13 of the Most Perplexing Exercise ‘Cues’ and What They Really Mean

13 of the Most Perplexing Exercise ‘Cues’ and What They Really Mean
Photo: Pablo Rasero, Shutterstock

Some things are hard to explain, and body movements are definitely on that list. When you’re lifting a weight or getting into a yoga pose, each of the 600-ish muscles in your body has a specific role. So trainers have come up with metaphors, feelings, and visual descriptions to help get the message across. Sometimes one of these cues just clicks for you — but other times you may be wondering what the hell it means.

We’re going to go through some of the more common cues you’ll hear, but first I’d like to give a caveat about what a “cue” even is. These phrases aren’t descriptions of how a lift should look; they’re meant as nudges in a particular direction. For example, if you’re leaning too far forward in a squat, you may be told to “sit back.” Somebody who is already properly balanced shouldn’t sit back; that would introduce a new problem.

This means that not every cue you’ll hear is truly meant for you. The most common cues are meant to counteract common mistakes, and that’s what you will hear in general advice or from YouTube instructors. You’ll still need to use your judgment to figure out if the cue is helping you — or, if you’re working with somebody in person, ask for feedback on whether you’re doing it right.

And, to be honest, different coaches will argue about which cues are most appropriate when. I’m not going to wade into any of those debates. Instead, here’s my best description of what each of these strange cues is meant to get you to do.

“Neutral spine”

In almost any exercise, it’s important that you don’t round or arch your back too much. It’s hard to describe how much is “too much,” and so trainers have come up with a bunch of metaphors to describe what we’re going for.

You might hear that your ribcage should be “stacked” over your pelvis, or that your spine should be in a “neutral” position. This doesn’t mean it has to be ramrod-straight, just that you’re not turning your torso into a banana shape with your belly sticking out and hips and shoulders behind — or the opposite, with your back rounded and your hips and shoulders scrunched together.

“Spread the floor”

On squats, you may hear that you should try to “spread the floor with your feet” or pretend that you’re standing on a piece of wrapping paper and try to tear it apart.

The idea is just to get you to use all of your leg muscles, including the ones on the outsides of your hips. If you’re trying to spread the floor, you’ll end up engaging your adductors and glutes, which will lead to a stronger, more stable position of your legs.

“Put your shoulder blades in your back pockets”

You shoulder blades are those weird-shaped bones on your back that can move around as you move your arms. (Scapula is the medical term.) When you do exercises that involve pulling your arms toward your torso, like rows, you usually want your lats — your latissimus dorsi — to do the work.

To set up the right position for this, you’ll want to contract your back muscles in a way that brings your shoulders down and slightly back. Imagine the butt pockets on a pair of jeans, and try to slide your shoulder blades down into them. In the process, you’ll end up contracting your lats, and also tightening a bunch of the less-famous shoulder and back muscles that are part of the team here.

“Open your heart”

In yoga, “opening” a body part means to create space by moving body parts away from each other. For your chest (or your “heart’s centre”) that basically means stretching your chest by bringing your shoulders farther apart from each other. You contract your upper back muscles, and stretch the muscles of your chest. You may also be encouraged to expand your ribcage, which gets you to involve the little muscles in between your ribs.

“Push your knees out”

When you’re squatting, a common beginner mistake is to allow the knees to drift toward each other, or even to lean against each other. This may feel like you’re making it easier on yourself (because keeping your legs apart is hard work) but it also means that you aren’t keeping a strong body position and you aren’t using all the muscles that are supposed to be involved.

If you think about pushing your knees out, that means keeping them away from each other. (“Out” in this sense meaning toward the outside of your body.) As you get stronger in weighted squats, it’s important to note that this cue is most helpful when you’re descending into the squat. As you’re on your way up, it’s OK to let your knees pull in slightly as long as everything else is under control.

“Pretend you’re about to get punched in the stomach”

When you’re bracing for a hit to the stomach — say you’re lying on the bed and you see your toddler or your pet run up ready to jump on you — you’ll instinctively tighten your core muscles so that that flying toddler/puppy/punch isn’t going to squish right into your belly. That’s the idea here: creating a strong, solid wall of muscle by contracting everything in your abdominal region. This way of engaging your core is commonly used for squats, deadlifts, and other heavy lifts.

“Pull your belly button toward your spine”

This and the previous bracing cue are both ways of asking you to engage your core, but in different ways. When you draw your belly button toward your spine, you’re engaging a muscle called the transverse abdominis. This is thought to be one of the muscles that’s important for stabilizing your spine. (That said, bracing like you’re going to be punched in the stomach is probably the better option.) You’ll hear this cue often in yoga and Pilates classes.

“Pull your shoulders away from your ears”

In many moves in yoga and Pilates, letting your shoulders shrug upward is not part of the movement. So you may hear the cue to pull your shoulders away from your ears, or to make your neck long. This isn’t really about your ears or neck at all; it’s meant to get you engaging the muscles of your back that pull your shoulders down.

“Pretend you’re crushing oranges in your armpits”

I’m really not sure why oranges are the go-to here, but this image has stuck in my mind — which I guess is the point. When you brace for a deadlift, you want to use your lats to pull your shoulders down toward your hips. Your lat muscles attach to your upper arms near your armpits, so engaging them means there is less space in your armpit. If there were an orange there, well, it would get squeezed. Check out this deadlift video and notice how the lifter’s shoulders visibly move back, making less space in her armpits.

“Squeeze your glutes”

Your glutes are your butt muscles, and one of their jobs is to extend your hips — basically the motion that happens when your hips move from a sitting to a standing position. That means your glutes need to contract at the top of a squat and a deadlift (since they are both standing-up motions).

We’re often told to squeeze our glutes together (like squeezing a dime between the glutes, or you may hear rude imaginary scenarios involving your butthole), but that’s not really what we’re going for here. The idea is to make sure you’re finishing strong as you stand up, with your glutes and your leg muscles contracting and working.

“Break the bar in half”

Barbells can bend when there is enough weight on them, but what’s actually meant by “bend the bar” or “break the bar in half” is to apply enough pressure to your arms that you can imagine you are trying to bend the bar.

In a bench press, you’ll want to hold the bar in a way that brings the pinky side of your hands toward your back and shoulders — like you’re trying to bend the bar into a rainbow over your body. In a snatch or press, you may be told something similar: Again, you want to bend it like a rainbow, ends toward the ground. All of these are ways of getting your arms and back muscles engaged; they’re not about your hands or the bar at all.

“Tuck your tailbone”

You’ll hear the cue to “tuck your tailbone” in exercises where people commonly arch their back too much. You don’t want to stick your butt out too far behind you, since this will get your spine out of position. (Remember, most exercises work best when your spine is roughly neutral.) Tucking your tailbone is a reminder to bring your hips back underneath you, while engaging your core. Just make sure you don’t do it too much, which could result in bending your spine too much in the opposite direction and making you almost hunch over.

“Squeeze the bar”

This one is just what it sounds like: the trainer wants you to literally squeeze the bar. Yes, it’s made of metal. No, you won’t achieve anything directly by squeezing it. But when you think about squeezing the bar, you’re likely to tense all the other muscles of your body at the same time. It’s a good way of getting full-body tension for any exercises where you want to be very stable and get all your muscles engaged.

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