| | | This Cue Could Kill

Author / John

Now that I have your attention, let’s get down to business.

In a recent PAHQ podcast, we rapped about the risks and potential consequences associated with using certain coaching cues.  Choosing the squat as our example of good cues gone bad was really just the start of the conversation. Here is a recap and some insight into what some of the leading coaches in our field deem to be bonehead cueing mistakes.


Remember this classic photo? “Language barrier?  Try pointing.”

“Knees out!”  Mother of God.  How many times have you heard that little gem of a phrase?   The taboo “knees out” topic  is currently responsible for provoking some emotional responses on several online forums. It’s not my intention to minimize the importance of the discussion, but doesn’t it seem that everyone is really saying the same thing- just in a different way?  We all know the purpose of this cue is to get an athlete to do one thing: drive their knees out.  I’d say that’s a successful tool provided an athlete’s knees are actually caving in.  Aside from the fact that you can “overcook” the movement, as discussed here, one problem is that like so many other coaching cues, it has become the ultimate “cure all” for every broken squat.  “Knees out” has become what hot sauce is to bad food, what enormous sunglasses are to unfortunate looking ladies, and what yelling in movies is to Nic Cage’s acting ability.  Poor squats, much like the preceding examples, contain multifaceted problems not easily corrected with superficial solutions.  Again, the squat is just one example and it serves as an excellent illustration of how impactful cueing can really be.

Do we really need to tell Miley “Weight in the heels!” if this is what she’s training for? SPP at it’s finest.

Let’s be clear upfront and make the distinction that the cue is not the bad guy.  If you are fortunate enough to work with some adept athletes, you’ll find that they will do anything you tell them to do.  The problem actually stems from something much closer to home- Search your feelings.  You know it to be true.  A lack of understanding on the part of the coach is usually the limiting factor with regard to effective cueing.  This may include:

1) Unfamiliarity with sound mechanics of a movement i.e. a great squat

2) Inability to see deviation from a good position

3) Lacking a base level of knowledge to know why the deviation is occurring

Even assuming you have a grasp on each, are you equipped to deliver that athlete out of less than optimal position with the appropriate language?  I like to think of poor form as an ever approaching terrorist threat in which case I enact the mantra “see something, say something”.


Unconventional approaches to cueing? No such thing. “You can’t argue with results.” -Tim Henriques

We can’t all be Kelley Starett or Antony Lo, however, expanding our scope of knowledge with regard to biomechanics and physiology is a huge part of painting your coaching masterpiece.  There is another accessible and potent way to increase your learning curve that works in tandem with continued education- steriods.  Just kidding.  It’s experience that will take your coaching to new heights.  Seeing thousands upon thousands of athletes squat well, mediocre, and heinous will build your most invaluable tool- a coach’s eye.  This is not disputable.  As John describes by way of Fight Club, “you are not a unique snowflake” meaning our immobilities, imbalances, and shitty ingrained movement patterns are not special. The corrections, however, may be. Honing that sixth sense will give you the ability to swiftly and accurately identify good movement from bad and what’s more- through practice you’ll find what cues make sense for a particular athlete.

It’s vital that we seek coaching opportunities, ask hard questions, find mentors, and remain open minded to other methods. In an attempt to do just that and (selfishly) gain perspective on the subject of cueing, I’ve asked some of the leading coaches/badasses in the field of strength and conditioning to weigh in on the matter.  Their unique backgrounds and personal experiences each provide tremendous insight into the world of coaching respective to their disciplines. Here are the thoughts, pet peeves, and cueing no-no’s of 8 performance driven coaches.

Jesse Burdick, Power WOD 

“My biggest beef is someone using A cue and only THAT cue. A cue should be a very individualized and personal thing between an athlete and a coach. There is no such thing as a universal cue. You have to take into consideration how a coach teaches, how an athlete learns, their athletic background and a plethora of other things in order to find a cue that accomplishes the task for both coach and athlete.”

Tim Henriques, NPTI Director, T-Nation Author

The athlete must know exactly what you mean by the cue before you use it.  Action cues (given while the athlete is actually lifting) should be limited to 1-2 words in length called out/thought about right before the problem presents itself.  Athletes can only focus on 2-4 specific cues during a lift (and 4 is pushing it). Don’t expect an athlete to be able to significantly change their form under heavy load/extreme fatigue just from being cued.”

Mark Rippetoe, Starting Strength 

“Pet peeve?- Babbling- You don’t introduce 15 words in and call that a cue. A cue is a reminder about instructions we’ve already discussed – before the lift has occurred.  In order for it to be effective, it needs to be reactive and not thought about. Cues are not instructions.”

Antony Lo,  The Physio Detective 

“Shoulders down and back is the worst cue that most overcook. It results in athletes doing what you see in shoulder analysis video 1 Others include ‘switch your core on’…as if the body doesn’t know what to do – better to cue people to maintain positions. The brain knows how go coordinate things most of the time – touch your nose. Did you have to think about switching your biceps on first or which finger to use? Your brain has programs for everything. If you get to the stage where an athlete has a stuffed up muscle coordination, you need a physical therapist to advise you how to fix that!”

John Welbourn, CrossFit Football

“My biggest pet peeve comes from playing football for a career: Over coaching. As an athlete I took pride in knowing what was exactly expected of me at all times. Understanding that movement via coaching or cueing is vital to helping an athlete fine tune his movement. However, the biggest failures I have encountered with coaches is over coaching. Giving to much information results in mental paralysis. I watched too many coaches in the NFL beat a young player down with too much information and coaching to the point where the athlete was thinking more about the information than playing the game. When coaching athletes, create the expectation, make sure the athlete understands the expectation and limit the cues to one cue per lift. The worst thing you can do it give someone too much to work at one time.”

Freddy Camacho, CrossFit One World

“My pet peeve? A squat is not an air squat!!! I hate when people think what they learned about an air squat is gospel for all squatting movements.”


Carl Paoli, Gymnastics WOD

‘”Good’. Positive reinforcement is nice but the thing that needs to happen is constructive criticism.  “Back was really flat (good)” -now- lets get the constructive cue.    Also, cue from the beginning.  In something like the front squat, the elbows may be falling as a byproduct of a movement pattern fault from the setup.  Choose your words thoughtfully. I think some people use what is happening with the body, for example in running, falling or controlled displacement…as a cue.  But, the cue is not ‘fall’. Think ‘move forward, push through the hip’, etc. The words you chose will illicit a specific response as in the muscle up.  Most people say ‘think of the highest pull-up into the deepest dip’ when really the movement is more like  a ring row into pushup.  Remember that cues also have levels- beginner to advanced- and there is no bad cue it just needs to be used with the right person.”

Raphael Ruiz, 1Forty-Four1

“Ineffectually using analytical coaching cues on emotionally-driven athletes and vice versa.  Often times we can over coach and thus paralyze our athletes.  We refer to it as taking the fight out of the dog.  ‘Come out of the bottom of your squat, squeeze your cheeks and fully extend the hips’ means nothing to someone without a training base.  Tell a basketball player ‘as if you are jumping up to get a rebound’ then you might get much cleaner, natural hip and spinal extension; translating to more effective performance.”

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John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.


  1. Caleb on December 17, 2013 at 9:40 am

    Knowledge bombs!! Keep em’ coming. Thanks Cali!

  2. DavidMck on November 21, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    I can’t believe you bad mouthed Slick nick. It’s been a while since I saw this article, must haves missed the dig. I’ll have you know, Nicholas Cage has done more for Hollywood than the Rock has done for “professional wrestling”‘ hands down.

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