A Guide to Strength Training Exercise Form and Cues

This article, part two, talks through the application of proper form for four of the most common (and effective) strength training exercises.

8 min read

Health & Wellness

A Guide to Strength Training Exercise Form and Cues

Starting a strength training journey can often feel overwhelming. A common point of confusion for many people is attempting a new exercise only to wonder: “Am I even doing this right?”

Getting an effective workout is not only about what you are doing, but how you are doing it. If you are new to fitness and focusing on proper exercise form, I encourage you to check out part one of this series on Foundational Exercise Form. Part one serves as a general overview to broadly cover proper body mechanics of foundational movements. This is a great place to start to get an idea of how you should be holding and engaging your body through movement for maximum efficiency and injury prevention.

This article, part two, talks through the application of proper form for four of the most common (and effective) strength training exercises. We will talk through helpful cues and processes to apply to squats, deadlifts, lat pulldowns, and chest presses. Let’s dive in!



Squats are a lower body movement that will primarily work your thighs (quadriceps, some gluteals, and hamstrings) and calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus).

  1. Begin with your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly wider.
    • Everyone has a different preference on which foot position is most comfortable for them – there is no right or wrong width. You will get a feel for what works best for you as you try a few reps.
  2. Engage your core to maintain a neutral spine.
    • Imagine that there is a zipper that starts at the bottom of your torso and zips up to the base of your neck.
  3. Shift your hips back slightly as you bend your knees.
  4. Keep your chest lifted and spine lengthened and stacked as your bend your knees and lower your hips.
  5. Make sure that as your hips and knees come into flexion (bend) your knees are tracking right over the center of your toes. Prevent the knees from excessively caving in toward your big toe (knee valgus) or out toward your pinky toe (knee varus).(1)
  6. Squat until you are at the depth at which you would sit down in a chair. Once you reach that point, drive through your heels and think of pressing the floor away as you extend through your knees and bring your hips back underneath you.



A great place to start with squats is simply testing out these mechanics as you lower yourself into a chair, take a seat for a second, and then re-engage to stand back up. This will help you get a better sense of the movement before adding in weight!



Deadlifts are a lower body movement that will primarily work your thighs (hamstrings, quadriceps), hips (gluteals), and back (latissimus dorsi, trapezius, posterior deltoid).

  1. Similar to setting up for a squat, begin with your feet about shoulder width or slightly wider apart. Make sure your toes are pointing forward or are winging out slightly if that feels more comfortable – no more than 45 degrees.
    • Note – the position of your stance will alter which muscle groups are engaged most. The two most common stances are conventional and sumo. Conventional deadlifts require more strength from your back and musculature in the lumbar spine, while sumo deadlifts take some of the load off the spine and recruit more of the musculature in and around the hips. In this case, we will focus on a conventional deadlift.(2)
  2. Keep your spine stiff and lengthened, then hinge at the hips and bend at the knees as much as needed for your hands to meet the bar. Your hands should be placed slightly wider than the stance of your feet.(3)
    • Keep in mind that deadlifts are more focused on the hinge of the hips than the bend of the knees. This differs from the squat where you are more focused on the bend of the knees vs the hinge of the hips. Both movements have components of knee flexion and hip hinge, but it is important to make the distinction of which is the primary focus.
  3. Engage your lats (latissimus dorsi) and back by thinking of sending your shoulders down into your armpits and imagine your hands breaking the bar in half.
  4. Drive through your heels as you press the floor away and drive your hips underneath you.
    • Be careful to not overextend your hips at the top of the movement. Simply come to a neutral standing position where your hips fall naturally below you.



Before trying this with a barbell, use a long PVC pipe or other light, long stick to practice your mechanics. When considering deadlift load, slow and steady wins the race here. While this is an amazing exercise, it can also quickly land you with a back injury if you lift too heavy with poor form. Give yourself time to practice and nail down your form first, then focus on challenging yourself with heavier weights when you’ve really got the movement down.


Lat Pulldown

The Lat Pulldown is an upper body movement that works the largest muscle in your back: the Latissimus dorsi. This exercise involves movement at the shoulder and elbow joints. There are several modalities and grips to set up for a Lat pulldown – two possible options are using a cable machine or resistance bands. You might consider using a wide grip, close grip, or reverse (supinated) grip. Studies have found differing outcomes on which grip is the most effective for optional Latissimus dorsi recruitment, so more research is needed to say definitively which option is best.(4) In this case, we will focus on the most common variation of this exercise – a seated wide grip lat pulldown.

  1. Before sitting down, make sure the bar is set at a height where you will be able to grab it from a seated position with arms extended overhead.
  2. Sit down and bring the legs to 90 degrees at the hips and knees. Adjust the knee pad so it is pressing on your legs just above the knees. This will create tension between your feet and the floor to give you stability as you complete the pulldown.
  3. Grab the handle slightly wider than your shoulders with palms facing away from you (pronated).
  4. Engage your core and lean back slightly (think approximately 15 degrees).
  5. Think of driving your elbows down and back to pull the bar just below your chin.
  6. With control, slowly relax and lengthen through the back and biceps to return the bar to the starting position.


Chest Press

Like the lat pull-down, there are several modalities and grips to set up for a chest press. Three possible modalities include the barbell/dumbbells while lying on the floor, laying on a bench, or using a cable machine while standing. In this case, we will focus on a dumbbell bench (chest) press as that is the most accessible starting point with the ability to modify weight selection.

  1. Start by laying back on the bench while holding the dumbbells, making sure your neck and head can relax comfortably while being supported by the bench.
  2. Drive your feet into the floor to help engage your core and create total body tension to support the movement.
  3. While holding the dumbbells, bring the elbows to a bent position (flexion), about 45 degrees between your shoulder and torso. Your elbows should be angled down towards your feet. Then, press the shoulders down to keep the scapulae connected (retracted and depressed) to the torso during the movement. Make sure the dumbbells are set at chest level.
  4. Push the dumbbells out from your chest while pressing the upper back into the bench and feet into the floor. Extend until the elbows are almost straight but avoid locking them out completely.
  5. With control, slowly relax and let the chest (pectoral) and triceps muscles lengthen to bring the weights back to the starting position.(5)



Know that each exercise is always a work in progress – even the most seasoned fitness professional has form weaknesses that they are working on improving. Don’t expect to read this article and be able to nail every cue from the get-go.

On the other hand, while it is okay for improvement to take time, if you know your form is compromised always listen to your body’s cues. Avoid over-exerting yourself to the point of injury. I encourage you to start from the basics – work on nailing down the mechanics of your form with a given movement using just your body weight. If you have access to a personal trainer, get their insight on how things look. If not, take a video of yourself from various angles so you get an outside perspective on what is happening in your body. If all looks good while you are performing the exercise with body weight, try adding a small amount of weight and increase gradually as you build strength.

Before you know it, you will have beautiful form and the ability to move large amounts of weight, all while protecting your body from injury.


1. Schöenfeld, B. J. (2010). Squatting kinematics and kinetics and their application to exercise performance. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(12), 3497–3506. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181bac2d7. Accessed 29 February 2024.
2. Piper, T., & Waller, M. (n.d.). Variations of the Deadlift : Strength & Conditioning Journal. LWW. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Citation/2001/06000/Variations_of_the_Deadlift.13.asp. Accessed 29 February 2024.
3. Gotshalk, L. (1984). Sports Performance Series: Analysis of the deadlift. National Strength & Conditioning Association Journal, 6(6), 4. https://doi.org/10.1519/0744-0049(1984)006. Accessed 29 February 2024.
4. Snarr, R. L., Eckert, R., & Abbott, P. (2015). A comparative analysis and technique of the LAT pull-down. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 37(5), 21–25. https://doi.org/10.1519/ssc.0000000000000173. Accessed 29 February 2024.
5. R. Laskowski, E. (2023, February 14). Chest press with dumbbell. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/multimedia/chest-press/vid-20084677#:~:text=Campbell%3A%20To%20do%20the%20chest,tension%20across%20your%20upper%20chest. Accessed 29 February 2024.


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