Try These 9 Squat Cues the Next Time You’re Under a Barbell

"Chest up" isn't the only cue on the block.

There is a definitive art to cueing squats and other barbell lifts. Cueing refers to the short phrases and reminders you give yourself to maintain good form while lifting. A couple of cues you may have heard are “pack the lats” or “spread the floor.” But what makes sense to one lifter might not make sense to another. The best ways to cue the squat don’t come from repetition: they come from knowing the lift and yourself.

Think of the agonizing struggle of your gym buddy attempting to help you hit depth in your squat by repeating the same few words over and over again to no avail. Understanding proper technique and then building cues around correcting your form has to make sense to you to be effective. Not all cues can be the same because not all cues work for the same person.

This article will cover how to cue the squat and walk you through when to use cues and with whom they’re helpful. You’ll find a lot of options below because cues are ultimately about understanding what an exercise needs. Then you have to find the best way to explain it to yourself.

The Best Squat Cues

Foot and Ankle Cues

Imagine building your squat from the ground up. In that sense, everything starts with your feet and ankles.

To safely execute the squat, the goal is full foot contact with even distribution of body weight. A number of cues have evolved over the years, often about a “tripod foot” or “outward pressure.”

While these cues can be very helpful for some, they might not give you the direction you need. Squatting requires your feet to remain fully on the floor to provide the base of support needed for maximal force production. If you can’t maintain full foot contact while thinking “outward pressure,” there are alternative cues.

Common Cues

Cues Worth Trying

  • Collapse the arch.
  • Drive the big toe down.

Why They Work

The idea here is to widen the foot to prevent an excessive arch or lateral bias. Keep your bodyweight distribution even across the entire foot and prevent loss of balance. Experiment with these cues even as you’re just standing up and see which your body intuitively responds to.

Knee Cues

Knee tracking is a tricky topic because everyone’s body is different. So, there is an individualized acceptable degree of movement between each lifter. The main concern with knee tracking is uncontrolled valgus, or aggressive inward knee flare during the concentric (or up) portion of the squat.

To avoid this, many people think “knees out” while squatting. But that cue doesn’t work the same for everyone. Subtle internal rotation at the hip occurs during force production, so a small degree of valgus is actually okay. If you feel like you’re plateauing with your squat while cueing “knees out,” the cue might be limiting your internal hip rotation. You can try new cues to help your knees track in a healthier way — and get maximal force production from your hips.

Common Cues

  • Knees out.

Cues Worth Trying

  • Root the hips.
  • Active foot.

Why They Work

Knee tracking cues are meant to help you properly align the hip, knee, and ankle over the course of the lift. There is an acceptable degree of movement at the knee depending on the lifter. Cues should be designed to retain proper muscle engagement at the hip or ankle throughout the lift.

If forcing your knees out reduces the amount of help you get from your hips, trying telling yourself to “root the hips” or keep an “active foot” instead. When these cues work correctly for your body, you’ll notice yourself pushing your knees out in response to them anyway. But, you’ll do it from your hips or feet, which will help your hips stay engaged rather than just pushing your knees out for the sake of fulfilling the cue.

Hip Cues

Your hips can’t sink or rise too fast during the squat — but they also can’t lag behind. Cueing the hips is highly influenced by squat type. Depending on your individual goals, limb length, and bar placement (front, high, or low bar squatting), the cue may differ.

Additionally, it helps to notice where your technique breakdown occurs if you’re struggling to complete lifts. The main goal with any squat is to stay as upright as possible given your variation, with a neutral spine, and without overemphasizing forward or backward body pressure.

Common Cues

  • Sit back.

Cues Worth Trying

  • Hinge then sit straight down.
  • Hide the tailbone.

Why They Work

When you cue your hips, think about keeping yourself in the pocket. The combined center of mass (of your bodyweight and bar weight) should be maintained over the midfoot. Use cues that will help you keep the bar path consistent over your midfoot. You’ll also want to avoid any lateral hip shifting or early hip rise on the concentric (going up) portion of the lift. Try out cues like “hide the tailbone” to see if your body responds well.

Lat Cues

The squat may be a leg day staple, but that doesn’t mean your upper body doesn’t play a huge role. The lats play an integral role in keeping the torso rigid and assisting in force transfer from the legs. Cueing the lats also depends on your exact set-up: for example, are you performing a low bar or high bar squat, with wide-set or close-grip hands?

Regardless of squat type, the main goal is to get the lats as tight as possible. Common cues may feed into a hyperextended posture if they are applied universally without considering your own limb length, mobility, or set up preferences.

Common Cues

  • Bend the bar.
  • Connect the elbows.

Cues Worth Trying

  • Pack the lats.

Why They Work

The intent in cueing the lats is to get the muscle as tight as possible to help support the barbell. Cues such as pulling the bar into yourself or connecting the elbows behind the back may help fire up the lats, and it’s great if they’re helping you. 

But if you’re noticing low back pain, these cues may be lending themselves to a hyperextended posture if they distract from proper core tension. Instead, associating sensational cues — such as the feeling of a lat pulldown contraction with a more general term such as “packing the lats” — may help avoid an over-cue from literally trying to connect the elbows.

Breathing

Learning how to breathe while you’re lifting is every bit as important as learning how to physically move the bar. Breathing during the squat greatly impacts brace mechanics and quality. 

It also can influence the entire squat set up depending on how much diaphragmatic expansion takes place. Although seemingly straightforward, many lifters find themselves breathing with improper mechanics and losing potential movement quality or safety from the brace itself.

Common Cues

  • Big breath.
  • Push the belly out.

Cues Worth Trying

  • Fill the canister.
  • Fill from the bottom up.
  • Lower the piston.

Why They Work

The intent with breathing is to utilize a belly breath rather than a chest breath. Improper breath mechanics often look like a shrugging motion at the upper back and a sub-optimal use of an air pressure brace.

Avoiding chest breathing is a skill that can be cued, or trained, during warm-up drills to assure proper technique under working load. Breathing through pursed lips or the nose often helps with proper “air placement.” Think about filling a cup with water, or about a piston from a car engine. These are common visuals that assist in helping you learn how to breathe for a brace.

Bracing

Bracing in a squat is usually viewed from the abdominal standpoint. But the reality is, the brace requires generating full body tension.

An insufficient or poorly executed abdominal brace can put a lot of unnecessary stress on the rest of your body. Generating full body tension before squatting can make a huge difference in safety and force production.

Common Cues

  • Tight.
  • Brace.

Cues Worth Trying

  • Stack.
  • Rigid.
  • Body tension.

Why They Work

Arrange the ribcage over the pelvis and secure as tight and complete an abdominal brace as possible. This can be accomplished by flexing the glutes, locking the quads, and breathing out as much air as possible to stack the torso over the hips. In the final second before initiating the squat, contract your body in unison to establish a rigid starting point.

Thinking about “stacking” your body and keeping it “rigid” might feel more specific and intuitive for your body than “brace,” which may encourage you to focus only on your abs.

Upper Back

Your upper traps and your scaps (your upper back and your shoulders) play a big role in making sure your squat is efficient. Similar to the lats, the upper back plays a huge role in securing the bar position throughout the lift.

You’ll want to think about maintaining tension in your traps this time and packing your scapulas during the setup. That way, you can maintain trap tension from the unrack through the entirety of the lift. This prevents a loss of tension and keeps you from falling forward or rounding under the weight of the barbell.

Common Cues

  • Shoulders back and down.

Cues Worth Trying

  • Pack the scaps.
  • Wedge.

Why They Work

You’ll want to start cueing your upper back as you start stepping under the bar. Classic cues reference “pinning the shoulder blades back and down” during the initial set up. This cue works well for so many people.

However, it might create a tug-of-war between unwanted rib flare and trying to keep the ribcage pinned down for an abdominal brace. Instead, a more general term for developing tension — such as “packing the scaps” may help you maintain proper tension without overkilling your posture into a rib flare.

Descent

If you don’t start your descent right, you’re not likely to reach your desired squat depth. Cueing the descent, or initiation of the squatting pattern, is hotly debated. Some prefer a knees-first approach, whereas others practice hips first.

Ultimately, this will come down to your technical strength and ability to retain position. It also depends a bit on your limb length and how much experience you have with squatting.

Common Cues

  • Heel pressure.
  • Drive the knees forward.

Cues Worth Trying

  • Hinge first.
  • Straight down.

Why They Work

Focusing on your squat descent is intended to help you keep yourself balanced throughout the lift. You want your center of mass squarely maintained in your midfoot while recruiting as much muscle mass as possible.

If you find yourself falling forward, or feel yourself getting shoved towards your toes, a hips back (or hinge) cue may be appropriate. Alternatively, if you commonly find yourself too heel-dominated, it may be beneficial to intentionally break at the knees.

Out of the Hole

It can be tough to develop patience and confidence coming out of the hole, but cueing your squat well can help.

Cueing out of the hole, or as concentric force production begins, should be customized to the most difficult part of your squat. In general, the most common error is either rounding the back or your hips rising before the rest of the body. 

Common Cues

Cues Worth Trying

  • Drive your back into the bar.
  • Traps through the bar.

Why They Work

The intent behind cueing from the hole is to maintain a rigid posture and to create leg drive simultaneously from the quads and hips. Losing that position by rounding your upper back or shifting forward onto the toes can be combated by cueing peak upper back and core tension.

Instead, try cues that emphasize your interaction with the bar and see if that improves your ability to stand with a heavy load.

When to Use Cues

Lifting cues are meant to help you tweak your lift by repeating a quick, easy phrase to yourself. They can remind you what to do without taking too much of a toll on your brain. You’ll learn which cues you need while you’re refining your lifting technique. You can tell which cues are effective by trial and error. Think about how you personally translate words or concepts into physical movements to figure out what kinds of cues work best for you.

During training or competition, try to set a predetermined amount of cues that have been consistently effective for your squat in the past. Even after you feel like you’ve ironed out the initial kinks in your form, your body may default back to a perceived safe or strong position when you reach a near maximal effort. So, keep cueing yourself consistently to keep your form on point throughout training.

Cueing becomes extra critical when lifts get heavy. Effective cues reinforce proper positioning during training and allow you to train with excellent form even during the heaviest lifts. Using cues properly can help prevent a form breakdown when the going gets tough.

Cues should be used at specific times relevant to the intent of the cue. A bracing cue should be given during the set up to perfect the starting position. A descent cue should be the last thing heard before you initiate, and so on. 

Who Should Use Cues

Anyone who receives benefits from cues should use them. The catch is that there should be a small number of cues utilized at any point in time to prevent overthinking

Go into your squat session knowing which two or three cues work best for you. Know what order they come in, and repeat them to yourself as needed. Make them automatic in your mind so you won’t be overthinking during the lift.

Force production ultimately determines if you successfully complete the squat. If you are cued in too many different directions, you won’t be able to focus on maximal force production because your attention will be split. 

If you feel like you need a lot of cues while you’re learning squat form, that’s okay. Rest assured that as time goes on, many form errors will be corrected and reinforced to the point that their cueing becomes less and less necessary. It won’t feel clunky forever — you’ll get the flow down the more you use cues.

Understanding Cues

Perhaps one of the most important points about cueing is that arbitrary use of words does not accomplish the goal of a cue. Simply using a word will not translate to performing the goal if the cue you’re using doesn’t make physical sense to your body. 

Packing the lats, wedging, stacking, or any number of cues are meaningless without a preexisting understanding of the physical action or sensation associated with that cue. It’s okay to play around with different cues until you find which ones automatically feel intuitive to your body.

How To Squat

One major benefit of using cues to squat is that they can help increase your body’s intuitive understanding of how to squat. From set-up to standing up under a heavy load, perfecting your squat form take discipline and practice. Here’s how to get started with a low bar back squat:

  • Step under the barbell with your feet flat on the floor, toes pointed slightly outward. Establish a position so that the barbell is directly over your midfoot.
  • Establish a hand and shoulder position where you can pin the bar to your back. Pack your lats and scaps, and take a big breath from the bottom up. Establish tension throughout your whole body.
  • Keeping your feet about hip-distance apart, use three small steps to walk back and re-establish your starting position. Try not to lean too far forward.
  • Descend by either heading straight down or hinging first, depending on what’s best for your body.
  • Once you sink down to your desired depth, push your traps through the bar and drive your heels into the ground as you rise back to standing.

Wrapping Up

The best squat cues should be concise, properly timed, and effective. During maximal attempts, especially when under high-stress conditions such as competition, most of your energy should be devoted to completing the squat — not analyzing words. 

Even if your cue isn’t an old classic, any cue can accomplish its goal if it is successfully paired with a meaningful reference point. In other words, if it works for your body and it keeps your squat form on point, it’s probably a good cue.

Featured Image: Vladimir Sukhachev / Shutterstock