From the Ground Up: 6 Ways to Cue the Squat for Better Movement

What makes a good cue? What makes a great cue?

Individuality.

Strength coaching and training is an art. Believe it or not, if you work with athletes or just like lifting yourself, then you’re an artist. Think about it, you’re able to teach and create movement patterns that hadn’t previously been there. You might not have a paint brush in your hand, but with physical touch, mental, and verbal cues you’re in the act of creation.

That’s why understanding that lifting cues are as individual as how someone moves is essential for success. In this article, we’re going to cover six areas of common squat-focused cues to use when coaching, teaching, or lifting yourself.

Editor’s Note: These cues may not always be the best fit for you + your lifting style, or make sense right away, and you may respond to other verbal/mental cues better. Please keep that in mind when reading further! Also, consider that each cue will work indirectly with one another and they’re all connected when performing squats.  

1. The Feet & Ankles

Grip the Floor

The cue grip and spread the floor, rooting, or screw the feet into the floor is focused around the idea of maintaining a strong tripod foot position. This is the idea that we maintain even levels of pressure displacement throughout the foot at three points during our lifts. These points are the base of the first metatarsal (big toe), base of the fifth (little toe), and the heel.

Spreading the floor can also be a nice mental cue for an athlete to slightly externally rotate the hips, which can help engage the posterior chain and maintain proper knee angles. Check out this video from Kabuki Strength Lab to assess your ability to grip the floor.

Commonly Used Feet/Ankle Cues

  • Grip the Floor
  • Spread the Floor

Cues Worth Trying

  • Screw Your Feet Into the Floor
  • Root Your Feet Into the Floor
  • Stack the Ankle

2. The Knees

Knee Tracking

Cue likes push the knees out and break at the knees first are designed to promote proper knee tracking and to avoid things like knee valgus (knees caving in). To be honest, knee cuing is one of the more nuanced topics in the strength world when it comes to coaching the squat, yet everyone has the same goal in mind. Keep lifters safe, create bigger squats, and move optimally per one’s anatomical build.

That being said, it’s tough to say which cue will work best for what athlete. Sometimes the idea of knees out helps, but that’s not the only cue that can work. For example, strength coach John Paul Caunchi cues lifters to track the knee neutrally in the eccentric, which actually helps some lifters avoid valgus in the early concentric (stand up) portion of the squat. Check out his video and explanation below.

Another cue that’s been said to be useful by coaches like Bret Contreras when working to track the knee properly is push through the outside of the heels, or drive the lateral heel. This thought can help naturally create a strong tripod position, along with maintaining proper knee angles through the eccentric and concentric portions of the squat.

Commonly Used Knee Cues

  • Push the Knees Out
  • Knees Over Toes/Maintain a Vertical Shin

Cues Worth Trying

  • Track the Knee Neutrally
  • Drive the Lateral Heel

3. The Hips

Hip Angle

When it comes to the hips, you’ll commonly hear things like sit back, which isn’t entirely wrong when used as a cue in the squat, but it’s also very easily misconstrued. This cue can be beneficial for newer lifters who tend to fall forward often, but it can also be problematic when the act of sitting back takes over the ability to properly engage the legs (aka the folding chair/good morning squat dilemma). Not to mention, thinking too much about the hip angle can cause normal knee movement to become problematic.

For those working on better ways to cue the hips some coaches recommend using things like hide the tail bone, or anything that resembles the act of maintaining a hip posture that doesn’t compromise the lifter’s ability to shift their momentum from the eccentric to the concentric in the hips, aka shooting the hips up before the torso rises.

Editor’s Note: This section closely relates to the section below on coming out of the hole, as the hips and torso should work in unison throughout the squat. 

Commonly Used Hip Cue

  • Sit Back

Cues Worth Trying

  • Hide the Tailbone
  • Squat Like In a Smith Machine, Straight Up and Down (a Blaine Sumner cue)
  • Point Belt Buckle Towards Chin (Tony Gentilcore)

4. Torso & Bracing

Belly Breath

Torso positioning can (and will) vary between different different back squat styles (low & high-bar). Although, the act of bracing for both squat styles shouldn’t differ, which is why it’s included above with the torso titling. Bracing entails maintaining a hollow torso posture through the act of acquiring a big belly breath, then pushing down and out to create a natural belt of pressure.

Breathing could be argued to be one of the most important characteristics when performing compounds. A strong brace can help protect your spine, which is a major determinant of an athlete’s longevity. Check out Juggernaut’s awesome video below for a bracing explanation in the squat.

One thing to keep in mind when considering bracing is to pay attention to your spine’s alignment when getting your breath. If you notice that you’re hyperextending the lumbar (and sometimes mid/upper back), then there’s a good chance you’re only taking air into the upper area of the torso.

Commonly Used Bracing Cues

  • Big Breath
  • Breathe Into the Belly

Cues Worth Trying

  • Push Out Into the Belly Button and Obliques
  • Press Your Belly Button Down
  • Breathe Into the Lower Back

5. Upper Back

Pack the Traps

The way we utilize the upper back and lats can help maintain a strong bar position throughout the squat. This concept is important to grasp because at times when squats become slow when heavy, a loose upper back can cause a forward collapse under the bar.

Cues commonly used for the upper back are things like pull the shoulders back, or keep the elbows under the bar. Both of these are trying to create the idea of maintaining a fixed upper back to create that shelf-like position in both the low and high-bar back squat.

Commonly Used Upper Back Cues

  • Shoulder Blades Tight
  • Pull the Lats Back

Cues Worth Trying

  • Pull the Bar Through You
  • Create a Shelf With the Traps
  • Elbows Under the Bar

6. Out of the Hole

Chest Up

When coming out the hole there are plenty of cues that get used, and often they’ll differ depending on what an athlete is struggling with. In my opinion, the most common cue is chest up, which is correct in a lot of instances, but without full context of a lifter’s squat it can be easily misused.

At times, the use of chest up as a cue can create an extended back out of the hole, so a lifter could lose power due to lack of a strong torso positioning and hip drive working in unison. The goal when cuing yourself or athletes out of the hole should be to create movement where the hips and torso come up at the same time (regardless it’s a low or high-bar squat).

Commonly Used Concentric Cue

  • Chest Up

Cues Worth Trying

  • Traps Through the Bar
  • Shoulders Back and Up Into the Bar (Ed Coan’s cue)
  • Stand Straight Up
  • Push Through Your Big Toe

Concluding Thoughts

Cues are great, but they can also lead to paralysis by analysis. This article isn’t intended to overload you with cues, but to provide a little context into the variability they can have, along with the idea that every cue is related to another in some respects. For example, the feet will relate to the knees, which will relate to the hips, and so forth.

If you find yourself struggling with one are of the squat, then trying out different ways to approaching and thinking about that movement can be your first step to fixing a faulty movement pattern.

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Jake holds a Master's in Sports Science and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Jake serves as one of the full time writers and editors at BarBend. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has spoken at state conferences on the topics of writing in the fitness industry and building a brand. As of right now, Jake has published over 1,100 articles related to strength athletes and sports. Articles about powerlifting concepts, advanced strength & conditioning methods, and topics that sit atop a strong science foundation are Jake's bread-and-butter. On top of his personal writing, Jake edits and plans content for 15 writers and strength coaches who come from every strength sport.Prior to BarBend, Jake worked for two years as a strength and conditioning coach for hockey and lacrosse players, and was a writer at the Vitamin Shoppe's corporate office. Jake regularly competes in powerlifting in the 181 lb weight class, and considers himself a weightlifting shoe sneaker head. On the side of writing full time, Jake works as a part-time strength coach and works with clients through his personal business Concrete Athletics in Hoboken and New York City.