-back meets for nearly two years, and my body wasn’t happy about it. Everything hurt, and my sleeping, appetite, and motivation suffered for it. But I was ready for that. Meet prep always sucks, and I just took that in stride. I knew that on meet day, I’d put everything together, and that’s exactly what I did.

I actually felt pretty terrible warming up, but on every attempt and on every movement, I was in the zone: totally focused on the moment at hand, without any sense of nervousness or anxiety. A lot changed during that time, but one of the biggest changes involved my mental approach to the lifts: I shifted from thinking about good form to feeling it. Find yourself in need of improving your own mental game? Read on.

Getting Started

Don’t get me wrong: technique is hugely important for the development of strength. Powerlifting sometimes gets a bad rap as a “simple” sport – one that’s pretty easy to master and that doesn’t require a lot of skill or coordination.

That’s bullshit.

The powerlifts are highly technical movements. Admittedly, they’re not as difficult to execute properly as the Olympic lifts, and they offer a fairly large margin of error: you can often grind through a heavy squat, bench, or deadlift even if you lose the groove just a little bit. Even so, developing outstanding technique can take years, even decades; and, in my opinion, improving your technique should be a lifelong journey. Each lift involves so many nuances that perfect technique is a fantasy. Your goal is to get as close to perfect as possible.

Many lifters try to get to that perfection by building a comprehensive mental checklist of cues to guide them through each movement. This is a great place to start. Cues – simple phrases, or images that help you to activate the right muscles or put your body in the right position – are invaluable tools, especially if you lack kinesthetic awareness.

If you have trouble recruiting your lats in the deadlift, for example, then thinking about pulling your shoulders towards your hip pockets might help you to find the right position off the floor. If you tend to use all quads and lower back, thinking about pulling the floor apart with your feet might help you to engage your hamstrings and glutes. A good coach will be able to give you cues that work for you. Just watch Dave Tate help me with the bench press:

If you’re really struggling to find good form, I strongly encourage you to use a mental checklist. Your checklist should start before you even approach the bar, and carry you all the way through completion of the movement.

Your deadlift checklist might look something like this:

  • Double-check that the bar is loaded properly and that it’s positioned evenly – not on a crack in the floor or at an angle.
  • Approach the bar with purpose. Think about feeling your feet as you walk up to the bar – this will help you focus.
  • Build tightness before you grab the bar. Pull your shoulders towards your back pockets to activate your lats; pull your hips forward and squeeze down towards your navel to engage your abs.
  • Pull the floor apart with your feet to engage your posterior chain.
  • Take your grip while maintaining that tightness. Think of your arms like ropes
    connecting your body to the bar.
  • Breathe in towards your diaphragm, as if you were about to blow up a balloon, and pull the floor apart hard to begin the movement.
  • As the bar breaks the floor think about accelerating as hard as you can, and explode through the lockout.

A system like this has a lot of benefits. It’s reassuring: if you follow the checklist, you know you’ll stay tight and execute the lift well.

You’re Thinking Too Much

Here’s the rub: that’s a lot to keep in your head, and it’s a whole lot to run through in a lift that might only take a few seconds to complete. In fact, trying to think about all those different steps can even be distracting. It’s easy to focus so much on cues that you forget to put in the effort necessary for productive training!

And, if you rely on those cues too much, what happens when the butterflies start dancing around in your stomach before you step out onto the platform, or when you take a big hit of ammonia? Chances are, you forget them, and your form falls apart.

If you’re a beginner, unfortunately, you don’t have much of a choice. You just don’t have the experience necessary to execute the movements with quality technique without a checklist like this, so you’ll have to accept that you might not be able to push quite as hard as you might like. Don’t get me wrong: you still need to train really damn hard.

I strongly recommend training with higher reps during this stage: the lighter loads necessary for higher-rep sets will allow you to focus on technique and still move the weight well. Furthermore, more reps means more practice, and more practice means quicker development of skill.

But once you’ve developed a bit of a feel for the movement, you should start to move away from that checklist, and towards a less verbal method. “Feel” is very important here. When I prepare to deadlift, I don’t think through a list of cues. In fact, I don’t really “think” at all. Instead, I recall the feeling of a perfectly executed lift. This is a little tricky to explain, but if you’ve ever hit a really perfect rep, where the bar seems almost weightless even though it’s heavy, you know what I mean. You can probably recall the sensation of your hands on the bar, your feet pressing down against the floor, and the tightness in your muscles.

This doesn’t involve cueing, and it doesn’t involve visualization. Both of those methods move you away from feeling and towards thinking, and thinking interferes with perfect execution. How do you get from thinking to feeling? The first and most important step is practice. After hundreds, maybe even thousands, of well-executed lifts, the movement will start to become more natural, and you’ll begin to develop that all-important feel. You can actually speed this process up, too.

After a perfect rep or set – or even after just a very good rep or set – take a moment, sit down some place quiet where you won’t be disturbed, close your eyes, and try to relive that feeling. Do not try to visualize the lift, and definitely don’t try to think about it or describe it. Just sit with that feeling. It might help to focus on your breath: notice when you breathe in, and notice when you breathe out.

Yeah, it sounds super flakey. Don’t worry about it. You don’t need to sit there long; a minute or two is plenty. Again, this isn’t a magic cure, but over time, it will speed your transition away from the mental checklist.

If you’re already an advanced lifter, you probably won’t notice the benefits of “feeling” a lift right away. In fact, you might not notice them until you’re at a meet and there’s some pressure on you. In those moments – the moments where your brain tends to get in the way, and you get caught up in story lines about the other lifters, or about achieving your goals – being able to let go of your mental checklist is absolutely crucial.

When I lift in a meet, my mind is completely blank: I don’t think about the crowds, or the weight on the bar, or even what attempt I’m on. I’m just entirely in the moment. That’s an enormously valuable skill, but it’s impossible to develop without countless hours of practice.

Feature image screenshot from @phdeadlift Instagram page. 

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.