In the personal training world, a cue is a word or phrase designed to help someone achieve a specific movement. Cueing plays a huge role when it comes to helping clients develop movement quality and it can also be the difference between someone enjoying a session or hating a session.
No matter what clientele you work with, cueing is one of the biggest things you’ll have to become comfortable with as a trainer. Clients don’t just magically know how to perform a deadlift (insert any other lift) and most have no clue as to where their body is in space. It’s our job to guide the client through new exercises and present them in a way that fosters success.
Successful cues for personal trainers aren’t something you instinctively know — you must develop this skill with practice and by learning from others. When you train a client with terrible movement, you have to be at the top of your game to get them to do what you’re asking them to do.
The following are the four biggest things that have helped me develop better methods to cue clients.
1. Choose what’s most important
Let’s say you have a new client starting and you’re trying to teach them a hip hinge. You want to see their hips go back and chest come down. Instead, as they begin their head comes up, their knees bend, their shoulders aren’t retracted, or any other problems you can think of.
This is okay. Most new clients will never perform a new movement correctly, so don’t get stuck on that. I’ve made the mistake of trying to get the client to perform the movement perfectly in the first session. Some clients will have no problem, but with others you’ll just have to focus on what’s most important for that day — driving the hips back and letting the chest come down.
If you give the client too many things to focus on, you’ll both be disappointed. Instead, try to provide one or two big things you want them to do with a new movement. Once they understand and do these correctly, then give them another thing to focus on. Your client won’t have to think about the first two cues anymore because they’ve become more natural.
You want the client walking out of that first session feeling that they accomplished something. This will help with retention in the long run because you just turned failure into success.
2. Try different versions of the same cue
In the hip hinge example, I usually start with the cue “drive your hips back.” Now if this doesn’t work, I try to create new ways to deliver the same cue. You’ll find that certain cues work well with some clients and poorly with others. That’s natural because everyone is different.
So a few cues I might try next would be, “Imagine I have a rope around your hips and pull you back,” a cue popularized by Eric Cressey. Sometimes I place them a few inches from the wall and tell them to “press your hips back until you touch the wall.” By doing so they get tactile feedback, which could help some clients tremendously. Another I use is “show your butt off,” which I stole from Jae Chung, strength coach at Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training.
You get the idea. Each cue revolves around the same thing — getting the client to push their hips back. Get creative with these and don’t worry about how they sound.
3. Try an external cue instead of an internal cue
Research has shown that external cues are more valuable than internal. I first came across this concept when hearing Nick Winkelman speak at a conference. At the time, I’d never really thought of it before. Now, it is something that I integrate into my training sessions.
The idea is to give the client an externally driven cue like “push the floor away,” as opposed to an internally driven one like “push your feet through the floor.” The trick to an external cue is that it decreases the level of thought that takes place when learning a new movement pattern. By doing so, it allows the client to use more of their attention to begin performing the movement effectively (1).
Here’s another example. Let’s say you’re teaching someone to squat and see their knees collapse. Try “spread the floor apart” (external) versus “push your knees out” (internal). If you use a lot of internal cues, try implementing a few external cues and see if that helps.
But before you try it, enjoy this hilariously corny stock photo:
4. Know when to regress
There will be times where a client won’t be able to perform a movement no matter what cues you provide. When this happens don’t worry. You aren’t a terrible trainer — the client just isn’t ready for that movement yet.
It’s at this point where you must regress the exercise, so the client can be successful and can start to feel what position their body needs to be in. An example of a hip hinge regression would be a quadruped rock back or a tall kneeling hip hinge. Both of these exercises take the knees out of the equation, forcing them to move only at the hips.
If you’re uncertain of how to regress an exercise just study the movement pattern. Find out what the client should be doing/feeling and figure out how to make it easier. Once you begin to integrate a regression be patient — you may only have to do this in one session or it may take several. Only you can decide when they’re ready to advance.
If you’ve been frustrated that one of your clients just isn’t getting it don’t get angry. Some people learn differently than others, and it’s our job as trainers to find out what works best with each person. This takes time and practice and we can’t rush things. People have been moving (compensating) for most of their life — they won’t be able to stop that in one session.
In short, good cueing can make all the difference as a personal trainer. Give these methods a try and watch them change your sessions.
Want to Learn More About Cueing?
Here are two more articles for your reference:
The Art of Cueing (Not the Science) – Jonathan Goodman
What Type of Cues Should Trainers and Coaches Provide? – Bret Contreras
1. Winkelman, Nick. “What we say matters, Part 1.” National Strength and Conditioning Association. Web. 20 Dec 2013.