9 Squat Cues To Improve Technique (And 1 You Should Not Do)

The squat is a complex movement pattern, which relies on superior coordination between your various joints and muscle groups. However, it’s my job as a coach to break down the movement so that the technique is easily understood, and the lifter knows how to execute the movement with proper form.

In my experience coaching both National and World Champion powerlifters, the 9 most effective squat cues are:

  • Get tight on the rack
  • Breathe and brace
  • Ribs down
  • Claw the floor
  • Externally rotate your femurs
  • Crack at the hips and knees
  • Push the floor
  • Drive your shoulders back and up into the barbell
  • Accelerate through the lift

Each of these cues has a specific outcome that will impact your technique. It’s important to recognize that not every squat cue is going to apply to everyone. In this article, you’ll learn what each of these cues means so that you know which one(s) you need to use for your own individual lifting.

Editor Note: Squat cues are a short meaningful phrase that remind you of a specific movement outcome. You don’t want to implement every one of these squat cues at the same time because the brain can only focus on 1 (maybe 2) cues at a time. For example, if the main goal is to practice bracing your core harder, then you should use the bracing cue. Each cue will work indirectly with one another. So if you focus on one, you will intuitively practice another.

One more thing: make sure to read to the end where I tell you the #1 squat cue you SHOULD NOT do.

If you prefer to watch rather than read, take a look at my video:

Squat Cue #1: Get Tight On The Rack

squat cue pull the bar down into your back
Pull the bar down into your back before taking it off the rack

Movement goal:

The goal of “get tight on the rack” is to ensure your upper back and core muscles are braced BEFORE lifting the bar up from the rack. It’s much harder to get your muscles tight once the load is distributed over your body.

Other commonly used cues:

  • Lats tight
  • Pull the bar in
  • Shoulder blades together
  • Elbows under the bar
  • Squeeze your hands
  • Push up into the bar

How to implement:

  • Set your grip and step underneath the barbell with both feet on one plane
  • Once the bar is in position on your back, you want to think about pulling the bar down and into your back (almost like a lat pulldown).
  • At the same time as you’re pulling the bar down with your arms, you want to think about pushing up with your legs into the barbell. You’re not pushing so hard into your legs where the bar lifts from the rack. But rather, you’re trying to create tension at both ends of the barbell. At one end, you’re pulling down, and on the other, you’re pushing up.
  • Once your grip and lats are tight, and there is tension on either side of the barbell, then you can lift the weight up from the rack.

When to use:

Use this squat cue if you feel like you lack tightness taking the bar off the rack. This might feel like the weight is ‘heavy on your back’ or you generally lack stability walking the weight out. If you’ve mastered getting ‘tight on the rack’ under lighter loads, then you’re more prepared to be lifting heavier loads when the time comes.

Squat Cue #2: Breathe And Brace

squat cue breathe and brace core
Engage your core by (1) breathing (2) bracing

Movement goal:

The goal of “breathe and brace” is to ensure your core musculature is engaged prior to the start of the movement. Bracing the core properly will allow the spine to be protected throughout the lift, as well as give you the ability to transfer force more effectively from your muscles to the barbell.

Other commonly used cues:

  • Big breath
  • Brace hard
  • Breathe into your low back
  • Breathe into your belt
  • Push out

How to implement:

  • Once you’re standing with the weight on your back in your start position, begin to activate your core by taking a big breath in. The key is to breathe into your stomach, not chest.
  • Hold your air without letting any of it out.
  • Pull your belly button inward toward your spine.
  • Brace your core by pushing your abdominal cavity out, while still pulling your belly button inward. This process should feel like you’re engaging your core muscles 360-degrees around your stomach.
  • Think about squeezing your stomach in the same way as if someone is punching you in the stomach and you’re bracing for impact.
  • If you’re wearing a powerlifting belt, press hard into your belt all around your body.
  • Ensure you’re ‘breathing and bracing’ BEFORE you descend into the squat. Don’t try and breathe and brace while you’re squatting or else you won’t be creating as much intra-abdominal pressure.

When to use:

Use this squat cue every rep that you squat. A lot of lifters rush through their reps without re-setting their brace at the top. As you cycle through your reps, keep practicing the cue of ‘breathe and brace’ before descending into your next squat rep. This will ensure you’re maximally recruiting your core muscles. It’s easy to get lazy with ‘breathing and bracing’ under lighter loads, but this is exactly when you want to practice this cue so that under heavier loads it feels natural.

If you want more instruction on the ‘breathe and brace’ squat cue read our article on HOW TO BREATHE PROPERLY IN THE SQUAT.

Squat Cue #3: Ribs Down

squat cue ribs down
Ribs flared vs. ribs down position

Movement goal:

The goal of “ribs down” is to ensure your spine is neutral and that you’re not hyper-extending through your mid-back. Additionally, this squat cue will help you maintain and hold your core bracing throughout the entirety of the lift.

Other commonly used cues:

  • Pack your stomach
  • Bring your sternum and belly button together
  • Do a one-quarter crunch

How to implement:

  • After you’ve initiated the ‘breathe and brace’ cue, and before you descend into the squat, think about drawing your ribs down
  • Continue to maintain a neutral pelvic position.
  • Don’t tuck your pelvis underneath of you too much.
  • If you are over-extending in your spine at all, you will feel the spine shift forward into a more neutral position.
  • Your belly button and sternum should feel like they’re pulling closer to each other

When to use:

Use this squat cue just before you initiate the downward movement of the squat. For a lot of lifters, this cue will become obsolete once an effective ‘breathe and brace’ is implemented. However, for lifters who have a problem finding a neutral spine or pelvic position, this cue will be important in order to align and stack the joints properly. Additionally, if you find that you’re losing your brace while you rep out a set of squats, it could be that your rib cage is flaring upwards, and you need to use the ‘ribs down’ cue to engage your core again.

Squat Cue #4: Claw The Floor

squat cue claw the floor
Feel each point of contact on the floor

Movement goal:

The goal of “claw the floor” is to find the balance on your feet prior to executing the movement. Your feet are the point of contact between the load and the transfer of force through the floor. The most effective transfer of force happens when the barbell is directly over the midline of the foot. If you get off-balance while squatting, and the barbell shifts either forward or backward from the centre of the foot, then the transfer of force becomes inefficient.

Other commonly used cues:

  • Grip the floor
  • Find your balance
  • Feel the floor with your feet
  • Root your feet
  • Screw your feet into the floor

How to implement:

  • Prior to initiating the downward movement of the squat, draw your attention to your big toe, pinky toe, and the heel.
  • Once you feel the load evenly distributed over these three points, claw the ground with your toes. This should feel like actively curling your toes into the ground.
  • The final step is to think about screwing your feet outward, which will naturally open your hips up and engage your glutes. Engaged glutes will help keep the barbell over the midline of the foot.

When to use:

Use this squat cue if you feel like you’re not consistent with keeping the barbell over the midline of the foot. You might find that you can keep the barbell in the right position while squatting for a few reps but under fatigue or a heavier set, you begin to fall forward or backward. If this is the case, always come back to “clawing the ground” and finding your balance.

If you want to learn more about the role of your feet while squatting, read our article on FLAT FEET WHILE SQUATTING.

Squat Cue #5: Externally Rotate Your Femurs

squat cue externally rotate femurs
Externally rotate the femurs to push the knees out prior to squatting

Movement goal:

The goal of “externally rotate your femurs” is to open up the hips so that your knees track properly over your toes while squatting. In addition, this squat cue will allow you to maximally recruit your glute medius (the side part of your glute), which helps externally rotate your hips and prevent your knees from caving.

Other commonly used cues:

  • Hips open
  • Knees out
  • Push your knees

How to implement:

  • Starting from your feet, think about screwing your feet outward. The goal is not to move your feet, but to create the sensation through the floor that you’re screwing them into the floor.
  • Think about taking your femurs on both legs (upper thigh bone) and rotating it out
  • This should naturally point your kneecaps outward so that when you squat down your knees are already tracking out over the toes naturally

When to use:

Use this squat cue when you feel like your knees are caving as you squat. If your knees are caving regularly, it’s probably that your glute medius is not strong enough, so cueing won’t solve this problem entirely. But, ensuring that you have cued your hips open and knees out prior to squatting will be the first step in correcting any knee tracking issues.

Squat Cue #6: Crack At The Hips And Knees

squat cue crack at the hips and knees at the same time
Crack at the hips and knees simultaneously to initiate the squat

Movement goal:

The goal of “crack at the hips and knees” is to ensure that you have an equal balance between your hip and knee extensors as you descend into the squat. You don’t want to bend one before the other, so the idea is that you bend both your hips and knees simultaneously to begin the movement.

Read more about the best bar path for squats.

Other commonly used cues:

  • Sit back (if people flex into the knees too much)
  • Sit down (if people flex into the hips too much)
  • Straight up and down

How to implement:

  • Prior to squatting, think about the load being distributed over the mid-part of your foot
  • To initiate the squat, push your hips back at the same time as you bend your knees forward
  • Avoid any excessive forward-leaning with the torso
  • Avoid any excessive forward knee bent with the knees

When to use:

Use this squat cue to start the movement ensuring that you’re evenly distributing the load between your hip and knee extensors. If you crack too much into your hips, you’re overcompensating with your glutes. If you crack too much into the knees, you’re overcompensating with your quads. As long as you bend both the hips and knees at the same time you’ll be initiating the movement correctly.

If you want to learn more about how your body compensates for weak muscles in the squat, check out our COMPLETE GUIDE TO MUSCLES USED IN THE SQUAT.

Squat Cue #7: Push The Floor

squat cue push the floor away
Push the floor away using your quads

Movement goal:

The goal of “push the floor” is to ensure that you’re driving from your legs first out of the bottom of the squat. The primary muscle group used to extend the knees are the quads, so pushing the floor cues your quads to do their job rather than relying on your hip extensors to compensate.

Other commonly used cues:

  • Drive away
  • Use your legs
  • Use your quads
  • Push from your knees

How to implement:

  • In the bottom of the squat, think about your feet on the ground and driving the floor away from you
  • You’ll want to extend from the knee first keeping your torso angle in the same position
  • Avoid your hips shooting up faster than the pace of the barbell, which will cause your torso angle to shift forward

When to use:

Use this squat cue when you want to switch directions from eccentric to concentric. The first movement out of the bottom of the squat should be using your quads to drive the floor away. If you struggle with using your quads, then your glutes will be responsible for assisting with the movement, which will cause your hips to shoot up quicker than the pace of the barbell. You’ll know if you have this problem if your torso angle becomes more horizontal to the floor.

Related Article: 9 Highly Effective Belt Squat Alternatives

Squat Cue #8: Drive Your Shoulders Back And Up Into The Barbell

squat cue drive your shoulders back and up into the barbell
Push your shoulders back and up into the barbell as you drive out of the bottom

Movement goal:

The goal of “drive your shoulders back and up into the bar” is to help maintain upper back tightness during the bottom and mid-range of the movement. In addition, this cue will allow you to maintain an optimal torso angle when squatting up from the bottom, which should remain unchanged from how your torso looked squatting down.

Other commonly used cues:

  • Traps through the bar
  • Traps up
  • Stand straight up
  • Press up into the bar

How to implement:

  • As you stand up out of the bottom of the squat, think about pushing your upper back into the barbell
  • Avoid arching your chest up, which will hyper-extend your spine. Continue to maintain the ‘ribs down’ position previously discussed.

When to use:

Use this squat cue as you’re driving through the bottom and mid-range of the movement. This cue will be helpful for lifters who have their hips rise before the chest out of the hole (aka the good morning squat), or generally struggle with keeping their torso angle the same as how it looked when squatting downward. I also find that cueing a part of the body that is closer to the barbell when grinding out a squat can have more of an impact on the success of the movement than thinking about your feet, knees, hips, or any other body part.

Squat Cue #9: Accelerate Through The Lift

squat cue accelerate through the lift
Drive fast regardless of the weight

Movement goal:

The goal of “accelerate through the lift” is to ensure lifters are applying maximum force at all times. Sometimes lifters can get lazy under sub-maximal loads with how ‘hard’ they push the barbell. This is because they are only applying the minimum amount of force necessary to overcome the resistance. However, it should always be the case that lifters are practicing maximum force application, regardless of the load on the barbell.

Other commonly used cues:

  • Push through
  • Drive through
  • Squat fast
  • Keep pushing

How to implement:

  • Be mindful that you want to squat as fast as possible on the way up no matter the load on the barbell or number of reps performed
  • Even under 60% of 1RM loads, you want to think about driving up out of the hole fast, accelerating through the mid-range, and continuing to carry that momentum into the lockout
  • If you have a sticking point, make sure that once you are passed your sticking point that you continue driving quickly. Avoid slowing down just because you know the ‘hard part’ of the movement is over.

When to use:

Use this squat cue as you drive out of the bottom of the squat. This cue is particularly useful under sub-maximal loads in order to train your body to ‘move quickly’. Once you’ve developed this habit of always ‘driving fast’, then under heavier weights, it will be second-nature. It’s important to recognize that even if the barbell is moving slowly (because it’s a heavy load), you still want to think about moving quickly, It’s the intention of moving the barbell fast that actually matters.

The One Squat Cue You Should Never Use: “Chest Up”

One of the worst cues you can use while squatting is “CHEST UP”.

This is because using a chest up cue will over extend the low and mid-back, which puts your spine and torso in a disadvantaged position. But also, by extending through your spine, you’re losing your core activation that will ultimately stabilize the movement and allow you to transfer energy efficiently through your limbs.

The reason why people cue ‘chest up’ is for the following reasons:

  • They want to avoid having their hips shoot up out of the bottom of the squat
  • They want to maintain their torso angle while squatting up
  • They want to prevent the barbell from pushing their upper back forward

For each of these reasons why lifters use the ‘chest up’ cue, they can be accomplished by using one of the other cues mentioned in this article, while avoiding any of the negative consequences that comes with it.

Final Thoughts

When you’re implementing squat cues into your training, remember that you can only use one or two at a time. You need to identify the movement outcome that is your main priority and use a cue that will help you accomplish it. Many of the squat cues discussed relate closely to one another. So it’s likely that if you implement one cue properly that you’ll be taking care of several cues in the process without having to over-think them.