Strength Beyond Cues

Let me paint you a picture you all know well. You are in the gym training and an athlete is working up to a heavy snatch. The gym is relatively quiet in anticipation of the lift, and then you hear someone yell out the constructive cue: ‘Keep your chest up!’. So common has this cue become that it can be condensed into the single word ‘chest’ and athletes and coaches alike still understand what it means.

In essence, this cue is pretty helpful; it reminds an athlete that they don’t want to use up all of their knee extension (straighten their legs) without moving the bar the same distance as their hips have just moved. When we pull on a snatch, for example, we want the bar to travel to or even pass beyond the knees predominantly through knee extension.

A good start to the lift: the bar rises at the same rate at the hips

Often people go to lift the bar from the floor and as they extend their knees their back angle changes. Suddenly they have used all their knee extension up but the bar has only moved an inch rather than the foot it ought to have moved. The athlete’s chest has dropped from being up to down.

Not so good – the bar has hardly moved

So this is where the incredible cue to keep ones chest up, also known as ‘chest’, comes from. It verbally explains the visual malfunction of the lift. It tells the athlete that things are not looking how they ought to. However, it often does not help with correcting the problem at maximal weights, especially for experienced weightlifters. Of course, if you have an athlete snatching 50, 60, 70, or even 80% of their max, then perhaps yelling out ‘chest’ isn’t the worst idea. If an athlete’s back angle is changing too much from the floor to the knee at 80% or less then most likely the athlete is being lazy. Above that weight, however, the athlete is moving his or her body in the way that will help them gather the most speed on the bar so that they are able to make the lift. The body will find the path of least resistance. We don’t have time to go into the order of priorities in moving correctly and so if you are interested you can listen and learn more here.

I want to explain this last point about moving too slowly a touch more. I am a lifter who at maximal weights tends to drop their chest a bit – it will become apparent why later. Jared Flemming is a lifter who will never drop his chest. In fact, he is more likely to do the opposite. Again it will become apparent why later. If I attempt a new PR and do everything I can to pull the bar with my chest up – i.e. I use my legs entirely to move the bar to the knee without changing my back angle – then the bar will have so little speed that I won’t be able to get under it. Instead, my body, like most longer limbed bodies, will slightly lose its back angle at maximal weights in return for an increase in bar speed.

Anyone can keep their chest up until they can no longer keep their chest up.

Is that a good enough excuse? No of course not. We now need to move beyond the technical cue to strength. Strength IS the answer. Yelling ‘chest’ with greater volume or frequency isn’t going to correct the issue of a dropped chest at heavier weights. It is imperative to question why it is that the athlete is unable to keep their chest up. It isn’t because they forget – you already told them a thousand times. It is because they cannot generate anywhere near enough bar speed in this position.


Because they are not strong enough.

Where are they not strong enough?

In their legs, specifically quads.

It is important to understand how you can work out what is weak and what is strong from a technical breakdown. I will write a full article on this at some point, but in brief, there are 2 simple ways to work it out.

  1. The joint/limb that moves without transferring that movement into the bar is WEAK.
  2. The joint/limb that moves in compensation for the limb that ought to be moving the bar is STRONG.

We can very easily look at this fictitious yet very real athlete and see that as they straighten their legs, the bar doesn’t move nearly as much as it should. The hips are now higher in relation to the shoulders than they were at the start, and so the athlete has to then use more hip extension to move the bar.

Let’s take a look back at the two methods of working out what is weak. Looking at point 1 first, the joint that extends without transferring much movement into the bar is the knee. Looking at point 2, the joint that moves in compensation is the hip. We know that the muscles used in extending the knee are the quadriceps, so bingo, we know that the quadriceps are the weak link.

This movement error now becomes a strength issue. To correct it, the coach and athlete need to strengthen the quadriceps at a faster rate to the back. If both knee extensors and hip extensors strengthen at the same rate then the athlete will continue to set PRs, but will not lift as much as they could if they were better balanced.

There are several ways to strengthen the quadriceps. In a more general way, front squatting will help. If you want to strengthen the quads in a more specific way then pulls to the knees with a pause, or even pulls with a pause an inch off the floor will be useful, but only if the weight is light enough that the back angle does not change at all. The mixtures and variations of strengthening the legs are endless and up to you.

So next time an athlete drops their chest at maximal loads, think before yelling out ‘chest’ and instead look at the macro: how can we prevent this from happening in the future?

Another example where we use this diagnosis process would be the knees pushing back during the squat too early. Let’s use the two methods to check what is going on here.

  1. What joint is extending while not transferring all of that movement into vertical bar displacement? Answer – the knees.
  2. What joint is compensating by losing its original angle and therefore has more distance to cover? Answer – the hips.

So what muscle is weak in this example? The knee extensors, i.e. the quads. And which muscles are strong in this example? The hip extensors, i.e. the glutes, the muscles in the lower back, perhaps even the hamstrings.

Now go forth and aim to solve all forms of technical breakdown with more than a verbal cue. Next time when you see an athlete who cannot push their knees back far enough are you going to yell ‘knees’? Or are you going to figure out what is weak and then create a comprehensive training plan to accelerate the development of the lagging muscle group?

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