There are a ton of different ways to coach the squat, so before reading any further I want to be completely transparent — this article is not intended to serve as an end all be all for certain cues.
In my opinion, one of the best ways to progress as an athlete and coach is to experiment with different cues for various exercises. There are an endless amount of ways to cue the squat, so trying out different methods is not only fun, but a challenge at times because everyone responds differently to various internal and external cues.
For this article, we’re going to dissect and discuss the popular squat cue, “chest up”. This cue is not inherently wrong in nature, and it certainly holds a ton of benefit, however, when taken out of context and to an extreme the cue can be a bit misleading. Let’s discuss what it’s designed to do, where it can go wrong, and other ways to cue this movement pattern.
What Does “Chest Up” Mean?
The cue “chest up” is primarily used during the concentric portion of the squat. It’s essentially a verbal cue that is designed to help athletes from slipping into the problem of having the torso dip forward or fold during the concentric (standing up) phase of the squat, a.k.a. when coming out of the hole.
When coaches and athletes cue “chest up” they want the torso to remain in a relatively upright/neutral position and remain packed and consistent throughout the full movement. They do not mean throw the chest up to the sky and flare the ribs outwards and disconnect the alignment of the mid-back and the lower back.
The torso’s position will be dictated by the squat style being used. For example, low bar and high bar squats will have different torso positions, and that’s in addition to an athlete’s anthropometrics. If the torso folds during the concentric portion of the squat, then a lifter can run into three issues:
- Missing the lift and having to dump the weight.
- Misgrooving and having poor bar path, but grinding out the rep.
- Increasing chance of injury due to a shift of stress from the lower body directly to the back (think: good morning squat).
It’s important to note that if the chest does drop in a heavy squat that a lifter can still find success, but it will usually come down to training age and how one has equipped themselves to handle lifts when they don’t go right.
Where “Chest Up” Can Go Wrong?
Like every lifting cue, when a cue is taken to an extreme and out of context, then you can run into problems.
Regardless of your squat style, there needs to be consistencies in movements patterns to ensure you’re producing the most strength possible based on optimal leverages and mechanics. In the “chest up” cue’s case, it can go wrong when the chest (thoracic region of the back/mid-back) becomes disconnected from the lumbar and the rest of the body.
This over-exaggeration of extending the chest upwards will shift the ribs out of alignment (think: exorcism pose), and that can actually cause you to fold easier in squats than if you kept the ribs down and in-line with the rest of the torso. If the ribs are high, then you’re going to losing contractility of the core.
Think about the torso as a branch on a tree, what type of brach will be stronger when holding weight: a straight branch or a bowed upwards branch? The bowed branch will be much more likely to whip in the opposing direction due to lack of mid-line stability.
In biomechanics speak, we can look at the issue of the chest flaring from the point of view of shifting the bar away from the mid-foot, which can cause poor moment arms at the hips and knees resulting in loss of power creation at these joints. More than likely, if the chest is flared, then other areas of the squat can also breakdown such as bar placement on the back, breathing patterns, elbow position, and more.
Alternative Cues for “Chest Up”
At the end of the day, if the squat cue “chest up” works for you, then keep using it!
However, if you think you might be falling into the camp who’s taking the cue so literally that’s it’s causing poor squat mechanics and power production, then try one of the three cues below.
1. Pretend the Torso Is a Cylinder/Barrel
One useful way to visually think about torso positioning in the squat is to pretend the upper body is a cylinder or barrel. Chris Duffin from Kabuki Strength does a phenomenal job of explaining this visual below.
Basically, pretend that the torso is a cylinder and you’re trying to compress it like a spring or piston by breathing into the belly and pressing out into obliques. In doing so, you’ll keep the chest down and the torso will remain neutral.
- Breathe and press into the obliques
- Compress the cylinder
2. Imagine the Pelvis As a Bucket of Water
Another great way to think about the torso when squatting is to pretend the pelvis is a bucket of water. Now, this cue might not directly relate to the chest, but its outcome will help fix the problem of hyperextending the thoracic.
Essentially, if the pelvis was a bucket of water, then any excessive shift in flexion or extension would cause a spill. When athletes hyperextend the lumbar, the mid-back will generally also hyperextend as a byproduct. For this cue, you want the torso neutral to prevent water from spilling out.
If you can visualize this with the pelvis, then more than likely the chest will remain down and stacked. Check out the great graphic below highlighting this from my friend, Eugen Loki.
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⭕️HOW SHOULD YOU KEEP YOUR BACK WHEN DOING SQUATS?⭕️ This one comes from James (@lustrengththerapy) who gave me the idea of drawing this cool analogy. I love analogies. When it comes to squatting, it’s extremely important to keep your lower back “Neutral” and not rotated (anteriorly or posteriorly). This can be easily explained with the “Bucket Analogy”. Think about your pelvis as a bucket full of water. The idea is that you want to keep the water inside and NOT let it leak forward or backwards. If you excessively arch your back (anterior pelvic tilt) you will put alot of stress on your lower back and your abs won’t be able to tigten up. Water will leak forward ❌ If you excessively bend your lower back (posterior pelvic tilt) which typically happens to those people who squeeze their glutes at the top in the wrong way, lots of stress will be placed on the lower back again. The water in the bucket will leak backwards. ❌ Keeping the bucket neutral, therefore not letting the water leak out – or maybe just a liiiittle forward depending on the squatting style you’re using (I know low bar squatters will spam the comment section) – will make sure that your lower back will be safe and stable, with your abs engaged. ✅ If you love analogies like this one, or the other ones I’ve shared let me know in the comment section below with a comment, and I’ll make sure to think about more of these. 👀 🔥🔥🔥TAG somebody who needs to set up better for their squats! #pheasyque
- Don’t spill the water
- Neutral Pelvis
My personal favorite cue to use to avoid thinking “chest up” is “traps”. For me, when I get to heavy weight in low-bar squats, I’m prone to dumping forward when I have moments of uncertainty or start to hit my sticking point.
Hearing the cue “traps” reminds me to drive directly upwards into the bar. I like to pretend there’s a heavy rock on my back that’s about to crush me and I have to displace as much force as possible upwards to get it off — you wouldn’t hyperextend the chest to do this.
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3 takeaways from this grindy 182.5kg (403 lb) squat. 1. Mentality is key. I hadn't had over 400 lbs on my back since January 2017 before I ruptured my quad squatting, so needless to say, I was nervous heading into this lift. I kept my mindset, remembered my cues, and somehow made this shit work. 2. Coaching is huge. For the meet, @ryan_espiritu volunteered to coach me & it helped me realize how clutch having a great coach is (thank you, Ryan!). You can hear him yelling "traps" throughout the whole lift, aka my toughest cue to remember. 3. KISS: Keep it simple stupid. Before this lift I thought about my head editor David (@davidthomastao) and what he told me during our last career development talk: KISS. I applied the same logic for this lift and took it all one step at a time. Next meet? Potentially in October or November!
- Drive up through the bar
It All Comes Back to Context
When it comes squat cues, there’s really no right or wrong cue when they’re used correctly in the right context. What’s most important is that you find cues that resonate best with you and help you maintain proper mechanics throughout heavy lifts.
If you find yourself missing lifts due to specific issues, then it might be worth trying out new ways to visualize your lifts.